Music

The Who’s Tommy at Fifty

Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who pose for a picture at Wembley Stadium in London, England, March 13, 2019. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
The original rock opera holds up impressively well after half a century.

Fifty years ago this month, one of the signature albums of the 1960s was released by the British rock band The Who. The recording was Tommy, and as a full-on “rock opera,” it cleared the skies for The Who’s ascension to its place among the greatest and most enduring rock bands of all time. Coming in the year 1969, it was — along with the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin II, the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King — the ultimate expression of the upwardly surging creative arc that capped off the decade of the British Invasion.

I was only two when Tommy was released, but with four older siblings, I was inundated with LPs of the golden era of rock music. As such, I have a vivid memory of the first time I perused one of my brother’s vinyl collections, retreated to my turntable in my room, donned my headphones, and let the needle rest on the first popping groove of side one. For the next 75 minutes, through four sides of the double album, I was treated to a musical kaleidoscope. Beginning with the pounding “Overture” (complete with French horn) and the paradoxically soothing “1921,” and winding its way through Tommy’s own vibration-land world and then his violent awakening from his fugue state to lead a movement tied to pinball and higher enlightenment, the album is a wonderfully wild ride.

For those who’ve never listened to the album, Pete Townshend, The Who’s hard-driving guitarist and composer of most of the band’s material, tells the story of Tommy Walker. Here’s the way I read it: He’s born while his father is off to war and presumed dead. But when Captain Walker unexpectedly returns in 1921 to find his wife with a lover, he kills the man. Tommy, just a boy, witnesses the murder, but his parents convince him he never saw or heard anything and will tell no one, and the traumatized boy slips into a self-induced “deaf, dumb, and blind” state.

Fearing he will never know God, his parents try various remedies to snap him out of his mental isolation, but to no avail. As Tommy matures, he becomes renowned for his skill as a pinball player, feeling the vibrations that make him one with the machine, and gaining celebrity. In the process Tommy is abused by his perverted Uncle Ernie and sadistic Cousin Kevin and sent on a mind trip in an attempt to break his spell, courtesy of the sinister Acid Queen. A doctor tells his mother that Tommy’s ailment isn’t physical but psychosomatic . . . all while she notices that her son stares at a mirror, which she sees as the key to his trance. She smashes it in frustration and Tommy comes out of his introverted state to discover he has a following through his pinball exploits. Now considered a guru, he leads a movement of enlightenment and eventually creates a holiday camp. But when he becomes too controlling, his followers ultimately reject him and Tommy retreats back into his deaf, dumb, and blind state.

Yes, Tommy is very 1960s. Pinball competitions and psychedelic acid trips are not exactly hallmarks of today’s world. But of course, what makes the album so timeless is the music. From great singles such as “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “The Acid Queen” to the more intricate musical tapestry and recurring themes laid out in the five-minute overture, this is an album one can, and should, listen to front-to-back in one sitting.

While hailed as a triumph by most critics upon its release, Tommy did have its detractors. Some found the theme overly twisted and its ideas of physical and sexual abuse and subjecting children to acid trips just too distasteful. Even at the ripe old age of 23, when he began work on the project, Pete Townshend was not a simple man. It should be noted that to compose songs for the two most disturbing parts of the opera, “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About,” Townshend asked bassist John Entwistle to do the honors. Having been sent by his parents to live with a clinically insane grandmother for two years as a child, they brought up too many dark memories better left to his autobiography.

Although all members of the band pitched in, Tommy is ultimately a work of Townshend’s creative genius. But, as with much of The Who’s music, it took the right rhythm section in madcap drummer Keith Moon and renowned thunder-fingers bassist John Entwistle to make his demos come alive. And it is Roger Daltrey’s vocals that give the album serious power. So it all works.

Still, Townshend was annoyed by what he thought was Tommy’s premature release, even as it overshot its April deadline. Feeling it was incomplete, he’d intended to overdub some heavier distorted guitar to give certain songs more oomph; one can hear this vision come to fruition in The Who’s live performances of the opera, especially in the incredible tour de force Live At Leeds (consistently ranked among the greatest live albums of all time). Although I respect Townshend’s vision, the musician in me is glad we have two very different presentations of Tommy Walker’s story. There is the softer, more acoustically grounded studio version and the heavily distorted live Gibson SG ragers. But now I’m just being selfish.

So, 50 years old this month, Tommy still excites me and makes me shake my head in wonder at how a group of early twenty-somethings could put out such an exquisite piece of music. But that was par for the course for British rock in the late Sixties. They say they don’t make ‘em like they used to, and when it comes to Tommy, they’re right.

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