The History of The Albums – n°366
[I also advise you to read my previous review on The Who - My Generation, to better understand their beginnings and this one]. Some time after the release of their first successful album My Generation, driven by the eponymous song, the most sulphurous popular band of the moment was about to enter a pivotal year 1966, where they could have clearly lost their skins. That is to say that their behavior was very close to triggering an irrecoverable explosion. First of all, the Who had to face the label problems with Talmy/Brunswick. An artistic conflict had erupted, causing the Who to rush the production and completion of their first album because of the need to quickly capitalize on the emerging success. After weeks of legal battles, The Who signed with Reaction and released a first single Substitute in March 1966, a strong symbol of the artistic independence that the Londoners advocated. Despite this new start, the internal conflicts within the group become more and more pronounced and violent, leading regularly to fights, including the assault of Townshend on Moon with his own guitar. On the verge of breaking up, fate would bring Moon back to find another opportunity, but nothing presented itself to him. To remedy this, the Who's manager imposed on the band to establish a minimum threshold per album of 2 songs per member. Then the band had to face the cancellation of the television show Ready Steady Go where they had a significant place and notoriety that allowed them to feed their popularity. If the Who is again a national success with Substitute, the group must imperatively launch out to con-quer the American public if it wants to follow in a first time, to pass a course in a second time. The Who will thus participate in the famous Monterey Pop Festival. Against all expectations, the Who succeeded in winning the festival and went on an American tour as the opening act for Herman's Hermits. However nothing was won in advance, since the sulfurous reputation of the group did not stick with the Hippie tendency of the moment. Townshend even managed to fall into conflict with Jimi Hendrix by accusing him of stealing the way to break his own instruments on stage. But the Who did more than survive, they seduced America, which would lead the band to release the single Happy Jack and reach the US charts for the first time.
To close the year 1966, the Who released their second album A Quick One (or Happy Jack for the American version) showing the intermediate period the band was going through. It was necessary to prepare for the future, gradually abandoning the Mod which was becoming obsolete. A Quick One is a solid and interesting album, but it sounds optional as the band was looking to open a new chapter. Besides A Quick One, While He's Away which resides as a Rock Opera prototype with years of advance, the Who will start to experiment the FreakBeat, a Garage Rock/Psychedelic Rock fusion in order to succeed in resisting to a competition always more complex. A Quick One will not embody the course that the Who had to pass, and it will be necessary to wait a little more before the Londoners find the magic formula. Besides, the adventure with Reaction will last only one album, since the managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp will build an independent label called Track Record and distributed by Polydor in order to make the artistic freedom of the group reign. This is probably the most important element to take into account because it will change everything afterwards. In 1967 the Who decided to work on the occasion of the 3rd album on a concept via the pirate radio which pays homage to the independence. As a reminder, the Who themselves benefited from the help of pirate radio in their early days thanks to the underground success of I Can't Explain (1965). As a pillar of the Mod scene, the Who will therefore take on the role of spokesperson for a satire and a strong tribute on The Who Sell.
With the help of an in-house production (by their own managers) and recorded from May to No-vember 1967, The Who Sell is clearly an important reference of their repertoire on several points. Obviously the unique concept is led with success, since it is perfectly set up with the contribution of humorous jingles (self-produced by the Who) which come to slip as interludes. An influential concept since we find it from the Punk period or still on the famous album Songs For The Deaf (2002) of Queens Of The Stone Age for example. It should also be said that this album is fun because the humor does not seem too old. And then, The Who Sell sounds a bit like the first "Indie" album in a symbolic way, embodied by the most rebellious band of the moment, angry with the functioning of a label and therefore using its own means to bloom. At the same time, The Who Sell logically resides as the consecration of the first part of the Who's career, and also comes to close in another sense this Mod/Freakbeat style which will leave afterwards on Tommy (1969). As a comparison with the first album My Generation, The Who Sell distinguishes itself by its concept and especially by the fact that it is an album thought as an entity and not botched because of stupid constraints. On the other hand, if The Who Sell is better for its global content, it is important to understand that My Generation follows it very closely for what it represents and also because it contains a greater number of extraordinary songs.
For this, it is necessary to count on the leader Pete Townshend, the main investigator of the realization and success of this album. The Who Sell shows the evolution and maturity acquired by Townshend, especially in offering a conscious and more sophisticated content in the composition and writing. The Who Sell has a very homogeneous and unique sound for its time that gives the impression that it is a Mod album recorded in a basement. Because of the fuzz and the pitched effect, the introduction Armenia City In The Sky leads us to this very cellar where everything seems to be in disorder. There are many things to underline in this introduction, the contribution of an electronic experimentation in the opening or the fact that this song gives the impression to be a psychedelic pop ballad voluntarily forced to sound like a hard rock song. It is simply sensational, The Who Sell has barely begun that we have already taken a powerful slap. The saturation is not the answer to all the questions, on the contrary it is necessary to adopt a particular mentality to manage to offer a homogeneous sound. Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand, for example, surprises by its acoustic approach, but by making sure to have its head constantly under water. In another aspect, Odorono shows Pete Townshend's ease to cover several sound colors in an Art Pop ballad ahead of its time. Tatoo goes beyond that, the approach of doubling the guitar and merging the electric with the acoustic offers a really new sound for the time.
If the Who have concretely passed a level in the instrumentation on The Who Sell, it is also the case for the writing and the approached themes. That is to say that behind the satire and the humor, there is a big part of subliminal messages and conscious truths. I Can See for Miles is at the same time the conciliation of these elements and also the musical apogee of the band at that time. Before this one no song of The Who had been so sophisticated, by a production with great means. The Who amplified everything (in several senses of the word) to offer a kind of final version. Quickly we realize that The Who Sell has no weak moment, the second side perpetuates the intensity of an absolutely bluffing record by the effective single I Can't Reach You. For one of the first times, Townshend incorporates the piano in the sound of the Who, as in Relax, which allows their formulas to open up to new possibilities. Sunrise gently lulls the listener into a warm ballad combining Baroque Pop and psychedelia that gently draws the ethereal power of future Dream Pop. And finally, Rael continues to prove the potential of the band to go on the Rock Opera. There is no doubt, The Who Sell is great, sparkling, bluffing and particularly endearing. The problem in itself (and a happiness for us), it is that this 3rd album will quickly put in the shade by the following albums whereas it holds a very important place in their rehearsal.