My father has been pushing me to do more American music, especially from his salad days. In exchange for his guest post, I’m letting him have Buffalo Springfield, which I know is cheating. Buffalo Springfield wasn’t really an American band, since they permitted entry to Canadians. The truth is that I’m not especially motivated to do much with American bands from that era. Or any era, for that matter.
I don’t think there have been any American rock bands who come close to approaching the British in terms of quality or consistency. The San Francisco Sound was a passing fad, and the bands from that era either didn’t last or lasted way too long in cult status like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson
Airplane Starship. The most successful American band from that era was Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band I’ve always considered a fraud, since there ain’t no riverboats, bayous or fishin’ holes where John Fogerty grew up, in a dreary Bay Area burb called El Cerrito. The Byrds could never could never quite escape their status as a Bob Dylan cover band and finally went more country-western thanks to Gram Parsons. Promising bands like The Doors self-destructed, much like Nirvana did in my teens. American music in the intervening decades was dominated by Springsteen, a musician who defines the phrase “predictable and boring,” and the loud and obnoxious Aerosmith, Metallica, Ted Nugent and Kid Rock. Some of my high school mates were into R. E. M.; I found them rather predictable and their unusual song titles gimmicky.
I have many theories about why I feel this way. The only American roots music I care for is blues. Blues led to jazz, R&B, soul and rock ‘n’ roll, the genres where I spend most of my time, so there is a consistency to my tastes. I find most American folk music as predictable and boring as Springsteen, and compared to the melodic, rhythmic and lyrical quality of British folk music, it’s pathetic (though I am fond of Woody Guthrie’s more socialist numbers). I really dislike white roots music like bluegrass, and I’m less than fond of country music in general. I like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash, period, end of discussion.
That’s one clue. When American bands start to go too country on me, I check out. The Byrds did that, and to a lesser extent, so did Buffalo Springfield. Country music is inherently conservative and hasn’t progressed in sixty years. It’s now louder and more electric but it’s the same old chord structures and motifs. The “alt-country” movement hasn’t moved that needle, for though Neko Case’s lyrics may be more interesting, the underlying musical structure is same-o, same-o. When a rock band goes country, it’s a sign they’re getting lazy and comfortable with the old routines.
This aversion to country has nothing to do with my admitted aversion to things associated with the Deep South, like grits, fried everything and born-again Republicans. I love Lynyrd Skynyrd. I love Sonny Landreth. I love The Allman Brothers. Let’s just say that I have certain preferences when it comes to music and more than a few exceptions to those preferences . . . and get on with the review.
Buffalo Springfield didn’t leave behind much of a catalog to explore, and to say they were a band is a generous application of the word. They lasted two years and produced a grand total of three studio albums, but only the first was a truly collaborative work. The second album, Buffalo Springfield Rides Again, was more like Abbey Road or The White Album—collections of individual works with minimal collaboration. The third was cobbled together by Richie Furay and Jim Messina from tracks gathering dust in the studio, for by that time, the parts had gone their separate ways. Given such a meager catalog, it’s hard to buy my dad’s insistence that Buffalo Springfield ranks with the all-time greats. I think it’s more accurate to say that Buffalo Springfield was a vehicle that allowed Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay to get their feet wet before moving on to other things, and in the process, produced a few great songs.
“For What It’s Worth”: There were certain songs from the 60’s that deserve the label “iconic,” and this is one of them. Written in response to the relatively minor social disturbance known as the Sunset Strip Riots, the song was so prescient of the heavier shit that came down later that some people who should have known better associated the song with the anti-war protests and even the Kent State shootings that occurred over three years later (you wouldn’t believe some of the weird assertions I found in my research). Like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” the song grabs your attention on the first sound; here it’s that clear high note on the guitar that pulls you in, proving once again that simple can be stunning. For a relative novice at the songwriting craft, Stephen Stills nailed this one, identifying the major divisions that would tear the United States apart over the following years, a division driven by irrational, unthinking fear. His understated vocal is absolutely perfect, conveying both deep concern and his own feeling of uneasiness that things are about to spin out of control. The simplicity of the arrangement helps heighten the message, but there is enough variation through guitar fills and background vocals to forestall dreariness.
“Mr. Soul”: The producers of their first album didn’t allow Neil Young too many vocals because they thought his voice was too weird. It’s certainly an unusual voice, but so is Bob Dylan’s, and Dylan’s voice wasn’t hurting him with the public at that time. I’d describe Neil Young’s voice as compelling, but whether that’s because of the vocal timbre or the fact that Neil Young nearly always has something interesting to say is a jump ball. He claims it only took five minutes to write this song, and if true, he’s one of the most natural poets in rock history. The music isn’t half as interesting as the lyrics, which feature an internal rhyme on every line (thought-caught, trace-face, down-frown, raised-praise). Young’s cynicism concerning the notion of rock ‘n’ roll stardom comes through in the delightfully contrary second verse:
I was down on a frown when the messenger brought me a letter
I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her
Any girl in the world could have easily known me better
She said, “You’re strange, but don’t change,” and I let her
I also love the seriously hot lead guitar licks in a variety of tones appearing in different spots in the stereo field and Bruce Palmer’s throbbing bass. As for Neil’s vocal, I like his natural voice better than the falsetto he used on many of his solo efforts.
“Sit Down I Think I Love You”: In contrast to the popular but very flowery Mojo Men version, Buffalo Springfield’s original is an odd combination of British Invasion and American country with awkward phrasing that sounds like Stills and company had a hard time remembering the words. The fuzz tone guitar solo is awful; the complementary clean tone solo fits much better with the general feel of the song.
“Kind Woman”: This Richie Furay song reveals his urges for that country honky-tonk feel that he would bring to Poco, a band I loathe as much as their progeny, Loggins & Messina. Bo-ring. Waiting for this song to end so I could get to the next one caused the kind of mindless anxiety I experience when sitting in an endless business meeting, where I feel constant urges to throw heavy objects at all the fucking people who are wasting my time.
“Bluebird”: Ah, that’s better. Stephen Stills wrote some pretty damned good songs in his youth, making me wish he would have shown a bit more judgment and avoided hooking up with Crosby and Nash. After writing a great protest song, he gives us “Bluebird,” a unique and wonderful tune with some of the most striking and energetic guitar work from that era, from the killer opening riff to the long (even longer when played live) guitar passage at the song’s core. The unusual rhythm in the verses is achieved through a combination of no-nonsense drum bashing from Dewey Martin and a bass line that follows Stephen Stills’ melody rather than the core beat. The acoustic flashes are frigging hot and the counterpoint guitar on the bridge is exquisite. The long acoustic-picking passage is sheer delight and a very impressive display of fingerboard control. “Bluebird” is really more of a suite than a standard rock song, and holds a unique place in music history as the only song featuring a banjo that I can actually stand—in fact, I love the honest beauty of the quiet closing verse as much as anything else in the song. Bravo!
“On the Way Home”: Richie Furay takes the lead vocal on this Neil Young composition, which features a beautiful, flowing melody over a soul music foundation that you hear in the rhythm, background vocals, use of horns and a touch of strings. The lyrics are excellent, an exploration of the confused feelings and fragile identity that often arise when we begin to explore intimate relationships. Neil Young showed signs of brilliance even at this stage, and the line “I went insane/Like a smoke ring day when the wind blows” is a vivid use of simile. The acoustic guitar splashes in this song are strikingly beautiful and again demonstrate the band’s strength with fills. Sorry to gush, but I find this song incredibly moving. I’m a certified sucker for honest expressions of vulnerability.
“Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”: Stunningly, this was Buffalo Springfield’s first single. That’s what I call ballsy! They must have had more faith in the American listening public than I’ve ever had, but sadly, their faith was unrewarded and the single bombed. Let’s see—we’re talking about a song with changing tempos, changing time signatures and lyrics that open with “Who’s that stomping all over my face?” Sounds like a hit to me! Richie Furay sings what he called a “quirky” song with strong harmonic support from Stephen Stills, but the writing credit goes to the quirky Neil Young, and he deserves a lot of credit. This is a song about a man out of touch with his sources of inspiration, the singer who has lost his voice, the frustration of the artist at being unable (temporarily) to express himself (“Who’s putting sponge in the bells I once rung?”). The lost muse imagery of the line, “And taking my gypsy before she’s begun,” is a set-up for the conflict between the free spirit, unbound by convention, living in a world with vastly different expectations, “hung up on that happiness thing.” I think “Clancy” is a brilliant piece of work, but there was no way in hell it was destined to be a hit. [Sigh ] . . . I’d love to live in a world where a song like this shot to the top.
“Broken Arrow”: Using a structure that juxtaposes snippets of social reality with a motif of broken dreams and promises within the archetypal context of White America’s history of betrayal of Native Americans, Neil Young produced one of the most poetically satisfying songs of the 1960’s. The first section opens with a “live” snippet from “Mr. Soul” that is actually sung by drummer Dewey Martin and uses the screams from a Beatles concert. It fades into the first verse, where the first broken dream or promise is the belief that one can find happiness through fame; what awaits is instead separation from humanity and the madness of adulation:
The lights turned on and the curtain fell down
And when it was over it felt like a dream
They stood at the stage door and begged for a scream
The agents had paid for the black limousine
That waited outside in the rain
Did you see them, did you see them?
The second broken promise—the American Dream itself—is preceded by a booing crowd and a dissonant fragment from “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” As depicted by Neil Young, the American Dream is eighteen years of programming and sexual denial (“His mother had told him a trip was a fall/And don’t mention babies at all”). The last broken dream follows a series of military drum rolls and seems the most obscure and contradictory, describing a wedding parade where the queen wears white gloves, but the procession carries a black-covered caisson, implying a funeral rather than a wedding. Given the timing of the song and the timbre of the military snare drum that precedes the verse, my interpretation is that this passage describes the promise of the Kennedy ascension and the shattering of the dream through assassination. Jackie wore white gloves with her pink outfit, and the “black covered caisson” could refer to the presidential limousine. In this context, the first lines of the repeated chorus have more poignancy, and give the dual symbolism of the river as a dividing line and the flow of life and death more impact:
Did you see them in the river?
They were there to wave to you
Could you tell that the empty-quivered,
Brown-skinned Indian on the banks
That were crowded and narrow
Held a broken arrow?
The jazz combo fade led by clarinet seems trivial in context, but it is followed by the sound of the heartbeat, creating an ironic version of “la, la how the life goes on.”
Neil Young had written “Broken Arrow” after breaking up with the group, saying he needed more space. He then returned to the group to record the song. I’m glad he did, and all 100-plus hours of recording time were worth it. Neil Young has remarkable ability to communicate tragic and unacceptable realities to people who don’t want to hear them, but when he’s really on he also expresses a kind of sadness that says, “Hey, I don’t want to have to sing about this,” which gives him more credibility as a social critic. “Broken Arrow” is a brilliant piece, one of the most substantial pieces to come out of the 60’s.
“Rock and Roll Woman”: Stephen Stills was also a pretty hot songwriter before he fell in with the evil Crosby and Nash and wrote absolute crapola like “helplessly hoping her harlequin hovers nearby.” In comparison to Neil Young, who is a gifted, all-purpose poet, Stills’ best work is that of a lyric poet like Hopkins or Shelley, focusing on first-person emotional experiences:
‘Neath the shadow of a soothing hand
I am free there, just to make my plans
Dream of far away lands, anything close at hand
The musical achievement here is to turn a major-seventh chord into a rock and roll chord with credibility. Major sevenths are the bane of my musical existence, as they’re sappy and incomplete when used as the lead chord for a song (think “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”). Here Stills uses an Fmaj7-D7 combination in the opening lines and keeps the Fmaj7 as the root throughout the song, giving it a romantic tension that works well in this fascinating relationship he has with a woman who is “just hard to find.” The vocal arrangement and harmonies here are outstanding, and the up-tempo musical interlude a nice break from the dominant pattern.
“I Am a Child”: Although the chord pattern is interesting, there’s too much bluegrass-country feel here in the guitar pickin’ and harmonica for me to get into this song. Neil Young’s lyrics aren’t particularly interesting either. Hey, you can’t knock it out of the park every time you go to bat!
“Go and Say Goodbye”: Ditto for “Go and Say Goodbye”. Stills should have given this as a going away present to Richie Furay for use in Poco. The music’s a bit too cheery for a message to a friend who’s having a hard time telling his future-ex goodbye to her face.
“Expecting to Fly”: Entirely written and performed by Neil Young, this is a dreary song with a Pet Sounds feel and overwrought arrangement that simply does not work.
It’s not surprising that after two years and three albums that a band is going to have a hard time filling up a greatest hits collection, but on the flip side, few bands have recorded as many truly great songs in such a brief snatch of time. I think with more collaboration and commitment to a musical vision, Buffalo Springfield coulda been a contendah for one of the all-time great bands, but when you compare their meager amount of quality work to The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, Jethro Tull and even the short-lived Cream, you can see how they fell short. They certainly had the talent to do it, but apparently things just didn’t work out. Stephen Stills gave the best explanation I could find for their early demise:
We were of the age where you can very easily get the diva syndrome before you’ve sold any records or anything and all that stuff, and there was a little of that. And it was so laden with talent, this bunch, that we just hit the track going too fast that we went into the wall with no skid marks. It was just . . . we spun out. But we spun out because we didn’t realize how hot the car was.
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.
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 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.