I have an elderly Aunt who lives in North London. I visited her and her sister in 1969 with my parents and my sister. For some reason, I had this album with me. I didn’t take it there to play it – maybe I had been to see Peter and I had the album with me. Because of the pandemic, I’ve not been to see her for nearly a year but every time I have been to see her and I see the sideboard in her living room (she still lives in the same house with the same furniture), I remember the time in 1969 when I placed the album on the sideboard and she took one look at the cover and, kindly, – trying to show an interest- she said “Oh look, Tommy the who”. Not “Oh look, Tommy by The Who” but “Tommy the who”.
In 1966, when listening to a weird song called “Gratis Amatis”, which consisted of funny high pitched voices singing as if it were an aria, a friend of Pete Townsend jokingly called it a “rock opera”. The Who’s manager, Kit Lambert, quickly responded with “now there’s an idea”. Pete Townsend subsequently included “A Quick One” which was a ten minute sequence of short songs on the album of the same name. On The Who’s next album, “The Who Sell Out”, the final track “Rael” also consisted of a number of different segments. Pete Towsend determined that The Who’s next album should be a full blown rock opera.
At the time, Pete Townsend was experimenting with LSD and learning about mysticism. These caused him to seriously question what plane of consciousness we all existed on. Although we had five senses, we were all unaware of reality or infinity and so the idea of a story about a deaf, dumb and blind boy began to emerge. In the sleevenotes to the release of the CD, The Who’s biographer, Richard Barnes, writes that the themes of the story (which wasn’t an “opera” – there’s no staging, scenery or acting) are “murder, trauma, bullying, child molestation, sex, drugs, illusion, delusion, altered consciousness, spiritual awakening, religion, charlatanism, success, superstardom, faith, betrayal and rejection“. Oh yes, and pinball.
When Pete Townsend played an early version of the album to respected journalist Nic Cohn, he was aware of a lukewarm response. He wanted Nic Cohn to write a favourable review and he knew that he was a pinball fan so he quickly wrote “Pinball Wizard”. He later said “Oh my God, this is awful, the most clumsy piece of writing I’ve ever done.” When he took it to the studio to play to the rest of the group, they all loved it, assuring him that he had written a hit. Surprised with the reaction, Pete Townsend added one or two references to pinball in some of the other songs. The story line about Tommy playing pinball is irrelevant to the main story but it did give journalists and the paying a public a way in to start accessing this highly complex work.
Ken Russell produced a film version of the film and John Entwistle said “It wasn’t until Ken Russell did his version that I understood what the story was.” In retrospect, the success of the album is not down to the story but the fantastic songs. My own favourites are “Amazing Journey”, “Christmas”, “The Acid Queen”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Go To The Mirror”, “Sensation”, “I’m Free” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. These are great rock songs – Roger Daltrey’s vocals are majestic and Keith Moon’s drumming is as inventive and as mad as I would expect from this guy who seemed permanently plugged into the wall.
“1921” is an important song, insofar as Tommy suffers a trauma that causes him to become deaf, dumb and blind. The lyrics of the song don’t explain what this trauma is but Ken Russell’s film version indicates that Tommy’s father, who was believed to be killed in action during the war, returns home, finds his wife in bed with another man and kills him. Tommy witnesses this but is told not to say anything – he didn’t see anything, he didn’t hear anything and he must never speak of what he saw. Is it better that the cause of his disabilities is spelt out exactly (as in the film) or is it better that it’s left to our imagination (as on the album)?
Pete Townsend always wrote interesting lyrics. “I’m A Boy”, “Pictures Of Lily” and “I Can See For Miles” are remarkable. In my opinion, however, he outdid himself on this album. Take “Christmas”, for example. The lyrics to the first verse have a wonderful lilting rhythm to them which, when sung by Roger Daltrey, make for sensational poetry, worthy of Nigel Blackwell.
“Did you ever see the faces of the children? They get so excited
Waking up on Christmas morning hours before the winter sun’s ignited
They believe in dreams and all they mean including heaven’s generosity
Peeping round the door to see what parcels are for free in curiosity”
“Go To The Mirror!” is equally exciting and is one of the key songs on the album. The doctor can’t find anything physically wrong with Tommy “The tests I gave him make no sense at all” and the problem lies within Tommy himself. As his parents and the doctor try to reach him, Tommy’s subconscious is begging for help: “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me“. The original version of the song had an extra verse in which Tommy’s Dad sings “I’ve kicked him, licked him, rubbed him, hit him, loved him. Everything in vain to let him know I’m here my son, your dad, I wait for your sign and in my heart frustration overflows.” The song leads into “Tommy Can You Hear Me” in which his Mum’s desperate pleas finally begin to work and in the following song a breakthrough comes when, in “Smash The Mirror” Tommy recovers his senses.
The follow up single to “Pinball Wizard” in the USA was “I’m Free” in which Tommy, having gained millions of followers after his miracle cure, expresses a wish to share spiritual enlightenment with others which subsequently results in him setting up a holiday camp. John Entwistle explained that Keith Moon only plays the drum breaks “Because he couldn’t get the intro. He was hearing it differently from how we were, and he couldn’t shake it off. So Pete and I put down the snare, the hi-hat and the tambourine part and he came in and added all the breaks.” It has a great riff which Pete Townsend confesses he stole from “Street Fighting Man”
“Tommy” has had many incarnations since its release as a double album in 1969 but the two best known are by The London Symphony Orchestra in 1972 and Ken Russell’s film in 1976. The former included guest vocalists included Graham Bell (as The Lover), Maggie Bell (as The Mother), Sandy Denny (as The Nurse), Steve Winwood (as The Father), Rod Stewart (as The Local Lad), Richie Havens (as The Hawker), Merry Clayton (as The Acid Queen) and Ringo Starr (as Uncle Ernie) along with Roger Daltrey as Tommy.
In Ken Russell’s film, Ann Margaret (Mother), Tina Turner (The Acid Queen), Eric Clapton (The Preacher), Oliver Reed (Uncle), Elton John (Pinball Wizard), Jack Nicholson (Doctor), Keith Moon (Uncle Ernie), Paul Nicholas (Cousin Kevin), Robert Powel (Group Captain Walker) and Arthur Brown (The Preacher’s assistant) all featured. Obviously, it’s a Ken Russell film so it’s completely over the top but it’s a brilliant film with many highlights. The instrumental passage in “The Acid Queen” is particularly exciting.
I’ve never been a huge Elton John fan but he was born to play the part of the pinball wizard.
Performing “Tommy” turned The Who into the world’s most exciting band, (according to all those people who didn’t think that accolade belonged to The Rolling Stones). Roger Daltrey’s virtuoso performances turned him into the world’s best vocalist (according to all those people who didn’t think that accolade belonged to Robert Plant). Their performnce at Woodstock was the highlight of the three days (according to all those people who didn’t think that accolade belonged to Jimi Hendrix). It doesn’t matter who’s best or even who’s next – this is a landmark album which changed rock music forever.