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THE WHO “TOMMY” (1969)
On paper this really shouldn’t work at all. A ‘rock opera’ of all things – a format designed to bring three minutes of nonsense pleasure into the lives of millions extended into a 75 minute story complete with a beginning, middle and end that aimed to teach rather than offer escape. ‘Tommy’ isn’t just any philosophy parable either: it’s the dark story of child abuse, beginning with the death of Tommy’s father or stepfather (the libretto never is very clear) at the hands of the other, a childhood spent dumb, deaf and blind as the boy lives through the shock of witnessing it all and a resolution that’s as cynical as they come, with the now grown Tommy still being used and manipulated by those around him even though he can now talk and hear and see. Moreover Tommy finds redemption not in music (as the characters will in the ‘next’, unfinished Pete Townshend masterpiece ‘Lifehouse’) or in being a ‘mod’ (as the all-round similar Jimmy will in ‘Quadrophenia’ in two albums time) but in pinball, becoming a champion and a household name despite his disabilities and bringing the story to a boil by being greeted as ‘the new messiah’. In these post-Jimmy Saville times it’s a brave fan who can sit through the two child abuse songs at the heart of the story without flinching and this album must surely be unique in 1960s music circles by not having one single love song on it (‘Listening To You’, Tommy’s song of devotion to the audience, is the closest it gets). No wonder those who only heard bits and pieces of what The Who were working on scratched their heads before the record came out and no wonder ‘Tommy’ has always got a very up-and-down press then and since, labelled by many critics as ‘sick’ while being recognised as important enough by a panel of voters to be inducted into the ‘Grammy’ album hall of fame (the musical equivalent of the films nominated each year for preservation in a fallout shelter in the event of nuclear war), the only non-Beatle AAA album on the list as I write in 2013. There must be something in this album because since it’s release the public seems reluctant to let the story die too: there have been orchestral all-star versions of the record, a bonkers 1975 film that spent too much time trying to pin down the story and not enough time giving singing lessons to the actors and a 1993 musical co-produced by George Martin that perhaps tried too hard to sound like a ‘musical’ and not enough like a ‘rock opera’.
There are certainly difficulties with ‘Tommy’: the fact that the band have only one lead vocalist means that poor Roger Daltrey has to act out the parts of not just the title character but Tommy’s mum, Tommy’s dad, Tommy’s uncle Ernie and anyone else integral to the plot (apart from Pete’s cameos as the midwife who delivers Tommy into the world and the ‘Acid Queen’ who all but delivers Tommy out of it!) The lack of time which meant that several of these songs sound tinny and flat and cobbled together like a jigsaw rather than the free-flowing magical quilt of colours that the live versions of ‘Tommy’ came to become. Frankly, too, the album is too thin for a double album, with precious time taken up with superfluous jingles and not one but two near-identical instrumental passages that make up near enough a quarter of the total running time. ‘Tommy’ also lacks the punch of the ‘Lifehouse/Who’s Next’ songs or the sheer ridiculous consistency of ‘Quadrophenia’, The Who’s two other epic works, leaving it a pioneering but artistically satisfying third in the scheme of the band’s great trilogy.
All that said, it’s hard to dislike ‘Tommy’. Like the character it represents, Tommy is an innocent abroad, a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter of whether rock music really was important enough to be played in prestigious upper class venues (‘Tommy’ was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, the first time any ‘rock and roll’ act was allowed in to play) and yet lowbrow enough to contain a standalone hit single in ‘Pinball Wizard’. There are so many firsts about ‘Tommy’ that you have to applaud the sheer bravery of the band for tackling it, not at the high point of their career when they could get away with anything, but at the darkest time of their career thus far (the band failed to get even one top 20 single in 1968, an absolute aeon to be away from the public eye in the 1960s). As all good AAA fans should know, Tommy is far from the first concept album (that belongs to the Beach Boys as long ago as ‘Shut Down 2’ in 1963) and its arguably not the first ‘rock opera’ either: though not marketed as such strong cases could be made for the love stories of ‘Pet Sounds’, the Edwardian band at play in ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ or the trio of Ray Davies masterpieces ‘Face To Face’ (made with sound effects to emphasis modern living, sadly diluted by the record company), ‘Village Green’ (15 vignettes of nostalgia and changing times) and especially ‘Arthur’ (in which a middle-aged man’s dissolution with what Britain has become encapsulates all that is wrong with a fading empire a generation were now feeling guilty for having). However most of these albums only feature half a plot, only the last of the three really compares to ‘Tommy’ in having a ‘story’ with a beginning middle and end and even the ‘twin’ Arthur’ tries to tell a much more symbolic and less plot-based story, without as clear a resolution. Telling stories across an album – and a double album at that – simply wasn’t done in rock music circles at the time and what makes this all the more remarkable is that ‘Tommy’ is very much a case of using the ‘parent’ generation’s vehicle of musicals and operas to tell them the ‘story’ of what the youth of the day have learnt in a format they would understand (and most sneering mums and dads assumed the bands of the day weren’t up to writing; actually ‘Tommy’ is probably close to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas than a musical, sharing W S Gilbert’s same idea of letting the audience fill in the ‘holes’ of the plot themselves and topical social comment about heroes and messiahs revealing themselves to be more human and weak than the rest of us by the very end).
It’s not just the ‘pioneering’ aspect that works about ‘Tommy’ either: by the end of the record you know you’ve been on a journey, even if you’re not quite sure what that journey is, and the ending that sees Tommy left as alone as at the beginning but with a new understanding between himself and his audience never fails to move, no matter how many times an elderly and decrepit Who revive it to get in touch with their old audience. There’s a real power in ‘Tommy’ that words can’t express: whether that’s born out of the music, the lyrics, the very real experiences of Pete that lie behind the story (both horribly real and fascinatingly mystical), the band performances or the rather threadbare plot I can’t tell you, but ‘Tommy’ has been entrancing listeners for generations now for very good reasons. Some fans can and have dismissed this album because of its silly plot or because the studio record sounds so poor compared to the live versions, both of which are entirely valid points, but this is a revolutionary idea told as well as it could be for the day and still with much to say to passing generations. ‘Tommy’ is the perfect album for those who’ve been cut off from life or have no voice, but instead of being like all the rags to riches stories turned into music to come in the years to come, Townshend has already recognised that fame and money do not solve the world’s problems and may in fact cause some of them. Given the modern day obsession with reality TV and celebrity culture, the ending of ‘Tommy’ - where the audience all turn on their new ‘hero’ for not giving them the easy answers they want to hear – is more poignant than its ever been.
So where did this album come from? Never one to set his sights low, Pete had actually been trying to write a full length work for some time, ever since stringing a lot of songs together for the title track of Who album number two ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’ (the irony being that at eight minutes this was about as ‘slow’ a song to play as any the rock and pop world had seen by then). Pete then wrote a ‘musical’ called ‘Quads’ about a boy accidentally adopted into a surrogate family who asked for four girls and gets treated like his sisters (the defiant hit single ‘I’m a Boy!’ is the only released part of this work so far). Not content to stop here, he then tried his hand at a much bigger piece, in terms of time and scale, imagining a future world where the Chinese have taken over Western society and taken over lands all the way to Israel (fearing a backlash, Pete shrunk the work down to a more manageable size and shrunk the names down too so that the Red Chinese became ‘Red Chins’ and ‘Isreal’ became ‘Rael’, the title of the song which appeared on album number three ‘Who Sell Out’ in 1967). All these works were done under the encouraging eye of manager Kit Lambert, Pete’s chief supporter in the 1960s, who had himself come from a theatrical family and loved the idea of turning a wild rock and roll band loose onto the land of his parents. Lambert may not have written a note of ‘Tommy’ but he deserves as much praise as anyone in the band for having the foresight to encourage ‘Tommy’ and support Pete’s wilder ideas at a time when The Who were struggling for hits and most managers would have pulled the band back and got them to re-write ‘My Generation’ fifteen times. ‘Tommy’ came as a shock to everyone who heard it and mutated at such an ungainly, uncontrolled pace that almost all of what we have on the album are re-recordings of tracks the band had already laid down once in mid 1968 before the project took shape and the band got a better idea of hoe to support it best. However it would be unfair, like some commentators, to claim that ‘Tommy’ came out of the blue: like Ray Davies Pete had been trying to write something like ‘Tommy’ for three years and the wonder isn’t that the work is as long or as uncompromising as it is but that Pete actually finished it more or the less the way he wanted (unlike his three previous stabs at writing ‘long songs’).
One thing that all these works have in common – and something that’s often missed when discussing ‘Tommy’ – is that these pieces are all about identity: The Who may have referred to the piece internally as ‘Amazing Journey’ or ‘Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy’ but it speaks volumes that they name this album after the child at the heart of the story. The Who have always been about working out what it means to have an identity, from the name of their band on down, but ‘Tommy’ takes this idea to the biggest extreme of their career, leaving the poor title character unable to see, hear or speak, lost in a world that seems to be of his own making (as a self-defence mechanism over what he witnesses – or so the doctors in the story appear to think). Unable to interact with anyone around him or to have their opinions and behaviour shape him, does this make Tommy a fully formed character or no character at all? Tommy has no opportunity for expression, but does that mean that there’s nothing to express? What does it mean even to exist, when there’s no way you can pass your feelings on to others and a ‘vague haze of delirium’ means you can never be sure of what you remember either because all of your memories are of the same empty void? The reason the ‘see me, feel me, touch me, heal me’ refrain touches as many nerves as it does is because Tommy clearly looks to other people for love and understanding (without the comprehension that actually the family and later followers around him are murderers, conmen and sycophants). Tommy appears to only get his identity from other people: but actually his blank slate is the best personality trait of all in what’s actual quite a wicked and callous world, with Tommy unchanged by the corruption around him. The doctors sing on the album, before Tommy is cured, ‘imagine the shock of isolation when he suddenly can hear and speak and see’ – at first I took this as a mis-print (surely Tommy is most isolated living on his own?), but no - Tommy is quite happy in his own world and its in a world full of social, interactive whirlwinds that he later feels out of place.
What most people miss about ‘Tommy’ is that it’s not a piece about his disabilities: it’s really about our own and our inability to realise the full potential within ourselves for whatever earthly hang-ups we have. After all, given the way the ending of the album paints Tommy as ‘getting’ something about the world we don’t, which of us would not swap our lives for his own, riddled as ours are with greed, deceit, abuse and vengeful murders? When Tommy seems to have ‘broken through’ to another stage of realisation (caused by his mother violently smashing the mirror he stares into, unseeing, for nearly two-thirds of the record), he’s actually just broken through to our own world of understanding life but – seeing it for the first time since he was five years old – he sees things in it that we don’t see ourselves. Flooded with all of the things he’s lived alongside, unseeing, for all this time, he becomes aware of how cynical the world is, full of overgrown bullies, con tricksters, religious rules trying to govern our lives (the song ‘Christmas’ tells us that there is no religion where Tommy is) and people who believe in the false image of other people’s lives far more than they do in themselves (the only suitable additional scene in the ‘Tommy’ film in my opinion is the one with Eric Clapton as ‘The Hawker’, getting a church audience to ‘worship’ celebrity culture as signified by a statue of Marilyn Monroe) people flock to Tommy not because he’s lived life differently but because he lives in our own differently – as a trusting child, untouched by corruption and evil. Despite all the bad things that happen in his life and see him betrayed by his own family Tommy is still out to help even if the ‘rooted people’ around him aren’t.
I’m quite glad I left ‘Tommy’ till so late in the life of this website to tackle head on because it’s given me the chance to read Pete Townshend’s excellent autobiography ‘Who I Am’ (one which should, really, be titled ‘Who Am I?’ given that its’ a very Tommy-like search for identity all the way through) published in 2012 which fills in many of the gaps about Pete’s early childhood experiences and his fear that, like his creation Tommy, he was abused by family members who knew he was too young to be believed would he ever to speak of it. The horror for Pete comes from not from what happens but from how casually everyone around him takes his allegations: being a ‘child’ in an ‘adult’s world (Pete’s two brothers won’t be born until he reaches his late teens) means he’s largely invisible, with no one listening to him or encouraging him to speak. It’s fascinating too that much of Tommy takes place during a war (the first world war on the album, the second in the film), something that disrupted the identity of most of the world and encouraged parents not to get too close to their offspring who were too used to death and pointless destruction to think clearly. The clever thing about ‘Tomy’, though, is that isn’t just Pete’s story writ large; unable to shake off the violence he sees, Tommy creates his own world of peace and tranquillity and tries to pass this on to those around him when he awakes from his slumber and the parallels between this and the 60s generation (nearly all war or rationing babies) are clear. Despite being a very violent, surprisingly aggressive album for it’s vintage, ‘Tommy’ is really a very peace-loving album about coming to terms with your life experiences and staying true to yourself in a corrupt world (The Who have a reputation for being ‘fierce’, but as we’ve seen so often on this site that violence is really a smokescreen for frustration – the weedy sensitive kid (Pete) singing in a tough man’s body (Roger)).
I can’t make this point without bringing up Pete Townshend’s other main inspiration for the work. Meher Baba is a guru nowadays best known for his phrase ‘don’t worry, be happy’ which appears on t-shirts and on novelty ringtones as a matter of course. But back in the 1960s Pete (and several other musicians, such as The Small Faces’ Ronnie Lane) considered Baba’s teachings to hold a believable spiritual truth that seemed to be lacking in the modern Western age without It’s hard to work out what Baba’s teachings are exactly, as Meher vowed never to speak from 1925 onwards and kept his promise until his death in January 1969 (the closeness between this date and the release of ‘Tommy’ must surely be significant as a pupil bids goodbye to his ‘master’) and there are no religious idols, prayers or routines to follow, simply a hope that the follower lives their lives ‘in a way Baba would approve of’. Really, like ‘Tommy’, his teachings are a ‘blank canvas’ for those on a spiritual quest to project their own feelings on to – and his one well known phrase (‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’) doesn’t seem to have really worked, given that both Townshend and Lane are amongst the two biggest worriers in the AAA collection of musicians! The clearest parallel with ‘Tommy’ comes at the end of the double-album, when Tommy is healed and treated ‘like a pop star’, while those at his feet keep asking him for a ‘message’ that will answer all their problems. Tommy doesn’t really have one and – with his family fleecing the followers for all they can get – realises that the best he can do is preach about what not to do in life: no drinking or drugs but equally no ‘hung up mr normal’ whose smug at the fact he does neither. The audience leaves and Tommy only learns what to teach by listening to them and their life experiences (ie the concert audience when The Who play live) – a very Baba concept if ever there was one. Being a Baba follower is often written about as the worshipper opening their hearts and heads to the ‘possibility’ of another level of life, to be filled with God’s love but not necessarily the rule-dominated doctrines of the Christian, Muslim or Hindu faiths. Tommy has seen that ‘hidden level’ firsthand after an ‘amazing journey’ that’s experienced outside the normal senses that have all been cut off – and its tempting to see Tommy as Pete Townshend’s avatar both in childhood and as an adult, privy to this extra spiritual layer in life but equally unable to express it to his audience (we’ve said it before but every Who album/song is to some extent an extension of their first, ‘I Can’t Explain’, and that goes double for ‘Tommy’).
Tommy is unique in Pete’s work in that Tommy finds redemption, of a sort, unlike the ambiguous ending of ‘Quadrophenia’ that finds Jimmy the mod either coming to terms with life or jumping from a cliff – or the intended ending of ‘Lifehouse’ where the old regime gets torn down to be replaced with exactly the same collusion of power, dominance and control. The other characters have no control whatsoever (their lives are always determined by other people) but even though it turns out to be an illusion Tommy does have ‘control’. Notice how its his family who mess things up for him again and again in the album: His father/stepfather commits murder in front of him as a boy, his Cousin Kevin is a horrible bully and his Uncle Ernie is a child molester (played superbly in the film by a manic Keith Moon), later betraying all of the things Tommy tries to tell his followers by charging money for the eye-shades, ear-plugs and corks that all of his ‘followers’ are told they need to be like him. Tommy is no saint either (the song ‘Welcome’ is subtly sly, with its tale of ‘becoming one of the comfortable people’ so ‘you don’t have to be like the others’, but it comes after Tommy has been in the ‘land of the living’ for a while and is becoming corrupted like everyone else). Still, Tommy is quick to learn from the experience and at least tries to impress upon everyone that there is more to life than easy answers and cynical, morally dubious practices.
With all this talk of plot, there’s not been much time to talk about the music. By ‘Who’ standards ‘Tommy’ is a very low key album: Keith Moon almost sounds like a ‘normal’ drummer at times, so tightly controlled are his parts and so rigid the arrangements (although that will all change live!) Interestingly Keith sounds the most uncomfortable about this change in style, even though he was into the idea of the album enough to make some key suggestions (that’s his winning idea that Uncle Ernie should run a ‘holiday camp’ for Tommy’s followers even if Pete actually wrote the song of the same name for him and gave the drummer the credit– and a better image of depraved, forced-smile 1950s conformity that goes in the face of everything Tommy tries to say I cannot think of). John Entwistle has the hardest job to do on the album: anxious to get some of his songs into the concept Pete puts him in charge of writing the hardest two, ‘Cousin Kevin’ and ‘Fiddle About’, which he can’t bring himself to write but knows have to be there in the plot (the circumstances were uncomfortably close to home for Townshend, who had therapy for his suppressed memories of child abuse right up to the 1990s). At first John writes in his normal style of nonchalant dark humour (‘Cousin Kevin Model Child’, released on the deluxed editions of both ‘Tommy’ and Who outtakes album ‘Odds and Sods’) which is wickedly funny but would have sounded at odds with the rest of ‘Tommy’. Asked to try again most new-to-songwriting bandmates would have reused but instead John creates the quiet dark heart of the album, especially on the nightmare madrigal of ‘Fiddle About’, a song that sounds as if it has the brakes on throughout and as if the narrator is doing all he can to stop himself. However its Roger who deservedly won the most respect. Passed over for many of the vocals on ‘A Quick One’ and ‘Who Sell Out’ he needed to get into this project to cement his status as a key member of the band and for most fans never sang better, interpreting layers into the character of the blind, deaf and dumb boy that arguably aren’t there. ‘Tommy’ has very little space for character development (he only wakes up from his self-induced world in the very last song of side three) but Roger’s delivery is spot on, as if years of pent up aggression and love and concern are all going through his head at once.
Musically The Who aren’t quite the telepathic four-headed-beast they’ll become in the 1970s and given the bare bones sound of the record aren’t as good at covering up their sound up with psychedelic effects and Radio London jingles as they did on last album ‘Who Sell Out’, but there are some stunningly good performances here. Both ‘Overture’ and ‘Underture’ have a sound so huge that it’s hard to believe that there really are just three musicians playing at once. ‘Acid Queen’ ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘I’m Free’ are all as fierce as any rock and roll songs Who fans had come to expect. The pretty ‘Sally Simpson’ throws in a delightful oddball curve of music hall patter, a many-words-a-minute song that’s the most Gilbert and Sullivan like song here. Best of all ‘Amazing Journey’ into ‘Sparks’ might sound a little ordinary on the record, but when heard in concert represent the very best of The Who, a chilling promise of future adventures if only someone will listen to the poor narrator and ending up in one of rock’s very best instrumentals, an amazing journey indeed (in fact we list it at the #1 spot in our own ‘top ten instrumentals’ list back in News, Views and Music no 124). These songs alone mean Tommy has come through most of the decades with most of his crown intact.
All that said, I’m not one of those fans who think ‘Tommy’ is perfect or that these high points can excuse the album’s lesser moments. You could easily remove almost all the other songs on the album to make it a single album and it would still make sense of the ambiguous plotline. Filling up 15 precious minutes of the 75 with two lengthy and similar instrumentals (‘Underture’ and ‘Overture’) is arguably one two many, even if both are played superbly (and the pun in the name of the former is a hilarious put down of traditional musical conventions). There are lots of little itty bitty filler songs that never really go anywhere, especially on side three where Tommy’s mother and father/stepfather (depending how you interpret the plot) get increasingly callous/stupid by leaving their precious boy behind with a bunch of strangers/bonkers relatives. ‘Go To The Mirror’ and ‘Smash The Mirror’ should be the huge climax of the whole piece ending in a passionate loud clang of a gong as Tommy wakes up from his slumber; heard on record it merely sounds like Tommy’s mother has got a bit cross and suddenly dinner is ready. The idea of pinball comes and goes, a little obviously slotted into the plot only at the eleventh hour. ‘Sensation’ and ‘I’m Free’ might be different musically but lyrically they serve the same purpose – unusually lazy writing from someone who normally has too much not too little to say. Whilst the final climax of ‘Listening To You’ is riveting stuff, the song that gets us there – ‘Welcome’ – is particularly dreadful and being so slow itself brings the story to something of a crawl. Also, while the idea of ‘bringing eyesight to the blind’ as heard in Tommy’s lone cover song ‘The Hawker’ makes sense, why does this Sonny Boy Williamson interpretation come at the end off side one? (To my ears it sounds better as a description of the ‘acid queen’). Frankly ‘Tommy’ has a magical single album’s worth of music inside it but is pretty miserable at times stretched out to two (like its sister project ten years later, ‘The Wall’ by Pink Floyd, it really needs to be half an hour shorter or a half hour longer, with bits of the missing plot put back). All that said, however, the hour(ish) version The Who played on tour is pretty stunning (missing out ‘Cousin Kevin’ ‘The Underture’ ‘Sensation’ ‘Sally Simpson’ and ‘Welcome’) is pretty stunning, still fulfilling the need to tell the plot but without any distracting pauses for breath. The version heard as the entire second disc of ‘Live At Leeds’ (already reviewed in full on this site – see below) is astonishingly powerful; the version heard here in record only matches it in parts.
Overall, then ‘Tommy’ is a still-important milestone in music and one that still ranks amongst the highest achievements in music even if – to my ears – he’s a rather sickly and less rounded individual compared to the two future Who ‘greats’ the unfinished ‘Lifehouse’ and the finished ‘Quadrophenia’. In fact, speaking purely as a Who fan, this fourth Who record isn’t quite as instantly enjoyable and winningly balanced as the affably daft third album ‘Who Sell Out’. But for all the plot holes, patchy performances and occasionally less than stellar songwriting ‘Tommy’ is still a remarkable creation, well ahead of its time and – indeed – remarkable for any band who were only approaching their fifth anniversary together. The 1960s took pace at a phenomenal rate, as we’ve seen time and time again on this site, and in 1969 with The Beatles dead, Woodstock seemingly a coming of age for the pop teenagers becoming rock loving adults and a new sound in the air everywhere you turned then ‘Tommy’ seemed about the best direction template for the future as anyone could find. And when you consider 1969 also saw the release of celebrated albums like the first ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ album, the Rolling Stones’ ‘Let It Bleed’, The Kinks’ ‘Arthur’, Pentangle’s ‘Basket Of Light’, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and The Moody Blues’ double whammy of ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’ and ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’ then that will tell you what a great and promising album ‘Tommy’ was. The fact that The Who only lived up to this trend for a little while longer and the fact that music in general went in a much slighter, smaller, lesser direction even quicker shouldn’t be laid at ‘Tommy’s door: to hear it is a whole is to be reminded how important and revealing music can be.
Assemble the musicians! Everyone ready for the ‘rock otter’? Err ‘pot opera’? Either way first up is ‘Overture’, a first flurry through the main tunes that are going to be dominating the record from hereon in. Like many ‘overtures’, this is simply a medley of many of the melody lines to come and feature as follows: the strident chordal opening to ‘Eyesight To The Blind’, a shimmery hazy version of ‘See Me, Feel Me’, an Entwistle-played brass version of ‘Go To The Mirror’, a wordless near-a capella repeat of ‘See Me, Feel Me’, an organ-led preview of ‘Listening To You’ and finally the acoustic guitar riff from ‘Pinball Wizard’ before the track goes somewhere entirely original some four minutes in. This first section is pretty neatly cobbled together as one long instrumental (it fits better together than most overtures heard in musicals to be honest) and seems to have been done more or less at the end of recording ‘Tommy’, fitting the pieces of all the songs together like one long tapestry. For most fans, though, the most interesting part is the final section, heralded by a magical flurry of flamenco acoustic playing from Townshend and Pete’s lead vocal as the ‘narrator’. Condensing the plot to a single haiku-like verse, the story of the father lost at war is robbed of all emotion as Tommy’s story is, not for the last time on this album, played out in music rather than words. Interestingly there’s not one mention of the death of the dad/step-dad in the whole of the libretto (fans weren’t really sure of what happens in the story until the film version of ‘Tommy’, although the plot development was apparently always part of the tale).
‘It’s a Boy’ is, surprisingly, indexed separately despite lasting for just 39 seconds (there’s a much cleaner break four minutes into ‘Overture’, which would have made this a two minute song). Listen out for Entwistle’s gorgeous French horn part and Pete’s high vocal, this time playing the part of a ‘midwife’, as she brings Tommy into the world. As all good Who fans know now – although few knew at the time – the melody for this song was recycled from a 1967 Townshend composition named ‘Glow Girl’ (now available as a bonus track on the CD of ‘Who Sell Out’) wherein a worried man endures a plane crash and is re-incarnated on landing (well, it was 1967!) That version features the refrain ‘It’s a girl, Mrs Walker, it’s a girl’ in contrast to the midwife’s declaration to Tommy’s mother that ‘It’s a boy, Mrs Walker, it’s a boy!’
One of the most peculiar and hard-to-grasp things about ‘Tommy’ is the date of the setting. Ken Russell updates the film to the second world war (for no other reason than to reflect his own experiences as a child in the war) but the original sets the death of Tommy’s father in World War One. This dating makes a mockery of the rest of the plot, though: to be fair pinball had been around since the Renaissance – of a sort (using pins and cogs rather than electricity to make the balls move) – but Tommy’s pinball machine is clearly a modern one, built for modern ‘flipping fingers’ and with ‘digi-counters’ that weren’t around till the 1950s. The ending, too, is clearly a very 60s ending, with a new generation rising out of the murky waters of 1950s conformity and pretence claiming ‘We’re not gonna take it!’ with one voice. And yet there it is as plain as day: ‘1921’ is ‘gonna be a good year’ for Tommy’s parents/stepfamily before the father returns from the war (where has he been hiding since 1918?!) and kills/is killed by the stepdad, making Tommy roughly 35 by the time the 60s begin. As a song ‘1921’ is one of the best on the album, full of war clichés like ‘when you smile I can brave bad weather’ (actually this song is a dead ringer for what the Kinks were writing about WW2 in ‘Arthur’ in the same period) that promise a decent, happy future. All too soon, though, its clear the war spirit is built on lies: in the film this is the point where toddler Tommy walks in on the murder and is ordered ‘You didn’t hear it! You didn’t see it! You won’t say nothing to no one, ever in your life!’ to protect their skins and reputation, the shock of the event combined with the orders from people he loves causing Tommy to shut down all his senses. Yet at the same time, ‘Tommy’ is in essence a parable for the times: Townshend’s said since that he was really summing up the whole WW2 culture where war babies were encouraged not to listen to or speak about what they’d seen and to blank their eyes to the burning rubble and destroyed buildings around them. The war was simply so horrid that most of the people who lived through it didn’t want to be reminded of it – and as we’ve said so many times on this site if ever there was a single cause for the 1960s it’s a generation of war veterans not being given answers to the question ‘why’?! A pretty song with a lovely riff and effective switches from sweetness and light to heavy stabbing discordant jabs of the piano, this is one of the better songs on ‘Tommy’. If I had one criticism to make its that Pete sings all parts on the record, parts that should be shared between the mother, father and Tommy according to the libretto. Roger’s first presence as the little boy (singing ‘I heard it! I saw it!’ low in the mix and being drowned out by the adults) is excellent though.
‘Amazing Journey’ was the first song written for ‘Tommy’ and it’s easy to see why Pete seized upon this song’s images as the basis for his first finished full length work. Cut off from his senses, Tommy is now ten years old and living in his own world of ‘good vibrations’ freed from a corrupt world to shape him. Visited by a ‘tall stranger’ who promises him an ‘amazing journey’, the goodness of his guide contrasts greatly with the far more earthy and vulnerable adults around him in real life. Tommy might not be able to see, hear or speak but he can certainly think, each sensation making ‘a note in my symphony’ in one of the better lines of the album. Musically this is the most ‘Who’ like track on the record barring ‘Pinball Wizard’, a churning, stop-start track that really does make for an uncompromising and exhilarating ride. Throughout the track are psychedelic swirly effects, similar to those used throughout ‘Who Sell Out’, but sounds which must have already sounded like they came from a different age in 1969 (the year of the protest song and the heavy metal riff) – notably Pete Townshend’s 1968 demo for the track is dominated by these effects, offering a much more surreal and hazy journey than the studio version (shockingly most of these effects are ‘cleaned up’ for the official release on the deluxe edition of ‘Tommy’). Together with the next section ‘Amazing Journey’ is the real highlight of ‘Tommy’ for me, especially live in concert (see ‘Live At Leeds’ for the best version around to date) where the other-worldlyness of the lyrics and hazy effects contrasts with one of the nastiest, most ominous rock backing tracks The Who ever performed.
‘Sparks’ grows up out of the end of ‘Amazing Journey’ and is simply the greatest rock and roll instrumental of all time (we said so about two years ago on this site and nobody’s written in to object yet so, hey, it’s official!) Again, the studio version is a pale comparison of what will become in the live shows (and the demo is shockingly different, the one song that was clearly developed by The Who as a band rather than them all copying Townshend’s ideas) and there’s a jarring edit somewhere in the middle where the sound effects stop and a louder, more raucous version of the song fades up instead. There’s no doubting the power in the work, though, which rises and falls with real grace and power, upping the tension with every flick of the adaptable stop-start riff, which sounds like heaven and hell in equal measure. Tommy is buffeted on these winds for several minutes as a double tracked Townshend guitar both hammers down the relentless rhythm and picks out chords at random over the top, while Pete Roger and John’s wordless falsetto harmonies over the top sound like a group of angels come to guide Tommy to his destiny. Add in some backwards guitar effects and you have one of the truly great creations of The Who catalogue and a song that manages to be as dark and mysterious as any while perfectly summing up the gift of light that protects Tommy from the outside world. Side one is already looking like one of the greatest things The Who will ever do...
And then comes ‘Eyesight To The Blind’, an old Sonny Boy Williamson blues song that isn’t bad so much as out of place, the sound of a completely different period and with little to do with the plot. Pete added the nickname ‘The Hawker’ and has said since that he wanted this track to be a comment by a passing hobo type character commenting on what’s happened to Tommy; to be honest, though, the song is out of context both musically with the other songs here and plotwise deserves to come later (‘she’s got the power to heal you, never fear’ is surely more about the acid queen not Tommy). Still, taken out of context the song’s ominous plucked guitar chord and thundering Moon drums (both touches added by The Who that aren’t on the original) add a really atmospheric feeling to the track and given that we’re about to hear Roger Daltrey acting placid for the next half hour or so it is great to hear him letting rip on this song.
Side two begins with ‘Christmas’, a song that really shouldn’t work (Pete’s lengthy lines are a struggle even for the huge lunged Daltrey to sing and is probably the song least able to be taken out of context of the album) but does. Anyone whose ever spent the festive period suffering from one problem or another and feeling unable to join in with the fun will recognise the truth of this song, when everyone is full of the Christmas spirit and you’re left out of all the joy and celebration. The contrast between what the normal children do (getting ‘excited’ about ‘heaven’s generosity’ which is really one big fat adult lie (we’re assuming for the moment that no under tens would be reading a site about music made 30 years before they were born but just in case...we don’t mean it and there is a Santa Claus, honest) and Tommy’s vapid emptiness is really felt on this song. There’s an even deeper layer going on about whether Tommy can ever be ‘saved’ by a God he doesn’t know exists and whether that fact alone means his ‘soul’ can never be saved’ (given Pete’s usual digs at religion on other albums – barring Meher Baba anyway – it’s probably safe to say that in his mind at least God is an equally ‘fictional’ character believed in by adults the way that children believe in Father Christmas and that Tommy is actually the only person in the room close to the ‘truth’). Pete and John excel themselves on the harmonies, sounding like a room of honking, celebrated children whilst keeping their rockstar dignity intact and there’s a fire about the performance of this song that’s lacking from many of the others on the album (was this song re-recorded late on when the band knew what they were doing better?) There’s also a first appearance of both the ‘Tommy can you hear me?’ refrain (sung by Pete as Tommy’s mother) and the first ‘see me, feel me’ refrain from Roger which is particularly moving here after so many lines about Tommy’s obliviousness to everything around him.
How can he be saved? Well not from experiences like this! ‘Cousin Kevin’ is a song from John Entwistle about the relation from hell, sung in his typical faux-sweet dark humour (only a step further on from the demise of ‘Boris The Spider’ or the mental breakdown of the narrator of ‘Whiskey Man’). Like many a ‘John song’ the words and music pull at completely different parts of our heart strings: the melody is gorgeous and sounds like the biggest outpouring of romance ever heard even though Kevin is actually a monster, abusing Tommy for no other reason than that he will never be able to let on what has been happening to him. For poor Tommy, any interaction is better than nothing and its no accident that this sounds like a song of love, but at the same time – as we said earlier – this mournful , elegiac song that happens almost in slow motion might also be the ‘school bully’ doing things despite his better nature, because it’s the only way he knows to live his life. I’ve always rated The Who highly as singers (perhaps not in the Beach Boys/CSN mould but certainly with a distinctive, lovely unique sound of their own) and ‘Cousin Kevin’ might well be the best example of that, Roger Pete and John sounding like a full barbershop quartet that’s really effective (the way they roll on the word ‘di-i-i-i-i-e’ so that Roger ends up on top and Pete on the bottom is clever stuff too, taxing even for the BBs in Brian Wilson days). All that said, though, this song goes perhaps a little too far for modern day tastes, with no recourse or comeuppance for Cousin Kevin that makes this song uncomfortable for modern day ears. I actually prefer the ‘abandoned’ first version of this song (titled ‘Cousin Kevin Model Child’) which at least gives Kevin the back story of being a lonely and scared little boy, unable to show love because he’s never been shown it himself.
‘The Acid Queen’ is one of the better known songs on the album, if only because of Tina Turner’s 1000mph version in the film. The Who’s original version is much subtler and slower although still full of menace and evil, as Pete sings the role of a ‘drugged out gypsy’ who reckons drugs will be the answer to Tommy’s silence. Given that he came to fame in the 1960s (before the problems with hard drug use and addiction over decades became common knowledge) Townshend was unusual in hating drugs and what they did to people (the fact that he had his first experience of an acid trip’ on a plane – hence the eerie lyrics to ‘Glow Girl’ mentioned earlier – probably didn’t help). To my ears, then, ‘Acid Queen’ is a song dripping with sarcasm (The ‘Acid Queen’ seems to be above worldly matters but still barks out ‘pay me before we start!’), although most fans took this song at face value, figuring that Tommy’s already had something of an ‘acid flashback’ in ‘Amazing Journey’ so he may as well have another. This version of ‘enlightenment’ comes at a price however: the usually vacant ‘Tommy’ might have ‘never been more alive’ but it’s a horrible definition of being ‘alive’, the poor boy writhing with pain. And for this she got paid?! Another very Who-ish song on an album that doesn’t always sound that much like the band’s traditional sound, this is a fiery acoustic song with another urgent riff that reaches a great in the instrumental middle section when Moon’s drums just keep coming and coming. I have to say, though, that I’m not sure this song deserves the ‘popular song from the album’ tag it so often receives: Pete tries hard with his vocal but its arguably a little too raw and out of tune while the song never really goes anywhere, ending up in a similar dead end to Tommy and his parents.
‘Underture’ has a classy name – taking all the pomposity of this ‘rock opera’ with its subversion of the ‘overture’ style so beloved of musicals. As a piece of music, though, its merely a longer and slightly less successful adaptation of Tommy’s own ‘overture’ and seems to be here merely to make up the running time to something vaguely acceptable for a double album. However this time round rather than string a lot of songs together this is really just a slightly slower and a lot longer version of ‘Sparks’ without the menace of electric guitar (indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this track started out life as a ‘warmup’ for that song rather than as a piece in its own right). To be fair, some of it is excellent indeed: there’s a moment when the band simply lean on the song’s riff, drilling as much tension as they can from the song’s main chord while a group of heavenly angels sing over the top before finally hitting back into the familiar riff. However, at 10 minutes this is far too long (especially as ‘Sparks’ already runs for nearly four) and might have been time better spent filling in some of the plotholes (when did Tommy grow from a child to a teenager for instance? Does he still have memories of his dad/stepdad? What do the rest of his family think of the abuse – do they suspect it or are they oblivious?!)
At 14 minutes, side three of ‘Tommy’ is one of the shortest sides in the history of music (for the post-50s era anyway) and probably not co-incidentally is the side that deals most with the ‘plot’ of ‘Tommy’. The side begins with a short thirty second link ‘Do You Think It’s Alright?’ that isn’t so much a song as a cue to help the story along, rather like the adverts on ‘Who Sell Out’. Here in the plot Tommy’s mother and step/father are as tacit in their betrayal of their son as the bullies and abusers they leave him with: asking themselves ‘if it’s alright’ to leave Tommy to their care when they clearly aren’t suitable guardians. The very fact that they have to ‘ask’ if Tommy will be safe is surely proof that he isn’t – and after all, whose to know/complain if Tommy himself can’t tell all?
‘Fiddle About’ is the result, the second and last Entwistle song on the album which is both hilarious and troubling. Asked to write a song by Townshend about an uncle who simply ‘fiddles about’ but doesn’t do anything, that’s exactly what he writes about with a comical variation on the descending musical scale of ‘Boris The Spider’ that somehow manages to be both threatening and comical all at the same time. Little more than a plot device to give ‘Tommy’ a horrendous background not that far removed from Pete’s own, ‘Fiddle About’ does its job as a plot recitative well but isn’t that great as a song, ‘fiddling about’ instead of getting the job done. At 90 seconds it also has no time to go anywhere – although given the deeply unsavoury flavour of the lyrics that’s probably just as well for poor Tommy. Unusually the film soundtrack version of the song is far better than the original, Keith Moon’s manic heavy-breather adding a lighter, comedic touch that Entwistle’s rather earnest recording here doesn’t quite convey. Still, the problem with this song really is that a) John was given an impossible directive to write a song about such an unmusical theme (he handles it about as well as anybody can) and b) that times have moved on since 1969 so that – especially today in the wake of the Jimmy Saville scandal – anything on the subject of child molestation seems wrong for a song, even though the band are clearly on poor hapless Tommy’s side. Still, not one of the album’s brighter moments even if its ridiculous, pompous horns are worth a chuckle.
‘Pinball Wizard’ is a great single, the musical equivalent of a pinball machine itself with lots of inventive hooks and musical snippets to lure us in, but it’s no surprise to learn that it was rather shoe-horned into the album. Music writer Nick Cohn heard an early version of ‘Tommy’ and moaned, half-jokingly to Townshend, that far from being the new and pioneering work he was promised it was another moan about the awfulness of war and was deeply depressing in tone. In the original drafts for Tommy the lad becomes a ‘rockstar’ on waking out of his self-induced state, but Pete decided to make him a star earlier and make him the slightly more comic-book style hero, a ‘pinball whizz’ (for no other reason than that Cohn loved playing pinball and would be bound to give the album a good review!) In the context of the album this last-minute addition to the plot is absurd (I’m all for Tommy living in a world of his ‘own vibrations’, but how can he truly master a machine he can’t see and only senses?) To be fair there’s one great line in the song that sadly isn’t explored further (Tommy ‘ain’t got no distractions’, perhaps the key line of the whole rock opera, living a spiritual life without man-made constraints and restrictions), but it still seems to be asking a lot that Tommy can ‘sense’ how to play a machine when, presumably, he doesn’t even know what one looks like. It’s hard, too, to imagine a ‘pinball wizard’ being anything other than a local temporary hero, a neat story for a local newspaper forgotten when the next big story comes along, rather than a household name everyone seems to know. Studied as a set of words, too, this song is seriously lacking (Pete was rather afraid of bringing the words into the band and thought the song would probably ‘finish my career’) and its odd to hear the story moving yet again to discuss Tommy in the third person whose voiced yet again by Roger Daltrey, but that’s to rate the song without hearing the winning music that goes with it. Outside the context of the plot it’s easy to see why ‘Pinball’ became such a big hit, even if I don’t personally rate it as high as other period singles like ‘The Seeker’ and ‘Magic Bus’. Townshend’s opening acoustic flamenco riff is delightfully ear-catching, Moon’s drumming is unconventional but spot on the money, Daltrey uncharacteristically double tracks his vocal for extra power and Entwistle’s slam-dunk walking bass carries real joy and energy. On paper this shouldn’t work at all, but somehow on record that deaf dumb and blind kid sounds like he sure plays a mean pinball.
‘There’s A Doctor’ is another 30 second link that finds an unusually gruff-voiced Townshend as Tommy’s dad/stepdad announcing that he’s found a doctor who might be able to cure the lad. Again there’s no real thought about Tommy’s welfare in this song – the need to look after him is tiring both parents out and they want to cure him or be rid of him (is it in Tommy’s best interests to become like the rest of us after such a period of isolation? Is he not happier where he is – and wouldn’t we better off in our cocoons like him?) A short, bouncy, piano-based link, I would have liked to have heard this brief bit of music turned into a full-length tune – as it is hearing so many itty bitty songs like this does threaten to break up the mood of the album in its second half.
‘Go To The Mirror’ is the doctor’s analysis of Tommy and – shock horror – this may be the first psychiatrist to ever get the diagnosis of one of their patients right (it’s a sad fact that most people interested in psychology are those who are in most need of help themselves). Despite Tommy not speaking a word, the doctor guesses correctly that Tommy’s cathartic state is self-induced and that only an act of effort by Tommy himself can wake him up from it. The ‘mirror’ of the title is Tommy’s only mean of communication, seeing himself (or an illusion, an image of himself at least) and the band cleverly alternate the ‘real’ world with Tommy’s world, linked by the adults asking ‘what is happening in his head?’ We also get the second run of ‘see me, feel me’s’ (interestingly sung by Townshend this time, perhaps to contrast better with Roger’s portrayal of the doctor) and the first ‘listening to you’, which is here directed to the adults not the world in general, Tommy, turning to others for means of identity for the first time. By and large this is more of a plot developer than a tried and tested song, but the contrasts between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are delightful and build to quite a head of steam by the end of the recording, especially Roger’s glorious long held notes (‘remove his inner blo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ck!’) The highlight of the track, though, is undoubtedly the sudden, charging emotion of the middle eight (‘Go to the mirror, boy!’) which briefly snaps Tommy out of his reverie and sounds magnificent with Moon reaching a crescendo on the drums.
Less successful to my ears is the next linking piece ‘Tommy Can You Hear Me?’, which is simply four simple lines sung over an odd country-western style track by the band in full harmony and the band (dropping down to just Roger) calling the boy’s name over and over again (this piece is all about identity remember!) Curiously I’ve just looked in the lyric booklet and the song has no ‘narrator’ listed for the first two lines and the mother only starts singing on the third and fourth lines ‘Tommy can you feel me?’ and ‘Can I help to cheer you?’ Is this is a mis-print? (In which case why is it re-printed in the CD re-issue?) Or is the first two lines meant to be ‘us’ singing to the boy? Either way, this is a pretty uninteresting track which doesn’t even move the plot on that far.
‘Smash The Mirror’ should be a terrific rock and roll screamer, with Daltrey as Tommy’s mother barking his head off in an outpouring of grief, frustration and anger. Alas it doesn’t sound that way on record, as the performance is much more tentative, although this all sounds mighty fine in concert. The ascending chords on the chorus ‘Rise! Rise! Rise!’ should be really powerful and emotional, especially heading into Daltrey taunting Tommy about smashing the mirror, the only thing he’s ever shown interest in all album long – alas on album it sounds like a damp squib and what should be an earth-=shattering sound effect of the mirror breaking sounds like a workman shovelling coal. Weirdly given the ‘peace’ message of the rest of the plot, it’s a sudden uncontrolled explosion of anger that wakes Tommy out of his state of being, in the same way that witnessing a ‘murder’ brought him into one – which seems at odds in the ‘learn from each other’ message at the heart of this album but, well, Tommy had to wake up somehow and I’m not sure a peaceful conversion would have been as successful.
‘Sensation’ was the second song Townshend wrote for ‘Tommy’ and doesn’t fit the album as squarely as the similar ‘I’m Free’, suggesting that he wasn’t quite sure where he was going with the ending of the story (the band generally didn’t play this song in concerts of the time – or since, in fact). The awakened Tommy sounds oddly egotistical given what we’ve learnt about him so far, but then I guess decades in your own world would do that to you (presumably Tommy leant to speak before the incident with his dad/stepdad, but would he really be this fluent after not speaking a word for 15 odd years?!) Sadly the lyrics of ‘Sensation’ are a little lacklustre, strangely poetical for The Who, and are a little too vague over what ‘wonders’ Tommy has to tell the world. The performance on the album is a little odd too, a washed-out sounding Townshend far from the new dynamic force Tommy should be at this point (perhaps Daltrey should have sung this one instead?!) while the band’s usual powerful bass and electric guitar have been replaced by a rather limp acoustic guitar and piano. Still, in the context of the times it was inevitable the ‘musical/rock opera’ of Tommy would end the same way: ‘Hair’ and ‘Godspell’ both pull off a similar trick of future promises the listener get to enjoy and a messiah waking up after a stretch of quietness (the latter is an especially strong influence on ‘Tommy’ and is well worth digging out if you like this album; the similarly spiritual music is every bit as haunting and emotional, whatever your take on the religion at the heart of the story).
‘Miracle Cure’ opens with another few seconds of linking passage, written by Pete for no other reason than that he had fun writing it. At 12 seconds ‘Miracle Cure’ is one of the shortest of all AAA songs and is actually shorter than almost all the ‘links’ on Who Sell Out, but it does at least get its point in the plot across: Tommy is awake now and the world wants to know his story. For those who don’t know, now that all news seems to be online these days, the opening ‘extra extra, read all about it’ yell would have been a familiar sound to those around in the UK in 1969 when newspaper sellers sold copies of the latest happenings in most high streets.
‘Sally Simpson’ is one of my favourite songs on the album. A parable in music form, its a very technically challenging song with a strict regular metre that’s hard to fit a rhyming scheme to and a leisurely walking pace swagger that’s deeply unusual for the usually charging Who. Many fans don’t like this song (which was quickly dropped from live shows of the period), but for me it’s the quiet heart at the centre of the ‘Tommy’ story and a reminder that all actions for Tommy after his ‘awakening’ have consequences – something that probably would never have occurred to him before. The tale of a ‘groupie’ ignoring her strict parents and sneaking out to a ‘concert’ to see Tommy in action will strike a chord in the heart of any fan who’ve ever wanted to be ‘a part’ of their favourite musician’s lives (something Townshend as a writer understood better than most what with songs like ‘Join Together’ and ‘Listening To You’) and the price she pays for her deceit seems harsh in the extreme (a ‘gash on her cheek’ when a security guard throws her off the stage as he innocently tries to get a better look at her idol). There’s a fun conclusion in which her dad says ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn yer’ and Sally’s response of ‘running off with a rock musicians she met in Californi-yer’, but the message is clear: those in power should be careful what they say because, often against their will, people can get hurt because of it. Pete revealed years later that he was inspired to write this song after seeing a girl at a Doors gig being quite seriously hurt when she was thrown off stage by a bunch of a paranoid security guards and his shock that lead singer Jim Morrison didn’t seem that bothered by it (though often giving the impression – and often living up to – the idea that The Who were the ‘bad boys’ of rock, Pete struck up a friendly interaction with his audiences and cared for them far more genuinely than other ‘bad boy’ groups such as the Stones). A clever little song, which manages to tell us about Tommy’s gradual corruption better than another song from Tommy’s point of view would have been, there’s much to admire about the feisty, unusual, uncompromising ‘Sally Simpson’ – the best patter song Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t write.
‘I’m Free’ is back to the rowdy, powerful Who – although again this studio version with clunking piano licks and a slowed down tempo is far less impressive than the streamlined, menacing live arrangement. I’ve always assumed that this song was based on the Stones song of the same name, the B-side of ‘Satisfaction’ (in Europe at any rate) but sung in a commanding, powerful manner rather than a laidback, timid one (well, the Stones nicked the chorus of The Beatles’ ‘Eight Days A Week’ for their song wholesale, so why not?) Simpler than ‘Sensation’, but much more interesting, this song combines a wonderful rock and roll riff with the sheer delight of Tommy seeing our world for the first time. Again Townshend refrains from telling us what insights Tommy has to offer us but this time the vagueness pays off as Tommy gets gradually more and more frustrated at the blindness of humans to the world around them (‘You’ve been told many times before, messiahs pointing to the door, but no one’s had the guts to leave the temple!’ Daltrey screams in a particularly enjoyable lyric couplet). The song then ends with a reprise of the ‘Pinball Wizard’ riff and Tommy’s worshippers (actually Townshend and Entwistle at their shrillest) chanting ‘How can we follow?’ over and over again. Memorable and – in the context of the songs either side of it – remarkably simple and primitive, this song deservedly became a hit in most parts of the world (though not Britain), selling almost as well as the universally release ‘Pinball Wizard’.
‘Welcome’ is another unusual song for The Who, not so much a ballad as a laidback cocktail jazz song that’s so slow at times that I swear Roger Daltrey falls asleep somewhere in the opening verse. In the context of the album, this is Tommy welcoming all the followers who’ve travelled from far and wide to learn about his experiences – and Tommy’s desperate attempt to ‘connect’ with everyone who wants a piece of him (were I an amateur psychologist I’d be very tempted after reading Pete’s autobiography to say that this is the weedy big-nosed kid nobody liked at school suddenly overwhelmed by having ‘followers’ doting on his every word and desperate for their love, however unsavoury the attention; after all, what better way of getting attention than to smash a guitar?!) There’s a slight edge and tension to this song (especially the ‘Milkman come in!’ second verse) that suggests that all is not as relaxed and calm as it appears on the outside – and I’ve read more than one review of this album that assumes ‘Welcome’ is a sarcastic song and that Tommy actually hates his followers; I wouldn’t go that far but there’s definitely something dodgy about lines like ‘be one of the comfortable people’ and the idea of ‘drinking all night, never sleeping’ has nothing to do with Tommy’s experiences that suggests that Tommy (and especially his criminal mastermind Uncle Ernie) is already becoming corrupted by his outside contact with the world. A little too slow to keep the listener’s attention throughout the whole song, this is a song on the edge of collapse throughout (especially Pete’s hedonistic falsetto vocal). The song only really comes alive on Roger’s marvellous extended cry ‘come to this house’ and a marvellously scary section where seemingly dozens of people are outside the door asking to be let in (whispering ‘ask ‘em, ask ‘em’ over and over in a very Pink Floyd manner) while Pete’s piano and Roger’s mouthorgan sets off on a bluesy improvisation. Had ‘Welcome’ simply built on this section it might have been a highly ‘welcome’ addition to the album, but there’s something about this song (probably the slurred tempo) that doesn’t quite work.
‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ is a minute long piece of madness apparently lifted wholesale from Pete’s screechy demo (although credited to Keith Moon, this is a Townshend song given to the drummer as a ‘gift’ for adding the idea of a holiday camp to the storyline and is actually sung by Pete doing his impression of the drummer!) This song demonstrates that The Who really have a knack for writing those annoying jingles that are forever in your head (see ‘Who Sell Out’) and is clever and catchy but quite obviously as shallow as the person singing it (this is clearly a song designed to ‘sell’ a product, a TV advertisement on record, rather than the true theme song for a spiritual retreat). The very fact that this is a ‘holiday camp, like Butlins or Pontins, adds to the idea of people being ripped off (if Tommy’s message is to be yourself and cut yourself off from society then why are there red-coats with stop watches telling everyone what to do and when to do it?) Pete, of course, spent vast parts of his childhood on sites like these as his dad Cliff Townshend played in a band (a brass band, though, rock and roll not being invented in his day) and was fascinated by the idea of people being effectively ordered to ‘have fun’ (although it took Keith to point this out to him as the perfect setting for the resolution of ‘Tommy’). Uncle Ernie, accompanied by slightly warped and off-key organ parts, is clearly up to no good even though everything in the lyric sounds as if it should be taken at face value. Pete’s bass belch of ‘welcome!’ at the end might just be the most threatening thing on the record.
The finale of any magnum opus needs to be strong and thankfully ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ - clearly the sister song of the even greater ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ in two years time – might well be the strongest track on the record. Tommy tries to tell his ‘congregation’ his experiences, that to be like him they have to ‘cut themselves off’; from all outside contact and that there are no fast track ways to spiritual enlightenment (like drinking, drugs or even being ‘hung up Mr normal’ smugly thinking they are above such things) The link with the teachings of Meher Baba is clear: there are no rules, you have to find out all the answers for yourselves – just try to live your lives in a way that would ‘please Baba’ (i.e. being as nice to others as possible). Unfortunately – and Townshend must have felt this trying to speak about Baba to a disbelieving music press who’d already shunned the Maharishi – the audience don’t want to know; if there are no easy answers then ‘we’re not gonna take it’ and so the crowd moves off, en masse, onto the next hip cult that’s happening down the road. Things aren’t helped by the fact that Uncle Ernie is charging everyone a fortune and forcing everyone to play pinball: that might have been Tommy’s salvation, but each of us is an individual and the true message of what Tommy’s trying to say is that each of us have our own destiny to fulfil. There’s one last great reprise of the ‘see me, feel me’ refrain (best heard in the Woodstock film where the sun comes up just at this moment: ‘God was the best lightning man we ever had’ Entwistle dryly recalled years later) that’s really effective. Abandoned by his followers and even more alone than when he had been deaf, dumb and blind because he now knows about the need for ‘contact’ with people, Tommy reaches out to the audience one last time. All that’s left is for a rousing chorus of ‘Listening to you’ as Tommy promises to listen to those around him as only by living as a fully functional member of society can he understands the true power of what his message was all about. At the same time Pete is singing to his audience (in the same way he does so often throughout the Who’s canon), promising that its ‘from you I get opinions, from you I get the story’. Even though the studio version is again a pale shadow of what this song was in concert (when Townshend’s guitar solos sound like nirvana, in both senses of the word), goes on a repeat of the last verse too long and even though this song is probably the most overtly musical-based of the album, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ is a towering achievement that makes sense of ‘Tommy’ and all it stands for. In the excellent DVD commentary for the 1989 performance of ‘Tommy’ (available in the DVD box set with a 1996 ‘Quadrophenia’ and a ‘live hits’) Pete says that, no matter how badly ‘Tommy’ has been going up to that point, it always seems as if a real ‘connection’ has been made between band and audience by this point and that, like Tommy himself, senses have been restored. It’s not hard to see why: like the future concluding epics to come (Lifehouse’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and Quadrophenia’s ‘L:ove Reign O’er Me’) ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ manages to be both the saddest thing you’ve ever heard and powerfully uplifting all at the same time.
‘Tommy’ isn’t perfect, then – it doesn’t have the same breadth of scope as ‘Quadrophenia’ or ‘Lifehouse’ would have done given the pieces of the jigsaw that have since come to light and it’s not even particularly the first album to tell a ‘whole story’. However, ‘Tommy’ is still one of the bravest albums of the 1960s, swerving in a direction that must have been totally unexpected by the band’s dwindling fans in 1968 and it’s a pretty darn clever mixture of hummable pop songs fans can sing and a story just about coherent enough to be celebrated by the ‘old guard’ (even if it does have a bit of a kick out at them from time to time). There were many ‘Tommy’s to follow, by prog rock bands great and small but for my money only Jethro Tull’s single 43-minute track ‘Thick As A Brick’ matches ‘Tommy’ for sheer ambition and scale and actually only ‘Quadrophenia’ matches it for sheer emotional impact. There are of course songs that don’t work, plot elements that should have been clearer (although conversely many fans have felt that the sheer ambiguity of ‘Tommy’ is what makes it work so well – me personally I’d prefer a clearer plot) and the listener needs to have a lot of patience to sit through sides two and three all the way through (for some reason every AAA double album seems to struggle most with the middle two sides). But whenever you listen to ‘Tommy’ from beginning to end there’s no doubt that you’ve been on a ‘journey’ together, even if you don’t always know where from or where to, and the fact that Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey between them manage to breathe such life into a character who doesn’t even speak until the second half of the album says much for their respective writing and vocal talents. In Pete Towsnshend’s words (again taken from the ‘Tommy 1989’ DVD’) ‘I’m the first to admit that the story’s sort-of clunky and weird, it’s got holes in the plot and everything, but when you get to the end of it – somehow it’s worked’.