A couple of months ago, Pete Townshend received a copy of a CD titled Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out at his London office. He had never heard of Petra Haden — he was not familiar with her work as a frequent Beck collaborator and member of the late alt-rock band That Dog — but his interest was piqued by the CD’s title, a reference to his own band’s 1967 classic The Who Sell Out.
By chance, that very same day L2T contacted Townshend to see if he’d heard the album, and if so, if he’d be up for chatting about it. It was a long shot, sure, since Townshend has more or less stopped talking to the press. But though it seemed unlikely that he’d make an exception to discuss an obscure L.A. singer-violinist who’d apparently done some sort of cover of one of the Who’s best records, that’s exactly what happened. ”I felt transported back to the time we made the original album,” Townshend raved in an e-mail after listening to the disc. ”I heard the music as if for the first time. I listened all the way through in one sitting and was struck by how beautiful a lot of the music was. Petra’s approach is so tender and generous. I adore it.”
Half a world away from Townsend’s keyboard, Petra Haden is at a loss for words.
”Wow!” says the 33-year-old singer, her slight frame tucked into a booth at Canter’s Deli in L.A. a few weeks after Townshend first listened to her album. When she’s told how much the Who guitarist loved it, you can tell by her oh-my-gosh expression that she is genuinely touched (and more than a little relieved). ”That is so sweet,” she gushes.
Turns out Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out is just what it advertises. Haden — a member of the Royal Tenenbaums-like L.A. music family headed by jazz-great dad Charlie Haden — has lovingly re-created the Who’s entire notoriously complex album, start to finish. She sings the singing parts. She also sings the guitar parts, the bass parts, and the trumpet parts, and, though she gets a little tripped up on Keith Moon’s manic delivery on ”Tattoo” and ”I Can See for Miles,” does her best to sing the drum parts, too. That’s right, Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out is a 100 percent a cappella recasting of the Who original. Again: 100 percent a cappella. ”When I explain my record to some people, they just smile and nod,” says Haden. Which makes Townshend’s praise all the sweeter. ”He gets it, you know? That’s what means the most.”
If you’re thinking that Haden’s Sell Out bears the markings of an avid Who fan, you’re right. But that fan isn’t Haden, who until recently was almost entirely unfamiliar with the Who and had never heard a lick of Sell Out when she started the project. Instead, it was her friend Mike Watt, ex-bassist of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE. It is one of his favorite albums of all time, and was also a favorite of his childhood pal and Minutemen frontman D. Boon, who died in a car crash in 1985. Watt and Boon had always wanted to do an a cappella version of Sell Out, and when That Dog split up in 1997, Watt lent the idea to his friend Petra. ”It was kind of an intense time for her,” says the bassist, who figured such an involved project would give Haden something to do. ”And she went for it, you know? Just to see if she could do it.” Haden started recording her Sell Out in 2000, playing fresh tracks for Watt as they came along, often over the phone.