Review of The Who's Tommy |

music reviews


by Peter Grainger

The Who

"massively groundbreaking at the time."

"“Tommy” was as profound an experience any rock record could be."

The Who's Tommy

by Peter Grainger

I was a mere pup in 1969 when The Who put out the double LP "Tommy". It is hard to describe just how massively ground-breaking this was at the time. Imagine a ROCK OPERA! The Who was among the first of the British acts to try this; six months earlier, in the aftermath of The Beatles semi-conceptual “Sgt. Peppers”, The Pretty Things had put out a pretty powerful concept album called “P.F. Sorrow”; Pete Townshend has acknowledged his debt to them for paving the way forward. The Kinks had been there earlier too, with the under-rated song-cycle, “The Village Green Preservation Society”. And while The Who was recording their rock opera in London, across town The Kinks did it again, putting their own full-blown conceptual masterpiece together, although “Arthur” didn’t exactly break sales records the way “Tommy” eventually did.

The anticipation for “Tommy” was fueled a year earlier by Townshend himself, in a wide-ranging and high-flying interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, while tripping on acid the young composer outlined plot ideas for two long-form, narrative driven projects; one about the social movement clash of mods and rockers in England, which became 1973’s “Quadrophenia”, while the other was a story about a deaf, dumb blind boy, christened first as “Colin”, eventually settling on “Tommy”. With the groundwork laid out in newsprint, there was no turning back. Plus Townshend was encouraged by his manager and producer Kit Lambert, himself a big opera fan, to dive head-first into a new genre. Townshend already had some songs and themes laid out; and as was his wont throughout The Who’s career, he built up a pile of home demos (which can be heard on bootlegs, while some selections appear on his solo “Scoop” series).

When Townshend presented the demos to the rest of the band and explained the plot, reportedly his band mates got it— or most of it. Townshend tasked the others to contribute to the song-writing, with Entwistle rising to the occasion with two twisted tunes, “Cousin Kevin” (about a sadistic kid who viciously torments our hero) and “Fiddle About” (concerning sexual assault by wicked Uncle Ernie); it came out much later that Townshend had been a victim of similar abuses himself, by his maternal grandmother and one of her creepy boyfriends. Moon is credited with the music hall romp “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”, although he needed Townshend’s help to actually finish the damn thing.

The first taste any of us mere mortals got of “Tommy” was the last song recorded. Townshend had played rough mixes of his promised opera to Nik Cohn, a famous UK rock critic, who scoffed that the album was too dour, needing some levity. Knowing Cohn was a mean pinball player, Townshend whipped up “Pinball Wizard” in a feverish, over-night creative explosion; the critic promised if “Tommy” had a song about pinball, it would score five stars, instead of four. It gave the opera another colourful character, but even more important for the future of The Who, a hit single!

I still get a rush whenever I hear “Pinball Wizard”; furiously strummed acoustic guitar is slashed from one side of the stereo by Entwistle’s thundering bass, Moon is magnificent, Daltrey absolutely wails, as Townshend bellows back vocal replies. It’s catchy. And kitschy, just as earlier hits like “Happy Jack” and “Substitute” were. The new single helped draw attention to The Who, who realised the market was changing from singles-to-albums, but a critically-praised radio hit would help sell the double disc—which in itself was one of the riskiest career moves the band ever made.

The band worked on “Tommy” for an unprecedented-for-them six long months, yet it is not over-egged. The sound is clear and simple; if you close your eyes, you can place the various members of The Who in the stereo spectrum, you can feel the room. Townshend laid down guide vocals and electric rhythm guitar, which is pulled back in the mix, giving the eventual voices more presence, and allowing his piano and especially his acoustic guitar, prominence. It is not overly-produced, although there are some great studio effects used, like the punctuations of backwards guitar used in “Amazing Journey”, the first song he wrote for “Tommy” in 1967. The whole album feels organic, almost live-off-the-floor, a tone Townshend intended for a very good reason: for The Who alone, to be able to reproduce the opera for live audiences.

Early on Townshend told manager/producer Kit Lambert that because it was to be a ‘rock opera’ he would include a proper overture and even an underture, but (and this was a very big but) he didn’t want to sacrifice the ‘rock’ of the project; he didn’t want orchestral overload, to see it smothered in strings or drowned out by too many horns. Entwistle would be tasked to add some French horn, perhaps some muted trumpet, which he ended up doing to the album’s betterment, Moon was even given the nod to play some tympani. No operatic voices either, just The Who themselves. Plus, Townshend knew he couldn’t afford to tour with an orchestra; he wanted to be able to play “Tommy” live with just him and his fellow band-mates. And that is just what they did— nearly non-stop touring for nearly two years. “Tommy” saved their career at a crucial juncture and it has shadowed the band ever since (Townshend agreed to contribute to an over-the-top orchestral version in 1972, a soundtrack version and gave his blessing to Daltrey to put out an impressive orchestral version of his own in 2019).

My first major rock show was seeing The Who play Ottawa's long-gone Capitol Theatre in October '69. I was an innocent 14-year old— seeing soon-to-be-legends just a few months after their career-altering turn at Woodstock. The Ottawa show was loud and inspirational. I remember watching florid fresco flakes caught in the spotlights, falling off the ceiling like snow, as this incredible music shook the place to its foundations. I distinctly recall seeing the whole band crack-up as a very stoned long-haired fan began dancing and then stripping stage right, gyrating in the nude (making me wonder if this is where Townshend got the line of lyric later in "Long Live Rock" about “someone taking off his pants” while the band played on!) A neighbourhood friend of mine even caught one of Moon's drumsticks, which became a teen talisman for years. Included in a recent remaster of "Tommy", is a second disc, which has a live version of the rock opera, most of it recorded at the Ottawa show I saw. From that, various bootlegs and websites, I have gathered enough bits n’ pieces to recreate the full concert. It still sounds amazing, just like the original studio version does. At the time, “Tommy” was as profound an experience any rock record could be, and for many it still is or can be, for those few unfortunates who have yet to hear it.

Tommy Album Cover


Roger Daltrey: Vocals and harmonica
John Entwistle: Bass, French horn, trumpet, flugelhorn and vocals
Keith Moon: Drums, tympani, gong, tambourine and vocals
Pete Townshend: Guitars, keyboards and vocals

Produced by Kit Lambert
Recorded at IBC Studios, London

Track/Polydor/Universal Music 1969

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