Today sees the publication of Tommy At 50 by Mike McInnerney and myself with a Foreword by Pete Townshend. This second extract is the opening of the Legacy chapter which continues with how Tommy was performed live by The Who in the US and UK, and then moves on to cover versions and how the opera transcended The Who with a life of its own. Later, it looks at the Tommy movie, the Broadway show and subsequent versions recorded and/or performed by The Who.
Tommy wasn’t the first rock opera and neither was it the last, but it was the best, the most popular, and the most successful. It has also become the most enduring.
The Who’s original double LP, released in May of 1969, spawned an orchestral version, a film with accompanying soundtrack, a slew of theatrical productions, a Broadway musical, scores of live versions in part or whole, cover versions galore, and even a ballet or two. That original LP has been reissued many times over the years in different formats with bonus tracks and is now available as a multi-CD boxed set, with demos, alternate versions, and a high-end booklet – all the bells and whistles the consumer expects in deluxe packages that can cost in excess of $100.
Its legacy for The Who was to give them a stage show that saw them become – if they weren’t already – one of the world’s great rock bands, a major rock attraction on a par with The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, the only other British groups to contend for title “Greatest Rock Band in the World” during the seventies. With Tommy as the centerpiece of their stage show, The Who became a must-see live attraction, honing a reputation for superlative concert performances that clings to them to this day and ensured their fortunes for the remainder of a discontinuous career that seems everlasting, despite the deaths of Keith Moon in 1978 and John Entwistle in 2002. It also made the four members of the group and their managers very wealthy – especially Pete Townshend – a natural development of success that bought them fine homes and fancy cars but had its downside in terms of unity and forward momentum.
Its legacy for the rock industry was to cement the commercial viability of double LPs, to inspire a number of concept albums (many of them ill-advised), and – although Sgt. Pepper laid the groundwork – to help make rock acceptable as an art form to vie with painting, literature, classical music and dance. The Who even performed Tommy at staid opera houses in Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, thus realizing an important ambition for its producer, Who co-manager Kit Lambert, whose father was a distinguished classical musician.
Having been turned into an orchestral piece, a film, a Broadway show, and a ballet, by the turn of the millennium Tommy had entered the pantheon of essential texts for any students of rock history. “The definitive rock opera,” is how it is described in the ten-volume Encyclopedia of Popular Music, published by the Oxford University Press, the world’s most authoritative reference work on rock and pop.
Its legacy for The Who’s many fans was to encourage a certain element of “I told you so” when they encountered naysayers in the playground – and, for this writer, already a fan, to tip me over the edge into full-scale indulgence. This led to a career as a music writer, and, as a consequence, a friendship with The Who that saw me work with them in the nineties on the packaging of upgraded CD reissues of their back catalogue. It’s probably an exaggeration to state that Tommy created a life for me, but it was an important signpost along the way.
The downside for The Who was that it became a millstone around their necks that they have never quite been able to shake off. Realizing this, Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the two surviving members of the group, have now embraced it completely, evidently content with its omnipresence alongside such other rock landmarks as Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side Of The Moon, and Never Mind The Bollocks.
It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely which member of the group was the first to realize this and become weary of Tommy, but the odds-on favorite is John Entwistle, who at one point during 1970 – probably when The Who first noticed they were beginning to attract an audience drawn from sycophantic intelligentsia – was heard to mutter in disgust, “Some people think the band’s called Tommy and the album’s called The Who.”
While the double album was being mixed and pressed ready for release, The Who rehearsed Tommy at Hampstead in North London and Hanwell in the west, and, after the final rehearsal, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon dropped into a nearby pub. “We sat there, both of us incredulous it had come together,” Townshend later told Chris Welch of Melody Maker. “We noted how suddenly Roger had become something else, and we debated what would happen and how it would change everything.”
The Who performed a selection of songs from Tommy for the first time at the Casino Club at Bolton in Lancashire on April 22, 1969, and all of the opera’s songs they intended featuring in their act three days later at Strathclyde University. It was played again at two further low-key shows in Scotland and one south of the border in Durham, before the press preview at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London’s Soho on May 1, the same month the album was released. By all accounts, The Who deafened the assembled writers and guests, among them Marc Bolan of Tyrannosaurus Rex and Ian McLagan of the recently disbanded Small Faces.
“There is a story to the music,” said Townshend, after the group had assembled on the cramped stage, banks of speaker cabinets towering around them. “It’s the story of Tommy . . . a boy who is born normal, just like you and me. Tommy is born and with the advent of war, his father goes off to fight. Tommy’s mother, meanwhile, gets randy and takes a lover. One day, Tommy sees something he shouldn’t and is told to keep quiet about it. He witnessed a murder. The shock causes him to go deaf, dumb, and blind.”
Some journalists then jokily cried out that this was sick, echoing BBC DJ Tony Blackburn’s facile on-air reference to ‘Pinball Wizard’ when it was released as a single in March. “No, it’s not sick, ha, ha,” continued Townshend. “Contrary to what one hears on Auntie [a snarky nickname for the BBC]. I think Auntie is the sickest thing in this country.... The next scene introduces Tommy to Gypsy the Acid Queen, who declares that she will take him into a room for a while and make a man out of a boy. He is later raped by his uncle and gets turned on to LSD.... Following this episode, Tommy becomes renowned as a pinball wizard and becomes the hero of the younger generation.”
Melody Maker photographer Barrie Wentzell opted not to take any pictures because the room was too small and lighting inadequate. He sat close to the front alongside his MM colleague Chris Welch. “We were given seats right next to the stage, right in front of a huge speaker stack,” he recalls. “When The Who started up, we were blown backward from the compression and deafened at the sound. My ears were ringing for a week.”
“The Who gave us a good solid hours’ worth of quality listening and excellent showmanship,” wrote Lon Goddard in Record Mirror. In MM, Welch wrote, “In the confined space of Ronnie Scott’s club, which is more accustomed to the refined rhythms of jazz, the overwhelming intensity of The Who’s performance left scores of people literally deaf... [but] nobody wanted to miss a minute of the group’s riveting rave-up.”
Thus began the most illustrious period in The Who’s career.