TOMMY AT 50 – Extract 2: THE LEGACY

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.


BOB GRUEN - New York's Smartest Rock Photographer

In the early evening of Friday, May 7, 1976, I was the passenger in a rented car driven by a dude whose blue jeans, small moustache and frizzy hair gave him the air of a Mexican bandit. We were on a freeway in Detroit, our mission to see Wings, Paul McCartney’s band, the third date of their big US tour that year, and we were snarled up in traffic.
         Maybe it was the rush hour, maybe there was a glut of Macca/Beatles fans on their way to the Olympia arena. Either way it looked like we might miss the start of the show. We crawled along nose to tail until my driver spotted an on-ramp, that is one that enabled cars to join the freeway not leave it. Without much thought for the consequences, he edged the car into the nearside lane, braked suddenly at the point where the on-ramp joined, slammed it into reverse and sped backwards up to a point where we could find an alternative route.
         “Fucking hell Bob,” I said. “I’m paying for this fucking car.”
         “Don’t worry,” he replied, coolly lighting a cigarette as we eased our way through uncrowded streets. “We don’t wanna miss the show, do we? It’s cool. We’re in Detroit man. No one gives a fuck what you do in this town.”
         Fifteen minutes later we were in the arena. Here’s the proof.

Bob was, and still is, Bob Gruen and yesterday I was at Somerset House in the Aldwych to reconnect once again with my old pal. He’s New York’s smartest rock photographer, an honourable position he’s held since before I first got to know him around 1974. Nowadays his frizzy hair is turning grey and the moustache went long ago but he’s still as laid back as Louisiana in August. He was in town for an exhibition of his pictures in The Music Photo Gallery and to give a talk about his work, egged on by Dave Brolan, once my photo researcher at Omnibus Press and now the UK’s premier go-to man for publishers who need the best rock shots between their pages.
         The exhibition is called Rock Seen, a play on the name of the magazine Rock Scene that during the seventies, under the editorship of Lisa Robinson, strived to show fans rock stars at work, rest and play. Every other rock mag just showed them on stage or posing in a studio but thanks to Bob’s streetwise ways and ability to find out what was happening, and where and when, Rock Scene showed them hanging out, with their friends, with their WAGS and with each other. Anyone could shoot the Ramones doing a gig but only Bob shot Joey with Iggy and Debbie, or Dee Dee with Bowie and David Jo, or any combination of any of those and dozens more. What made this possible was Bob’s easy going manner, the way he slotted right in as if he played camera while Clem hit the drums and Joey sang. He was as much a part of the scene as all the musicians and although the Rock Seen exhibition veers more towards his shots of the superstars – John L, Led Zep, Bowie, Mick’n’Keith, Elton and the like – the reality, as seen in the accompanying book, is that if a scene was happening, then Bob and his Nikon were right there in the midst of it.
         It didn’t take me long to realise this. It was Bob that introduced me to CBGBs and Club 82 where I first encountered the now legendary New York Bowery scene, and in return he became my photographer of choice, whether it was shooting Robert Plant in a hotel room while I interviewed him, or Debbie in the Stilettos before she and Chris assembled Blondie, or on the road with Dylan as we chased him around New England on the Rolling Thunder Review. Or Paul in Detroit, of course.
         Chatting with Dave Bolan yesterday Bob talked about his first ever rock pic, one of Tina Turner. He’d been invited along to the gig and just happened to have his camera with him so he took a few shots and back in his darkroom developed them. One in particular took his fancy so he somehow found his way back to where he could find Ike & Tina and showed it to Ike who loved it, and from then on he took some more and found himself a life. The picture, below, is exactly how it was on his negative. “It wasn’t photoshopped,” he said to mild chuckles from his audience. Nowadays anyone looking at it would naturally assume it was a double or triple exposure and photoshopped to hell.

Bob, who now has plenty of staff to curate his archive, has never thrown away a negative, not one. I asked him whether, in the digital age, like everyone else with a camera/phone he deletes all but the prime shots. “No, never,” he replied. “I keep ‘em all just as I always did.” And asked how he feels about the present day trend for limiting access to photographers, he just shrugs. “Me and bunch of photographers were in the lobby at the Beacon arguing with some manager about this,” he said. “I just opened the doors to the theatre and told him, ‘Every single fan in there is taking lousy pictures that’ll be on the internet in hours. Wouldn’t you prefer decent pictures of your act?’ I think the message got through.”

CC, centre, with Bob & Elizabeth Gruen

Bob’s show, all high grade framed prints, mostly from the seventies, is on at the Music Photo Gallery at Somerset House until May 19.