Welcome to our latest author Q&A, where we chat to the writers behind new and upcoming 33 1/3 books! Today we’re taking a look back at one of our early releases, John Dougan’s The Who’s The Who Sell Out. John talks to us about the ‘neglected masterpiece’ that is The Who Sell Out and the interesting stories behind how the record was made.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
An examination of rock’s greatest example of aural and visual pop art recorded by a supremely talented (and very young) band at the near peak of their collective power.
What drew you to this band specifically?
The Who have always been my favorite rock band so the desire to write about them at length was something I’d always wanted to do. Even though my ardor for the band diminished after Keith Moon’s death in 1978, the music they made between 1964-1978 was fundamental in my developing a critical aesthetic. I was drawn to Sell Out primarily because I consider it (still) underrated, a neglected masterpiece that has slipped below the horizon of recognition, overshadowed by the Who’s better known recorded output from 1969-1973.
If you were introducing someone to this album for the first time, what would you recommend they listen to?
For me, the obvious starting point would be “I Can See for Miles” which I consider one of rock’s most powerful and exciting songs. And, if I can paraphrase what I wrote in the book, it’s an intensely physical performance, despite the mix being more than a little trebly, as if the band knew that maintaining control was beside the point. After that I would recommend listening to the album as originally intended, rather than shuffling tracks or resequencing it. That way you’ll get a better idea of what the band was doing as it paid tribute to offshore pirate radio and the pop art zeitgeist.
What was it like writing the book? Did you learn anything new that you didn’t know going into the project?
Writing the book was fun work and I learned that some of the stories surrounding the recording of the Sell Out were, indeed, apocryphal. However, it was the backstory (e.g., UK pop art’s obsession with American popular culture, and the significance of pirate radio), aspects with which I was familiar, but gained a greater appreciation as to their significance in the album’s creation. I also learned about the extraordinary circumstances involving the band as they recorded, leaving the studio for touring commitments, lugging the master tapes while on the road in America booking time at studios in Nashville and Los Angeles for overdubs. A crazy way to work.
Are there any interesting stories that didn’t make it into the final book?
I’d like to think that had I been able to talk to either Pete Townshend of Roger Daltrey there would have been some “off the record” stories I’d save for private regaling. But Townshend made it abundantly clear from the jump that he had no interest in discussing Sell Out with me. Daltrey just ghosted me. So, essentially everything I researched and stories from everyone I talked to, ended up in the book.
If you got the chance to write a 33 1/3 on one other album – what are you picking?
I can only pick one? Assuming they haven’t been done already I’d go with: (I’m) Stranded by the Saints, Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance, Suicide Commandos’ Make a Record, Dr. Feelgood’s Down by the Jetty, Humble Pie’s Smokin’, Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72, one of the Fall’s thousand releases. These, and about a million others I’m forgetting right now.
John Dougan is Professor in the Department of Recording Industry at Middle Tennessee State University, USA. He has published essays and reviews in Rolling Stone, Spin, All Music Guide, American Music, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Popular Music and Society, Salon, and Perfect Sound Forever. He is the author of The Who Sell Out (Bloomsbury, 2006), and The Mistakes of Yesterday, The Hopes of Tomorrow: The Story of the Prisonaires (2013).
The Who’s The Who Sell Out was published November 2006 and is available in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).