Tommy (1969) is one of The Who's two full-scale rock operas (the other being Quadrophenia), and the first musical work explicitly billed as a rock opera. In some older publications it is called Tommy (1914–1984). The opera was composed by Who guitarist Pete Townshend, with two tracks contributed by Who bassist John Entwistle and one fictitiously attributed to Who drummer Keith Moon, though actually written by Townshend.  An earlier song by blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson II was also incorporated into the opera. Playing time is 74 minutes.
In its original album version, the story is quite sketchy, and details were often filled in post facto by Townshend in interviews. As other adaptations of the album appeared, some details were filled out and others were changed (for example the timeframe was changed to World War II and 1951 in some later versions and in the film version, the lover kills the husband rather than the converse).
Analysis and history
When Tommy was released, critics were split between those who thought the album was a masterpiece, the beginnings of a new genre, and those that felt it was "sick" and exploitative because of its dark theme. The album was banned by the BBC and certain US radio stations. Ultimately, the album became a huge commercial success, as did the Who's frequent live performances of the rock opera in the following years, arguably launching the Who to an essentially new level of prestige and international stardom. ()
Although Tommy is conventionally described as a rock opera, author and Who historian Richard Barnes points out that this definition is not strictly correct, since Tommy does not utilise the classic operatic formulae of staging, scenery, acting and recitative. According to Barnes, Tommy could be more accurately described as a "rock cantata" or a "rock song cycle".
Musically, the original album is a complex set of pop-rock arrangements, generally based upon Townshend's acoustic guitar and built up with many overdubs by the four members of the band using many instruments, including bass, electric and acoustic guitars, piano, organ, drumkit, gong, tympani, horn, three-part vocal harmonies and occasional doubling on vocal solos. Despite this instrumental richness the sound tends to be very "stark", especially in comparison to the band's later work. Many of the instruments only appear intermittently -- the ten-minute "Underture" features a single toot on the horn -- and when overdubbed many of the instruments are mixed at low levels that require careful listening to notice. Townshend mixes fingerpicking in with his trademark power chords and fat riffs, and in some delicate moments his guitar sounds almost like a harpsichord. Moon's drumming is controlled with a few dramatic moments; Entwistle's bass provides support and effectively takes the instrumental lead in several cuts. Daltrey swaggers as lead vocalist, but shares that role with the others on a surprising number of tracks. Townshend's later interest in synthesizers is foreshadowed by the use of taped sounds played in reverse to give a whistling, chirping sound on "Amazing Journey"; on the same track the background singers imitate the sound of seagulls.
"Amazing Journey" can be interpreted as the central pivot of Tommy, since its lyrics are essential to understanding what the opera is about (beyond the facile story line). "Go to the Mirror" is the climax of the opera both musically and dramatically; tradition holds that when the band was touring the show live the audiences would spontaneously stand up during "Go to the Mirror" and remain standing until the end—listening in silence, unlike the customary behavior of Who fans. "We're Not Gonna Take It / See Me, Feel Me / Listening to You" is the denouement, with its ambiguous return to the earlier state of the story reinforced in concert by returning to the riff from "Overture" and "Go to the Mirror" at the very end rather than the long fade from the studio recording. Various themes are repeated in different songs in order to give the opera a coherent feel.
The tracks "Overture", "Pinball Wizard", "I'm Free", and the "See Me, Feel Me / Listening to You" reprise were released as singles and got a decent amount of airplay. "Pinball Wizard" reached the top twenty in the USA and the top five in the UK. "See Me, Feel Me / Listening To You" landed high in the top twenty in the USA and "I'm Free" reached the top forty. The tracks "Overture", "Christmas", "I’m Free", and "See Me Feel Me" were released on an EP in late 1970. The "Overture" was also covered by a band called The Assembled Multitude and received a lot of airplay. Tommy was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
The child abuse that features so prominently in the story caused a good deal of outcry when it was first released. It has often been claimed that the basic idea of the Tommy story was lifted from The Pretty Things' 1968 concept album S.F. Sorrow, and Townshend himself later admitted that he listened to the Pretty Things LP extensively and that it was a major inspiration for Tommy. Steve Marriott also claimed that some musical elements in Tommy were "borrowed" from the music of The Small Faces. Notwithstanding the numerous outside influences, several structural precedents for Tommy exist in Townshend's own work, including "Glow Girl" (1968), "Rael" (1967), and the sectional work "A Quick One While He's Away" (1966).
A couple of years before the album came out Pete Townshend explained his ideas and apparently actually thought out some of the structure of the opera during a famous Rolling Stone interview. John Entwistle claimed years after the release that he had never actually listened to the album because he was so sick of it after the endless takes and re-takes.
Tommy was originally released as a two-LP set with a thin booklet of lyrics and artwork in a triptych-style fold-out cover. All three of the outer panels of the triptych are spanned by a single Pop Art painting by Mike McInnerney. The drawing is a sphere with diamond-shaped cutouts and an overlay of clouds and seagulls rendered with a figure-ground ambiguity. To one side a star-spangled hand bursts from the dark background, index finger pointing forward. (The image above only shows the central panel of the triptych.) The label's executives insisted on having a picture of the band on the cover, so small, barely recognizable images of the band members' faces were inserted into the gaps in the sphere, each with an outstretched hand like a groping Tommy Walker. (The most recent remastered CD release reverts to McInnerney's original artwork without the faces.) The internal artwork consists of a photo of some jugglers/magicians and some very simple paintings that only hint at illustrating the story.
MCA re-released the album as a two-CD set in 1984. The CDs were in separate jewel cases and each had a miniaturized copy of the original artwork and lyrics in the insert, though it only included two panels of the magnificent triptych. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab later published it on a single gold-plated Ultradisc in their Original Master Recording series, with a much improved reproduction of the artwork (including a fold-out of the full original cover), and with the substitution of an alternate take on "Eyesight to the Blind". MCA finally released their own remastered edition on a single disc in 1996, complete with good artwork and a written introduction by Richard Barnes.
All songs were written by Pete Townshend except for "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About", which were written by John Entwistle, "Tommy's Holiday Camp", credited to Keith Moon (which Townshend actually composed and wrote, but Moon supplied the holiday camp setting), and "Eyesight to the Blind", originally written by Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Live recordings of Tommy are available on The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 and The Who: Live at Leeds (Deluxe Edition), both recorded in 1970 but not released until 1996 and 2001, respectively. The Who also performed Tommy for its 20th anniversary during their 1989 reunion tour. Recordings of shows from this tour can be found on the Join Together recording, the The Who/Live video, or the recently released Tommy/Quadrophenia DVD. Although these 1989 recordings have their high points, most critics and fans agree that the brass players, the backup singers, the extra lead guitar, the two inadequate drummers, and the general excess take away the spirit of the original Tommy. However, it should be noted that the 1989 performances are appreciated by a significant minority of fans.
1972 orchestral version
In late 1972 entrepreneur Lou Reizner presented two concert versions of Tommy at the Rainbow Theatre, London. The concerts featured The Who, plus an all-star guest cast, backed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham. The concerts were held to promote the release of Reizner's new studio recording of this "symphonic" version of Tommy.
Both in concert and on record, major singing roles were performed by leading pop and rock stars of the day -- David Essex, Maggie Bell, Sandy Denny, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart, Richie Havens and Ringo Starr. Pete Townshend also plays a bit of guitar, but otherwise the music is predominantly orchestral. The studio version of the orchestral Tommy was issued in a lavish boxed-set format, featuring stunning original artwork and photography, which used a pinball as its main motif. Bootleg issues of the concert performances (which were recorded by the BBC) have also been released.
The orchestral version was also performed in Australia in March 1973, to thousands at open air venues (Melbourne's Myer Music Bowl and Sydney's Randwick Racecourse). Keith Moon appeared as "Uncle Ernie" with local stars Daryl Braithwaite (as Tommy), Billy Thorpe, Doug Parkinson, Wendy Saddington, Jim Keays, Graeme Bell, Broderick Smith, Colleen Hewitt, Linda George, Ross Wilson, Bobby Bright, and a full orchestra.
1975 film version
In 1975 Tommy was adapted as a film, produced by expatriate Australian entrepreneur Robert Stigwood and directed by maverick British auteur Ken Russell. The movie version starred Daltrey as Tommy, and featured other members of The Who plus an eclectic supporting cast including Hollywood legend Ann-Margret as Tommy's mother, Oliver Reed as the boyfriend, with cameo appearances by Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Arthur Brown and Jack Nicholson.
Tommy was one of the first music films released with a multichannel hi-fi soundtrack (billed as "quintaphonic sound") and in many theaters it was presented with high-powered concert-style sound reinforcement, played at rock concert volumes.
The film received mixed reviews but was a huge commercial success on release and has achieved cult film status due to scenes such as Arthur Brown's portrayal of a priest in Tommy's cult, Ann-Margret's frolic in a pool of beans (a reference to the cover of The Who's 1967 LP Sell Out) and the sharp satire on pop music presented by the "Sally Simpson" scene. Other highlights included Elton John's memorable appearance (sporting metre-high platform heels) as the "Pinball Wizard" and Tina Turner's electrifying cameo as the "Acid Queen".
Townshend reworked the storyline extensively for the film, fleshing out much that was obscure in the original version, and moving the time-frame forward to a more believable era, the period following World War II. The film version also reversed a crucial plot point: in the film, Tommy's father is murdered by his mother's lover, rather than the lover being killed by the returning Capt. Walker, as in the original storyline. The result can be seen as lending an incestuous charge to the mother/son relationship as Tommy's mother sees her former husband within her son.
Townshend also oversaw the production of a new double-LP recording that returned the music to its rock roots, and on which the unrecorded orchestral arrangements he had envisaged for the original Tommy LP were realised by the extensive use of synthesiser. The soundtrack LP also employed many leading sessions musicians including Caleb Quaye and longtime Who associate John "Rabbit" Bundrick. The song "Pinball Wizard" was a major hit when released as a single. Curiously, although the music for this song is performed entirely by Elton John and his band, the film depicts Elton being backed by The Who (dressed in pound-note suits).
Most of the extras were students at Portsmouth Polytechnic and were paid with tickets to a Who concert after filming had finished. Ken Russell included the shots he took of the pier at Southsea, which burned down while the crew were in town.
Track listing for the soundtrack album
1993 stage version
In 1993, Townshend and San Diego playwright Des McAnuff wrote and produced a Broadway musical adaptation of Tommy. The production featured a new song by Townshend (I Believe My Own Eyes), several rewrites in lyrics, and an all-star cast. Initially, the show received mixed reviews; for example, while The New York Times' Frank Rich praised it (), the same paper's Jon Pareles argued that "Their (Townshend's and McAnuff's) changes turn a blast of spiritual yearning, confusion and rebellion into a pat on the head for nesters and couch potatoes" (). Later, Townshend partly responded to the criticisms (). Ultimately, the production won five Tony Awards that year, including Best Original Score for Townshend. Various touring revivals have met with popular acclaim since.
The musical version reorganizes the numbers and changes many lyrics. The setting is in post-World War II Britain, as in the film version. Nevertheless, unlike the film, the lyrics "Got a feelin '21 is gonna be a good year" remain the same, though now referring to Mrs. Walker's birthday. Also, Captain Walker kills the lover, as in the original album and unlike the film, where the lover kills Captain Walker and takes his place. Finally, after the "Sally Simpson" scene, Tommy renounces his messianic role and returns to his family, embracing and praising the kind of "normality" that everybody else has and that he has been deprived of (significantly, the new version introduced lines such as "freedom lies here in normality" and excluded the earlier versions' "Hey, old hung-up Mr. Normal, don't try to gain my trust").
Track listing for the cast album
Indexed by promo-only vinyl side breaks