I think the first song I heard off this record was Boris The Spider, selected as the b-side to a mid-‘90s re-release of My Generation – used on a TV ad for ice cream if I remember correctly. That single led me to buy a CD compilation, which was more than enough Who for me at the time.
I’ve never been into bands where the vocalist isn’t the songwriter. I’m not sure why – it just feels a little bit fake. Strangely though, I don’t really notice it for some bands. Take the Kaiser Chiefs for example. As far as I know, original drummer Nick Hodgson was the primary lyricist for the band – yet I don’t really think anything less of them.
This album has two highlights for me – the studio version of A Quick One, While He’s Away, gloriously performed on the Live At Leeds album, and the band’s stunning cover of Heat Wave. I like to think that if I was in a band in the ‘60s, I would have pushed to do a cover of Heat Wave – it’s such a great song, with an eternally cool groove.
The quintessential single-disc live album, Live At Leeds needs no introduction. I first heard about it through a comedy show – Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s first series on the BBC (The Smell Of Reeves & Mortimer) – where it was featured in a novelty song: The Who, Live At Leeds / A Packet Of Seeds / And a top hat full of gloy, gloy, gloy. Once you start buying rock music though, you quickly learn about the high watermark this record is held up as.
There’s just something infinitely more attractive about a live set on just one record. Short, sharp and to the point. AC/DC’s If You Want Blood – You’ve Got It is another great example of capturing something so energetic in such a small timeframe. The antithesis would probably be something like Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive album, about as far away from the immediacy of the Who as you could imagine.
There are just six songs on this record, mainly taken up by the fifteen minute extended medley of My Generation and the eight minutes of Magic Bus. Looking at the full set list from the Leeds gig, it’s a wonder how they managed to reduce it down to just two sides of music – a staggering thirty three songs played on the night would have provided enough material for three or four discs.
There was a promising time around ten years or so ago, when it seemed like they were going to extend the CSI TV show across every city in America. First there was CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (AKA CSI: Las Vegas), with The Who’s Who Are You as the opening theme. Then came CSI: Miami, with Won’t Get Fooled Again, and finally, CSI: New York with Baba O’Riley.
It almost seemed like there was going to be a different spin-off show for every city. But there’s only so many Who songs. Imagine CSI: Cleveland with Pictures Of Lily across the opening credits, or CSI: Atlanta with Happy Jack blaring out over a montage of moody looking detectives.
There’s a new spin-off in the making, called CSI: Cyber, which has been picked up for a full season. There’s no word on which Who song will be used, but I’m hopeful it will be Squeeze Box (seriously though, the slow burn of Eminence Front from 1982’s It’s Hard would be a perfect – and not too obvious – fit).
This is Who album number eight, and the last with Keith Moon on the drummer’s stool. I’m sure it must have been mentioned that on the cover he’s sat on a chair inscribed with ‘Not to be taken away’. Unfortunate. The album’s not one of their best – you can hardly tell Moon’s on the drums, and there’s so much synth across most of the tracks (sometimes overshadowing the guitar), it just sounds dated. By this point they’ve come a long, long way from their beat group days as the High Numbers. They’re no longer relevant, just a bloated British rock band churning out middle-of-the-road material, a million miles from their Mod beginnings.
Argh, the ‘80s! The cover of this record is a bit confused. Roger Daltrey looks like a real estate agent. Pete Townshend looks like a pre-op transsexual. John Entwistle looks bizarrely like Ringo Starr in a pinstripe suit. Kenney Jones looks like a waxwork. All four of them are facing away from a young boy playing a Space Invaders machine, his back to the camera, in a darkened room. Aside from the allusions to Pinball Wizard, I don’t know what this all means, but it feels dodgy. Don’t worry though; Townshend was just doing research, right?
Thankfully the album doesn’t sound as unnaturally ‘80s as they were trying to make themselves look on the cover. There’s a fair bit of synth on the album – but no more than say, Quadrophenia, and that always jarred slightly on that album anyway.
The reason I’ll put this album on will always be the last track on the first side – Eminence Front, with lead vocals by Townshend himself. I know the song from the soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, so hearing its slow burn always reminds me of driving around Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas, knocking over pedestrians and doing drive-bys.
It’s funny that on most of the debut albums by the ‘60s bands that have endured, there’s not much of a hint of how the band will end up. Here you have the odd bit of feedback across opener Out In The Street, the wig-out of closer The Ox, and of course the rousing and frantic My Generation, but the rest of the album doesn’t sound too much like a band that would go on to be such an important rock band of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. There are two James Brown covers on this record, and that choice of artist doesn’t fit entirely well with the band that would go on to produce the glorious eight-and-a-half-minutes of Won’t Get Fooled Again.
The same goes for the Beatles – who would have thought the same voice that sang A Taste Of Honey would go on to rip through the lyrics of Helter Skelter. Or the Stones, when you compare the simplicity of their debut’s Route 66 cover, with the rawness and sleeze of later songs like Brown Sugar.
Speaking of the Stones, I was watching the Some Girls Live In Texas show the other day, and it’s such a contrast when the band play an early rock n’ roll cover. They’re a sloppy live band at the best of times, always sounding like they’re playing different songs, especially after Ronnie Wood joined their ranks; but on a cover of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen, they gel together like a well-rehearsed group of 18-year olds.
The Who’s debut is very similar to a lot of those albums – solid, probably groundbreaking for the time, but quaint and quite dated when you compare it to their later albums.
A well-intentioned satire on commercialism and consumerism, or a rare mis-step by The Who in an otherwise flawless run of albums leading up to their first masterpiece, Tommy?
This album isn’t without its highlights, and the cover is fantastic, but I do think that for all its good intentions, it’s a step backwards after A Quick One. The final song on that album, A Quick One, While He’s Away, points towards the direction Townshend would go with Tommy and Quadrophenia, but The Who Sells Out tries to do something else. It is a concept album – well, it’s more of a concept album than Sgt. Pepper’s (released a few months earlier), in that most of the album deals with the subject of advertising, but the songs just aren’t as good as they are on those two later albums.
I do like the ultra-compressed effect they use on the radio announcements between songs (making use of a device called the Sonovox), and I’m sure Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter would appreciate this too – a similar effect is employed on Daft Punk’s Homework debut.
I like The Who, but I like to keep them at arm’s distance. I’m always suspicious of bands where the vast majority of material is written by somebody other than the lead singer, and I guess The Who are one of the best examples of that dynamic. I also regard Pete Townshend as a little too full of himself. If I had seen The Who play back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it would have been Keith Moon I’d have been going to see
When I bought The Who’s greatest hits, on CD in the mid-‘90s, I really liked some of their singles but others (I’m A Boy, Pictures Of Lily) I just found soft and weak, which is surprising given that they’re supposed to be this hell-raising rock band. Those songs turned me off taking a further look at their studio albums, but I seem to doing more and more of that these last few years. I’ve always liked this album – it rocks big time – but I’ve developed a new-found respect for Tommy, A Quick One and Live At Leeds recently. Who’s Next seems to catch the band at their peak, with their most consistent album – probably because the album is neighboured on both sides by their weightier ‘rock operas’.
Who’s Next has been plundered by the producers of the CSI television series, with two of its tracks (Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Riley) appearing as the theme music to and CSI: Miami and CSI: New York respectively. I’m still waiting for Boris The Spider to be used as the theme to CSI: Scranton.