Many try to explain this story of the deaf, dumb, and blind
boy that The Who
so mesmerizingly brought to life in 1969
The concept seems simple and broken down enough-a boy named Tommy, thought to be fatherless-is rendered deaf, dumb, and blind by the traumatic experience of seeing his father-alive after all-murder his mother's lover.
He is raised this way-oblivious to the world. Yet his void of senses causes another stir in him-that of spirituality and inner conquest.
Pete Townshend was the main composer and creator of the Who's Tommy-a rock opera first in the line of three.
Townshend had toyed with the idea of narrative before, telling stories in songs such as "A Quick One, While He's Away" , "Rael", and "Glow Girl" (the latter two of which musical themes would resurface in Tommy's instrumentals).
The Tommy project was majorly influenced by Townshend's rejection of drugs (he found he was more creative without them) and his spiritual awakening, claiming guru Meher Baba as his personal avatar.
The project went through many changes, working titles ranging from The Brain Opera to Amazing Journey.
Some songs included in Tommy weren't even intended for it in the first place. Songs like "Sally Simpson"- Townshend wrote this after witnessing a girl being beaten up at a Doors concert-with no apology or acknowledgement from lead singer Jim Morrison.
The song "Sensation" was written after Pete met a girl in Australia. It went something like "She overwhelms as she approaches....". The song in its intended form can be heard on Townshend's Live at LaJolla.
"Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker)" was a 1951 song written by bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson and popularised by Mose Allison, an idol of Townshend's.
The first song written intended specifically for Tommy was the root song-"Amazing Journey"-adapted from an extremely long poem Pete had composed.
The seeming disorder doesn't seem to matter. As Pete wrote in The Story of Tommy, all the songs just "fell into place."
The most famous of all the Tommy songs- "Pinball Wizard"- barely scratches the surface of the wonder that is the Tommy album.
It was written simply to please music critic Nic Cohn, who was a pinball fanatic. The Who needed a rave review and lots of press-they hadn't released an album in over a year-something you didn't do in the 60s if you were to remain on top.
With this noted, it is safe to say that the Tommy we hear today is not in its complete or raw form. It was commercialised and rushed, lots of this having to do with Kit Lambert, the group's manager.
So, "Pinball Wizard" was inserted by Townshend, written very quickly one night.
To Townshend, it was crap, "the most clumsy thing" he had ever written. Everyone else thought not.
So it was placed in the album, after the pedophilic composition by bassist John Entwistle, "Fiddle About". Townshend slotted a few more references to pinball in "Christmas" and "We're Not Gonna Take It" to even things out.
Otherwise, pinball has nothing to do with Tommy. Actually, it has nothing to do with the real Tommy at all. Tommy was being commercialised-for The Who's own good, perhaps.
Kit Lambert was also worried that it was turning more into a religious album-which is sort of how it was intended. Lambert began to write a film script to clarify the plot, and these librettos were included in the first UK pressing of the album as a limited edition release.
Adding extra quirk, at the very last minute-two Entwistle compositions-"Fiddle About" and "Cousin Kevin"-about abuse-were added to Tommy.
The fourth "non-Townshend" composition came at the suggestion of drummer Keith Moon. He suggested that Tommy's spiritual centre be at a Holiday Camp-instead of, say, a church. "Keith got the credit for it because it was his idea," says Townshend. "Tommy's Holiday Camp"-credited to Moon, was actually ghostwritten by Townshend.
"And also I felt it turned out just as he himself would have written it."
Despite the effort, the story was still confusing. Entwistle admits that "it wasn't until Ken Russel did (The Tommy Film) that (he) understood what the story was...and (Russel) was wrong."
(Here's a heads up: don't watch the film. It's bad. Really bad.)
It's not even clear why Tommy is deaf, dumb, and blind in the first place. What did he hear and see that he wasn't supposed to tell a soul about?
Only by looking inside the album sleeve at the libretto do we realise that the lover is suddenly absent, and the father is back. So we assume that the father killed the lover, believing he was an intruder, or in a jealous rage. Who knows?
The recording was tumultuous. Townshend was under extreme stress, as any writer would be. Like I said, The Who hadn't released an album in over a year, and they had to do something.
They gigged whilst recording, making it difficult to keep the emotion and sound going. Also, they were, as Townshend put it, "in dire fucking straits."
Tommy was recorded on an 8-track in London's IBC studios. It was very long and drawn out, and cost the group a lot of money.
However the problems, Tommy was recorded beautifully and cleanly-no overdubs besides Entwistle's horns and Townshend's keyboards. This made it relativley easy to play onstage (Entwistle could play the horns onstage as well-having the incredible talent he did)-and it was.
When Tommy was released 23 May, 1969 in the UK, and on the 31st of the same month in the US, it was a,well, sensation.
Reaching #2 in the UK and #4 in the states, Tommy
changed everything for The Who. No longer were they the ace face mods popping out singles (albeit great ones) about love and girls. They were an album band now. They were rock gods.
The Who first performed the entire Tommy song cycle-the cantata, as I call it-2 May, 1969 at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, a few weeks before the album was released.
They played Tommy over 100 times, the last being at London's Roundhouse on 20 December, 1970. Unless you count the 1989 "reunion" tour-which I don't.
Townshend and the Who took Tommy across Europe and the US, Townshend proclaiming "assemble the musicians" before every performance of his beloved "Thomas".
Keith Moon, always looking for a laugh, would sometimes bang his drumstick on the side of the snare drum, saying "Stop laughing! This is serious! It's a fucking opera, ain't it?"
The best example of Tommy-pure, raw, and live is on the newly issued remaster of the classic Live at Leeds. If you need an introduction to Tommy or the Who, pick it up. Performed 14 February, 1970, Tommy was caught in its prime.
Woodstock, more than anything else, propelled Roger Daltrey into the position of rock's premier frontman.
With his chest-bearing fringed jacket, powerhouse vocals and golden curls, he was transformed from London mod into the reflection of a Greek god.
Not only that, but suddenly, Tommy was Roger-and Roger was Tommy. This was only further confirmed in Ken Russel's 1975 film with Daltrey as the title role.
Tommy was a rock phenomenon. The Who were bound to it, it was inescapable. Surely, the Melody Maker sums up the feeling of the time:
"the Who are now the group against which all others are to be judged."
No wonder Townshend had a nervous breakdown. Trying another "rock opera", Lifehouse, proved futile, and it failed. The "scraps" of the Lifehouse project are what we all now know as the seminal rock album Who's Next.
Quadrophenia followed. And although it was critically acclaimed, it never reached, unfairly so, the success level and legend of Tommy.
Tommy takes us all on an "amazing journey", from the first note of "Overture" to the last bars of "Listening to You." With the latter, Tommy realises-as do the listeners-that it's all inside, and-as is the feeling with most 60s records-that all you need is love. "Listening to You" connects us with the band, and us with each other. It seems appropriate that Townshend and Daltrey continue to perform it to this day. Because the spirit of Entwistle and Moon is in that music. We all are.
thanks: The Story of Tommy by Pete Townshend, Maximum Who, Moon: the Life and Death of a Rock Legend by Tony Fletcher, and the Tommy and Live at Leeds liner notes.