Review: Forget the Price—A New The Who Box Set Is Worth Inestimable Indulgence

The Who/The Who Sell Out (Super Deluxe Edition)/UMe
Five Out of Five Stars

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The box set bonanza shows no sign of abating, a bonus for diehard collectors and a money-drain for the impoverished obsessive, all at the same time. There’s certainly motivation to re-release and expand on albums from decades past that have not only survived the test of time, but also proven an indelible influence on many of today’s more adventurous artists and auteurs. And yet, the inevitable dilemma remains: should one be satisfied with owning the original edition, or indulge in an often costly compilation that brings with it the extra add-ons?

It’s a question that accompanies every expanded offering, and it often blurs the line between need and obsession. It’s often not an easy choice; one person’s treasure may be another’s unnecessary acquisition. Hard decisions must be made, especially when they come at a high cost. Use that stimulus cash if you must, but don’t take food off the table or squander rent money as a result.

Happily, the super deluxe box set edition of the Who’s classic The Who Sell Out allows for an easy option. A stunning five CD collection that boasts such bonuses as a pair of classic vinyl singles (“I Can See for Miles”/“Someone’s Coming” and “Magic Bus”/ “Dr. Jeckyl & Mr. Hyde”), a wealth of memorabilia (a playbill, posters, photos and other ersatz inclusions), and a coffee table book that not only documents the era, but also boasts rare pictures, lyrics and production notes—it’s an excellent value even though it forces the buyer to part with well over $100 at minimum. It’s hard to imagine any true fan of The Who passing it up, with the only reason for reticence the possibility that may turn up cheaper as a used offering on Ebay. 

That seems unlikely however, and chances are it will only see an increase in cost. The rarities alone make it an essential acquisition; in addition to the original album in both its mono and studio editions, there are over two dozen extra studio sides, a separate disc of B sides, outtakes and other oft-neglected obscurities, and a full CD containing 14 Peter Townshend demos, some of which are for songs that found their way to original The Who Sell Out (early takes on “I Can See for Miles,” “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hands” and “Relax,” among them) and various outliers as well, including“Glow Girl,” “Jaguar” and “Little Billy.”  The demos for The Who’s seminal standards—“I Can See for Miles,” Mary Ann with the Shaky Hand,” “Pictures of Lily” and an early version of “Sunrise” — may be rudimentary, but they’re revelatory as well, offering further opportunity to dig deeper into Townshend’s musical mindset.

While true Who aficionados may already own a good portion of these bonus tracks and rarities in bootleg form, having them compiled and collected here qualifies this as perhaps the best box sets a Who enthusiast might ever imagine. The better known extras—the aforementioned “Glow Girl,” “Jaguar” and “Little Billy,” as well as “Early Morning Cold Taxi,” the double nod to the Stones, “Under My Thumb” and “The Last Time,” and the aborted jingles, “Sunn Equipment Promo Sports,” “Coke After Coke,”“Things Go Better With Coke,” and “Great Shakes”—offer added value. (It ought to be noted that it was the playful commercial parodies interspersed throughout that inspired the album title, its cover and, of course, a decided sense of satire.)

Indeed, the overriding, overall result is a new emphasis on intellect and insight. Take a stunning lyric like You take away the breath I was keeping for sunrise/You appear and the morning looks drab in my eyes from the song “Sunrise” or the early musical themes that would later emerge in Tommy first found in these various unused outtakes. They reflect the new-found ambition of a band whose reach no longer exceeded its grasp. Townshend had become consumed with the desire to create sonic art, and his bandmates proved willing accomplices every step of the way.

Taken in total, The Who Sell Out Super Deluxe Edition is in fact the ultimate box set bonanza. It’s one that any diehard devotee will not want to do without.  

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