The Who

Backtrack, Vol. 9

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If there was any drawback to building your record collection from the Backtrack series of budget-priced releases, it was that you lost the original album's artwork. Volumes One through Six at least stabbed at some kind of pictorial representation, with their silver-toned photograph of an underage dope smoker -- an image that aroused a certain controversy when it was noted that the child was probably Vietnamese (the Vietnam War was in full swing at the time). Volumes Seven through 14, however, consigned even that image to a mere circular inset in the top right hand corner of an otherwise plain field. Compared to the riot of psychedelic trousers, big bared breasts, and the baked bean-filled bathtubs that bedecked Track's regular album releases, it was a considerable loss. But the music within remained incomparable. Backtrack 9, reissuing the Who's The Who Sell Out masterpiece, is a case in point. It delivers the stereo mix of an album that most British consumers had bought in mere mono, three years earlier, and a glorious mix it was. Guitars pan, rhythms gallop, vocals soar, and no matter which direction you point your senses in, a new nuance leaps out to clobber you over the head. By the time you reach "Our Love Was," with its positively shimmering guitar solo slashing the speakers to shreds, you wonder how you ever got by with one ear in the past. The modern listener might also wonder how it was that an album which history now insists is one of the Who's finest, was for many years considered one of their lesser works. In terms of sheer song and performance power, it surpasses almost everything the band did prior to Quadrophenia (and absolutely everything afterwards as well!), while the loose concept that binds the record together -- an evening spent listening to Pirate Radio -- is at least as strong as any other of Pete Townshend's thematic conceits. Each of the tracks on Side One is interspersed with commercials and jingles (Side Two does let the side down a little), several of which are themselves strong enough to count as songs in their own right...John Entwistle's "Heinz Baked Beans" and Townshend's nightmare of personal hygiene, "Odorono" are both gems, while Entwistle's "Medac" will bring solace to Spotted Henrys everywhere. Neither was that the end of the album's ambitions, as the closing "Rael" takes another stab at rock opera, and even premiers a few of the musical passages that would be so vastly expanded by Tommy. But one should not scour this album for clues and incidents. It is a record to cherish as one vast whole, and the album that proves how great the Who were. Put it on, turn it up and, like the song says, "relax."

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