Graded on a Curve:
The Who,
The Who Sell Out Super Deluxe Box Set, 2LP Stereo Version

The third album from The Who (Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon), The Who Sell Out, released in December of 1967, has continued to grow in stature as the years go by. While the group’s sprawling concept albums Tommy and Quadrophenia are regarded as masterpieces, their Who’s Next was lauded as their best single album and Live at Leeds was considered maybe one of the greatest, if not the greatest, live album in rock history, The Who Sell Out, while often acclaimed, didn’t reach the lofty heights of the aforementioned.

Continuing to bolster the claim about what an important album it is, there are several recent reissues of the album put out by Universal Music, including a 2CD deluxe edition, a 2LP colored vinyl edition in mono (only available on the group’s web site), and the two we will cover here: the 2LP black vinyl version in stereo and the Super Deluxe Box Set. The Super Deluxe Box Set features 5 CDs, 2 7-inch 45 RPM vinyl singles, an 80-page hardcover book and nine posters and inserts, all housed in a slip-case box.

The Who Sell Out was in some ways a concept album—an approach to long playing records that had become in vogue after The Beatles did Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June of 1967, followed in 1968 by such albums from other British groups as Odyssey and Oracle and from The Zombies, S.F. Sorrow from The Pretty Things, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks, and Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake from The Small Faces, which all came out after The Who Sell Out was released in December of 1967.

The Who Sell Out also showed the group continuing to work in a pop framework musically, but also borrowing from the pop art world in appropriating images from popular culture in the same way people like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg were doing it in the visual art world. The Who very specifically targeted the world of advertising as an influence for some of the songs on the album that Pete Townshend wrote, but the group also formatted the album to give the impression that one was listening to a radio station with station IDs and jingles.

The songs reflected how advertising and media were influencing the world of culture. The radio station that the group referenced was the then-shuttered Radio London, complete with station jingles. Radio London was the first Top-40 pirate radio station in England. It launched in December of 1964 and lasted until of August of 1967. The song from this album that will be most familiar to casual fans of The Who or British music from the 1960s is “I Can See for Miles,” the group’s third and last single, released in 1967.

The Super Deluxe Box Set is the definitive deep dive into this album and the quality of the musical sound, bonus tracks offered, and presentation is impressive and in keeping with the quality reissues of the group’s music over the years. The five CDs break down accordingly: CD1 contains the original mono mix of the full album, including the restored Track Records repeating run-out-groove only available on original pressings, mono mixes of all the A and B sides of the singles associated with the album and various unreleased mono mixes; CD2 includes the original stereo mix and bonus tracks in stereo; CD3 includes previously unreleased studio out-takes, “fly-on-the-wall” versions of early takes of songs from the album sessions, “studio chat” and more; CD4 includes “The Road To Tommy,” comprised of stereo mixes of the studio tracks recorded in 1968, some previously unreleased, along with mono mixes of the A and B sides of singles from 1968, with all of the tracks remixed from the original 4-track and 8-track session tapes from The Who’s vault; CD5 includes 14 of Pete Townshend’s original demos for The Who Sell Out, previously unreleased and exclusive to this set.

The two vinyl single 45s, which come with two 45-single record-adapter spindles in the set, are “I Can See for Miles” (the early mono mix with single-tracked vocal) backed with “Someone’s Coming” (the original UK Track Records single mix with single-tracked vocal) on the Track Records UK 45 label, and Magic Bus (US/UK mono mix), backed with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (original US Decca single mix) on the Decca US 45 label. Track Records was the group’s own label, which also released the music of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

The 80-page, hardcover book, which also houses the 5 CDs, includes rare period photos, memorabilia, and track annotation and new liner notes by Pete Townshend, along with comments from Pete Drummond, who was a Radio Caroline DJ, Chris Huston of Talentmasters Studio; art director and designer Richard Evans; Roy Flynn, manager of the famed ’60s Speakeasy club in London; Arnold Schwartzman, reissue designer; and Who biographer Andy Neill.

The memorabilia included in this set will allow Who fans or fans of the British music scene of the 1960s to take a trip back in time. A facsimile of the 20” x 30” original Adrian George psychedelic poster that came with the original 500 UK and 500 US pressings (and which was subsequently briefly restored to later issues) is included, along with a large gig poster from City Hall, Newcastle, of The Who’s headline show of October 30, 1967, which also featured Traffic, The Herd, The Marmalade and The Tremeloes. A facsimile of the Saville Theatre 8-page programme for the group’s headlining show on October 22, 1967, with opening acts Studio Six and the Vanilla Fudge, is also thankfully included, as it was one of the famed Sunday Night rock shows presented there during the brief historic run of live concerts produced by Brian Epstein.

There is also a facsimile of the flyer for the Bath Pavilion Christmas party on December 18, 1967, that included The Who as headliners, which was a legendary concert at a legendary UK music venue. Additionally, there are replicas of Keith Moon’s Speakeasy club membership card, a business card for the Bag o’ Nails club, a Radio London bumper sticker, a Who fan club newsletter, and a glossy color group photo. All the memorabilia and the two 45s and 45 adapters are housed in a 12-inch, flip-top pouch folder, with adverts on the flaps and back, along with a smashing, psychedelic photo of The Who on the cover.

It’s always nice having mono and stereo versions of albums from British artists in that period. While cutting-edge groups like The Who were innovative record makers when it came to sound, at this time, mono still was the primary mixing source of choice as many British record buyers were still mostly listening to music on single-speaker setups. In the case of The Who Sell Out, stereo was used effectively in spots, given the aesthetic format of the album and fake stereo mixes appear to thankfully have been avoided.

The sound from track to track varies at times, because the group recorded the album in four different London studios and four different studios in the US (Los Angeles, Nashville, and two in New York). Listening to the mono and stereo mixes reveals differences occasionally on some tracks. The stereo version of “Our Love Was” spotlights Townshend reflecting his admiration for the guitar style of Jimi Hendrix on one of the more psychedelic tracks on the original album. Bonus tracks on the mono disc include covers of two tracks from the Rolling Stones, “The Last Time” and “Under My Thumb.” They were recorded as an act of solidarity with the Stones, when Keith and Mick were facing prison on drug charges.

There are also other versions of both tracks on CD3. The original version of “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand” appeared on the B-side of “I Can See For Miles” in the US and now includes an additional verse, bell chimes, a slightly different bass sound, and Al Kooper on organ. “Jaguar,” dropped from the final album is included here in its original mono mix and in stereo. One bonus track of note on the stereo disc is an early studio version of “Summertime Blues,” an Eddie Cochran staple and the future centerpiece of their Live at Leeds album. Also worth mentioning, is “Glittering Girl,” which was actually considered for a single release, prior to the release of “Pictures of Lily” instead. There are also two tracks that were slated for an ultimately abandoned instrumental EP: “Sodding Apart” and “Hall of the Mountain King.”

CD Three is comprised of studio sessions from 1967 and 1968 that include outtakes, alternate versions, and between-track studio conversations. As on the group’s previous album, The Who were being produced by their co-manager, Kit Lambert, and his work with them in the studio, as well as studio chatter and Who craziness, are captured in all their ’60s glory. A couple of highlights include the group’s stab at a theme song for the new version of the Top Gear radio show and a look ahead at a take on “Magic Bus,” a future single and what would become the title track for an upcoming U.S. Who album.

Curios include a short jingle Townshend and Moon cooked up to promote their record label Track Records. The disc also features several tracks that marked the return of legendary and ubiquitous, studio keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, since he had played on sessions for the group’s debut Shel Talmy-produced My Generation album, including “Little Billy,” “Mrs. Walker,” “Dogs,” and “Shakin’ All Over.” Shakin All Over” would turn up as one of the blistering covers on Live at Leeds.

CD Four gives yet another glimpse inside the songs Townshend was working on as part of his writing and planning of the project that would eventually become Tommy. Many of the songs, however, had nothing to do with Tommy or were considered for an album to be called Anyone For Tennis. It’s interesting to hear songs like “Glow Girl,” which would become “Mrs. Walker,” and a true mono mix of the long version of “Magic Bus,” which was originally available in processed stereo on the Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy compilation album released in 1971.

CD five is comprised of Townshend’s demos. Hearing Townshend’s demos is always insightful. Along with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ray Davies, Townshend is one of the most accomplished and visionary British songwriters of all time. To hear his demos is revelatory and impressive, given how fleshed out and complete they are in contrast to how rough most demos sound. Townshend’s notes for each track are quite detailed, offer some relevant personal biography and are filled with precise technical details. His writings and this disc make for yet another solid companion to his, at that time, career-spanning Scoop demo project from 1983.

These discs boast a plethora of material that would appear in similar or quite different versions on A Quick One in the UK, Happy Jack in the US, and Magic Bus: The Who on Tour, in the US. Regardless of the title, did not include any live material and was strictly a collection of odds and ends of stereo and mono versions of various tracks, B-sides, EP material, and much more.

Reading along with the detailed liner notes to these CDs brings the music, the time period, and Townshend’s singular musical genius alive. While some in the music industry and even today’s music fans might not lament the demise of the CD, sets like this reveal just how potent the format and physical media can still be in the world of streaming.

Of course, purists will still want to hear this album the way it was meant to be on vinyl. The 2LP, gatefold, black vinyl stereo release includes the original album, 12 bonus tracks, the original psychedelic poster, extensive notes and photos. On each disc, four different track records label designs are included, making for yet another extra nice touch. All the tracks included on these two LPs are exactly what is included on CD2 of the deluxe box covered above. The sound is warm and reveals even more nuances of this spectacular album. This vinyl edition makes for a well-executed, affordable, vinyl-only alternative for those who may not want to spring for the CD box covered above, or along with the box as a worthy companion.

The only thing that precludes the 5CD set from being an A+ is the lack of a Blu-ray of the music in 5.1 and Dolby Atmos. The same goes for the 2-LP set; if it was in mono, it would be an A+ instead of an A.

The Who have done some quality reissues over the years and even the two previous CD reissues of The Who Sell Out (single and double CD) are still worth having, regardless of how excellent the aforementioned sets covered above are at their relatively affordable prices.

The Who Sell Out Super Deluxe Box Set
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The Who Sell Out 2LP Stereo Version
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