I realized when first listening to the opening chords of The Who’s Tommy that the “Overture” was no ordinary rock song, which, at the age of nine, was all I really cared to taste. Slapped on the flip side of “See Me, Feel Me,” itself an edit of the album’s finale, the “Overture” was foreign to my AM-adjusted ears, yet I sat through the four-minute piece staring straight at the single spinning on my childhood phonograph, before placing the needle back at the beginning for the second of what must have been a half-dozen trips through the track.
Accustomed as I was to hording nickels and dimes for the sole purpose of increasing my record collection, the full double-LP became my next acquisition, followed by many afternoons of focused listening, overture to finale, following the lyrics that were included in the brilliantly illustrated booklet that accompanied the set. Unlike my treasured Beatles albums and the assorted dreck comprising my collection, Tommy fascinated me for a host of reasons, most important being the music, but also for the way the package paid little heed to the band and its members. No photos. No backgrounders. Just credits to accompany the landmark production that continues to set the standard for rock concept albums, or “rock operas” as this album is so rightly positioned.
Today, Tommy is as important an entry in the canon of so-called classic recordings as it was when it was first unveiled in 1969. Conceived and mostly written by Pete Townshend, Tommy is a sterling example of the composer’s musical aptitude and ability to tell a story, as well as the band’s almost telekinetic communication in the studio. The familiar story of a boy who witnesses his father’s murder before shutting himself inside a deaf, dumb, and blind world is known not only to Who fans but pretty much anybody exposed to popular culture over the past 35 years. From the album to the screen, an orchestrated interpretation and the bright lights of Broadway, Tommy has been reconstructed and presented for nearly every conceivable medium.
Jon Astley was the first to remaster the original Tommy in ‘96 as part of a general Who catalogue overhaul. That revitalized disc offers a noticeable leap beyond the previous second-rate product, commonly marketed by MCA during the CD era’s early stages when mega-companies simply slapped third-generation masters on the shiny new objects that some claimed were better sounding than the vinyl originals. Of course, that was a lie for which some corporate types should be suspended by their toenails, but I digress. The upgraded version of Tommy was more than respectable, but there is now a solid reason for passing it up in favor of an even newer production, and the first version of the original album to be mixed and mastered by Townshend himself.
Simply put, Townshend’s new 5.1, high resolution mix presents a fresh and textured staging for a very familiar album. Without diving into the deep end of the stereo vs. surround argument, it’s safe to say that some producers get it and some don’t. Tommy is a ringing example of what-to-do, which is only fitting, considering it is essentially an opera, with a full cast of characters supported by robust arrangements that belie the band’s rough-edged roots.
This being his initial foray in multi-channel audio, Townshend engaged the help of producer/engineer Elliot Mazer to help sort out the mix. Originally known for his ground breaking production of such important albums as Neil Young’s Harvest as well as engineering efforts on “The Last Waltz” and scads of notable recordings, Mazer, in recent years, has established himself as one of the preeminent proponents of high-resolution multi-channel productions, remixing both his original output and the work of others for this exciting new medium. (Formats come and go, but multi-channel is here to stay. Get over it.)
In his role as Pre- and Post-production 5.1 Consultant, Mazer helped guide Townshend through the process of positioning voices and instruments around the virtual stage, shaping a program that in many ways emulates a theatrical performance, with vocals distinctly situated in front of the listener. However, the real revelation comes from the placement of the strong and recognizable Who sound. It would have been too easy to just drop listeners in the middle of the studio with three musicians and a full-bodied vocalist bombarding them from every direction. Instead, Townshend, with the help of Mazer, established a sound field that envelops listeners without the distraction of misplaced instruments sneaking up from behind or whizzing around the room at lightning speed. The positioning of voices and music is so seamless that, two minutes into the new (and improved) “Overture,” I lost all interest in analyzing what came from where, as I was drawn into the familiar though new performance.
Take, for example, the track entitled, “Tommy, Can You Hear Me,” a short jaunty song featuring acoustic guitar, bass and three-part harmony. Instead of dividing the voices among three front channels as surround mixers sometimes do, Townshend spread the harmonies across the front and around the back, utilizing the LFE channel to allow John Entwistle’s bass more room to breathe than on the original mix. Even the strums of Townshend’s guitar appear to reach around the listener, rather than just moving from one channel to the next.
But this is a Who album, so don’t be shy about cranking up the volume, especially during tracks like, “Pinball Wizard” and “Christmas” when it almost feels as if the audience is sitting on Keith Moon’s lap. Anyone who doubts that Moon was one of the most talented and resourceful drummers in the history of popular music need only to listen to the surround mix for a qualified change of heart. The pop-pop-pop of his drumming on, “Go to the Mirror,” is clear and more resonant in a way that led me to spin the disc again, just to focus on the drum parts.
But where are my manners? After all, this is an audiophile publication, so here comes the official commentary on the sound: holy s***! The new mix is so engaging that it took several listens to fully understand just what was accomplished in the mastering process. While a 5.1 mix can certainly open up a recording to allow buried instruments and harmonies to emerge from the clutter, Tommy fills the room with clean, full range sonics that are detailed without sounding crisp or clipped. The medium may be digital, but this new mix of Tommy offers one of the most satisfying analog experiences to come along in many years, in any format. There is a real sense of “air” that I associate with the most memorable vinyl prints of the 60’s and 70’s. Though I did not detect any audible tape hiss, the soundfield leaves plenty of room for analog anomalies, but includes none.
Though not the star attraction, at least for me, the high-resolution two-channel layer improves upon previous versions with a forceful presence that mostly stays true to the original stereo blueprint. As gratifying as it may be, the 5.1 version is the primary reason to invest in the new disc. (It’s safe to assume that most consumers with SACD playback equipment own a nifty surround speaker array as well.) Similarly, the 16-bit layer comes across with more presence than the ‘96 version, but a reasonably high-end system is needed to fully appreciate the difference.
With all four sides taking up just one CD, the second disc features a total of 17 outtakes and demos, including one of my favourite Who B-sides, “Dogs (Part 2).” Surround sound was created for this track alone.
My only criticism is the omission of a libretto. Tommy is bound to reach at least a few newcomers who would be served by a printed version of the lyrics in order to follow the story. Not that the package skimps – there are extensive historical liner notes and session photos to satisfy the most ardent Who fan, but the assumption is that the buyer owns at least one earlier edition of the album.
But that’s nitpicking. The new and improved version of Tommy will not only astound audiophiles but anybody who appreciates emotionally gripping music conveyed through jaw-dropping performances. Just make sure to put the volume knob to good use. The neighbours will deal with it.
Sidebar: An interview with Elliot Mazer
Anyone who has invested a few dollars in any of the more impressive examples of high-resolution multi-channel audio has at least one or two Mazer productions in their collections. Mazer’s name is affixed to some of the most memorable high-res. productions to date, including the DVD-A version of Sinatra at the Sands and two of Santana’s most popular recent albums, Shaman and Supernatural.
Here, Elliot Mazer fills us in on his contribution to the new multi-channel Tommy.
How did you get involved with the new mix of Tommy?
I met Pete a few years ago for the first time. I have been a huge Who and Pete fan since “My Generation”. He is among my favorite song writers. I sent him the DVD-A version of Harvest and he called to say that he really enjoyed it. We began a dialog during which we talked about how one would make a new version of a classic album in 2003. He said to me that he felt the original Tommy was “voice heavy.” (Tommy was produced and mixed by his former manager.)
I told Pete about my studio and how I loved working in Pro Tools HD at 192kHz. Pete liked that the Harvest DVD-A made him feel like he was in the room with the band. Eventually he purchased a Pro Tools HD system for his Oceanic Studio outside of London and started working on Tommy in PT at 192.
What was your role on the project?
We exchanged a lot of email over a six month period. I visited Pete and heard some of his early mixes and was very impressed. Keith’s drums sounded huge and much like I remember them sounding live. Pete had set up his studio similarly to the way we set up Neil’s studio for the Harvest mix. I gave him some ideas and showed him some tricks in ProTools.
Pete did the entire mix himself. He spent a long time working on it. He sent us a rough first draft of the album on DVD-A disks. I suggested a few things, like bringing the voices more into the room and spreading the guitars even more. I also felt he could get a little more impact out of John’s bass. Mixing in 5.1 gives you so much more room to make things heard.
Did you work on the bonus tracks as well?
No. I knew he was thinking about them and I was blown away when I got the released disk and heard those tracks. For me, these alone are worth the price.
After so many iterations over the past 35 years, why a new version of Tommy?
Pete loves surround. The film version was one of the first surround movies. He invented “Quintafonic Sound” which, I believe, was the first five-channel theatrical release. That, plus his desire to make an
“author’s version” of Tommy was part of the motivation. For the stereo, they found the original stereo master, which had never been used since the first vinyl edition.
It seems as if the album is presented “on stage,” in that the voices are positioned as you would hear characters in a musical or opera. Was that intentional?
Yes, even though I had suggested that he use the complete room to exaggerate the story, i.e when Pete or Roger are different characters, they could appear in a different position with different ambience.
Roger’s voice is huge anyway and Pete’s voice is light and fragile. I like the way he handled the voices and I am glad that he has lots of his own voice in the final mix. In the early mixes, Pete had underplayed his own voice.
Were there any challenges in re-mixing the Who’s signature sound for 5.1? Are there any elements that stand out?
Keith’s drums sound better here than any other Who record. The power from Pete’s acoustic guitar is exciting and this is a great way to tell a story.
Is it true that there is a DVD-A print in the works?
The Universal “new formats” site says that they are releasing a DVD-A version. I think the reason is that The Who were signed to Polygram and they had a DVD-A license while Universal has an obligation to release SACDs. At any rate, the DVD-A should have lots of photos and some video stuff.
My friend Arthur’s favorite album, this legendary document still stands tall as an audacious and ambitious experiment that was largely successful if a bit bloated.
This convoluted concept album, about a deaf, dumb, and blind kind who can sure play a mean pinball but gets used and abused along the way, introduced the term “rock opera” into the rock lexicon; though technically speaking The Pretty Things were there first with S.F. Sorrow, it was Tommy that popularized the form.
In truth, an understanding of the deliberately ambiguous storyline, which I won’t even try to explain, in part because I’m not sure if I can (the liner notes states “it’s story covers murder, trauma, bullying, child molestation, sex, drugs, illusion, delusion, altered consciousness, spiritual awakending, religion, charlatanism, success, superstardom, faith, betrayal, rejection, and pinball”), is secondary to some great rock tunes, including classics such as “Overture/It’s A Boy,” “Amazing Journey/Sparks,” “The Acid Queen,” and “I’m Free.”
Also included are two of the Who’s most enduring anthems, the air guitar manifesto “Pinball Wizard,” which features great acoustic and electric riffs (and was only written because influential critic Nic Cohn liked pinball!), and the epic “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which makes best use of the famous “see me feel me” section and provides a stirringly emotional finale (simply put, it’s an all-time rock anthem from arguably rock’s all-time rock anthem band).
Though Tommy contains some of Townshend’s strongest songwriting efforts, including excellent album cuts such as “1921,” “Christmas,” and “Sensation,” it should also be noted that the album too often repeats previous ideas, such as on the 10-minute instrumental “Underture,” that several songs probably would’ve been excluded for being sub par if they didn’t advance the overall storyline, and that it lacks the energy that the band often brought to these songs in concert.
Instead, the charm of this album is that, despite it’s often disturbing subject matter (which was very much ahead of its time), it nevertheless has a sincere innocence that was born of the ‘60s. Soundwise, the sparse, largely acoustic instrumentation is simple yet somehow ornate (the French horns in particular add a symphonic touch to tunes such as the stellar intro “Overture,” a personal favorite of mine even if its main purpose is to preview some of the major musical themes that would appear later), as by and large the band successfully realize their daring attempt to create something totally new.
Also, for all its over-long, overly repetitive faults, this is simply one of the most ear pleasing albums around, plus it’s definitely one of those albums that’s greater than the sum of its parts; for example, some of the plot-connecting segues, such as “It’s A Boy” and “Tommy Can You Hear Me,” are among the most memorable bits on the album.
Tommy was the band’s first successful album sales-wise, and it validated The Who’s greatness to many people, as they now were acknowledged as being accomplished album artists in addition to being sublime singles specialists who were famous for their legendary live performances. Their fans’ thirst for the theatrics of Tommy became enormous over the next few years, and the album quickly became the centerpiece of their live shows, eventually evolving into a hit movie and even a belated Broadway presentation.
If the album doesn’t always quite live up to the hype, this shouldn’t obscure the fact that it is still a great rock album from a visionary group.
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.
There are certain albums from the 1970s the brilliance of which must be taken on trust by listeners of today. If you weren’t in the neighbourhood of Ladbroke Grove in 1976, The Clash’s first LP sounds fairly far from revolutionary. If you weren’t around to hear the Ramones emerge as the fastest band in the world – before Bad Brains came along, that is – then the New Yorkers’ self-titled debut sounds slower than a solar-powered milk-float on a December morning. But certain albums of the time have managed to retain their untamed quality. Never Mind the Bollocks is one; Quadrophenia is another.
Available here in an almost pornographically sumptuous box-set edition, featuring the original 1973 album, two CDs worth of demos, a 5.1 surround DVD mix, a poster and a beautifully presented 100-page hardback book which also features a brand-new essay from Pete Townshend (there is also a cheaper two-disc version for anyone not looking to blow 70 sheets five weeks before Christmas – said set’s tracklisting, to the left), this is the album that refuses to die. For while Tommy may have made it all the way to Broadway, it is Quadrophenia which has aced the test of time better than any other album released by The Who.
Thematic if not quite conceptual, the original double-LP – which in freshly re-mastered form sounds both sharp and clear – frames England in an time of uncertainty: the uncertainty of the class system, the uncertainty of youth as it greys into older age, the uncertainty of an economy in its first shudder of industrial decline. As befits an album bursting with conflict and even violence – “I’ve seen my share of kills,” sings the narrator of the impossibly brilliant I’ve Had Enough – Quadrophenia’s music is performed by a band who seem to be not just at odds with their country but also at times with each other.
These are songs with very little space in which to breathe – when the denouement of a fully-aerated Love Reign O’er Me does arrive, the effect is almost cleansing – all played out to a backdrop of psychiatrists, priests, furious fathers, amphetamine-filled teenagers, fallen idols and enough sharp suits to cut open a whole army of greasers on the seafront at Brighton.
Soon to celebrate its 40th birthday, Quadrophenia is one of the few albums of its time that sounds as good today as it must have done then. For once, the term ‘masterpiece’ is not sold on the cheap.