The Who's 'Tommy': An In-Depth Look At Their Groundbreaking Rock Opera Album

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Next spring, The Who will play two special gigs for Teenage Cancer Trust at the Royal Albert Hall where they’ll play their ambitious, inventive 1969 double album ‘Tommy’ in full. Hoping to move The Who’s music past the youth-orientated pop defined by ‘My Generation’, Pete Townshend had long been itching to write what he’d dubbed a “rock opera” since 1966 when ‘Tommy’ came into existence – he and Who manager Kit Lambert had come up with the term when Townshend was writing a four-part piece called ‘Quads’, about a future where parents could choose the sex of their child.

On their second album ‘A Quick One’, short of material, Lambert encouraged Pete to create a mini-opera called ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’ by collating a suite of song snippets, and by 1968 he was developing a full-album concept called ‘Deaf, Dumb And Blind Boy’, inspired by Indian spiritual mentor Meher Baba. When it finally hit the world a year later, under the more enigmatic name ‘Tommy’, it took the Mods to a brand new level of artistry and success. Find out everything you need to know about the record and set your alarm for 9am on Friday (September 23) to bag yourself tickets.

The story behind the sleeve

Designed by fellow Baba acolyte Mike McInnerney, the cover art of a meshwork of clouds in a void was meant to represent “a kind of breaking out of a certain restricted plane of freedom”.

Five facts

1. Townshend eventually named the double-album story of a deaf and blind mute and abuse victim who grows up to be a pinball expert and spiritual leader ‘Tommy’ as it was a common British name and the nickname of soldiers in WWI.

2. Other working titles included ‘Amazing Journey’, ‘Journey Into Space’, ‘The Brain Opera’ and ‘Omnibus’.

3. Some songs pre-dated the album, such as ‘Sally Simpson’, about a show they played with The Doors that erupted into violence, and ‘I’m Free’, an ode to the peace teachings of Meher Baba.

4. Keith Moon is credited as writing ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’, but Townshend actually wrote and recorded the song. Moon’s input was simply coming up with the idea of the sort of cult that Tommy would lead.

5. Radio One DJ Tony Blackburn criticized the single ‘Pinball Wizard’ for being “distasteful” in its approach to disabilities.

Lyric analysis

“You didn’t hear it/You didn’t see it/You won’t say nothing to no one” – ‘1921’: Tommy’s psychosomatic illness is instigated when he witnesses his missing father, presumed dead in WWI, return home and kill his mother’s new lover.

“Maybe a cigarette burn on your arm/Would change your expression to one of alarm” – ‘Cousin Kevin’: Things go from bad to worse for Tommy as he’s abused by both his cousin Kevin and his uncle Ernie, the subject of the extraordinarily creepy ‘Fiddle About’

“Gather your wits and hold on fast/Your mind must learn to roam” – ‘The Acid Queen’: Memorably played by Tina Turner in the movie version, the acid queen was a quack doctor’s wife who claimed she could heal Tommy with large doses of LSD. Whether the acid queen has been granted any private NHS contracts is unconfirmed at time of going to press.

What we said then

“Admittedly the idea is original, even though other groups seem to be jumping on the bandwagon now, but it doesn’t come off… Pretentious is too strong a word: maybe ambitious is the right term, but sick certainly does apply.” Allen Evans, NME, 1969

What we say now

Bloated, cheesy, overblown and cartoonishly offensive by today’s standards sure, but ‘Tommy’ contains some of The Who’s finest moments in ‘See Me, Feel Me’ and ‘Pinball Wizard’, and its pioneering of the rock opera format has subsequently given us everything from ‘…Ziggy Stardust…’ to Muse’s ‘Drones’.

Famous fan

“I look at Tommy by the Who and think it should be played like someone interpreting Beethoven. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll has always meant to me. It’s the modern classics of the 20th century and now the 21st.” Billie Joe Armstrong, Rolling Stone, 2014

In their own words

“What it’s really all about is the fact that … he’s seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music. That’s really what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play.” Pete Townshend, Rolling Stone, 1968

The aftermath

As (arguably) the first true narrative concept album and a 20 million seller, ‘Tommy’ quickly took on a life of its own. After the band toured the album, playing it virtually in full, they staged a version backed by the London Symphony Orchestra starring the likes of Peter Sellers, Rod Stewart and Ringo Starr in 1972 and a film version was released in 1975 featuring Elton John, Tina Turner, Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson. In 1993, a Broadway stage version opened and ran for two years. And in the interim, the idea of the ‘rock opera’ swept through ’70s rock, virtually inventing prog.

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