CD Review: The Who Sell Out – Super Deluxe Box Set

The Who Sell Out, the band’s third studio album from that heady conceptual year of 1967, has received yet another expansion! Packed with five CDs, two vinyl singles, and pound after pound of printed matter, it’s almost more Sell Out than you can buy into!

But buy into it anyway! You’ll get 112 tracks, lots of them repeated in a different mix or three or five!

Can you count how many versions of “I Can See For Miles” appear on this box set? Send your answer in today, the person with the guess closest to the correct number will win YET ANOTHER VERSION OF “I CAN SEE FOR MILES”! This one will have, I dunno, too much echo on the bass drum, but it will be different and labeled as such!

Now, how much would you pay???

We will return to this commercial in a moment after the following content. 

The original album The Who Sell Out is now recognized pretty widely as the masterpiece it always was. They were reveling in their ability to execute a long-form concept with a series of snappy tunes. This album realized big art ideas, in the process producing some of their most sublime power-pop moments with “Our Love Was”, “Tattoo”, “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand” and the track that Pete Townshend considered their high water mark of the 60s, “I Can See For Miles”. (Cut at Gold Star Studios in beautiful Hollywood, California during the summer of love.)

Splendid though it is, Who fans had known for decades that there was a trove of unreleased songs from the sessions for this album, some of them were real good. In 1980, this reporter picked up a copy of the bootleg Radio London, containing several nixed Sell Out era tracks including “Early Morning Cold Taxi” and “Jaguar” bookended by those familiar Radio London jingles. I considered it a proper, high quality album every bit as worthy of consideration as Odds and Sods.

In 1995, our prayers were answered with one of the most wonderful expansions of a classic album ever issued on CD – a nice remastering of the original album, plus over thirty minutes of outtakes, all original songs in finished mixes, many of which had escaped being bootlegged.

A 2-CD edition followed, which included the mono mix of the album. There are significant variations that jump out on the mono, different mixes and guitar solos. In the case of the mono single mix of “I Can See For Miles”, it may really be that Pete Townshend is correct, that was the best job they ever did with that song. It’s essential listening for a super-fan.

Virtually nothing new came to light in that edition though, just a two-minute instrumental called “Sodding About” that had been booted for years, an alternate take or two and some new-to-CD mixes.

So news that a 5-CD Super Deluxe Set of the album was on its way certainly made fans wonder exactly would be in the package that had not been heard previously. Absent a live show from the period, what could justify the expansion from two to five CDs?

I’ll answer that question in a moment, but first…

The Who Sell Out is one of the most phenomenal albums of all time, and this super deluxe edition really lets you have it! You can hear the band doing songs in the studio that they don’t really know, with the guide vocal or none at all! You hear Pete Townshend doing the songs at home, by himself! You can even hear takes where they only got part of the way through it and had to start over! And mixes! Brother, have we got mixes!! Stereo, mono, and if it’s something funky that’s come out before, we’ve remixed it here for disc three so it can qualify as “previously unreleased!”

You get two seven inch singles in picture sleeves – which mix though? Can you guess??? Send your guesses in! Since they are replica singles you can have another fun challenge – shall you store them with your other singles, or leave them with the box set? Ooh options for play time!

It also comes with a lavish hardbound book with Townshend’s liner notes – I haven’t read them because I’m afraid of getting fingerprints on it – and a set of inserts to put the original Live at Leeds to shame. Gig flyers, a program for the Savlle Theater show in ’67, pirate radio swag. How about that psychedelic poster… I’m quite tempted indeed to ruin the value of this box set with four pin holes and put that baby up on my studio door right now!

NOW how much would you pay?

Bulletin, stand by! Here is a Radio London news bulletin!

(The text of the preceding paragraph comes from one of those station IDs that were outtakes, heard on my Radio London bootleg album, released here officially for the first time. There’s one they didn’t reissue, where a voice with a rather exaggerated Mexican accent sings about the “numera una” station “een Lone-done, England”, concluding with that exceedingly white sounding choir intoning “Wonderful Radio London – ole!” A glaring omission, but, I understand why they left it off. We can live without it.)

So, what’s new here, besides that aforementioned handful of commercials from the studio sessions, boils down to two things: the entire contents of disc three, plus scattered tracks on the others which are “studio alternates” of songs you know, and disc five, which is Pete’s demos for the Sell Out material.

The demos are what they are, and as a Who collector, I’m always happy to hear them. Hearing Pete’s pure ideas in skeletal form, before that remarkable rhythm section got their mitts on them, is  fascinating. I know the songs so well, so intimately, that to hear them in a different stage allows me to think about them in a new way. The demos for “Relax” and “Sunrise” suggest a whole other way they could have gone with the idea, the creative road not taken. I’m so into the original material, I enjoy hearing the ephemera surrounding its creation.

Actually, the same is true of all the studio alternate stuff. There are takes that didn’t make the cut, mixes where the bass and backing tracks are more prominent than the guitar you’re used to hearing. It’s not revelatory, mostly. “Why don’t you just listen to the finished version of that?”, someone asks. That person should stick to the single disc edition of this album from 1995 and save their pennies.

If there are few major surprises, there are still plenty of pleasures. The instrumental “Facts Of Life” is said to date from 1968 but to these ears, it sounds like an attempt to craft something that would work on Sell Out in its attempt to sound like all the different groups on the radio. Pete’s demo for the anti-smoking anthem attempt “Kids! Do You Want Kids?” is terrific. And there’s a take of “Call Me Lightning” where the band go into a furious jam for several minutes leading into a rave-up solo, that’s truly unexpected and one of the highlights of the set.

The whole thing is remastered, and sounds pretty good to my ears. I detect the instruments brought forward relative to the vocals, compared to the 1995, which I don’t mind.  I occasionally notice a little touch of digital harshness, on the mono mix of the original album especially, which I don’t love.  But the bonus material generally sounds good. The fact that this set includes UK mono mixes of their 1967-68 singles shouldn’t be that big of a deal, those mixes should be widely available. But I’ll take ’em where I can get ’em.

One friend was asking for my advice on whether to buy this set, and I told him it boils down to this. This set includes three different mixes of the John Entwistle-penned b-side “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Based on that fact alone, do you feel like you need to own this?

Maybe you already own two of the three, on albums you already have.

But there is a third mix! And it’s interesting!

How does that make you feel? Incomplete?

Then you know what to do, I didn’t need to sell you on the idea at all.

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