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50 Years Later, The Who’s “Tommy” Remains A Rock Masterpiece

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In the first half of the 20th Century, England lost an entire male generation to save Europe from despotism in two of the most brutal wars ever fought. By the 1960’s, their disillusioned youth were struggling to be noticed. Channeling the same sense of hopelessness experienced by African Americans after the reconstruction period, which led to the Blues, British youths rebeled through music, and no piece of work captured that energy quite like The Who’s Tommy.

The album is a profound body of work that is as relevant today as it was when first released in 1969. Tommy resonates powerful messages on many levels (antiwar, anti-establishment, false idolatry, child abuse, et al). Musical themes and visceral sensations unify as the listener is immersed inside the skin of the protagonist. The album is a remarkable achievement that has been recognized globally over the decades, as Tommy has been performed on Broadway, as a major motion picture, with philharmonic orchestras, and of course by the four talented members of the band.

The storyline centers on a young boy (Tommy) who is rendered deaf, dumb and blind upon witnessing the fatal shooting of his returning war hero father by his stepfather. His only salvation is pinball, becoming a “Pinball Wizard” and a rock star-like deity, before being rejected by his followers after recovering his senses.

In May 1969, when Tommy was released, my brothers and I listened to the album, overwhelmed by its potent eloquence. I was only 13 at the time, but even still, I recognized that this was a game changer. It rivals The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers with a thematic and musical brilliance that is a strong statement of celebrity, disillusionment and existential angst.

As interesting as the storyline is, it’s the music that elevates Tommy into a monumental opus. Kicking off the album is “Overture” which deftly captures many of Tommy’s recurring themes. Pete Townshend adds electrical and intricate Spanish acoustic guitars while John Entwistle backs up with the brilliant use of the French horn. Haunting background vocals and an organ is added for more substance as the “Overture” puts Tommy into high gear. It segues into its first vocals as Roger Daltrey announces the birth of Tommy… ”It’s a Boy”.

The Who – “Overture”

“Amazing Journey” is just that, as drummer Keith Moon drives with his relentless work on the drum kit while Daltrey adds gorgeous vocals. Next up is “Sparks”, an instrumental masterpiece that starts with psychedelic sound effects followed by the relentless, forceful work of Townshend’s acoustic guitar, with Moon in lockstep adding his percussive genius. “Sparks” could easily be turned into an orchestral work. Here’s one of our favorite covers of the instrumental, as performed by Phish during the “S” show on 9/2/11, their first-ever performance at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park:

Phish – “Sparks” [The Who cover]

“Christmas” is another excellent track that first captures Tommy’s vocal themes. ”Tommy Can You Hear/See Me” … “See Me, Feel Me, Hear me, Touch Me.” You are now totally immersed into the story.

“The Acid Queen” is one of the more provocative songs on the album, as the song focuses on Tommy’s parents’ hopes of restoring the boy’s senses with a drug treatment. The play between Townshend and Moon is extraordinary, while the always steady Entwistle shows himself as the master of the bass guitar. A mention must be made to Tina Turner’s cover from the film version of Tommy. She belts out “Acid Queen” with “in your face” passion that sends chills to your core. It may be one of the greatest songs ever performed by The Who, but Ms. Turner may have done them one better.

The Who ft. Tina Turner – “Acid Queen” – Tommy [Film, 1975]

The most ambitious orchestral track on Tommy is “Underture”. It is a 10-minute tour de force that would make Igor Stravinsky jealous. With its decidedly unromantic classical music structure, Townshend drives Tommy’s musical themes with his remarkable acoustic guitar as Moon provides a complete percussion section with incredibly intricate work on the drum woodblocks, tambourine, snare, and bass drum.

The Who – “Underture”

Probably the most famous song from Tommy is “Pinball Wizard”. It captures Tommy at the zenith of his fame. The opening acoustic guitar starts slowly and builds with a tidal wave of frenzied intensity. The power chords overdubbed to the acoustic guitar are terrific. Daltrey is at his finest telling the story of Tommy’s mastery of pinball. Townshend’s vocal response to Daltrey’s lead creates a compelling scenario. “Pinball Wizard” is one of the definitive statements of why The Who is so great. They can rock as hard as anyone, but still deliver Beach Boy-like harmonies.

The Who – “Pinball Wizard”

“Go to The Mirror/Tommy, Can You Hear Me/Smash the Mirror” is the Rock Opera’s denouement.  Moon and Daltrey vocalize beautifully as Tommy is close to recovering his senses.  It is a thrilling musical ride and also proves that Moon has no rival on drums – his performance is breathtaking. “Tommy Can You Hear Me” is just vocals and acoustic guitar, delivered with evocative simplicity and grace. Meanwhile, “Smash The Mirror” is raw power.

The Who – “Smash The Mirror”

Closing out Tommy is the epic song “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. It’s straight rock and roll number, but it delivers the definitive Who statement. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” rivals “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “My Generation” as the proverbial Who middle finger to the rest of humanity. The powerful harmonies once again prove that The Who are the masters of iconoclastic bravado.

The Who – “We’re Not Gonna Take It”

Tommy is a work of pure genius. Greatness and genius are terms thrown around and often misapplied to recognize celebrity, but the truly, truly gifted artist stands immortal. There are so few over the centuries: Mozart, Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Picasso, Miles Davis to name a few. We passionately embrace these artists because we can immerse ourselves into their vision of beauty and originality. The pathos experienced when viewing Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or the stark, lonely beauty of Miles Davis’ “Blue Moods” is the expression of the human condition at its very finest. That is greatness, the only path to immortality. The Who achieved that level of immortality with Tommy—a towering work of art that will be loved and embraced as long as there are people on the planet.

The Who – Tommy – Full Album

[Originally published November 2014]

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