The Who: Sell Out

It’s a happy accident that our 33 1/3 books about The Who and Guided by Voices have published pretty much simultaneously.

Today it’s the turn of John Dougan’s book about The Who Sell Out. If you’re in Nashville, you might want to get to Grimey’s on Halloween, starting at 6pm, where John will be signing copies of the book, and there’ll be a performance by the Turncoats.

Anyway, here’s a good extract from John’s book: hope you enjoy it.


A joyous snapshot of a rapidly morphing zeitgeist, Sell Out unrepentantly embraces the contradictions inherent when artistic aspirations collide headlong with market forces. Perhaps it was meant as a warning, an aide memoire that the collusion of music and advertising would have disastrous consequences, altering context, meaning, and memory. But as I write these words the commercial licensing of the Who’s back catalog is available, so it seems, to anyone willing to write a check. A glance reveals “Bargain,” “Baba O’Riley,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” featured in Nissan ads, General Motors using “Happy Jack” to promote their eco-hostile line of Hummer SUVs and, given this book’s subject, the final indignity, Sylvannia’s use of “I Can See For Miles” to sell the company’s line of Silverstar automobile headlights. Money earned through the exploitation of publishing is one of the few durable goods artists can count on as they face the combined realities of age, fading popularity, negligible record sales, and touring to smaller crowds – hardly any of which applies to the Who, even in their present iteration. Perhaps this current commercial manifestation is the logical extension of the precedent set by Sell Out. But removed from a pop art context and stripped of irony, the ubiquity of Who songs in advertising while economically sound, is aesthetically troubling.

Pop art was supposed to be transient and expendable and in that sense Sell Out fails by retaining its dynamism after nearly 40 years – we should be ever grateful for such “failures.” That it still languishes below the horizon of recognition (even among Who fans) is puzzling but, sadly, not surprising given our general insouciance when it comes to learning from (and about) pop music history. Every now and again Sell Out emerges from the shadows: glam-obsessed cyberpunk yobs Sigue Sigue Sputnik used it as a template for their 1986 debut Flaunt It; more recently Petra Haden (daughter of jazz bassist Charlie Haden) paid tribute by recording the entire album acapella (an idea suggested by friend and former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt), recreating the cover right down to sitting in a tub of baked beans; and singer/songwriter Rachel Fuller recorded a new version of “Sunrise” with her boyfriend, some bloke named Pete Townshend. The reunited Pixies unapologetically nicked the title (The Pixies Sell Out) for their reunion tour DVD, and the Pretenders referenced the album, albeit more obliquely, when they titled their career retrospective box set, Pirate Radio.

Perhaps this is mere coincidence, lipstick traces, circumstantial evidence that would wither under intense scrutiny. I don’t believe that for a second. No album so crucial and meaningful could be that easily discarded, could it? Not from a band that, brimming with the temerity and bravado of youth, talked the talk and walked the walk, and while doing so, produced a daring and provocative piece of pop art. For Sell Out to remain mostly forgotten, relegated to the margins of pop music history, is not the Who’s fault – it’s ours.


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