11 May 2009

33 1/3: The Who Sell Out

33 1/3 is a series of books that feature one influential album per book, written by a different author each time. This series has been kicking around for awhile, but I've only recently come across it because I'm a bit slow off the bat that way.

There are 33 1/3 rpm in an LP, for those wondering where the series title comes from. I did not happen to know this piece of information and so, wandering into Foyles on Charing Cross the other day I had another insufferable conversation with the staff, where we started off with a misunderstanding and ended with sarcastic, Harry Potter-themed mockery.

Alcott: It's a series of books, with a number in the title. I know there's one on Radiohead.
Staff Member: A biography of Radiohead?
Alcott: Not a biography. It's just on OK Computer.
Staff Member: What's OK Computer?
Alcott: You DON'T KNOW what OK Computer is?
Staff Member: I can look it up.
Alcott: No, no, it's an album, not a book.
Staff Member: Ok... but this is a bookstore.
Alcott: Ok, well ANYWAY, it's called like 32 or 39 3/4 or something.
Staff Member: PLATFORM 9 3/4?
Alcott: Can I speak to someone else?

I was finally directed to the music section where a gorgeous man knew exactly what I was talking about immediately. After all the rubbish with the moron at the front desk I didn't even purchase the Radiohead title. Instead, I went for The Who Sell Out, written by John Dougan.

If you're a fan of the band I fully recommend this little gem of a book. Dougan gives a great history of not only The Who as a band but also the pop and emerging rock culture in London during the 1950's onwards. The growing popularity of pop art was an obvious influence in The Who Sell Out but I had never really known the full context behind what drove the band to create the album.

Dougan also talks about the pirate radio stations offshore that were eventually outlawed by the English government in 1967 and the effect that such hard line tactics to ensure the BBC remained on top had on the band and their contemporaries. It was interesting to read something about The Who that doesn't place Tommy as the focus of the discussion. I've never really sat down and properly digested The Who Sell Out, but after reading this I listened to the album straight through, no distractions, for a whole afternoon.


It's not cool when the BOOK about the album resonates more with you than the album itself, but there you go. Tommy is just such an epic album (as is A Quick One) and I don't feel the same excited connection with Sell Out. If you're not familiar with The Who, I wouldn't start with this album, let's put it like that. But I might recommend the book! If you have no interest in ever listening to or reading about The Who remember, this is the band who originated the smashing of instruments on stage! Seriously... what's wrong with you?

I will not be rating this series because I think it's a moot point.

If you go to Charing Cross to buy the series, skip asking at the front desk and head to the third floor music section.
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