Tommy is the fourth studio album from the legendary British rock band The Who. Introducing the concept of the “rock opera” – a rock album that interweaves a conceptual plot - to the world in 1969, it is hailed as the first “extended work” in the rock industry and has since been critically acclaimed for breaking ground within the genre. What foundations did Tommy lay down that has rendered its artistic relevance nearly half a century after its release?
Tommy dabbles both in the grandiose and the simplicity of its time. Coming from the tail end of the 1960s, I expected the latter without much deviation from the classic, low-key rock.
I was wrong.
The opening track of Tommy, Overture, incorporates the French horn, of all instruments, into a classic rock song. While the majority of the instrumentals on this album aren’t as in-your-face as rock-n-roll’s later contemporaries, the complexity layered between each track makes up for that to provide for a cohesive, artfully plot-centric album. This to say that there’s subtlety in the music’s genius. Though I wasn’t immediately wowed by the album’s sound, once I saw it through the lens of the arrangement I found new appreciation.
Tommy tells the story of a deaf, blind, and dumb boy named Tommy as he explores his world, meeting characters such as The Hawker and The Acid Queen, before becoming a “pinball wizard” and starting his own religion as he regains his senses. The story’s plot is interwoven through the lyrics as they appear (Tommy features large instrumental breaks throughout tracks). Though the story comes off more blatantly than, say, American Idiot (another famous rock opera by Green Day), casual listeners can still hear any particular song from this album and go, “Oh, I love the chorus to this song!” or, “I really dig the drumbeat here!”
Speaking of drumbeats…
Keith Moon’s expertise at the drum kit proves to be what’s perhaps the most unconventional sound on the album. Throughout fairly standard guitar tracks and instrumentals are the wild, yet sonically deep drumbeats that manage to both provide rhythm and throw variety into the mix. If anything, Moon’s work on the drums in Tommy feel ahead of their time when looking at classic rock from the 1980s and 1990s; fills found in tracks like The Hawker and Christmas nearly verge on punk territory.
On a larger scale, the pacing of this album feels superbly tight-knit. I’ve complained in the past about albums being too blended when tracks sound the same, but in Tommy’s case that sense of unity proves to be more of a blessing than a curse. Keeping the concept of the rock opera in mind, each track hinges on Tommy’s story almost to the extent that the album feels like one seventy-five-minute manifesto as opposed to a collection of tracks. Thus, Tommy should be treated more like a storybook, or a movie, rather than a rock album – though different, Tommy deserves to be heard for its story in addition to its groundbreaking arrangement and interpretation of classic rock.
Tommy made waves in 1969 as the world’s first rock opera, ultimately reinventing the band’s sound and bringing them to renewed prominence. The lead single from the album, Pinball Wizard, found success and went on to become one of Tommy’s staple tracks.
The frontman of The Who, Roger Daltrey, spoke of the album’s influence on his voice in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “Once we got into doing all the songs on Tommy, as a vocalist I realized they really needed a stronger interpretation,” said Daltrey. “It gave me a canvas that was big enough to really, really take some chances. Once we got out on the road and sang it live, it just took off on its own and my voice grew with it.”
The Who would later record Quadrophenia, a 1974 album that also serves as a rock opera in light of their success with Tommy. Fans often consider those two albums to be some of the best in the band’s discography.
Daltery also supports Tommy as the peak in The Who’s musical career. “I just think it's the most complete. It is for me as a singer, anyway.”
To support the album, The Who played several gigs during 1969 and 1970 in which Tommy was played in its entirety, so as to reinforce the idea of the album as a cohesive narrative experience.
The album has since been re-interpreted as stage musicals on Broadway as well as in Seattle and London, in addition to a 1975 film of the same name based on the album.
Only two of the band’s original members – Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend – are alive today. Currently, The Who plan on touring throughout the United Kingdom in Spring of 2017, with special plans to play Tommy in its entirety for the first time since 1989.
While The Who were originally set to retire in 2015 after a set of festival performances, the future of the band after 2017 is now unclear.
Next week’s review: Blink-182’s “Enema Of The State”