4. The Who Sell Out (1967)
The conceit, here, is pure brilliance: A band whose music was already being used in advertisements turning around and poking fun at such an enterprise. The irony is only more potent this many years on, "I Can See For Miles" being used for everything from Jiffy Lube to Sylvania ads. Tongue-and-cheek has aged into prescience.
The Who Sell Out is the quartet at its most psychedelic. Sure, it was 1967 but an opening trip-out like "Armenia City In The Sky" offers a quixotic paradox to the commercial exploits that run throughout. "Tattoo" is one of the Who's strongest songs, ever. On the surface, it seems a jumpy pop one-off. But on it, Townshend takes one of his first, grand leaps into the darker side of growing up. Two brothers get inked up, and domestic violence, longing for older age, and contrition are explored. Just consider the opening lines: "Me and my brother were talking to each other / 'Bout what makes a man a man / Was it brain or brawn or the month you were born? / We just couldn't understand." Sold.
On “My Generation,” Roger Daltrey famously proclaims, “I hope I die before I get old.” It was 1965: Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics just as he was turning 20. Forty-eight years later, neither the singer nor the guitarist-composer has fulfilled that prophecy. Only one member of the Who did: Keith Moon, drummer and merrymaker extraordinaire, who died of a drug overdose in 1978 at the age of 32. (John “the Ox” Entwistle took his thunderfinger bass licks to his grave in 2002 at the still relatively young age of 57.) Still, it’s a line worth considering in 2013. The Who is still around, and just what does that mean?
Although the Who stands as an outfit with only one-half of its original members, Townshend and Daltrey are getting away with it … and then some. Five years ago the two were knighted USA-style at the Kennedy Center and, in 2010, the Who played a raucous and underrated Super Bowl halftime show: the next level these days, it seems, after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. And the band’s performance at “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief” was expansive and one of the highlights of the night. Like another stand-out, Billy Joel, the group pillaged through seven songs; the Who’s set included a rendition of “Bell Boy” with Keith Moon lending his vocals via monitor. And the group is currently knee-deep in the second leg of an American tour, “Quadrophenia and More,” that takes them to Europe this summer. It could be its last ever.
So, why keep going? It seems as though they have some unfinished business. Townshend — long a troubled figure with a blazing media spotlight upon him — released a tell-all memoir last year, Who I Am. And, then there’s the issue of history: The Who has always been considered “one of” the greatest rock bands of all time but rarely “the best.” When boarding the Magic Bus, the Who has always been seated at the back while the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin fill out first-class. Townshend and Daltrey, approaching 70, are out to prove something.
And even looking outside of its recent accolades and achievements, the Who has cause for renewed consideration. This is a group that contributed to the framework of how rock ’n’ roll musicians behave: They break instruments and have bad attitudes. They brand themselves: Who wouldn’t readily identify that Union Jack target logo with the group? They make money: T-shirts on the current tour are fetching $40 a pop. They come up with signature moves (Townshend’s jumping windmill guitar stroke) and they bare their chests (Daltrey). They fight with each other like brothers, they have sex with the Western Hemisphere, and they write songs about it all. And, then, one-by-one: They die.
The band’s recordings are the heart of the matter, though, and go a long way toward reopening the case on the brilliant band. The Who has recorded 11 studio albums that have, in turn, given rise to a myriad of greatest hits collections, rare outtake compilations, and some of the best live music ever committed to tape (including the granddaddy of them all, 1970′s Live At Leeds.) Here, though, we consider those 11 LPs as a portfolio in its own right. As the Who criss-crosses the country, it’s readily apparent that, to paraphrase Townshend, the song will soon be over. And it’s these primary documents on which the Who’s legacy will be judged.
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