The Who’s rock opera Tommy was released in May 1969, giving their ever-increasing legions of fans the whole summer to digest the complex, multi-themed undertaking of teenage alienation, bullying, idolatry, and sexual abuse. But if all that became overwhelming on a warm summer afternoon, you could kick back and enjoy the sheer joy of the music that included not only an Overture but also an Underture! One of the first rock operas, Tommy’s impact may be rivaled only by the Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, as rock concept albums. Though there have been many versions of Tommy –movie, play and most recently, Roger Daltrey performing it as a solo act in 2018—this first incarnation, originally released on as a two-LP set with a unique tri-fold cover with dream-like artwork, is it’s most enduring.
Tommy opens with a 5-and-a-half-minute overture establishing the musical theme with the Who playing in a more restrained manner than previous albums yet still showing off their individual talents (specifically Keith Moon’s stunning, yet surprisingly disciplined drumming and John Entwistle’s commanding French horn flourishes). There is also an “Underture,” heard later. And, as the story unfolds, Daltrey’s passionate vocals are indispensable to the story.
The first individual song is “It’s A Boy” celebrating the birth of Tommy. “1921” and “Amazing Journey” establish that Tommy’s life will be unique yet trying. “The Hawker” is the only non-Who written song, a reworking of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight To The Blind” with an especially powerful vocal from Roger Daltrey. “Christmas” establishes the “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me” refrain.
“Cousin Kevin” confronts childhood bullying inflicted by its title character. Next is “The Acid Queen,” that Townshend told Rolling Stone in 1969 “is not about just acid; it’s the whole drug thing, the drink thing, the sex thing, wrapped into one big ball.”
The first record of the two-record set, if listening on vinyl, closes with the “Underture.” A more elaborate work at twice the length of the Overture, the term “Underture” may be a playful sendup of opera’s formality while paradoxically embracing its structure. Keith Moon is stunning both on conventional drums and tympani, with Townshend providing rhythm guitar and Entwistle playing bass with a Brian Wilson inspired tone.
“Underture” is followed by the disturbing introduction of the sexually abusive Uncle Ernie, in “Fiddle About.” Though the theme of sexual abuse is never fully resolved in Tommy, it was quite courageous that Townshend addressed it and that the record company allowed it to be included. In a 2013 interview in the Toronto Star, Townshend said: “(Uncle) Ernie isn’t about specific sexual abuse, it’s about the threat of it, the inference of it, the fear of it.”
What follows is “Pinball Wizard” the big hit single from Tommy. Interestingly, it was written after the opera was nearly complete. Townshend had played a demo of Tommy to his friend, author, and critic, Nik Cohn. Cohn was not completely impressed with it and when pressed by Townshend he said he would give it only four out of five stars. Cohn was an avid pinball fan and was in the process of writing a book on pinball. Townshend asked Cohn if he would give it a better review if Tommy was a pinball champ, and Cohn said, then, he’d give it five stars. ”Townshend wrote “Pinball Wizard” and it is recorded in the aggressive, bolder style of the band’s earlier hits like “The Kids Are Alright” and “I Can See For Miles.”
As the second half of Tommy progresses, the themes of idol worship, mob mentality, and rebellion emerge, fueled by Tommy’s fame. “There’s A Doctor” introduces the “listening to you, I get the music” chorus as his family continues to search desperately for a cure for their boy. “Sally Simpson“ tells the story of a fan who gets injured in an onstage scuffle that Townshend says was inspired by a real-life incident he observed at a Door’s concert.
Tommy finds solace and initially acceptance in his newfound fame as the Pinball Wizard highlighted in “Sensation” and “I’m Free.” However, this happiness will be short-lived as his fans eventually resent and rebel against him. The album’s closing track, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” brings this to a head. The rousing chords and drums build as a Tommy attempts to welcome his once adoring fans that have turned on him, with the crowd going so far as to say they want to rape him. Yet, Tommy continues to take be inspired by them, oblivious to their spite.
If Tommy gets bogged down at times by its own ambitiousness, the superbly composed and played music brings a cohesiveness and continuity to its complex themes, still capturing the hearts of its classic rock fans, 50 years after its release.
Photo credit: The Who by Keystone/Staff courtesy of Getty Images.