ON THIS DATE (42 YEARS AGO)
May 23, 1969: The Who: Tommy is released.
RF Rating 4/5
# Allmusic 4.5/5
Tommy is the fourth album by The Who, released by Track Records and Polydor Records in the United Kingdom and Decca Records/MCA in the United States. A double album telling a loose story about a “deaf, dumb and blind boy” who becomes the leader of a messianic movement, Tommy was the first musical work to be billed overtly as a rock opera. Released in 1969, the album was mostly composed by guitarist Pete Townshend. In 1998 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “historical, artistic and significant value”. It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide.
* Tommy: The main character of the story, from whom the album gets its name.
* Father: Sometimes referred to as “Captain Walker”, whose son is the album’s protagonist.
* Mother: Mrs. Walker, Tommy’s mother.
* The Lover: A romantic partner of Tommy’s mother.
* Uncle Ernie: Referred to as Tommy’s “wicked uncle”, a paedophile. Becomes an aide to Tommy at the end of the story.
* Cousin Kevin: Tommy’s cousin who brutalises him when the two are left alone.
* The Hawker: A pimp for prostitute the Acid Queen, who peddles her services.
* The Gypsy: A prostitute who deals in acid and exposes Tommy to the drug in an attempt to heal him.
* The Local Lad: The reigning champion of the game of pinball, until Tommy beats him.
* The Doctor: A doctor who attempts to heal Tommy and finds out that his disabilities are psychological rather than physical.
British Army Captain Walker is reported missing, and is believed dead. His widow, Mrs. Walker, gives birth to their son, Tommy. Years later, Captain Walker returns home and discovers that his wife has found a new lover. Captain Walker confronts the two, and the lover is subsequently killed in the struggle. To cover up the incident, Tommy’s parents tell him that he didn’t see or hear it, and that he will never tell anyone about the incident. Traumatised, Tommy subsequently becomes blind, deaf and mute. Now in a semi-catatonic state, Tommy’s subconscious manifests as a figure dressed in silvery robes who guides him on a journey of enlightenment. Years pass, and Tommy becomes a young man, now interpreting physical sensations as music.
During Christmas, Tommy’s parents worry that his soul is at risk of damnation, since he is unaware of Jesus or prayer. One day, Tommy is left alone with his cousin Kevin, who bullies and tortures him for his own amusement. A pimp referred to as “the Hawker” is introduced and peddles his prostitute’s sexual prowess, reputed to heal the blind, the deaf and the mute. Tommy is ultimately taken to this woman, who calls herself the Acid Queen, and she tries to coax Tommy into full consciousness with hallucinogenic drugs and sex. When this does not work, Tommy’s parents reluctantly leave him temporarily in the care of his Uncle Ernie, who is an alcoholic child molester. He takes this opportunity to abuse Tommy without fear of being caught. Eventually, Tommy is discovered to have a talent for pinball, and quickly defeats the local champion of the game.
Tommy’s father finds a medical specialist in another attempt at ‘curing’ him. After numerous tests, the doctor informs Tommy’s parents that his disabilities are psychosomatic, rather than physical. Meanwhile, Tommy is internally trying to reach out to them. His mother continues to try to reach him, and becomes frustrated that he ignores her while staring directly at a mirror, despite his apparent inability to see. Out of this frustration she smashes the mirror and brings Tommy back into reality. This “miracle cure” becomes a public sensation and Tommy attains a guru-like status. Thereafter he assumes a messianic mantle and attempts to enlighten those willing to follow him. During one of Tommy’s sermons, a reverend’s daughter, Sally Simpson, sneaks out of her home to meet with Tommy. As the police try to control the crowd, Sally is thrown from the stage and suffers a gash on her face. Tommy opens his own home to anyone willing to join him, and urges them to bring as many people with them as they can. When his house becomes too small to accommodate them, a camp is built with the intended purpose of spreading Tommy’s teachings. Tommy’s Uncle Ernie assists him at this camp, but uses it as an opportunity for profit and exploiting Tommy’s disciples. Now with all necessary resources at his disposal, Tommy instructs his followers to blind, deafen and mute themselves in order to truly reach enlightenment. They eventually reject his methods and ideology after finding that his enlightenment is not reached by being cured, but by discovering a state of awareness while blind, deaf, and mute.
Townshend’s inspiration for the album came from the teachings of the Meher Baba and other writings and expressing the enlightenment he believed that he had received. A year prior to the album’s release, Pete Townshend had explained many of his ideas during a famous Rolling Stone interview.
When asked what his opinion of Tommy was, John Entwistle replied:
“I think it’s just an association of ideas really. It took us eight months altogether, six months recording, two months mixing. We had to do so many of the tracks again, because it took so long we had to keep going back and rejuvenating the numbers, that it just started to drive us mad, we were getting brainwashed by the whole thing, and I started to hate it. In fact I only ever played the record twice- ever. I don’t think Tommy was all about [what] was on the record- I think it’s on the stage. The message is much stronger on stage than on record.”
When it was released, critics were split between those who thought the album was a masterpiece, the beginnings of a new genre, and those that felt it was exploitative. The album was banned by the BBC and certain US radio stations. Ultimately, the album became a commercial success, as did The Who’s frequent live performances of the rock opera in the following years, elevating them to a new level of prestige and international stardom. However, unlike later rock operas, the album was not accompanied by live theatrical shows, but simply raw concerts in which the band performed all of the album’s songs in the usual live Who formation of a “power trio” along with a lead vocalist. Recordings of such shows from the Tommy tour can be heard on the second disc of the Deluxe edition of Live At Leeds and on Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970.
Although Tommy is usually described as a rock opera, author and Who historian Richard Barnes states that this definition is not strictly correct, since Tommy does not utilize the classic operatic formulae of staging, scenery, acting and recitative. According to Barnes, Tommy could be more accurately described as a “rock cantata” or a “rock song cycle”. It most closely resembles an oratorio (e.g. Handel’s “Messiah”) in form, as it includes instrumental, choral and solo sections, with no dialogue between characters, and no sets, costumes or choreography. A counter-argument to Barnes would be that new operas are frequently performed without the first three features before a full mounting, similarly to Tommy, and some of its songs, such as “1921”, “Christmas”, “Do You Think It’s All Right?” and “Go to the Mirror” have the qualities of recitative and dialogue, while it has subsequently been performed with choreography and costuming, including by the Seattle Opera in 1971 and by a Canadian ballet company (dancing to the album recording) shortly thereafter.
Musically, Tommy is a complex set of pop-rock arrangements, generally based upon Townshend’s acoustic guitar and built up with many overdubs by the four members of the band using many instruments, including bass, electric and acoustic guitars, piano, organ, drum kit, gong, timpani, trumpet, French horn, three-part vocal harmonies and occasional doubling on vocal solos. Many of the instruments only appear intermittently—the track “Underture” features a single toot on the horn—and when overdubbed many of the instruments are mixed at low levels. Townshend mixes in fingerpicking with his trademark power chords and fat riffs. His interest in creating unique sounds is evident throughout the album, most notably on “Amazing Journey” and the curious chirping/whistle sound heard during the song, which was created by playing a taped recording of claves in reverse.
The tracks “Pinball Wizard”, “Go to the Mirror!”, “I’m Free”, “Christmas”, and “See Me, Feel Me” were released as singles and received airplay on the radio. “Pinball Wizard” reached the top 20 in the US and the top five in the UK. “See Me, Feel Me” landed high in the top 20 in the US and “I’m Free” reached the top 40.
Several structural precedents for Tommy exist in Townshend’s work, including “Glow Girl” (1968), “Rael” (1967), and the sectional work “A Quick One While He’s Away” (1966). In 2004, Uncut released a CD titled The Roots of Tommy containing music that they asserted influenced Tommy’s creation. Among the included songs are the blues songs that Townshend included or attempted to, such as Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind,” as well as The Pretty Things’ “S.F. Sorrow Is Born,” material from Mark Wirtz’s A Teenage Opera, and music by groups such as The Zombies, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Nirvana, The Kinks. Music hall comedian Max Miller is said to have influenced the character of Uncle Ernie.
In 2003, the album was ranked number 96 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The album was ranked number 90 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums of Rock & Roll and appears in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. NME named it the 16th on “NME Writers All Time Top 100” in 1974. Q ranked it 9th on their list of “The Music That Changed The World: Part One 1954–1969” in 2004. Upon its release in 1969, Life declared, “For sheer power, invention and brilliance of performance, Tommy outstrips anything that has ever come out of a rock recording studio.”
Tommy was originally released as a two-LP set with a booklet including lyrics and images to illustrate parts of the story. The cover is presented as part of a triptych-style fold-out cover. All three of the outer panels of the triptych are spanned by a single pop art painting by Mike McInnerney. The drawing is a sphere with diamond-shaped cutouts and an overlay of clouds and seagulls rendered with a figure-ground ambiguity. To one side a star-spangled hand bursts from the dark background, index finger pointing forward. (The image above only shows the central panel of the triptych.)
Polydor Records re-released the album on compact disc in the UK in 1983. The CDs were packaged in a double CD case, with the front and back panels of the case reproducing the middle and right panels of the triptych respectively. The booklet reproduced the tryptych in full, with black and white reproductions of the inner artwork. The booklet also contained the full lyrics, with black and white selections of the artwork from the original LP booklet. MCA re-released the album in the United States as a two-CD set in 1984. The CDs were packaged in separate jewel cases and each had a copy of the original artwork and lyrics in the insert, though the cover only included two panels of the triptych. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab later published it on a single gold-plated Ultradisc in their Original Master Recording series, with a higher-quality reproduction of the artwork (including a fold-out of the full original cover), and with the substitution of an alternate take on “Eyesight to the Blind”. Polydor Records released a newly remixed version on a single disc in 1996, complete with artwork and a written introduction by Richard Barnes. This version included instrumental parts that were not present on any earlier version, particularly noticeable in the cymbals of “The Acid Queen”.
In 2003 Tommy was made available as a deluxe two-disc hybrid SACD with a 5.1 multi-channel mix. This was done utilising master tapes that were thought long lost. When Tommy was first released, a “sweetened” master tape was used incorporating echo effects and doubling the vocal harmonies. This bare-bones master is said to have a more warm and natural sound to give a more “live” feel. Many critics have hailed this release to be the more definitive edition. The remastering was done under the supervision of Townshend and also includes some outtakes and other cuts during the same sessions. One cut called “Dogs-Part 2” that was only previously available as the B-side of the “Pinball Wizard” single and on the 1987 collection Two’s Missing is included. It should be noted, that the initial deluxe hybrid SACD edition was replaced in 2005 in Europe by a stereo-only two-CD set in similar packaging.
All songs written by Pete Townshend, except where noted.
No. Title Length
1. “Overture” 3:50
2. “It’s a Boy” 2:07
3. “1921” 3:14
4. “Amazing Journey” 3:25
5. “Sparks” 3:45
6. “Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker)” (Sonny Boy Williamson II) 2:15
No. Title Length
1. “Christmas” 5:30
2. “Cousin Kevin” (John Entwistle) 4:03
3. “The Acid Queen” 3:31
4. “Underture” 9:55
No. Title Length
1. “Do You Think It’s Alright?” 0:24
2. “Fiddle About” (Entwistle) 1:26
3. “Pinball Wizard” 3:50
4. “There’s a Doctor” 0:25
5. “Go to the Mirror!” 3:50
6. “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” 1:35
7. “Smash the Mirror” 1:20
8. “Sensation” 2:32
No. Title Length
1. “Miracle Cure” 0:10
2. “Sally Simpson” 4:10
3. “I’m Free” 2:40
4. “Welcome” 4:30
5. “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” (Keith Moon) 0:57
6. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” 6:45
In 2003, Tommy was released as a deluxe edition on a Hybrid SACD and DVD-Audio. The two formats featured the original album remixed into 5.1 surround sound and both featured a bonus disc of “out-takes and demos”. The DVD-Audio edition also includes a bonus video interview with Pete Townshend plus a demonstration of his remixing the original recording into 5.1 sound.
The first twelve tracks are out-takes and demos and the last five are stereo-only demos.
1. “I Was” – 0:17
2. “Christmas” (out-take 3) – 4:43
3. “Cousin Kevin Model Child” – 1:25
4. “Young Man Blues” (Version one) (Allison) – 2:51
5. “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” (alternate version) – 1:59
6. “Trying to Get Through” – 2:51
7. “Sally Simpson” (out-take) – 4:09
8. “Miss Simpson” – 4:18
9. “Welcome” (Take two) – 3:44
10. “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” (band’s version) – 1:07
11. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (alternate version) – 6:08
12. “Dogs (Part Two)” (Moon) – 2:26
13. “It’s a Boy” – 0:43
14. “Amazing Journey” – 3:41
15. “Christmas” – 1:55
16. “Do You Think It’s Alright” – 0:28
17. “Pinball Wizard” – 3:46
A cover of “One Room Country Shack” was also recorded and considered for inclusion but was scrapped from the final track listing as Townshend could not figure out a way to incorporate it in the plot of “Tommy.”
While The Who regularly played Tommy live at the time of its release, they rarely, if ever, played it in the form in which it was released. They instead decided to change the running order and omit some tracks entirely. Four tracks that were never performed during The Who’s initial tour were “Cousin Kevin”, “Underture”, “Sensation” and “Welcome”.
A live recording of Tommy in this altered state is available on the 2002 Deluxe Edition of the 1970 live album Live at Leeds. It is also available on the official release Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 from the same period, which was released in 1996. Another live version is available on the 2007 video release At Kilburn 1977 + Live at the Coliseum. Also, a bootleg of their performance at the Woodstock Festival is available online. In addition the website Wolfgang’s Vault released a live recording of “Tommy” recorded on 7 July 1970 at Tanglewood as part of Bill Graham’s “The Fillmore at Tanglewood” series.
The Who also performed Tommy for its 20th anniversary during their 1989 reunion tour, reinstating the previously overlooked “Cousin Kevin” and “Sensation” but still omitting “Underture” and “Welcome”. Recordings from this tour can be found on the Join Together live album and the Tommy and Quadrophenia Live DVD. The Los Angeles version of this show featured special guests such as Phil Collins (Uncle Ernie), Patti LaBelle (The Acid Queen), Steve Winwood (The Hawker), Elton John (The Local Lad) and Billy Idol (Cousin Kevin).
In 1975 Tommy was adapted as a film, produced by expatriate Australian entrepreneur Robert Stigwood and directed by British auteur Ken Russell. The movie version starred Daltrey as Tommy, and featured the other members of the Who, plus a supporting cast that included Ann-Margret as Tommy’s mother, Oliver Reed as “the Lover”, with appearances by Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Arthur Brown, and Jack Nicholson. In The Who’s original version, Tommy’s father Capt. Walker kills The Lover when he finds him with his wife upon returning home from being missing in action, however in the movie version The Lover kills Capt. Walker.
Tommy was one of the first music films released with a multichannel hi-fi soundtrack and many major cinemas, billing it as quintaphonic sound, which placed high-powered concert-style speaker banks in the four quadrants of the house and directly behind the center of the screen, reflecting the locations of the vocalists onscreen. The film received mixed reviews but was a commercial success on release and has achieved cult film status.
Townshend also oversaw the production of a new double-LP recording that returned the music to its rock roots, and on which the unrecorded orchestral arrangements he had envisaged for the original Tommy LP were realised by the extensive use of synthesiser. Besides the Who, the film’s music track and the original soundtrack LP also employed many leading sessions musicians including Caleb Quaye, Ronnie Wood, Nicky Hopkins, Chris Stainton, and longtime Who associate John “Rabbit” Bundrick. Due to Keith Moon’s commitments with the filming of Stardust, Kenney Jones played drums on much of the soundtrack album.
The song “Pinball Wizard” was a major hit when released as a single. This sequence in the film depicts Elton being backed by the Who (dressed in pound-note suits); the band portrayed the Pinball Wizard’s band for filming, but on the music track and soundtrack album, the music was performed entirely by Elton John and his band. Most of the extras were students at Portsmouth Polytechnic and were paid with tickets to a Who concert after filming wrapped.
REVIEW by Richie Unterberger, allmusic.com
The full-blown rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy that launched the band to international superstardom, written almost entirely by Pete Townshend. Hailed as a breakthrough upon its release, its critical standing has diminished somewhat in the ensuing decades because of the occasional pretensions of the concept and because of the insubstantial nature of some of the songs that functioned as little more than devices to advance the rather sketchy plot. Nonetheless, the double album has many excellent songs, including “I’m Free,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Sensation,” “Christmas,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and the dramatic ten-minute instrumental “Underture.” Though the album was slightly flawed, Townshend’s ability to construct a lengthy conceptual narrative brought new possibilities to rock music. Despite the complexity of the project, he and the Who never lost sight of solid pop melodies, harmonies, and forceful instrumentation, imbuing the material with a suitably powerful grace.