The Who – Tommy
Released May, 1969
“Tommy” was The Who’s fourth release and is stated to be the first ‘rock opera’. An overly ambitious project, the double album was recorded over six months and tells an elaborate story of the likes not seen at that point in rock music. The album was a critical success and went on to be made into a successful movie and broadway show. What we have on “Tommy” is an arsenal of characters who tell the story of the ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’. Most of this review will be explaining the story of Tommy, because it’s just as epic as the music and is so out there that it needs to be told.
Tommy was a young lad who, through quite a bit of bad luck, saw his dad kill his step-father. Now bear in mind that Tommy didn’t know his real dad at this point as he was believed to have died in the war and then randomly showed up one day. This traumatic event shocked the kid so much he became ‘deaf, dumb and blind’. At some point he envisions a figure with a golden beard and a silvery robe who becomes a guide of sorts and helps music notes feel like a sensations to Tommy. Enter a pimp called ‘The Hawker’ who believes that Tommy can be cured by the prowess of one of his prostitutes. We then skip to Cousin Kevin who mercilessly bullies and tortures our dear protagonist. Following this Tommy finally puts the prostitute theory to the test with a likely lass called The Acid Queen. “Acid” as in drugs people.
Still with us? Good. Hang in there! Maybe make yourself a cup of tea before you delve into the part two of the story?
Naturally, the prostitute/drug thing doesn’t work, so Tommy is handed over to his Uncle Ernie, an alcoholic child molester. I think we can see where this is headed. The next act has Tommy as a Pinball hero, because why the heck not! Tommy’s father then finds a doctor who they think can ‘cure the boy’. Turns out Tommy isn’t actually deaf, dumb and blind and it’s psychosomatic. Tommy’s mother, god bless her, keeps trying to get through to her son. She gets mad because he is obviously looking at himself in a mirror, despite apparently being blind. So she smashes the mirror. Low and behold that is the thing to break Tommy out of his slump and he is cured. Hallelujah! The story of Tommy being cured gets out and he becomes some sort of Messiah. Next in the story we are introduced to a character called Sally Simpson. A devotee of Tommy she went to see him preach and in the chaos and madness got pushed around in the crowd, cutting her cheek. I’m not sure why that’s in the story either. Tommy then opens his house and invites all of his followers in. Once the house is full they move over to a ‘holiday camp’ where he enlists Uncle Ernie to help, who believe it or not tries to take advantage of poor Tommy’s predicament and profit off it. Who didn’t see that coming, with his previous glowing character reference. At this point it’s starting to feel a little Jonestown, 10 years too early. In the final track Tommy encourages his disciples to cover their eyes, block their ears, close their mouths and play pinball, you know, in order to find enlightenment. They forsake him and awkwardly threaten to rape him. And Tommy ends up being once again blind, deaf and dumb.
The point I’m trying to get to with all of that is that the story of Tommy, well… it’s a bit shit. It’s pompous, self-indulgent and doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Critics have hailed this album as being either lyrically genius or absolute crap. I’m firmly in the bit crap camp. Pete Townshend is a troubled man. The beauty of “Tommy” is that the story actually doesn’t matter all that much because musically the album is amazing. I reckon I listened to it 4 or 5 times before I even paid attention to the lyrics, and by that point I was already hooked. My recommendation is to listen to it loud and sing along with gusto as you air guitar your heart out, but don’t invest in the lyrics all that much. You’re a weird man Townshend, but your guitaring is tops.
How great are The Who? This a rhetorical question. I care not for your opinions, unless the coincide with mine.The Who are amazing. Fair dinkum rock legends. They played hard and lived hard. Which was a shame, because that hard living robbed us of one of the greatest rhythm sections the world has ever seen. “Tommy” is a masterpiece. It tells a crazy complicated story, that no one in a million years could come up with. But it’s not just the story, the musical arrangements are genius. This album has everything, from slow ballads and all out rock and roll to introspective instrumentals. I listen to Tommy and I get quite overstimulated. It is a lot of awesome to take in. I don’t think there’s a weak spot in the whole album. Even a song like ‘Fiddle About’, which has a fairly disturbing theme, is arranged to be dark and negative, and the music 100% fits the story. I almost couldn’t pick a favourite song from “Tommy”, but I think I finally settled on ‘Pinball Wizard’. Right from the opening guitar riff I immediately perk up. It’s the perfect song to use as an alarm tone, if the ultimate consequence wasn’t that you’d end up hating it. I also love the absurd imagery of a kid who can’t see or hear being a boss at pinball. ‘Smash The Mirror’ is not far behind it though. Only lasting 1:35, it’s concentrated real rock. Everyone is firing all cylinders. It also leads to the [SPOILER ALERT] regaining of Tommy’s senses, and the start of his life as a religious leader. I could go on about “Tommy” and how great The Who are all day, but it’d get old. “Tommy” is perfect, and there is not many albums I’ll say that about.
This album certainly takes the listener on a musical odyssey. The musical style varies from track to track and overall, the influence of other prominent Brit rock bands of the 60’s abounds. Each song of “Tommy”, although wordy and therefore hard to follow at times, tells a small part of the journey taken by troubled child Tommy. Musically, the album is practically faultless, complex, deep and rich in orchestration. The songs are built on the foundation of Townshend’s signature bar chords, accentuated with enchanting guitar finger picking, overdubbed instrumentation, charming 3-part harmonies and vocal doubling. I particularly enjoyed the instrumental opening track ‘Overture’, which as the name suggests, forms the synopsis of the album, thus featuring themes taken from all over the album. 10 tracks in, you will find the ‘Underture’, which is a re-working of the themes in the ‘Overture’ and is equally as enjoyable. The re-introduction of musical themes occurs throughout the album which adds to its consolidation. I was struck by the Beatle-esque ‘Do You Think it’s Alright’, which quickly segways into ‘Fiddle About’, which is themed around child abuse. The upbeat and cheery style of the song makes for a brash juxtaposition with the sobering lyrics. I found it interesting to listen to “Tommy” and to follow the story of the protagonist (Tommy) who goes from despair to triumph in the space of 24 tracks. Speaking of 24 tracks, an album so long was a bit too much for me to take in, but I persevered in order to see Tommy’s journey through. Definitely worth a listen but I probably wouldn’t revisit it.
Inspired after watching Almost Famous, I lit a candle the first time I listened to “Tommy”, which would have been a little over twelve years ago now. I didn’t see my future, but I was very impressed by the album’s scope and grandeur. The only song I was familiar with was the classic ‘Pinball Wizard’, and I was surprised at how easy the rest of it was to listen to. The opening ‘Overture’, instrumentally collates the record’s main musical themes, which are all very catchy. As it’s such an engaging piece, you remember the lines and riffs when they return as the plight of the titular Tommy (that deaf, dumb and blind kid) is told through the songs that follow. The sketchy plot isn’t made wholly clear, although watching the 1975 film adaptation will help fill in some of the gaps. A few tracks stand up quite well away from the context of the album; my favourites being ‘1921’, ‘Go To The Mirror’ and ‘Christmas’. I don’t enjoy ‘Cousin Kevin’ and ‘Fiddle About’, but they serve to move the story forward. The brilliantly named ‘Underture’ is a ten minute extension of melodies we heard in the more concise ‘Sparks’, consequentially making one of them feel unnecessary. I’m surprised they included a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Eyesight to the Blind’, but it feels like it belongs on the album. Amazingly, all of the music is played by the four members of The Who, aside from some backing vocals by Pete Towshend’s brothers. All the French horn arrangements come courtesy of bassist John Entwistle and Townshend’s chops as a multi-instrumentalist play a crucial role in filling out the sound. There are no strings or guest musicians. While it’s not entirely cohesive, this is one of the earliest examples of a concept album that works. Patchy, but enjoyable.