Classic Music Review: The Who Sell Out

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Go with the MP3’s to avoid having to read Dave Marsh’s inane liner notes. Click to buy.

I haven’t talked much about the studies of cultural history I’ve made in conjunction with my studies of music history, but let’s just say that I’m an absolute glutton for relics of the past, whether it’s old baseball broadcasts of Red Barber and Mel Allen, yellowed issues of Glamour or pre-Hollywood Hitchcock. I think a lot of the attraction to the un-computerized past is that society seemed much simpler and more knowable than the complicated, fragmented mess we have today.

I am especially fascinated by the cultural phenomenon of television, particularly as it developed in the United States. Though it was famously described as “a vast wasteland” by the head of the FCC in the Kennedy administration, early television (pre-cable) was one of the last faint remnants of unity in American culture. I remember my open-mouthed reaction when my dad described a world where television only offered five or six channels, and the sixth channel was iffy depending upon how you positioned a device quaintly referred to as “rabbit ears.” Appallingly primitive as a five-and-half-channel lineup sounds today, the simple fact that your viewing choices were limited served to strengthen cultural unity. Anyone could go to school or work the next day and easily find someone who had watched what you had watched, and you could have a nice little chat about the experience. My father explained that a greeting like “Hey, did you catch Bonanza last night?” was the conversation-starter par excellence. The case for television as a catalyst of cultural cohesion is strengthened by the evidence that there were certain shows that everyone watched. The crude rating numbers from the era will tell you that everyone watched the latest episode of I Love Lucy, everyone took in the Miss America pageant (pointy tits and all!), everyone saw the Wizard of Oz in its annual spring rebirth, everyone tuned into the Bob Hope specials and everyone awaited the annual broadcast of the Oscars with great anticipation.

Of course, American television nearly always depicted women as housewives or secretaries, Asians and Hispanics as gardeners or servants, gays did not exist and African-Americans were primarily used for comic relief until Bill Cosby co-starred in I Spy. That set of circumstances changed over time, but there is no question that during its heyday, people watched their favorite shows religiously, and the bible of the new faith was the TV Guide, available for fifteen cents a copy in 1961. Its most popular issue was the fall preview issue.

Once I spent an entire day in a library reading old TV Guides. No shit! While I am deeply offended when people refer to my kinky activities as “weird,” even I think it’s weird for a hyper-horny teenager to put satisfaction on the back burner so she can spend the day reading features on Bill Bixby, Donna Douglass and Amanda Blake. I loved those fall preview issues best of all, because they’d have mini-treatments and plugs for all the new shows. Through reading TV Guide and other sources, I discovered that there was one word commonly applied to a certain type of comedy, a word that has fallen out of favor but was formerly used to entice potential viewers to watch shows like Car 54, Where Are You?, Gilligan’s Island, My Mother the Car and It’s About Time.

Wacky.

Go ahead—say that word aloud a few times. It’s a fun word, isn’t it? It’s really a very good exercise for your entire vocal apparatus as you move from the labio-velar approximate (w) to the broad, flat a to the voiceless velar stop (k) to end on the long ee sound that turns your face into a smile! Wacky. Wacky. Wacky. What a wondrous word!

It’s also a great word to describe The Who Sell Out, but without the pejorative connotation of Ann Sothern’s voice coming out of a 1928 Porter. The Who Sell Out ranks right up there with Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake as one of the wackiest albums of all-time, but both works are imbued with beautiful melodies, rich lyrical passages, delightfully exotic sounds and an exuberant sense of fun. Both have a definite unity, though I would stop short of calling either a concept album in the strictest sense. Both are shining examples of the playful creativity of the period, with Ogdens’ featuring the delightful tale of “Happiness Stan” and The Who Sell Out mixing it up with jingles and spots from Radio London (which led to a few messy legal tangles, but that’s another story). The Who Sell Out excels in the quality of the melodies and harmonies, and while the finish is less than satisfying and foreshadows the tendency to overreach that would become all too apparent in Tommy, it’s still one of the most engaging albums of its day.

The album opens with a robotic voice reciting the days of the week; in the Space Age, such voices were often used to liven up a radio broadcast. The voice fades into . . . wait . . . boy, that sure sounds like Oasis! The intro definitely has the same groove and loose feel of “Turn Up the Sun” from Don’t Believe the Truth. Here’s a tip: the next time some ignorant and smug asshole tries to pooh-pooh Oasis as a weak imitation of The Beatles, you can crush your opponent in seconds by observing, “I have definitive proof that they drew inspiration from many sources,” then playing “Armenia City in the Sky” for them. Throw in a few “fuck yous” if you’re in the mood.

“Armenia City in the Sky” was written for The Who by Townshend chauffeur and long-time session musician Speedy Keen (what a charming name!), who apparently partnered with Roger Daltrey on the highly processed lead vocal (no, Wikipedia, that is NOT Keith Moon). The engineers raised the pitch on the lead vocal and ran it through a few antique devices to give it an ethereal, childlike sound that when combined with horns and some of most tasteful guitar feedback I’ve ever heard makes for an experience that is both enchanting and rocking. Although I fault Speedy for failing to come up with a name for his city that would be less confusing (pronouncing it Ar-me-NI-ah doesn’t cut it), I love the sheer . . . wackiness of the premise, especially the lines describing Armenia: “The sky is glass, the sea is brown/And everyone is upside-down.” It’s a thoroughly engaging opener that can turn grumpiness into grins.

After one of those snappy Skitch Henderson-like fragments from the bandstand, we are treated to the first jingle, “Heinz Baked Beans,” an Entwistle creation. “What’s for tea, daughter, darling or house slave?” (okay, I made up the last one) is repeated in between the sounds of a marching band playing what I suppose was a theme song for Heinz. We actually don’t hear “Heinz Baked Beans” until the very end. While that sounds like pretty boring fare (the track, not the beans—oh, wait, they’re boring, too), it’s actually one of those bits that makes you feel funny because of the absurdity of it all.

MORE MUSIC, MORE MUSIC, MORE MUSIC! Then it’s “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand.” I can’t believe that people are still debating the meaning this song but apparently the über-analysts keep coming up with medical theories ranging from Parkinson’s to palsy. Hey, idiots, Mary Anne’s a hand-job artist! “Mary-Anne with the shaky hand/What they’ve done to a man/Those shaky hands.” Only very perverted people would believe this song isn’t about jacking off, she said, turning the perversion paradigm upside-down. Musically, this song is pure delight, with a warm Latin beat, a tuneful melody, a clever key change in the bridge to add diversity, superb harmonies and gorgeous overtones. The percussion, ranging from subtle tambourine to flying castanets, adds depth and color to the mix. Though the song is sexual in nature, Daltrey and Townshend play it sweet and straight, with no irritating snickers or musical winks. Love the tremolo effect on the last line . . . which leads to shouting, another burst from the bandstand, a zinger and then . . . “Odorono.”

The listener on a maiden voyage through The Who Sell Out may look at the track listing, see “Odorono,” and think “Oh, another commercial.” Not! Now that your expectations are set to the lower end of the scale, Pete Townshend knocks you out with a remarkably clever and superbly constructed slice of life. He sets the scene by opening with the narrative’s dénouement, stimulating the listener’s desire to hear how it all came to pass:

She sang the best she’d ever sang
She couldn’t ever sing any better
A Mr. Davidson never rang
She knew he would forget her

Townsend takes us through the story: the singer on the stage, looking like a million bucks, giving the performance of her life and noticing that the powerful Mr. Davidson (a producer, potential manager or some other entertainment industry bigwig)  is devouring her with his eyes. The moment when she realizes that everything is coming together is brilliantly captured with the shift in vocal style from narrative to choral on the word “Triumphant!”

Triumphant was the way she felt
As she acknowledged the applause
Triumphant was the way she’d felt
When she saw him at the dressing room door

Mr. Davidson praises her for her grace, sending her into ecstasy. The way to a glamorous future is opening right before her eyes! But alas, something has gone amiss!

But his expression changed, she had seen
As he leant to kiss her face
It ended there: he claimed a late appointment
She quickly turned to hide her disappointment

Though foreshadowed, the listener is discombobulated by this turn of events. Our poor heroine! What on earth could have caused such a reaction? Townshend then nails it with the punch line:

She ripped her glittering gown
Couldn’t face another show, no
Her deodorant had let her down
She should have used Odorono

Oww! What’s amazing is that instead of trivializing the experience, the introduction of a commercial message intensifies the pathos of the story. It is an ironically perfect downfall for the heroine of an other-directed society where all of our energies are focused on making other people love and admire us. The commercial phrases drummed into our heads by the media are transformed into pearls of wisdom in a consumer-oriented world. Our unnamed lass failed to follow the wisdom of that culture, and now her chance at fifteen minutes of fame has been cruelly snatched from her. “Odorono” is a satiric and sociological masterpiece.

Lush strings and a honeyed-voice singing “It’s smooth sailing with the highly successful sound of wonderful Radio London” take us to “Tattoo,” an equally strong tale of men searching for manhood in symbolism. The opening duet of guitar arpeggios sets a reflective tone for Daltrey’s opening lines, “Me and my brother were talkin’ to each other/’Bout what makes a man, a man.” After getting dissed by the old man for their “feminine” long hair, they decide the best path to manhood leads to the tattoo parlor. Living in a time when nearly everyone I know, male and female, sports one or more tattoos (self included), the song serves as a reminder of how many nonsensical gender myths have collapsed over the years. The power of the tattoo in the narrator’s life becomes evident through the personification of the mark: “Welcome to my life, tattoo/I’m a man now, thanks to you.” Daltrey’s vocal and the supporting harmonic passages are perfect, and the rhythmic shift in the personification verses is very effective. “Tattoo” is another songwriting triumph.

We’re now reminded to attend the church of our choice (not the synagogue or the mosque) before we get to “Our Love Was,” a lovely little interlude with another strong melody backed by a carefully-executed guitar counterpoint and a surprisingly diverse percussive display from Keith Moon and friends. This dissolves into a flurry of jingles that take us to “I Can See for Miles.” I wrote in my review of Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy that I don’t care much for this song, but it’s amazing how a change of context can transform a listening experience (hence the importance of track order). As part of a radio program, slotted after the barrage of commercial breaks, “I Can See for Miles” sounds exciting and fresh, like it’s bursting out of your car speakers with a vengeance. The structure and feel don’t fit well with the other songs on the album, but having been conditioned to listen to the album as if you’re listening to the radio, it doesn’t sound the least bit out-of-place, and the dissonant harmonies provide great contrast.

After a spot for a Charles Atlas course (a heavily-plugged body-building course designed to exploit chronic male insecurity), we arrive at “Can’t Reach You.” This is another strong melody with somewhat ambiguous lyrics dealing with the classic barriers to relationships: age, wealth, beauty and insecurity (“Our fingertips touched and then/My mind tore us apart.”) The tune is occasionally melancholy but very catchy and the lyrics equally memorable (“I can’t reach you with my arms outstretched/I can’t reach you, I crane my neck”). It’s followed by an Entwistle-generated radio ad about zit eradication, “Medac,” that doesn’t quite have the dynamic quality of the earlier jingles.

This is where the unity of the album begins to unravel, as The Who chose to abandon the radio show format for no apparent reason. Whatever the excuse, it was a very bad idea, for there is definitely a drop in energy once it feels like a plain old studio album. Surely they could have found a stray weather report, a quick football match update, a cigarette ad and a news flash to fill in the remaining gaps. As I have commented in other reviews, commitment is critical to artistic success. To put it more succinctly, if you have a concept or idea in your head, don’t let your dick go limp—make the fucking commitment to drive it all the way home! Harrumph!

It doesn’t help that “Relax,” the next song is pure Moody Blues album filler that doesn’t measure up to the rest of the track lineup. After a very brief Who-created spot (also weak) comes “Silas Stingy,” one of those curious Entwistle contributions that works in mysterious ways. It’s followed by a lovely Townshend number, “Sunrise,” a bittersweet piece about how we deny ourselves the opportunity for sweet morning love by rushing off to catch the metro. “Sunrise” contains some of Townshend’s best lyrical poetry:

You take away the breath I was keeping for sunrise
You appear and the morning looks drab in my eyes
And then again I’ll turn down love
Having seen you again
Once more you’ll disappear
My morning put to shame

The album closer, “Rael,” is cherished by Who fans. Damned if I can figure out why. My experience with Pete Townshend tells me that when his ambition pushed him beyond the limitations of his talent, disaster lurked in the inky shadows of his brain. “Rael” may or may not have been a fragment of a potential rock opera, but whatever its source, it’s a classic example of Townshend overreaching by trying to create something of deep significance and falling way, way short, as he would do on both Tommy and Quadrophenia. This long suite features the tortured syntax and awkward musical transitions that marked much of those two rock operas, and its pomposity sounds jarring and distant in the context of a very playful, accessible and fun record. In the interests of critical balance, I will provide my readers with an alternative view contained in a more comprehensive review of The Who’s work published in The Harvard Crimson on August 13, 1968. You’ll have to scroll down the page to get to “Rael.” There you’ll find the typical comparisons to Bob Dylan that were often used at the time to raise a songwriter’s status, then a blow-by-blow account of the song’s narrative. The author follows Townshend’s example and overreaches in spots, but who am I to argue with Harvard, the people who brought us Vietnam, The Great Financial Collapse and thousands of MBA’s who have helped create record income disparity in the United States?

Even with the fade and downer at the end, I still love this album. The Who Sell Out gives us four talented musicians at play and feels more like a true collaboration than many of their other works. When Townshend sticks to character sketches and short dramatic monologues, he’s often brilliant, and through most of the album, he stays close to his sweet spot. And though The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Everly Brothers are known as the kings of harmony, The Who present a strong case that they deserve inclusion in that illustrious group with their performances here. Melodic, harmonic, rocking and a whole lot of fun, The Who Sell Out is definitely one for the ages.

15 responses

  1. Nice review and we share very similar viewpoints, notably in how the album falls apart once the radio show concept is abandoned and to my ears is followed by the album’s weakest songs as lovely as “Relax” and “Sunrise” are… they just don’t seem to fit in here.

    This is my Who desert island disc but in it’s expanded CD form rounding up various outtakes and commercials they chose not to use at the time for whatever reason. Townshend was writing a lot of great stuff hence some good material was left off… I have my own version of this album incorporating some of the outtakes and singles tracks (“Pictures Of Lily”fits in fine with the radio show theme!) plus there were enough commercials to last throughout the whole album… and it’s The Who’s finest moment. I share your love for “Who’s Next” but let’s be honest, that sounds like a totally different band – “Sell Out” I guess is The Who in adolescence – fitting given the theme of the album and some of the songs. Boy oh boy, they were having fun here. That’s partly why I dislike “Tommy” – too po-faced and serious whereas this album proved they had a glorious madcap sense of humour. “Tommy” sounds like a transitional album, caught awkwardly between the band’s metamorphosis from a pop band to a rock band which was only consolidated onstage and eventually on vinyl via “Live At Leeds” and “Who’s Next.”

    On this album, we hear them trying out various styles. Roger Daltrey admitted many years later it wasn’t until “Tommy” that he finally found his voice but the journey involved him taking on many different roles and styles… and this album proves it a thousandfold. Side One is for me, totally perfect – all great songs, in the right order and indeed “I Can See For Miles” is a stunning powerful climax. I absolutely LOVE “Our Love Was” and “Heinz Baked Beans” always makes me smile. Side Two starts off fine, but as soon as “Relax” begins… my interest rapidly wanes. I don’t dislike “Rael” – it’s overambitious for it’s own good but there’s some nice ideas in there though no getting away from the fact it’s a hodgepodge of scraps of various songs so seems a bit too disjointed.

    Moon and Entwistle I understand were largely behind the commercials and unused ones reveal them having great fun in the studio. There’s two commercials for Coca Cola which are wonderful – short, straight to the point and fun… I guess legal issues prevented them from being used on the original album.

    The Who were a shit hot singles band in the 60’s until 1968 when they wavered – yep – I don’t like “Magic Bus” and what on Earth were they thinking with “Call Me Lightning” and “Dogs” though I like the latter!?!? Still – “The Who Sell Out” is for me their finest moment of the decade despite it’s imperfections.

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    1. I can definitely hear “Pictures of Lily” as a good fit here. Very astute observation on Roger’s part; I don’t like Tommy in the least except for some of Roger’s vocals and the fact that you can clearly hear that Entwistle was one of the best bassists ever.

      Isn’t it nice to make your own album? I had to do that with The White Album, and I’ll take my version over theirs anytime!

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  2. My Mother the Car, was funny, subversive even.
    Written by Allan Burns, who was brought into
    write any other series, Rocky and Bullwinkle,

    I would say, ARC does all that’s possible to shine the light here
    ….this album falls flat, too clever by half.

    No real musical conceits , or metaphors here, the music
    serves what end exactly , to my mind after I heard it years ago
    I could barely remember any tune.

    Commenting on popular consumer culture is a dual edge
    sword, particularly when the pop music you make is part and
    parcel of that culture.

    witty and self referential the album is not IMHO.

    ARC does a terrific job however of trying to make
    Lemonade , with what I think is a lemon.

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    1. Thank you—I love the fact that you appreciated the review while not caring a bit for the record. Interesting point about the lapse of time—maybe I’ll revisit it two years down the road and I’ll have a different take. That’s happened with one or two reviews of new material—loved it when I wrote it, but a few weeks later, I had to question my sanity.

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  3. 60s British pop is my favorite music – along with soul music – but I never cared too much for the Who.
    I like a few of their 45s, “I can’t explain”, “The kids are alright”, “Happy jack”, but there’s something to them I can’t put my finger on that prevent me to like the rest.
    Maybe they are “childish” in the negative sense of the word, or trying to be too conceptual and arty.
    I’m a huge fan of the Kinks and Small faces so “I can’t explain”.
    “Sell out” is their only LP I like, with some really sweet tunes, but I’m not to crazy about it either, “Rael” being the worst for sure.

    Talking about Small Faces, what about their gem of a 2nd album (1st on Immediate) ?
    Much better than Ogden’s to me, a masterpiece of perfect pop concision.

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    1. I have theories about what that “something else” is about The Who that I’ll share in my review of Tommy.

      The challenge of the second Small Faces album is that the US and UK versions are wildly different, with some of the songs even appearing under different titles. The inconsistency is far worse than what happened with The Beatles or The Stones; only half the tracks line up. I only have the US version, so I’ll have to listen to the UK version before deciding which is the best one to review.

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      1. OK, looking forward to it!

        As far as I’m concerned, the foreign discographies of an artist do not even exist.
        The only reference is the material released in its original context, the way the artist intented to, and in the huge majority of times it is trough the releases of the label from the country he’s from.
        In England 45s were almost never on the LPs and both should be aprehended separately, as standalone work.
        On “Small Faces” for example you lose 5 album gems on the US version just because a stupid label thought it would be best to cash in on the current hot singles.
        The best is to talk of the singles of the era in the same review, to have a precise view of an artist’s developpement.
        That’s just my thought, don’t want to sound like I’m saying anyone what to listen to/review.

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  4. Nifty review – and the first one of yours I totally agree with. I’m making progress…

    Just four curios about the album (one of my favourites by the Who):

    * As far as I know, Daltrey is the only one wearing a shirt on the cover because he had a hairy chest, a thing almost as scandalous as bare tits for the moral standards of the time…

    * On Gary Herman’s The Who (first book about the band, released in 1971 just prior to Who’s Next), Entwistle is quoted as saying that it’s Townshend who plays organ on “Silas Stingy”, whereas the Classic Who reissue liner notes tell us it’s Al Kooper. Wikipedia says both Townsend and Kooper played keyboards on the record. So what gives? The jury’s still out on this one.

    * Did you hear Petra Haden’s a capella version of the album? I found it very interesting.
    (Petra is daughter of great jazz bassist Charlie Haden, but I mentioned it later because I feel she has talent enough not to be “just” her daughter.)

    …and when I first heard the album (on a cassette back in 1976) I mondegreened the first track as “Ah, Maria sittin’ in the sky”, which I still think is better, heh heh.

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  5. Rael and Relax.. best tunes from the record.. specially live..

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  6. An, the Who Sell Out. I wish so badly that the Who held on to the playfulness and avoided the pretension that followed. (I have no interest in Tommy or Quadrophenia and can’t listen to either a second time.)

    Sell Out is music that prefigures Baudrillard’s Similacrum and Jameson’s notion of “late capitalism” by a decade, and is a hell of a lot more fun. No album combines consumer commodification, image replication, and lyrical beauty like this album, and keeps the sophistication absolutely fun until the last dreadful fifteen minutes. I never tire of listening to side one and the first half of side two.

    Despite the flaws of “I Can See for Miles,” the sequencing by which it instantly follows a trio of radio filler is as revelatory as the opening burst of “Hard Days Night.” In fact, in that split second “I Can See for Miles” opens is the most astounding moment on the album, a sense of editing completely lost when the song is played in isolation as a single. It creates a climax in the album for which the songs that follow become like the falling action. Unfortunately, the falling action resolves in the Who’s transition to bombast with Rael. I have no idea why they couldn’t piece together the remaining elements of a radio show. My deluxe CD version proves that they had mountains of wonderful material that could have made it happen. Even a reprise of Mary Anne in its alternate version would have worked, along with the ads for Coke and Jaguar or Masons or whatever. (The Deluxe CD is wonderful, by the way, and includes those stray recordings that prove how great they could be at the 2-3 minute song craft, and how weird, like “Someone’s Coming”) I also think its daring that they bookended “I Can See for Miles” with two other gloriously sweeping songs, “Our Love Was” and “I Can’t Reach You.” The former song is a near masterpiece. But I also love how the boundary between advertisement and music becomes permeable with “Odorono,” as if to suggest that pop music and commercialism–the replicated image–superimpose. The song is a three minute advertisement, anti-advertisement, and narrative.

    I always liked “Silas Stingy” listening to it loudly in headphones and allowing the deep organ suffocate me. “Sunrise” is such an beautiful but odd ballad, but it feels too tagged on to the crumbling radio show concept, like an afterthought–certainly a lovely one though. My feeling is that the Who decided to introduce everyone to their new direction toward opera in the end of the album, which makes Sell Out almost tragic for me. But at least it turns Sell Out into a nearly cohesive experimental mess as opposed to the Beach Boys Smile in which you have to dig around to find the inspirational moments that failed to find a cohesive and organic vision.

    I also read you review of Who’s Next. I have to admit it is an album that has never resonated with me. Mind you, I recognize and appreciate its musical brilliance. Two things bug me personally about it. So many of the songs have become anthemic, played to the point that they fail to allow me to revisit each song anew. And then there’s the shift to arena rock, a shift with many rock groups in the early 70s that I just don’t really enjoy much. Part of it too is that–to the astonishment of all my friends–I can’t stand going to concerts, and, except for small venues, have never gone to an arena type concert. The only “big” concert I attended was The Ramones in the 80s, Toad’s Place. It was thirty minutes of “one-two-three-four” SONG “one-two-three-four” SONG . . . and glorious in its economic energy. My friends engaged in head banging. I sat in a corner, drank gin, and smoked.

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  7. Missed your comment about pre-Hollywood Hitchcock until I re-read this. The 39 Steps is absolutely one of my favorite movies and the sequence in Sabotage that ends with the boy on the bus is still the most anxiety-inducing I’ve ever seen on film. The Lady Vanishes is a great one, too. The mix of humor, style, and suspense in these films is sublime – am I right, sir?. What were your Hitchcock favorites?

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    1. Oh, that’s a long list! Pre-American: The 39 Steps, Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes for sure, but I also liked Young and Innocent. Of the American films my two absolute favorites are Stranger on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt. I could watch Joseph Cotten in anything. I didn’t like the other one with Farley Granger—The Rope. A bit too contrived and the dinner party felt uncomfortably crowded.

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  8. ‘The Who Sell Out’ is indeed a damn good album, but it simply doesn’t touch ‘Who’s Next’, which is one of the few absolutely perfect albums that rock has produced. ‘Sell Out’ almost seems like Townshend is working out bits and pieces of his ideas for ‘Tommy’, with the British ad jingles concept thrown in for good measure. And “I Can See for Miles” stands so far above the rest of the songs on the album that it almost makes the rest of it sound a bit anti-climatic.

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