Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: The Who Sell Out - the first album I ever bought
- Credit: PA
The double CD arrived by post this week, a present from a friend in America. The sleeve features a sapphire-eyed Roger Daltrey staring out from a bath of baked beans in which he’s sitting. To the left of him is a picture of the Who’s guitarist, Pete Townshend. With a bath-towel around his waist he’s cradling an oversized Odorono deodorant bottle.
The album, is called The Who Sell Out. The band’s third album, it was released on December 16, 1967. It was the first long-player that your 14-year-old correspondent ever bought – and with his own paper-round money. To me it was the sound of Christmas 1967 and it hasn’t half brought back some memories.
The original vinyl disc which I carried home that afternoon was worn out within a year and had to be replaced. The only copy which I’ve had in the house in recent years – up until this new one arrived – is a furry old cassette.
I’ll occasionally dig it out and play it on a dodgy kitchen cassette player, usually, whenever Her Outdoors isn’t around. She never liked the Who very much.
1967, a year sometimes credited nowadays as pop music’s best-ever, ended with the Beatles single Hello Goodbye at Number One. Pop music is a fickle sea whose tides ebb and surge in unpredictable ways.
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At the beginning of 1967 the Beatles had set the bar unfeasibly high. During the making of their Sgt Pepper album, a record company man who must have possessed the artistic sensitivity of a brick, breezed into Abbey Road one day and crimped off the songs Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. EMI reportedly needed a single in a hurry.
Imagine Sgt Pepper even richer for the addition of those two songs. Billed by many fans as the best Beatles single ever, the extraordinary pairing was released as a double A-side in February.
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Now you would think, wouldn’t you, that it might have soared straight to Number 1 and stayed there until June of 1970. Actually, it didn’t. Unbelievably, it was kept off the top spot for many weeks by Engelbert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me and even then, eventually only made Number 2. Good old British public, hey? You can depend upon them every time. Thus, in the brilliant quicksilver world of pop, the Who, up until that point, a lower first division chart band with a dwindling mod following, found themselves faced with a challenge: to either up their game, or become yesterday’s men.
Four pugnacious west Londoners at odds with the Summer of Love, they took a typically defiant stance. The only clue as to what they were up to was a spine-tingling flagship single, I Can See For Miles. Released earlier that autumn, despite reasonable TV promotion it barely scraped into the Top 10. The album from which it came was a concoction of beautifully eccentric-sounding songs, into which they spliced spoof advert breaks, as well as actual radio jingles from the recently-banished pirate stations.
The end product was a highly original bagatelle quite unlike any of their other albums. At the time it fascinated me. Even nowadays, as I listen with a more critical ear, it still seems fresh and quite charming. Although it was received very well in America, Sell Out was reviewed faintly by our own pop press and has subsequently never quite accrued the ‘masterpiece’ status of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, or the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle.
The very title of the disc, The Who Sell Out was a sneering v-sign to the new athelings of the hippie underground in their pompous raiments. While playing the Woodstock Festival in 1969, a political agitator, Abbie Hoffman, marched onstage during the band’s set and began making a speech. Townshend told him to “.....off my stage!” and whacked him with a guitar, thereby nailing the band’s colours firmly to the mast.
Back in my room, meanwhile, a few days before Christmas 1967, The Who Sell Out was placed reverentially on the candlewick bedspread, while I waited for my one-watt portable mono record-player to warm up.
Guileless then, with unfashionably short hair, early acne, appallingly unhip clothes and absolutely no idea of how to meet girls, buying this album, to me, was a revolutionary gesture. Next, in early January, would come the paisley kipper tie. After that, in February, there’d be hipster chalk-stripe bell-bottoms with a 3-inch belt. By May, there was a military-style jacket with gold frogging, and by summer, a pudding-basin hair-cut and a smoker’s cough.
My parents weren’t just in depair, they were in denial. Because of my appearance I soon found myself pelting through the backstreets at night pursued by skinheads intent on injuring me. Love and Peace? Not on my manor it wasn’t. Christmas of 1967, in retrospect, was also something of an anti-climax.
The Beatles, who, up until that summer had all but walked on water, were now rudderless, their manager Brian Epstein having died only months earlier. On Boxing Day, their self-made film, Magical Mystery Tour, was screened on peak-time national TV.
Punters and critics alike pronounced it a turkey sandwich. This was the point at which the Beautiful People’s balloon began slowly to deflate.
Even as a naïve and starstruck schoolboy, I somehow sensed that the Party After The War was already drawing to a close. At 14 years old, I was just a little too young and a little too late.