THE HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SOUNDS OF… The Who & The Smithereens

A pair of new ‘oo
artifacts arrive and leave the author sw’ooning.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

That the Who is my all-time favorite band is far more than
an understatement. In my personal pantheon of life-changers – and one’s journey
through rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not a series of such album/concert-wrought
moments – the Who was primary. The band schooled me in everything from classic
British Invasion pop (along with the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things,” the Who’s “I
Can’t Explain” opened my eyes wider than anything by the Beatles or Stones) to
psychedelia (1967 opus The Who Sell Out and of course that little ol’ rock opera from 1969 known as Tommy; more on those in a sec) to sinewy hard rock steeped in soul and
introspection (Who’s Next, natch, and
much of Quadrophenia), all the while proposing
that brains and brawn can and should coexist
within the rock milieu (regardless of what month you were born). Yeah, I drank
the k’oolaid.

 

The concurrent arrival of two new Who-related releases, therefore,
offers me ample opportunity to revisit my roots. Notice I didn’t say “relive my
childhood”; I’m not about to launch into some dewy-eyed variation on Almost Famous, and in any event, I
didn’t have an older sibling to leave a crate full of LPs under the bed for me
– I had to ferret out this shit on my own. Besides, if one is to presume that
rock’s as vital an artform as, say, modern dance or the visual disciplines,
then it follows that as with all artforms, there must be acknowledgment of the
proverbial old masters. One doesn’t “relive” anything in that regard: a classic is just that, a classic, with all the timelessness the
term implies, and to experience and re-experience a classic is to approach and
engage it on an organic, living/breathing level.

 

Well, that’s what I do,
at least. Which makes The Who Sell Out one of those classics. Unsurprisingly, it’s my favorite Who album.

 

While we’ve previously seen an expanded reissue of the album
(the 1995 edition boasted remastered sound and 9 bonus tracks), earlier this
year in the UK Polydor/Universal issued a two-CD Deluxe Edition, and it’s due out stateside on June 2 on
Geffen/Universal. Tracklistings and other pertinent details can be viewed at
the album’s official MySpace page, and the April issue of Mojo featured as the cover story an in-depth look at the making of Sell Out. The question, of course, is
whether, after more than four decades of commentary on the Who, there’s
actually anything new to say about an individual album.

 

(Petra Haden, one of several musical progeny of legendary
jazz bassist Charlie Haden, may have given the answer to that a few years ago: in 2005, at the urging of her friend Mike
Watt, she recorded a song-by-song remake of Sell
Out
, done entirely a cappella. Possibly the ultimate “tribute album,” the
Haden Sell Out even featured the
vocalist recreating the four photos that appeared on the original LP cover.)

 

But we rock fans do love our old war stories, so the
question is probably moot. I could go on for hours about what I love about Sell Out. Conceptually, it plays with
some of pop art’s notions about how mass culture and crass commercialism
collide, while also paying tribute to the pirate radio stations that operated
in Britain
in the mid ‘60s. Goofy musical radio ads and hyperventilating jingles are
interspersed between songs, giving much of the album the feel of a broadcast;
one of my favorite moments is when a chipper-to-the-point-of-Stepford female,
backed by a schmaltzy orchestra, croons blandly/blissfully, “It’s smooth sailing
with the highly successful sounds of wonderful Radio London.” The LP artwork
remains one of the most iconic record sleeves ever, too, a brilliant sendup of
product placement depicting Pete Townshend applying a giant stick of underarm
deodorant Roger Daltrey soaking in a tub of baked beans which clutching an
oversized can of the product, Keith Moon attacking a monstrous pimple with an
equally monstrous tube of medication (Big Is Better for the Who, apparently),
and a caveman-outfitted John Entwistle, fresh from his Charles Atlas exercise
regimen, wearing a teddy bear on one arm and a busty bikini-clad blonde on the
other.

 

Song-wise, the album is all over the map, from churning
psychedelia (“Armenia City In the Sky”) and wistful, soaring balladry (“Our
Love Was”) to blisteringly aggressive hard rock (“I Can See For Miles” – still
the Who’s finest studio moment ever)
and anthemic powerpop (“I Can’t Reach You”), all the while boasting some of the
most agile – at times, Beach Boys-worthy – vocals and vocal harmonies Daltrey
and Townshend ever mustered during the Who’s long career. Even most of the ads,
though jokey, have an inherent musicality to them; “Odorono,” ostensibly a
cautionary commercial for anyone hoping to impress a member of the opposite sex
but unwise enough to go out without first applying the titular antiperspirant,
has a memorable riff, a hummable melody and a yearning quality to it that
elevate it to “actual” Who-song status.

 

There’s also “Rael,” a two-part mini-suite that foreshadows Tommy via certain riffs and melodic
themes that Townshend would subsequently recycle for his epic rock opera. Positioned
as the final track on the original LP, this somewhat convoluted futuristic
fantasy provided a direct bridge between Sell
Out
and Tommy, and for those who
originally experienced the two albums in their proper temporal order, the quiet
thrill of delight upon hearing those riffs and themes magically reappear in Tommy was profound.

 

At this juncture I should point out that someone who not
only could discuss Sell Out for hours, already has: John Dougan, author of the Continuum
Books’ 2006 title The Who Sell Out, part
of the publishing house’s ongoing 33 1/3 series of books devoted to individual
albums. Dougan provides detailed dissection of not just the music and the minutiae,
but the unique British cultural milieu that spawned Sell Out (for example, he spends a good time chronicling the rise
and fall of the pirate stations). His love for the album and the band
consistently shines through, but he never lets that get in the way of cogent
analysis, and he additionally brings to the fore a dry wit perfectly suited to
his subject.

 

Aside from the Dougan book, the extensive liner notes
accompanying the new Deluxe Addition also
provide ample commentary. As Who authority Dave Marsh penned the liners to the
1995 release, his essay reappears here in slightly truncated form. It’s
bolstered by a second essay written by project producer Andy Neill, and the combination
of Marsh’s take on the music and Neill’s account of the circumstances
surrounding its creation makes for a satisfying read.

 

All the foregoing, then, leads us to the real pressing question surrounding any
such reissue, deluxe or otherwise: given that most Who fans already have the ‘95
edition, should they spring for yet another version?

 

In terms of packaging, the new Sell Out is absolutely on par with the previous Who Deluxe Editions (Tommy, Who’s Next, My Generation, Live at Leeds): thick booklet
with the aforementioned expanded liners, rare photos and detailed track
annotations, plus a handsome quad-fold sleeve sporting additional previously
unseen images (here, outtakes from the LP sleeve photo shoot). The notes
further indicate that this is a fresh 2008 remaster, courtesy longtime band
associate Jon Astley, who helped oversee the previous remaster, so in theory
you get “better sound” (admittedly, a relative concept, but hey, if you have
the stereo gear and the ears to go with it…).

 

What about the actual music? Well, first and foremost,
leading off both Discs One and Two is the original 13-song album, presented in
stereo and mono, respectively. The latter scans fine, but as Sell Out always had a certain
headphone-ready surround sound quality to it that I adored, I can’t imagine
myself touting the mono over the stereo like Beatles enthusiasts sometimes
claim that mono versions of Fab Four albums are superior to the stereo ones. As
for bonus tracks, you get a whopping 27 extra goodies – 17 on the first disc,
10 on the second. And with a slew of additional radio jingles sprinkled
throughout the bonus section of Disc One, it’s almost like getting a entire
alternate version of Sell Out, albeit
one that lacks the sequencing cohesion of a “proper” album. With the exception
of two songs, “Melancholia” and “Glow Girl,” all of the bonus material from the
1995 CD gets reprised here (which is a bit of a head scratcher; why not include them, particularly “Glow
Girl,” which like “Rael” is a close musical kin to Tommy).

 

And sure, while a fair chunk of the material has surfaced
over the years on bootlegs as well as on the Who box Thirty Years of Maximum R&B, for a project like a Deluxe Edition, the idea is to get all
of the proximate recordings (or as many as possible) under one roof so those collectors
who are truly passionate about the band can get a sense of the larger picture, and,
hopefully, gain a better grasp of the artistry. Bonus tracks can frequently feel
like somebody at the record label is scraping the barrel or throwing the fans a
few bones while lightening their wallets, but when done properly, and with an
eye (ear) towards actual context, they can be hugely enlightening. At times,
exhilarating, even. What comes through here is a portrait of highly creative
and driven songwriter – Townshend – in the throes of experimentalism and open
to myriad influences, trying out different sounds and motifs even as a
signature Townshend “style” was gradually coalescing (and would eventually lead
him to Tommy) and his band was
evolving into the muscular outfit we all know the Who would soon become.

 

Among the bonus track highlights: the zooming, aerodynamic
pop-psych of “Jaguar”; a blistering, almost heavy metal jam titled not inaccurately
“Sodding About”; the original version of “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand,”
featuring Al Kooper on organ; and a revealing piano/guitar/drums demo of
“Relax” that Townshend cut in July of ’67. The other members of the ‘oo are represented
among the extras, too, notably Entwistle’s peppy, horn-powered “Someone’s
Coming” (sung, for some reason, by Daltrey), with Daltrey’s “Early Morning Cold
Taxi” and Moon’s “Girl’s Eyes” coming off as pleasant but somewhat slight
ditties. There’s also the group’s studio recording of “Summertime Blues,” but
of course if you’ve ever been flattened by the brawny, brawling Live at Leeds take on the Eddie Cochrane
nugget, you won’t be listening to this one all that often.

 

But wait, as the saying goes – there’s more. At the end of
Disc Two, following the conclusion of an alternate mono mix of “Rael,” comes
about a half-minute of silence. Then unexpectedly, up cues a swirl of backwards
guitars and French horn, duly excised from the “Armenia City In the Sky” tapes
so you can get a sense of how the trippy tune was stitched together. That goes
on for about three minutes or so, then after a few more seconds of silence
comes a fake milkshake ad for the so-called Great Shakes company, featuring pitchman
Keith Moon supplying his spoken testimonial. Neither of these tracks are listed
on the sleeve or in the booklet, so all that’s left to say is – the Sell Out sessions: the gift that keeps
on giving.

 

Bottom line: whether or not you need The Who Sell Out – Deluxe Edition really depends on how completist
a Who fan/collector you are. There’s not a thing wrong with the ’95 edition, of
course. For those who want to go deeper, though, the new version is here for
you. And as suggested above, the album itself does bear close scrutiny (and it
has been scrutinized time and time again), both as a solid musical artifact
that never seems to age or lose its sonic luster, and as one of the key pieces
to the Who/Townshend puzzle. I really can’t imagine anyone professing to like
the band not owning a copy of the album.

 

***

 

Which brings us to “Thomas.”

 

I’m not a musician. But if I was, I’d probably be either drummer
Dennis Diken or guitarist Jim Babjak, who along with guitarist Pat DiNizio and
current bassist Severo Jornacion comprise New Jersey’s
Smithereens. In a most literal sense, the long-running band, extant since the
early ‘80s and always a fan- and critical-fave, might never have existed had it
not been for the Who. As Babjak relates in his liner notes to the brand-new The Smithereens Play Tommy (E1
Entertainment/Koch), it was a color photo of the Who in full
guitar-windmilling/microphone-swinging flight, duly taped to Babjak’s notebook
in high school, that prompted the kid sitting behind him in science class one
morning in 1971 to ask him if he was into the Who. The other kid turned out to
be Diken, and although at the time Babjak confessed he was really more into the
Beatles, the photo spawned an earnest conversation about rock in general, and
in turn planted the seeds of an enduring musical partnership.

 

Being a staunch Who fan, Diken encouraged Babjak to start
backtracking, and according to Babjak, “I was hooked… by 1973 I had every Who
album and most of their singles. I even bought a used Gibson SG200 (a much
cheaper version of Pete’s SG guitar). Dennis and I would practice in my
parents’ garage often and we started playing songs off the Tommy album… Whenever we’d play the ‘Listening To You’ part of ‘See
Me Feel Me’ I’d start [windmilling] around like Pete. My adrenaline was really
pumping as I banged out the chords [and] I used to cut my hand all the time but
I didn’t care. I was even proud to show my friends the blood spatters on the
garage ceiling.”

 

Babjak additionally notes that his visual impressions of
Townshend were largely formed from watching the Who’s performances in the Monterey Pop and Woodstock films. To anyone of a certain age, this observation surely rings true. Again,
while I’m not a musician myself, those cinematic images, particularly the ones
from Woodstock, are forever burned into my
memory too. Townshend, in white boiler suit and sporting a purposeful grimace,
assaults his Gibson with the lethal precision of a serial killer while the
mic-twirling Daltrey, resplendent in golden-god locks and a long fringed
leather vest, externalizes Townshend’s implied chaos. To this day when I watch
the film – it’s a mainstay of VH1 Classic and hard to avoid – I inevitably bolt
out of my chair and begin windmilling across the living room, and I’d like to
publicly apologize right now to my 8-year old for probably leaving him with the
sneaking suspicion that his dad is certifiably nuts. (Don’t worry, son. You’ll
inherit all my Who albums eventually and then you’ll understand.)

 

Three and a half decades later, Babjak gets to revisit his
roots. Okay, in his case, he actually does relive his childhood. Bastard. The
Smithereens Play Tommy
is the latest in a recent flurry of activity for the
band, coming on the heels of the band’s pair of Beatles tribute albums, 2007’s Meet the Smithereens (a song-by-song
remake of Meet the Beatles) and
2008’s B-Sides the Beatles (exactly
what it says it is, covering the Fab Four’s flipsides until 1966), plus last
year’s live album and a 2007 collection of Christmas tunes. I’ll confess that
the Beatles tribs, though in places so note-perfect they’d fool the unsuspecting
blindfold test taker, didn’t do a whole lot for me, primarily because it’s
post-Rubber Soul Beatles albums that
inform my appreciation for John, Paul, George and Ringo and not the early
Merseybeat material.

 

The Smithereens Play
Tommy
, however (henceforth referred to as TSPT), doesn’t require any heavy lifting on my part to get into and
get with the spirit in which it was
created; as you may have already surmised, the Tommy/Who Sell Out axis is what directly informs my enduring love
for John, Pete, Keith and Roger. I say this as someone who in the past has gone
on record stating that tribute projects, in general, are a waste of time,
energy and magnetic tape, while actual recreations of individual artifacts court
artistic disaster. I can count on one hand the number of remakes that I’d want
to hear again; among them are Carla Bozulich’s uncanny 2003 re-envisioning of
Willie Nelson’s The Red Headed Stranger,
Chuck Prophet’s quirky-but-cool 2007 take on Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams (retitled Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams) and the Petra
Haden album mentioned above.

 

Add TSPT to the
shortlist. Wisely, the Smithereens opted for a pared-down version of Tommy, jettisoning a number of songs
that either served primarily to advance Townshend’s sometimes sketchy narrative
(“1921,” “Sally Simpson,” “Welcome”) or weren’t all that musically compelling
in the first place (“Cousin Kevin,” “Do You Think It’s Alright?”/”Fiddle
About,” “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”). Out of 25 tracks comprising the 1969 Tommy, 13 appear here, and the result,
far from being a dilution of the original vision, works wonderfully by
distilling its very rock essence. My lone gripe is over the decision to forego
“Underture” as that always seemed to beef up Tommy‘s recurring melodic and rhythmic motifs. But with the “Amazing
Journey”/”Sparks” segment preemptively taking care of that to a degree, and in
considerably less running time than the 10-minute “Underture,” complaints about
the latter’s omission probably fall on the die-hard purist side of the equation
(always tread lightly when calling anything in rock ‘n’ roll sacrosanct). Plus, when the Smithereens catapult headlong into
“Sparks” and you suddenly realize they’re giving it the Live at Leeds treatment via the 1970 LP’s behemoth “My Generation”
jam, the message is clear: sit back kids,
let us do the driving, and just enjoy yourselves.

 

That unhinged Leedsian
aesthetic – by way of Woodstock, no
doubt – rears its head several times on TSPT,
notably during a searing “Go To The Mirror” and of course in the “See Me Feel
Me/Listening To You” section, towards the end of which you can practically feel
the whiff of Townshend’s windmills and Daltrey’s mic-swings. Yet at other
points the Smithereens’ dedication to excavating not just the physical but the emotional core of Tommy comes into striking relief.

 

In the nominal singalong “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” for
example, DiNizio doesn’t forget to include the plaintive “Tommy… Tommy… Tommy”
recitation heard during the fadeout, while by doubling Babjak’s lead vocal on
“Amazing Journey” the band effectively captures the simultaneous yearning and
celebratory quality of Daltrey’s original vocal. This isn’t as easy as it may
seem, either. DiNizio, Babjak and Diken all swap off on lead vocals, but none
of them sounds exactly like Daltrey or Townshend; for his part, DiNizio’s voice
is pitched considerably lower than either man, which makes a few songs, such as
“Acid Queen,” seem just a tad “off” upon first listen. So the fact that the
band still manages to leave the listener nodding and singing along,
particularly on the harmonies, is pretty remarkable, and it’s to the
Smithereens’ credit that they understand just how important the Who’s vocals
were; without the crucial Daltrey-Townshend interplay, the Who would’ve been
just another hard rock band.

 

Other little touches – the way Townshend’s original acoustic
solo in the midsection of “I’m Free” is translated to electric; the pulsing,
rhythmic “lala-lala-lala” and “oooohhh” backing vocals in “Christmas”; and
absolutely nailing the entirety of
“Pinball Wizard” (that’s Diken taking the lead vocal) – are equally inspiring.
Factor in Diken’s astounding drumming, which replicates and in places
elaborates upon Keith Moon’s anarchic style, and we’re way beyond “inspiring.” (Let
me repeat: the way Diken channels Moonie is astounding. Pete, Roger, if Zak
Starkey can’t make one of your periodic Who tours, I’ve got just the man for
the job.)

 

It’s the overall, collective vibe of the performance, then,
that makes TSPT so wildly successful
and not just a collection of well-intentioned Who covers, the Smithereens striking
the perfect balance between reverential nuance and riotous glee. Furthermore,
the one thing that can deep-six any project such as this – listeners’
familiarity (and in many cases, over-familiarity)
with the source material, which thus enshrined is rendered unapproachable – actually
becomes, for the Smithereens, an asset: listening to TSPT is part-guilty pleasure, part trainspotting exercise, and part
celebration and literal exercise,
which I discovered firsthand when I found myself windmilling across my living
room (sorry, son) during “Sparks” and then later during the big finale.

 

In closing, perhaps a note on the sleeve art for The Smithereens Play Tommy is in order.
The CD booklet takes as its inspiration the old EC line of horror comics and
depicts a mummy-wrapped and presumably deaf/dumb/blind Daltrey mentally adrift
(“See me… feel me… touch me… HEAL ME!!!” read his thought bubbles) while from
the distance someone is shouting, “Tommy – CAN YOU HEAR ME?!”; in lieu of the
Cryptkeeper and sundry EC ghouls displayed in the left margin insets we see the
Acid Queen and a pair of other Tommy visual references. Sharp-eyed music fans, and in particular old-school
collectors of rock bootlegs by the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones and others, will
immediately recognize the cartoon as emanating from the twisted pen of one
William Stout, still a very much in-demand artist.

 

Two of Stout’s most memorable early renderings, in fact,
were for Who bootlegs originally released in the early ‘70s and now considered
collector’s items: Tales From The Who (a live radio broadcast of a Quadrophenia concert), and outtakes/rarities compilation Who’s
Zoo
(both can be viewed in closeup HERE). Tales From The Who clearly must have found its way into the
collection of one or more members of the Smithereens, as it’s also a Stout
re-envisioning of an EC Comics cover, this one showing a fetid, rotting ghoul
emerging from a grave as the thought bubble above its head reads, “I know…
what… it means… but… I CAN’T EXPLAIN!”

 

I have no idea what Stout’s initial reaction was when the
Smithereens first approached him about doing the art for their Tommy flashback. But I can readily
envision a broad, knowing smile creasing his face as he listens to TSPT for the first time.

 

One homage is worth
another
, Stout, a lifelong Who fan, thinks to himself, as smile turns to
smirk and he reaches for his trusty pen and ink to commence revisiting his
roots….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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