John Dougan scrutinizes The Who Sell Out with the clinical eye of a fan whose appreciation of the Who encompasses both their greatness and their flaws. Dougan examines the album's high-concept ambitions, which seemed to target pop intellectuals while at the same time, linked a commercialized and mass-marketed youth culture to rock and roll. Recipient of both Audie and Earphones Awards, narrator Jonathan Davis gives a lithe, effortless performance that weaves together Dougan's conclusions, finding a conflicted nostalgia within his words.
Released in the U.S. in January 1968, The Who Sell Out was, according to critic Dave Marsh, a complete backfire...the album sold well, but not spectacularly, [and was] ultimately a nostalgic in-joke: Who but a pop intellectual could appreciate such a thing? Further rarifying its in-joke status was its unapologetic Englishness: 13 tracks stitched together in a mock pirate radio broadcast, without a DJ, with cool, anglocentric commercials to boot.
In the 36 years since its release, Sell Out, though still not the best selling release in The Who's catalog, has been embraced by a growing number of fans who regard it as the band's best work; one of the few recordings of the late 1960s that best represents the ambitious aesthetic possibilities of the concept album; without becoming mired in a bog of smug, self-aggrandizing, high art aspirations. Sell Out, powerfully and ecstatically, articulates the nexus of pop music and pop culture.
As much as it is an expression of the band's expanding sonic palette, Sell Out also functions as a critique of the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Not the cliched mantra of sex, drugs, and rock and roll but in the ways that commercial advertising fabricates a youth-oriented cultural reality by hawking pimple cream, deodorant, food, musical equipment, etc., and linking it with rock and roll. In this sense Sell Out is a reflective work, one that struggles with rock and roll as a cultural expression that aspires to aesthetic permanence while marketed as ephemera. From this conflict emerges a pop art masterpiece.
'This is a treatise not only on the album in question, but also on pop art and the origins of pop radio in Britain going right back to the earliest days of the BBC. This is a good essay, but it takes up way more than half the book. I'd have been much happier if the pop art and pop radio essay (both of which are useful, even essential, factors in understanding this album) occupied around a third of the book, with the remainder of the book dealing with the album itself. It is, after all, supposed to be about 'Sell Out'!
I didn't mind the author's experiences on learning to love rock music and especially The Who, but I would have liked more anecdotes and background to the album itself. There wasn't a whole lot more on that, than you can find in Dave Marsh's excellent booklet that accompanied the 1995 CD reissue. I rather suspect that may have been the author's primary source material.
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