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"The Who Sell Out" will always be Pete Townshend’s finest hour

That's right, "The Who Sell Out" was, is, and will always be Pete Townshend’s finest hour, and this year's box set only ups the ante on that statement.
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What’s for Tea, Mum?

The Who Sell Out was, is, and will always be Pete Townshend’s finest hour. Other albums might routinely pip it to the finishing post when readers poll time comes around, and Who’s Next certainly packs a stronger start and finish. But excise the bookends and what do you have, but a gaggle of bantam-weight ditties, while Tommy was always far more concerned with concept than content. Quadrophenia comes close, but it goes on too long, and the rest of the repertoire simply sits on the hearth and scratches itself.

The Who Sell Out, on the other hand, is everything an album should be, even in a year that history insists was dominated by the furrowed-brows and self-conscious statements of The Beatles and the Stones. It was The Who at their most wide-eyed and breathless, at their silliest, at their poppiest, without making a laborious virtue of any of those things. For the last time in their career, The Who made an album that was unadulterated fun.

What’s for tea, darling?

How fitting, then, that The Who Sell Out Super Deluxe Edition (Universal) might well stand as the most perfect single LP box set we have yet seen. The Kinks’ Village Green came close, but was ultimately scuppered by Ray Davies’ habit of wandering off the point (a failing that also marred the Arthur and Lola expansions). Others bury the studio material with endless live recordings, or multiple takes of the same song that you didn’t like much to begin with. And others just cheat.

Sell Out stays on track from start to finish, five discs that offer the original album in both stereo and mono, plus outtakes, singles (discs one and two); a full disc of period studio sessions (disc three), the portentously titled but nevertheless magical “The Road to Tommy” (more sessions and singles — disc four) and a set of 14 demos, of which only five songs made it onto the album, but the rest certainly could have.

The sound quality is excellent, the book is a hardbound behemoth, there’s a couple of 45s comprising further obscurities, and a heap of memorabilia, too. All bound up inside an album-sized slipcase. Even the act of opening the box feels like an event (see our cover feature for confirmation).

Darling, I said ‘What’s for tea?’”

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There are budget variations. A 2-CD edition rounds up the mono and stereo mixes of the original album, plus 26 bonus tracks, while vinyl lovers will already be coveting both available editions — a 2-LP mono package which adds seven original singles mixes and half a dozen outtakes; and a corresponding stereo, with 12 bonus tracks (shown above).

All look and sound great, but even they cannot compete with the majesty of the box, or even the book —80 pages of Townshend talking us through every track in the package, a wealth of unseen photos and details, lyrics, ephemera and essays. Read while listening for the first time to the outtakes and the sessions come to life, all the more so since the contents of disc three, at least, are presented in strict chronological order, from “Glittering Girl” in March 1967 on.

What’s for tea, daughter?

Maybe it’s a little disingenuous for the sessions to stretch into summer 1968, when the album came out six months before then. But, as a listening experience it keeps its cohesion. Yes, you can hear Tommy trundling down the track, but that was the case anyway, with the little snip of Sell Out’s “Rael” that was repurposed for the the opera. Now we hear “Glow Girl” becoming “Mrs Walker.”

But we also get “Dogs,” “Call Me Lightning,” “Magic Bus,” “Melancholia,” “Little Billy,” fabulous performances that might otherwise have been orphaned were they not rounded up here, and the fact is, any or all of them would have fit into Sell Out without slowing the album’s momentum in the slightest.

There’s 112 tracks here, 47 of them previously unreleased. It’s safe to say there’s not a single dud in sight. And we all know what’s for tea tonight, don’t we?