Kirk Bane: Review of John Dougan's The Who Sell Out (2006)
[Mr. Bane is a professor of history at Blinn College.]
In The Who Sell Out (New York: Continuum, 2006), author John Dougan deftly analyzes the connection between pirate radio, Britain’s early pop art scene, Swinging London, and the making of Pete Townshend and company’s brilliant third record. Sell Out, which boasted the compelling single, “I Can See for Miles,” appeared in Britain in December, 1967, and in America one month later. Dougan, a professor at Middle Tennessee State, lauds this “daring and provocative…lysergic” tinged album as “rock’s greatest example of pop art, written, produced, and recorded by a supremely talented (and very young) band at the near peak of their collective power.”
The Who’s first two releases, My Generation (1965) and A Quick One (1966), stand as “exciting slices of maximum R&B and high-energy hard pop.” But for their third album, the group had something novel in mind. Townshend and band producer Kit Lambert modeled Sell Out after a pirate radio broadcast, mixing in Who songs, station jingles, and product advertisements, including spots for Heinz Baked Beans, Medac acne cream, Charles Atlas bodybuilding, and Odorono deodorant.
Dougan discusses the fascinating relationship between the British Broadcasting Company and its brazen challenger, pirate radio. The BBC, its mantra to “educate, inform, and entertain” (note order), offered just a few hours of rock music per week. The BBC, Dougan contends, “treated rock and roll as the musical expression of a degenerate subculture.” Because of this, England’s young rock enthusiasts, “underserved and undernourished” by the BBC, tuned in to pirate radio. Typically housed in ships anchored off England’s coast, pirate stations prospered from 1964 until August 1967, when they were silenced by Parliament’s Marine Broadcasting Offences Act. (After muzzling its offshore foes, the BBC launched a “national pop station,” Radio 1.) Radio London, financed by a “Texas entrepreneurial cartel” headed by Don Pierson, and Radio Caroline, owned by Irish “merchant of cool” Ronan O’Rahilly, were the most popular pirate stations. In short, Pierson, O’Rahilly, and other pirate impresarios changed “how pop music was broadcast in the UK.” Pirate stations, Dougan observes, were a “simulacrum of American Top 40 radio…with their collage of nonsense jingles and news flashes, compulsively jabbering DJs, and assaultive commercials.” Townshend, an enthusiastic supporter, declared that the pirates “made the music scene” in Britain. He resented the government’s crusade against them, viewing it as an attack on “British youth and rock and roll.” Sell Out would be his band’s tribute to the recently stifled pirate stations.
Dougan examines England’s nascent pop art movement. In 1956, the pioneering exhibit, “This Is Tomorrow,” London’s “first significant display of pop art,” opened. The UK’s leading proponents of pop art included Richard Hamilton, Peter and Alison Smithson, Pauline Boty, and Peter Blake. Hamilton, a participant in the “This Is Tomorrow” show, “cogently defined the movement’s aesthetics” in a 1957 letter to the Smithsons. Pop art, he explained, “is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.” In the fall of 1961, Townshend enrolled at the Ealing School of Art, an institution “at the forefront of the British pop art movement in that its students, and new, young faculty, saw the essential congruity between art, music, and fashion.” He soon became a pop art votary. Just four years later, the Who captain boasted that his band stood “for pop art clothes, pop art music, and pop art behavior…We live pop art.” And in 1967, Townshend offered the splendid Sell Out as his contribution to Britain’s pop art movement.
Dougan also explores the environment in which Sold Out was created, the sparkling, heady days of Swinging London, a period of great imagination and inspiration in cinema, art, fashion, and music. From 1966 through 1967, he asserts, London was “in a near-constant state of flux. It was a time of intense creativity and cultural instability, when the city went from black and white to color.” While a citizen of Swinging London, Townshend quickly matured “into one of England’s most expressive and audacious rock artists.” Tommy, Townshend’s much acclaimed rock opera, followed Sell Out, appearing in May, 1969.
Townshend and band mates Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle toured relentlessly throughout 1967, performing 165 shows across the United States, Canada, and Europe. The Who played high energy, ear-splitting concerts before demolishing their instruments in front of astonished, dazed audiences. At the Monterey Pop Festival in June, the Who attacked “each song ferociously” in “a stunning, visually dazzling performance.” The group looked “great, togged up in outfits that ecstatically and colorfully merged the sartorial impulses and sensibilities of mod, pop art, and hippie culture.” The Who’s aggressive, forceful set ranks as one of Monterey’s legendary highlights.
Although Townshend and Daltrey (the only Who members still living) “declined to participate in this project,” Dougan has done impressive research. Among other histories of the band, he consulted The Who: Maximum R&B by Richard Barnes and Dave Marsh’s Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, both vital texts. For the pirate stations he used the essential work by Robert Chapman, Selling the Sixties: The Pirates and Pop Music Radio. He also turned to Shawn Levy’s excellent volume, Ready, Steady, Go: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London.
In The Who Sell Out, Dougan has produced a creditable book, exceptionally informative, limpidly written, and soundly researched; its only real flaw is the absence of an index. Who devotees and students of Sixties Britain will enjoy this sterling study.
- Five Things You Need to Know to be a Better Digital Preservationist
- Book on Losing British Generals Wins American History Prize
- Stanford scholar explores civil rights revolution's positive impact on the South's economy
- Harvard Historian Nancy Koehn on Amazon's Tentacular Reach
- Q&A with historian and author Nick Turse