Tommy is the fourth studio album by the English rock band The Who, a double album first released in May 1969. The album was mostly composed by guitarist Pete Townshend as a rock opera that tells the story about a “deaf, dumb and blind” boy, including his experiences with life and his relationship with his family.
Townshend came up with the concept of Tommy after being introduced to the work of Meher Baba, and attempted to translate Baba’s teachings into music. Recording on the album began in September 1968, but took six months to complete as material needed to be arranged and re-recorded in the studio. Tommy was acclaimed upon its release by critics, who hailed it as the Who’s breakthrough. Its critical standing diminished slightly in later years; nonetheless, several writers view it as an important and influential album in the history of rock music. The Who promoted the album’s release with an extensive tour, including a live version of Tommy, which lasted throughout 1969 and 1970. Key gigs from the tour included appearances at Woodstock, the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, the University of Leeds, the Metropolitan Opera House and the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. The live performances of Tommy drew critical praise and rejuvenated the band’s career.
Subsequently, the rock opera developed into other media, including a Seattle Opera production in 1971, an orchestral version by Lou Reizner in 1972, a film in 1975, and a Broadway musical in 1992. The original album has sold 20 million copies and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Tommy has never had a definitive plot, but the following synopsis was published following the original album’s release.
British Army Captain Walker goes missing during an expedition and is believed dead (“Overture”). His widow, Mrs. Walker, gives birth to their son, Tommy (“It’s a Boy”). Years later, Captain Walker returns home and discovers that his wife has found a new lover. The Captain murders this man in an altercation as Tommy watches. Tommy’s mother convinces him that he did not see or hear the incident and must never tell anyone about it; as a result, he becomes deaf, dumb, and blind to the outside world (“1921”). Tommy now relies on his sense of touch and imagination, developing a fascinating inner psyche (“Amazing Journey/Sparks”).
A quack claims his wife can cure Tommy (“The Hawker”), while Tommy’s parents are increasingly frustrated that he will never find religion in the midst of his isolation (“Christmas”). They begin to neglect him, leaving him to be tortured by his sadistic “Cousin Kevin” and molested by his uncle Ernie (“Fiddle About”). The Hawker’s drug addicted wife, “The Acid Queen”, gives Tommy a dose of LSD, causing a hallucinogenic experience that is expressed musically (“Underture”).
As Tommy grows older, he discovers that he can feel vibrations sufficiently well to become an expert pinball player (“Pinball Wizard”). His parents take him to a respected doctor (“There’s a Doctor”), who determines that the boy’s disabilities are psychosomatic rather than physical. Tommy is told by the Doctor to “Go to the Mirror!”, and his parents notice he can stare at his reflection. After seeing Tommy spend extended periods staring at a mirror in the house, his mother smashes it out of frustration (“Smash the Mirror”). This removes Tommy’s mental block, and he recovers his senses, realising he can become a powerful leader (“Sensation”). He starts a religious movement (“I’m Free”), which generates fervor among its adherents (“Sally Simpson”) and expands into a holiday camp (“Welcome” / “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”). However, Tommy’s followers ultimately reject his teachings and leave the camp (“We’re Not Gonna Take It”). Tommy retreats inward again (“See Me, Feel Me”) with his “continuing statement of wonder at that which encompasses him”.
Townshend had been looking at ways of progressing beyond the standard three minute pop single format since 1966. Co-manager Kit Lambert shared Townshend’s views and encouraged him to develop musical ideas coming up with the term “rock opera”. The first use of the term was applied to a suite called “Quads”, set in a future where parents could choose the sex of their children. A couple want four girls but instead receive three girls and a boy, raising him as a girl anyway. The opera was abandoned after writing a single song, the hit single, “I’m a Boy”. When the Who’s second album, A Quick One ran short of material during recording, Lambert suggested that Townshend should write a “mini-opera” to fill the gap. Townshend initially objected, but eventually agreed to do so, coming up with “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, which joined short pieces of music together into a continuous narrative. During 1967, Townshend learned how to play the piano and began writing songs on it, taking his work more seriously. That year’s The Who Sell Out included a mini-opera in the last track, “Rael”, which like “A Quick One…” was a suite of musical segments joined together. A portion of “Rael” is the basis of the Tommy instrumental track “Sparks”.
By 1968, Townshend was unsure about how the Who should progress musically. The group were no longer teenagers, but he wanted their music to remain relevant. His friend, International Times art director Mike McInnerney, told him about the Indian spiritual mentor Meher Baba, and Townshend became fascinated with Baba’s values of compassion, love and introspection. The Who’s commercial success was on the wane after the single “Dogs” failed to make the top 20, and there was a genuine risk of the band breaking up. Live performances remained strong, and the group spent most of the spring and summer touring the US and Canada but their stage act relied on Townshend smashing his guitar or Moon demolishing his drums, which kept the group in debt. Townshend and Lambert realised they needed a larger vehicle for their music than hit singles, and a new stage show, and Townshend hoped to incorporate his love of Baba into this concept. He decided that the Who should record a series of songs that stood well in isolation, but formed a cohesive whole on the album. He also wanted the material performed in concert, to counteract the trend of bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, whose studio output was not designed for live performance.
In August 1968, in an interview to Rolling Stone, Townsend talked about a new rock opera, which had the working title of Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy, and described the entire plot in great detail, which ran to 11 pages. Who biographer Dave Marsh subsequently said the interview described the narrative better than the finished album. Townshend later regretted publishing so much detail, as he felt it forced him to write the album according to that blueprint. The rest of the Who, however, were enthusiastic about the idea, and let him have artistic control over the Project.
The Who started recording the album at IBC Studios on 19 September 1968. There was no firm title at this point, which was variously referred to as Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy, Amazing Journey, Journey into Space, The Brain Opera and Omnibus. Townshend eventually settled on Tommy because it was a common British name, and a nickname for soldiers in World War I. Lambert took charge of the production, with Damon Lyon-Shaw as engineer. Sessions were block booked from 2pm – 10pm, but recording often spilled over into the early morning.
The album was recorded onto eight track tape, which allowed various instruments to be overdubbed. Townshend used several guitars in the studio, but made particular use of the Gibson J-200 acoustic and the Gibson SG. As well as their usual instruments, Townshend played piano and organ and bassist John Entwistle doubled on french horn. Keith Moon used a new double bass drum kit owned by roadie Tony Haslam, after Premier had refused to loan him any more equipment due to continual abuse. Though Townshend wrote the majority of the material, the arrangements came from the entire band. Singer Roger Daltrey later said that Townshend often came in with a half-finished demo recording, adding “we probably did as much talking as we did recording, sorting out arrangements and things.” Townshend asked Entwistle to write two songs (“Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About”) that covered the darker themes of bullying and abuse. “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” was Moon’s suggestion of what religious movement Tommy could lead. Moon got the songwriting credit for suggesting the idea, though the music was composed and played by Townshend. A significant amount of material had a lighter style than earlier recordings, with greater prominence put on the vocals. Moon later said, “It was, at the time, very un-Wholike. A lot of the songs were soft. We never played like that.”
Some of the material had already been written for other projects. “Sensation” was written about a girl Townshend had met on the Who’s tour of Australia in early 1968, “Welcome” and “I’m Free” were about peace found through Meher Baba and “Sally Simpson” was based on a gig with the Doors which was marred by violence. Other songs had been previously recorded by the Who and were recycled; “It’s A Boy” was derived from “Glow Girl”, an out-take from The Who Sell Out, while “Sparks” and “Underture” re-used and expanded one of the instrumental themes in “Rael”. “Amazing Journey” was, according to Townshend, “the absolute beginning” of the opera and summarised the entire plot. “The Hawker” was a cover of Mose Allison’s “Eyesight to the Blind” (written by Sonny Boy Williamson). A cover of Mercy Dee Walton’s “One Room Country Shack” was also recorded but was scrapped from the final track listing as Townshend could not figure out a way to incorporate it in the plot.
Recording at IBC was slow, due to a lack of a full plot and a full selection of songs. The group hoped that the album would be ready by Christmas, but sessions dragged on. Melody Maker’s Chris Welch visited IBC studios in November and while he was impressed with the working environment and the material, the project still did not have a title and there was no coherent plotline. The Who’s US record company got so impatient waiting for new product that they released the compilation album Magic Bus: The Who on Tour which received a scathing review from Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone over its poor selection of material and misleading name (as the album contained studio recordings and was not live).
The Who took a break from recording at the end of 1968 to tour, including a well received appearance at The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus on 10 December. They resumed sessions at IBC in January 1969, block booking Monday to Thursday, but had to do gigs every weekend to stop going further into debt. A major tour was booked for the end of April, and the group’s management insisted that the album would have to be finished by then, as it had been well over a year since The Who Sell Out. Lambert wrote a script, Tommy (1914–1984) which he professionally printed, and gave copies to the band, which helped them focus the storyline, and also decide to make the album a double. The group were still coming up with new material; Lambert insisted that the piece should have a proper overtur, while Townshend wrote “Pinball Wizard” so that Nik Cohn, a pinball fan, would give the album a favourable review in the New York Times. Lambert wanted an orchestra to appear on the album, but Townshend was strongly against the idea, and time and budget constraints meant it could not happen anyway.
By March 1969, some songs had been recorded several times, yet Townshend still thought there were missing pieces. Entwistle had become fed up with recording, later saying “we had to keep going back and rejuvenating the numbers … it just started to drive us mad.” The final recording session took place on 7 March, the same day that “Pinball Wizard” was released as a single. The group started tour rehearsals and promotional activities for the single and Lambert went on holiday in Cairo. The mixing was left to Lyon-Shaw and assistant engineer Ted Sharp, who did not think IBC was well suited for the Task. The album overshot its April deadline, as stereo mastering continued into the end of the month. (by wikipedia)
The full-blown rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy that launched the band to international superstardom, written almost entirely by Pete Townshend. Hailed as a breakthrough upon its release, its critical standing has diminished somewhat in the ensuing decades because of the occasional pretensions of the concept and because of the insubstantial nature of some of the songs that functioned as little more than devices to advance the rather sketchy plot. Nonetheless, the double album has many excellent songs, including “I’m Free,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Sensation,” “Christmas,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and the dramatic ten-minute instrumental “Underture.” Though the album was slightly flawed, Townshend’s ability to construct a lengthy conceptual narrative brought new possibilities to rock music. Despite the complexity of the project, he and the Who never lost sight of solid pop melodies, harmonies, and forceful instrumentation, imbuing the material with a suitably powerful grace. (by Richie Unterberger)
This is a great example of a most imperfect 5 star album. Find all the flaws you can and it remains one of the most impressive rock albums ever made. (Howard Sauertieg)
Roger Daltrey (vocals, harmonica)
John Entwistle (bass, french horn, vocals)
Keith Moon (drums, Percussion)
Pete Townshend (vocals, guitar, Keyboards, banjo)
01. Overture (Townshend) 3.50
02. It’s a Boy (Townshend) 2.07
03. 1921 (Townshend) 3.14
04. Amazing Journey (Townshend) 3.025
05. Sparks (Townshend) 3.45
06. The Hawker (Williamson) 2.15
07. Christmas (Townshend) 5.30
08. Cousin Kevin (Entwistle) 4.03
09. The Acid Queen (Townshend) 3.34
10. Underture (Townshend) 10.04
11. Do You Think It’s Alright? (Townshend) 0.25
12. Fiddle About (Entwistle) 1.31
13. Pinball Wizard (Townshend) 3.01
14. There’s A Doctor (Townshend) 0.24
15, Go To The Mirror! (Townshend) 3.38
16. Tommy Can You Hear Me? (Townshend) 1.36
17. Smash the Mirror (Townshend) 1.35
18. Sensation (Townshend) 2.29
19. Miracle Cure (Townshend) 0.13
20. Sally Simpson (Townshend) 4.11
21. I’m Free (Townshend) 2.39
22. Welcome (Townshend) 4.33
23. Tommy’s Holiday Camp (Moon) 0.57
24. We’re Not Gonna Take It (Townshend) 3.28
25. See Me, Feel Me (Townshend) 3.42
(Though later released as a single, “See Me, Feel Me” was not a track in its own right on the original album, and is included as the latter half of “We’re not Gonna Take It”.)
+ the bonus disc (The first twelve tracks are out-takes and demos and the last five are stereo-only demos.)
01. I Was (Townshend) 0.17
02. Christmas (Outtake 3) (Townshend) 4.43
03. Cousin Kevin Model Child (Townshend) 1.25
04. Young Man Blues (Version one) (Allison) 2.51
05. Tommy Can You Hear Me? (Alternate version) (Townshend) 1.59
06. Trying To Get Through (Townshend) 2.51
07. Sally Simpson (Outtake) 4.09
08. Miss Simpson (Townshend) 4.18
09. Welcome (Take two) (Townshend) 3.44
10, Tommy’s Holiday Camp (Band’s version) (Townshend) 1.07
11. We’re Not Gonna Take It (Alternate version) (Townshend) 6.08
12, Dogs (Part Two) (Moon) 2.26
13. It’s a Boy (Townshend) 0.43
14. Amazing Journey (Townshend) 3.41
15. Christmas (Townshend) 1.55
16. Do You Think It’s Alright (Townshend) 0.28
17. Pinball Wizard (Townshend) 3.46