Two new box sets may have limited appeal to general audiences
As monuments to rock’s halcyon days, the latest boxes by the Who and John Lennon, The Who Sell Out (Super Deluxe) (UMC) and Plastic Ono Band (The Ultimate Collection) (UMC), have few equals. But for whom are they intended?
Fans as old as the first pressings of the original albums, apparently. Who else but retirees could have the time (nearly 17 hours) or the disposable income ($275 approximately) to investigate such overabundance—especially when in Lennon’s case it includes 110 minutes of Yoko Ono giving the avant-garde a bad name?
Besides, the once height-of-cool music of the Who circa 1967-68 and Lennon circa 1969-70—music painstakingly crafted by musicians, engineers, and producers accustomed to take after laborious take together in the same room—doesn’t resonate much with a generation raised on tinny-sounding, computer-assembled MP3s played on cell phones.
Speaking of audio, the previously released portions of The Who Sell Out’s five super-deluxe discs sound better than ever, but only marginally so. No one in the Who’s corner, it seems, has the time, wherewithal, or desire to do what Paul Hicks has done with Plastic Ono Band: reengineer its songs (and the tacked-on “Give Peace a Chance,” “Cold Turkey,” and “Instant Karma!”) until they take on the same enveloping three-dimensionality that characterized last year’s Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes.
But what will probably flummox the streaming generation the most is the conceptual unity underlying the boxes.
The Who Sell Out replicates 39 minutes of British pop-radio programming, hence jingles and ads linking songs executed in an otherwise inexplicably wide variety of styles.
Absent this context, the inclusion of the band’s greatest hit, “I Can See for Miles,” amid the not particularly Who-like “Armenia City in the Sky” (written and co-sung by the band’s pal Speedy Keen), the winkingly bawdy “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand,” the hilarious shaggy-deodorant tale “Odorono,” and the all too prophetic “Tattoo” seems haphazard. (No such problem afflicts the many catchy and stand-alone singles or previously unreleased Pete Townshend demos that pad the box out.)
Context plays a big role in Plastic Ono Band too. A direct outgrowth of his immersion in Arthur Janov’s primal-scream therapy, Lennon was in what Steve Turner in The Gospel According to the Beatles calls his “shamanistic” mode: Having experienced both dizzying heights and harrowing depths (he’d recently kicked heroin), Lennon was ready to deliver revelations, which boiled down mainly to his bitter disillusionment with everything and everyone except himself and Yoko.
From anyone else, such a message would feel claustrophobically solipsistic. But from someone who thought himself and his three ex-bandmates more popular than Jesus, it feels like the emergence from behind the curtain of an all-too-human Wizard of Oz.
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