Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

The Who Tommy (1969)


Yes, this is the apple of controversy. People either pray or spit on this album, holding no middle ground. Let us hold the middle ground and see what happens.

On the Conceptual Side. This is a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball messiah (?). Actually, for a long time I thought this was the first rock opera, until the worthy reader Boris (see the comments below) quite correctly corrected me with a correcting correction, namely, that the Pretty Things beat the Who to it a whole two years with S. F. Sorrow. Well, at least it’s the first universally acknowledged rock opera, let’s stick with that? (And, if we really want to set the thing straight, the first rock opera was ‘A Quick One’, which beat the Pretty Things by one year). So, anyway, Pete Townshend was not only responsible for rock opera’s origins, he carried this genre high and proud to its climax.

I presume you already know the story. If you don’t, you might as well look it up in a million more interesting places – you might also go and see the movie, which is at least vaguely entertaining, even if it does distort the original conception in quite a few ways. Here I’ll just say that this concept is at the least interesting and entertaining, no matter what other feelings you might experience towards the plot and the message. Also, it was not a gimmick: Pete certainly took the idea seriously, so it probably meant a lot to him. We’ll just leave it at that; in any case, do not hurry to dismiss the concept as a load of pretentious nonsense simply because you feel like it at the moment. The concept does have its fair share of truly emotional moments.

On the Musical Side. The actual music of Tommy is often neglected when it comes to foam-at-the-mouth battles about the importance of this rock opera and whether it makes sense or not and if it does, whether it should make sense or not. But screw the plot – name me a record that has more original guitar riffs and I’ll call you names. Indeed, this is Townshend’s high point as a composer. The themes of ‘Go To The Mirror’, ‘Pinball Wizard’, ‘Amazing Journey’, ‘Sparks’, ‘I’m Free’, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and ‘See Me Feel Me’ are all quite different, but they all have something in common. And that something is – all of them are built on short, simple, catchy and consequently brilliant riffs. Plus – tons of them played on acoustic guitar! How’s that for musical purity? You tell me! And, since it’s an opera, these riffs keep repeating themselves, but almost always in different arrangements and with different moods. The majestic (and not a minute overblown, as people keep deceiving themselves: it’s a prayer, for Chrissake! Prayers cannot be overblown!) theme of ‘See Me Feel Me’, for example, is reprised four times throughout the album, but that don’t make it any more boring. And if you do not shed tears over the gorgeous ballad ‘1921’, you must have a heart of stone – and, by the way, do you realize that ‘1921’ is actually a blues number? Eh? Nobody seems to realize that!

Even the shorter tracks that were primarily needed for unfurling the plot are OK: this is a rare thing in rock operas, since usually ‘plot-related’ songs are the weak links in that genre – when you’re too busy with composing the lyrics, the music is necessarily saved for later. Not here. Ever heard the great hit numbers ‘There’s A Doctor’, ‘Miracle Cure’, ‘Do You Think It’s Alright’ and ‘Tommy Can You Hear Me’? Well, wait, wait, of course they weren’t hits – the longest of these numbers is one and a half minutes long, and the shortest is about twelve seconds long. They’re all great, though – melodic, catchy and a bit funny. Now that’s what I call real care for melody. And, just to add a saving touch of humor, both John and Keith contribute little tidbitds of their own. John’s ‘Cousin Kevin’ and ‘Do You Think It’s Alright/Fiddle About’ deal with poor Tommy being mistreated by really bad dudes, while Keith’s ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ is a boyscout tune shamelessly inserted between the serious stuff. The fact that Townshend let these bits be incorporated is very important. After all, it’s laughter that’s gonna save the world, ain’t it? The saving touch of humour! How can one really complain about the bombast and bloatedness of the opera when John comes up and growls: ‘I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie/I’m glad you can’t see or hear me/As I fiddle about, fiddle about, fiddle about…’ Pete used to complain about the tune’s cruelty (actually, Uncle Ernie sodomizes poor Tommy), but that’s about the same as complaining about the cruelty of ‘Boris The Spider’: poor, poor Boris…

And what about the sound? The sound is great! Rumours say that Pete wanted to push up some strings and horns and orchestras, but he just hadn’t had time for that ‘cos there was little food left in the larder and the company was pressing him on so that he could finally pay for his broken guitars. And maybe that’s good, because I shudder at the thought of the original Tommy sounding like that movie synthesizer-itis version. As it is, acoustic and electric guitars ring out loud and clear, the bass and drum work are outstanding as usual, and Daltrey finally shows us that he has mastered his voice, whether it be macho clamouring in ‘Pinball Wizard’ or the gentle, loving notes of ‘See Me Feel Me’. Of course, this sounded nothing like the original Who, but all these changes were only for the better. Of course, the sound can seem pretty monotonous after seventy-five minutes, but in that case you’d better just split the listening process in two parts so as not to spoil the impression. The actual tunes are all swell.

So why only a 9? Well, unfortunately as it may seem, the ‘Oo managed to blow it even here. Prolific as he was, Pete just couldn’t produce enough material for a double album. So he decided to take the wonderful ‘Rael/Sparks’ theme and have some fun with it. Unfortunately, this results in a ten-minute bore called ‘Underture’ (a silly pun) which only serves to show that the theme was so perfect it was impossible to variegate it. So he just redoes it over and over again for what seems like ages until I find my finger pushing the ‘Forward’ button. Also, a couple of ‘plot’ songs aren’t that good, notably the slow ballad ‘Welcome’ where Tommy invites people to his holiday camp (Pete eventually realized it himself, so it was dropped from the stage version). But apart from these little problems, there’s absolutely nothing wrong about this album.

February 27, 2013 - Posted by | The Who Tommy |

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