Richard Barnes’ overview of Tommy’s amazing journey.
In 1966, three years before the original release of this album, Pete Townshend played a tape of a spoof song called ‘Gratis Amatis’ to Who manager Kit Lambert. The 10-minute aria consisted of high-pitched Goon Show voices singing ‘Gratis Amatis’ over and over for what seemed like an hour. As they fell about laughing, a friend said, "It’s a rock opera", which caused more laughter. Suddenly Lambert stopped laughing and looked thoughtful. "Now there’s an idea," he said.
A couple of years later, having dabbled with ‘A Quick One’ and ‘Rael,’ Townshend was piecing together early versions of this album; a truly serious ‘rock opera’. Lambert, son of classical composer Constant Lambert, encouraged Townshend all the way, eventually becoming the album’s producer.
The story line was influenced by Townshend’s rejection of psychedelic drugs and simultaneous discovery of mysticism, particularly the works of Meher Baba. In those days Townshend positively radiated spiritual vibes. He was working on a metaphorical story device that put across the idea of different states of consciousness. The premise was that we had our five senses but were blind to Reality and Infinity. "There was a parallel within the shape of the autistic child," explained Townshend, "so the hero had to be deaf, dumb, and blind so that seen from our already limited point of view, his limitations would be symbolic of our own."
The project went through frequent changes and adaptations. Some early working titles were The Amazing Journey, The Brain Opera, Journey into Space, and Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy. Songs were written, changed, dropped and old ones slotted in. The first song written specifically for the work was Amazing Journey, with lyrics taken from the first few lines of an extremely long Townshend poem. The project seemed to take on a momentum of its own. Townshend remarked how perfectly songs that were written earlier "just fell into place."
What was interesting about this so called ‘opera’ was its scope, breadth and intelligence. Strictly speaking it isn’t an opera at all. It has not staging, scenery, acting, or recitative. It is a cantata or song cycle. Its story covers murder, trauma, bullying, child molestation, sex, drugs, illusion, delusion, altered consciousness, spiritual awakening, religion, charlatanism, success, superstardom, faith, betrayal, rejection, and pinball. It contains shades of Helen Keller and Amie Semple McPherson.
Compiling the work was a curious mixture of sense and serendipity. Townshend’s intense ‘control freak’ planning contrasted sharply with spur-of-the-moment whims. For instance, part way through the recording of a rough mix played to influential rock journalist Nic Cohn got a lukewarm reception. They desperately needed his favourable review, so, on impulse, Townshend, knowing Cohn was a pinball fan, decided that Tommy might play some sort of sport like football or perhaps, even… "pinball." "It’ll be a masterpiece," was Cohn’s immediate response.
Townshend rushed home and wrote ‘Pinball Wizard’. "I knocked it off. I thought, ‘Oh, my God this is awful, the most clumsy piece of writing I’ve ever done. Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball, from Soho down to Brighton, I must have played them all. Oh my God, I’m embarrassed. This sounds like a Music Hall song. Sure plays a mean pinball. I scribbled it out and all the verses were the same length and there was no kind of middle eight. It was going to be a complete dud, but I carried on. I attempted the same mock baroque guitar beginning that’s on ‘I’m a Boy’ and then a bit of vigorous kind of flamenco guitar. I was just grabbing at ideas, I knocked a demo together and took it to the studio and everyone loved it. Damon Lyon-Shaw (the engineer on Tommy) said ‘Pete, that’s a hit.’ Everybody was really excited and I suddenly thought ‘Have I written a hit?’ It was just because the only person that we knew would give us a good review, was a pinball fanatic."
Townshend could still write a razor line without knowing it. ‘Pinball Wizard’ was placed in the song order and references to pinball slotted into various songs. The lines Playing poxy pinball, he picks his nose and smiles and pokes his tongue at everything, were inserted into ‘Christmas’, and two or three pinball references added to ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’ Most people assume Tommy is a story about pinball, but it isn’t particularly relevant to the main plot except perhaps in the line… He plays by intuition. The significance attached to pinball by Tommy enthusiasts is largely misplaced except that it was meant to be "teenage-like and slightly sleazy" according to Townshend. "Something a school teacher would disapprove of."
Red herring or not, the addition of ‘Pinball Wizard’ dramatically changed everything. ‘Wizard’ and the other obvious rock songs raised the work from being just ‘worthy,’ ‘interesting’ and ‘artistic’, to being all of those plus popular, exciting and successful. Prior to ‘Pinball Wizard,’ the whole project was beginning bogged down. The Who were trying to include Mose Alison’s ‘Young Man Blues’ and it wasn’t working. Lambert thought it was in danger of becoming ‘too religious’. ‘Pinball Wizard’ made it more Rock Opera than God Opera.
Two other crucial events shaped the project. In the middle of the whole process, Lambert wrote a Tommy film script which helped clarify the plot, and near the end, as an antidote to the religious feel, Keith Moon came up with the inspired idea of setting Tommy’s spiritual centre in a British seaside holiday camp.
The allegories and mystical metaphors in the story, although intriguing and, at the time, controversial, were not what made Tommy a sustained success. Entwistle, despite writing both ‘Cousin Kevin’ and ‘Fiddle About’, confesses: "It wasn’t until Ken Russell did his version that I understood what the story was… and he was wrong." Entwistle wasn’t alone. The album was successful not because of its subject matter, or even the cleverness of the lyrics, but because of the strength of the songs, the sheer brilliance of the tunes.
The story line could have been another boy meets girl saga and been successful with great songs, whereas the cleverest plot line in the world would still struggle if the tunes were second rate. Tommy has an intelligent, thought provoking story but what put it into the charts was the abundance of great rock numbers. ‘Pinball Wizard’ is the best known but ‘Amazing Journey’, ‘Cousin Kevin’, ‘The Acid Queen’, ‘I’m Free’ and ‘See Me Feel Me/Listening to You’ are all great rock songs.
It was very difficult to make out the plot from the album anyway. The major inciting incident of the plot in ‘1921’ is a mystery. What was it that the boy didn’t hear, see and must not tell a soul about? Was it Captain Walker’s demob suit or what? It wasn’t at all clear. But it didn’t matter because you could put your own interpretation on it. Ambiguous song lyrics almost always work better than those where everything is spelt out. (When the piece came to be filmed and staged the story had to be clarified and the holes in the plot resolved, but that’s another story.)
The recording, on eight track at London’s IBC Studio, took ages and put the group into serious debt. They spent a lot of time in a nearby pub discussing things, leaving the studio empty for long expensive periods. "We went into the studio and started to experiment in a way that was only really possible for a band like the Beatles," says Townshend. Daltrey remembers, "We probably did as much talking as we did recording." Another problem was that the group were regularly forced to break off recording and play gigs to bring in money, making it difficult to maintain a consistent recorded sound when they were continually setting up and dismantling Moon’s only drum kit. They got credit facilities at IBC but the bill was so high that by the end of the sessions they were, as Townshend put it, "… in dire fucking straits."
The original Tommy record sounded quite bland and flat. Lambert’s partner, Chris Stamp, explained, "Kit wasn’t what you’d call an ‘ears’ producer. He went for the feeling, the performance, rather than the faithfully reproduced note-perfect reproduction. He captured the essence, warts and all, of the studio sessions."
Entwistle was frustrated at Lambert not allowing too many overdubs. The band became convinced that he was going to try to add violins. Townshend recalls, "Kit Lambert wanted to bring in a full orchestra and I fought it all the way." They felt that they should be able to play the record live on tour and so the sound was augmented with just Hammond organ, keyboards and John Entwistle’s French horn.
However, the rather thin sound of much of the original album helps, rather then hinders the success of the work. Had it been souped up and strengthened with multi overdubs, violins, cellos, harps, backing voices, heavenly choirs and sound effects, not only would it not have been The Who but it would have been impossible for the group to reproduce on stage. It would also have lost much of its innocence and honesty.
At the end of the Tommy mastering sessions in New York in 1969, after the first cut to vinyl was completed, Lambert declared the album a ‘masterpiece’ and destroyed the original master tapes by ceremonially burning them. (This may be why many Who fans claim Tommy sounded better on the original vinyl than on later CDs.) It wasn’t until 1988 that a first generation copy of the master tape came to light, however, this long overdue remix by Jon Astley and Andy Macpherson was compiled by going right back to the original IBC studio eight tracks. The aim has simply been to "faithfully reproduce the original." Before remixing, the 1969 album was used as reference and the way that Lambert and the band had mixed it was carefully examined. Particular attention was given to the imagery and reverberation. Using modern techniques, the tape hiss, flatness and muddiness have been excluded, making it cleaner, brighter and fuller while retaining all the sound, balance and feel of the original. Also, by going straight from the eight track to the digital master, there’s decreased distortion and increased clarity. I’m not sure if they copied Lambert to the letter, but if they did I’m sure they burnt the tapes in a much more modern way.
When Tommy was released, the British reviews were broadly split into two camps: those who thought it a masterpiece and those who claimed it was ‘sick’ and exploitative. A deaf, dumb and blind child who is sexually molested by his uncle. No pop album before had contained songs as remotely daring as these. The album was promptly banned by the BBC and various US radio stations. The controversy, of course, did nothing to damage sales.
Tommy changed everything for the Who. Previously a ‘singles’ band, they were now an ‘album’ band with all the prestige this now dated categorisation conferred. Townshend went from being a song writer to a composer. The Who’s live shows became rock theatre, and Roger Daltrey was propelled into a major rock frontman. Suddenly Daltrey was Tommy, and Tommy was Daltrey. He rose to the occasion, taking the role seriously, carrying the demanding lead magnificently and becoming the central focus of their stage show. Tommy required him to sing with several different inflections, from bombastic preaching to plaintive pleading. With his bare chest, fringed jacket and golden curls, Daltrey became a powerfully sexual rock animal, and his portrayal of the deaf, dumb and blind boy was one of the most emotionally moving moments in rock. "When you hear him doing ‘See Me, Feel Me’ live it’s fucking amazing," said Townshend. "There would be no way that you could take the audience’s eyes off him, and Keith and John and I were trained, our whole purpose in life had been to get people’s eyes off Roger."
Almost immediately the band took Tommy on the road for what appeared to be daily shows non-stop for the next two years. Bobby Pridden, the Who’s sound-man, equipped them with the most powerful sound system available. Lighting man John Wolfe set up a mesmerizing light show. At the finale of their set, as Daltrey sang ‘Listening To You’, a bank of powerful supertrooper lights set up behind the group and aimed outwards were switched on to ‘blind’ the audience with pure white light.
It seemed remarkable that just two guitars, drums and vocals could deliver this rich, full, varied and fulfilling piece so powerfully; no violins, brass, keyboards, backing singers, sitars or Theramins in sight. Tommy was honed to perfection through these live shows and Daltrey, the band and their crew went from strength to strength. This period began the peak of the Who’s career. Anyone who saw them on a good night during the early seventies was simply blown away. Press review after press review spoke of "The best live concert ever seen", and headlines such as "Shattering", "Remarkable", and "Unbelievable" became the norm. The San Francisco Examiner wrote "Exaggeration? I cannot exaggerate perfection."
The British Melody Maker accurately summed up their post Tommy early seventies position with the question, "Surely the Who are now the group against which all others are to be judged?"
But, after a while, the very vehicle on which this success was based became an obstacle to their progress. The vast new audience Tommy had brought eventually put new demands on the band. "We became like snob rock," says Entwistle. "… the sort of band Jackie Onassis would come and see." Tommy was becoming bigger than The Who. In the States, some people thought the band was actually called Tommy. "It became an albatross round our necks."
The Who didn’t want to spend the rest of their careers performing Tommy, although there seemed to be an unstoppable demand for the show. Townshend desperately wanted to write another concept work that would match or even surpass the success of Tommy but his subsequent Lifehouse project was abandoned and Quadrophenia, though a huge critical success, has not, as yet, equalled Tommy in public appreciation.
Tommy soon took on a life of its own. It was adapted for a ballet, an orchestral ‘pops’ album, and a film. Eventually The Who dropped it from their tours, performing just two or three numbers. However, when they reformed for their 1989 tour they not only relented and brought back Tommy, but played almost all of it, and, surprisingly, started their set with it. I was amazed every night when, without any introduction whatsoever, audiences would spontaneously erupt into ecstatic cheering on hearing just the first note of the ‘Overture’.
Whether Tommy is sick, an albatross, a milchcow or a masterpiece depends on your point of view, and despite what the films, shows, ice spectaculars, door bell chimes and other spin-offs have done to it, this original album offers plain, unadulterated, spine chilling, quality rock music.
More than that, it captures part of the magic, or whatever, of the sixties. The Who wrote and recorded it at exactly the right time in their evolution. Intelligent without being pretentious, it is one of the great rock albums of all time, and a quarter of a century after it was first released the hairs on the back of my neck still stand up when I hear the (new improved) first note of the ‘Overture’.
(Richard Barnes is the author of ‘The Who: Maximum R&B’ and, with Pete Townshend, ‘The Story of Tommy.’ He has known the band since they performed as The Detours in 1962, and it was at his suggestion that they renamed themselves The Who the following year.)