After the release of The Who's box set 30 Years Of Maximum R&R in the nineties those of us involved (the group, manager Bill Curbishley, producer Jon Astley, designer Richard Evans and myself) turned our attention to the back catalogue, creating newly remastered CDs with bonus tracks and decent packaging. For the most part I commissioned outside writers to write sleeve notes but I did the first one, Live At Leeds, myself. This first wave of upgraded CDs was subsequently superseded by even better ones in which my involvement was minimal but Leeds was still top of the list for remedial work and since this version now included a complete live Tommy I was required to add something about it to the existing notes I'd written. Here's what I wrote, slightly upgraded like the CDs.
The Who's first ever live performance of the entire Tommy song cycle was at a press preview at Ronnie Scott's Club in London on May 2, 1969, the same month as the original double album was released. The final performance, until their 25th Anniversary reunion tour in 1989, was at London's Roundhouse on December 20, 1970, when they dedicated it to the support act, an upcoming singer-songwriter who played the piano called Elton John. In between times The Who dragged Tommy across Europe and America, performing it over 160 times. "Assemble the musicians," Pete would say as the band geared itself for 'Thomas', as he liked to call it. Keith would tap the rim of his snare like a conductor would tap his baton on a music stand. "Stop laughing," he'd yell from behind his drums. "This is serious. It's a fucking opera, ain't it?"
And off they'd go, crashing into the 'Overture' and sticking at it until the final verse of 'Listening To You', the coda from 'We’re Not Gonna Take it', an hour and 15 minutes or so later. It was a marathon performance, something never attempted by any rock band before, and those fans who caught it in its glorious prime were indeed fortunate. Over the years Tommy would become abridged, with certain songs left out –John’s 'Cousin Kevin' was never played and 'Sensation', 'Sally Simpson' and 'Welcome' soon got the chop – until only 'Pinball Wizard' and the 'See Me Feel Me' climax remained. Occasionally The Who would reprise the instrumental 'Sparks' which, with its layered dynamics, sudden octave drops and multiple rising crescendos, became a sort of Who anthem and, with Pete spinning around the stage and Roger bashing furiously on a tambourine, rarely failed to bring audiences to their feet.
Though Pete’s diversion into the realms of rock operas sometimes brought charges of pretension, The Who always maintained a slightly picaresque sense of humour which was present in Tommy during Keith’s two vocal contributions, 'Fiddle About' and 'Tommy’s Holiday Camp'. No-one quite revelled in the role of a pervert quite like Moonie, as seen in his subsequent appearance as Ernie in Ken Russell’s movie of Tommy.
Pete has recalled that the first time Tommy was performed in the US, at The Grande Ballroom in Kinetic Playground, Chicago, on May 29, 1969, the audience – who’d had little opportunity to hear the album and therefore familiarise themselves with the music – rose at a certain point midway through and remained standing, simply blown away by the music and The Who's performance. The four of them exchanged glances amongst themselves, realising in that moment that they had created something very special. By the time Tommy neared its climax no one was ever sitting down.
So it was that ‘See Me Feel Me’ became the Tommy hymn, crystal clear homage to some deity or other, and when it was played live it appeared for all the world as if The Who was paying a remarkable tribute – ‘Listening to you, I get the music’ – to the audience they were singing to. In this respect, it couldn't fail to lift the spirits – just as all hymns are designed to do. And when the bright lights were switched on behind them and the audience was illuminated as the band had been, The Who's auditoria became giant cathedrals in which, briefly, preachers and congregation were united in a massed celebration of rock music as the force for unification that Pete Townshend truly believed it was meant to be. Hell, disabled fans even waved their crutches in the air; maybe one or two even walked out of the show without them.
By the time The Who and Tommy reached Leeds, they could be forgiven for being well and truly sick of it. If they were, it doesn’t show. Extensive research amongst The Who’s archives and collectors around the world reveals that this Leeds Tommy is the very best concert version of the work extant. Now available as part of this celebratory package, I can only quote Pete Townshend, using the same words I used to title an essay I wrote on The Who some years ago for Crawdaddy magazine, it’s a bargain – the best you’ve ever had.