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Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out

Posted on 07 February 2005 by Caryn Rose (5)

I became a die-hard Who fan at the age of 15. Did I say die-hard? More like obsessed, obsessive, consumed, in love with a rock band the way you can probably only be when you are discovering the world and your place in it for the first time.

Now, Mike Watt and d.boon (of the late, great Minutemen) were also die-hard Who fans from a young age, and had a friendship that was cemented, solidified through their shared love of and for music. d.boon died in an automobile accident in 1985, and Watt (he’s just Watt) has continued fighting the good fight and continued making great music.

Petra Hayden Sings The Who Sell Out is the brainwave of Mike Watt, and was inspired by his friendship with d.boon and their shared Who obsession. Watt suggested the idea to Haden, who is a friend and colleague, and she took on the challenge. The result is what will definitely be one of the most remarkable albums of the year.

While obsessive fans of any band can sometimes be somewhat rigid and defensive of the music they love, Who fans are probably some of the worst offenders on that front. To many of them, there is no other music worth listening to, and no one, repeat, no one, can touch the Who’s music. (As an example, for a better part of the 90’s a large majority of Who fans were up in arms over Eddie Vedder “daring” to perform the Who’s music and sing Pete Townshend’s songs — of course, somehow overlooking that he had been invited by Pete himself).

So Petra Haden is one brave woman, taking on the recreation of an entire Who album, solo. She doesn’t even have brand recognition working in her favor. If she got one thing, the tiniest, most miniscule thing wrong with this record, she would be skewered alive.

But there is not one thing out of place on this record, and this is notable because there is no instrumentation whatsoever on the album. That’s right, the entire record is performed completely acapella. Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out is absolutely a cover album in the classic sense; Haden tracked every single note, every thundering Entwistle bass note, every rollicking Keith Moon drum roll, every Townshendian crescendo, every classic Daltrey vocal warble. But the difference here, and what makes this album so remarkable, is that every vocal track, every sound effect, every instrument, is created using Haden’s voice and only her voice, multi-tracked.

This record is nothing less than jaw-dropping brilliant. It’s astounding. It’s a truly remarkable, joyful musical performance, while also being the most original idea for a cover album, ever. That said, part of the album’s brilliance is that the interpretation is blindingly original, but at the same time, not so inaccessible that it won’t speak to a larger audience.

As Watt relates in the liner notes, Haden wasn’t particularly familiar with the album, or with early Who. This is important, because it means that it wasn’t her all-time favorite record and lifetime dream to cover it. She has no emotional attachment to the songs – which you would think would make it lifeless and dull, or at least lacking energy. But Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out is anything but that. Instead, there is this pervasive pure ebullience and joy that saturates the record. There is a freshness and a spirit to the performance, because she hadn’t heard the record her entire life, it was all new to her.

Now, if you’re familiar at all with The Who Sell Out, you know it’s a pop art masterpiece, and one of its hallmarks are the radio jingles that appear in between songs, connective tissue if you will, trying to simulate what it was like listening to Radio Caroline or any of the other legendary pirate radio stations stationed off-shore in the 60’s and vital to the British music scene. So it’s not enough already that she’s singing “I Can See For Miles” and “Armenia City In The Sky” and “Mary Anne With The Shakey Hands,” Hayden includes every jingle – Rotosound strings, Heinz baked beans, Track Records – it’s all here.

Every single song is fascinating, but the most overwhelming performances have to be “I Can See For Miles” (that droning Townshend chord-solo is there, too), “Armenia City In The Sky,” and “Sunrise” – the latter perfectly suited to Haden’s voice – and the top of the list is “Rael,” Townshend’s first attempt at rock opera – the “mini-opera,” as it was referred to, with its intricate instrumentation, captured down to the last note and inflection.

The experience of listening to this record is beyond unique, especially if you are a fan and know the songs inside and out. (Watt alludes to this in the liner notes: “We knew that record inside and out and Petra caught that spirit, big time.”) You discover that you know every single inflection and every tiny insignificant sonic detail, and find yourself singing along in your head to the various tracks – for example, “Our Love Was, Is” has an angelic counterpoint I don’t think I ever consciously noticed before. Or the bass line in “I Can See For Miles” takes on a new dimension when it is sung and not strummed, not to mention the compositional components you never really heard separately from the rest. It feels like you are listening to the music upside-down, or in another language – you know it, but you suddenly don’t. The rug of ‘familiar’ is pulled out from underneath you, and if you are lucky, it is like hearing and experiencing this album for the very first time all over again, except with the benefit of years of musical experience behind you. You have context and can appreciate it more than you did the first time you bought Sell Out, most likely that dreadful double-album reissue with the ugly American cover.

Oh, and the cover of the CD – of course, the cover – it’s an exact tribute to the original UK pop art masterpiece, which featured each member of the Who in an advertisement for the products “advertised” on the album. Of course, Hayden duplicates them to exacting perfection. I just hope the experience wasn’t so exact that Haden caught pneumonia from sitting in the tub of baked beans – which is what happened to Roger Daltrey during the original Sell Out album cover shoot.

(Remember what I said earlier about obsessed and obsessive.)

Finally, if you need an imprimatur in order to validate the record for you, here’s a quote from Chairman Townshend himself: “I love it. It is exquisite.”

No argument here.


[This review is also featured on]

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The Who Sell Out

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5 Responses to “Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out”

  1. Pitchforking.

    I don’t read enough to know whether we really ought to stop reading it to save all of music journalism, but what I have read bugs me just enough to make me not all that eager to read more….

  2. tom says:

    I’m listening to I Can See For Miles as I type (thanks to; because where in Cleveland would I hear it besides the best college stations in the country, but they don’t reach this far out of Cleveland)
    Damn, this is fine stuff, I had to look it up. Between this and the Moody Bluegrass cd, I’ve got some new favourites.
    Thanks to all involved.

  3. Michael Salisbury says:

    I’m a big Who fan and would like to know where I can purchase this album? Thanks.

  4. F. says:

    Petra was interviewed on NPR this morning, and I googled this link. Of course, you can buy it at Amazon. I just podded “I can see for miles” on iTunes! Pretty amazing stuff. (and a nice interview – NPR’s Weekend Edition is archived in RealPlayer.)

  5. Steve Bradley says:

    I can unashamedly identify with the reviewers comments about Who fans finding cover versions of their music unacceptable. I am one of the worst offenders for considering The Who to be MY band! I came upon Petra Haden’s version of “Sell Out” via “Armenia…” being featured on a free “Who Covered” CD in Mojo magazine. I downloaded the entire album and it is truly wonderful. It completely captures what “Sell Out” was all about. It is quaint, yet really does bring out parts of the music that previously seemed hidden. Highlights are definitely “I Can’t Reach You”, “Sunrise” and “Rael”.
    I will forgive her for getting the opening line of “Mary Anne..” wrong.
    Get this album if you love The Who!