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Fifty Year Friday: The Who’s Tommy

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Though not the first rock opera, The Who’s Tommy, released on May 23, 1969, due to its length, two long playing records, the inclusion of an opening instrumental track titled “Overture”, the prominence of Entwistle on french horn, its greater commercial success and overall quality, and the deployment of three recognizably distinct vocalists, surpasses earlier, less operatic, generally more narrative albums by the Pretty Things (SF Sorrow)  and Nirvana (The Story of Simon Simopath.)

It wasn’t until Christmas of 1970 that I got this album.  After hearing “See Me, Feel Me” on the radio when visiting Oregon in the summer of 1970, I determined that this was a must-have album and put it on my Christmas wish list.

And from the start, this album lived up to its promise.  The overture, is a true rock overture, magnificent, dramatic, spacious, and expectant.  Much to my delight (at that time of first listening) the opening of the overture is a simple display of the chord sequence of  the chorus of “See, Me, Feel Me” morphing into a true fanfare section with french horn, coming back to the “See Me, Feel Me” theme, moving away into new material, coming back once again and then touching on material from “Pinball Wizard”, which soon meanders into a brief explanatory vocal, “Captain Walker didn’t come home: His unborn child will never know him.  Believe him missing with a number of men, don’t expect to see him again”, and then meanders back out into a guitar passage that, without any break, becomes the next track, “It’s a Boy.” So much going on in this overture to absorb in the first listening!  Astonished and delighted to hear three alternate references to that “See Me, Feel Me” theme,  I had heard in Oregon! It wasn’t until hearing the album all the way through and starting again, that I could notice that the overture was more Broadway-like than classical, incorporating music from the entire album similar to a Broadway musical overture. And yet, this doesn’t detract from the integrity of this overture, which is one of the finest examples of an instrumental (excepting the short expository-like Townshend vocal) opening to a single-topic rock album.

After less than two years since McCartney fought to get the lyrics included in the Sgt. Pepper’s album, accompanying lyrics were now, in 1969, becoming commonplace — particularly important for an opera. At this point in my life I had started to check out full opera albums from the library and the inclusion of lyrics with Tommy made listening to the music while following the lyrics a similar experience to listening to those opera albums — except instead of having to track the original language at the same time following the translation, Tommy was in English!  That Christmas I had also received Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar (lyrics by Tim Rice) and had just purchased a low-cost four LP box set of Handel’s Messiah (lyrics by Charles Jennens)  — this was my first experience in following libretti booklets that required no cross referencing from the original language to the translation.  It made me wonder why the classic operas weren’t recorded in English so they would have wider appeal and be to be more competitive with contemporary albums sold in English speaking countries. It certainly would make following the text much easier.

Looking back, Tommy is certainly not produced like a real opera, as Daltry, Townshend and Entwistle handle all the vocals.  Clearly the 1975 movie soundtrack provides distinct parts, underscoring the inherent operatic nature of the work. This original, though, is the true reference, a musical work of art as good as any album of the 1960s.

Its worth noting that this work incorporated some previously written songs, including “Sensation”, “Sally Simpson” and “I’m Free”, the latter an expression of the spiritual peace Townshend achieved from association with Meher Baba, the Irani-Indian self-proclaimed Avatar and spiritual master.

We also have a blues number based on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind”, re-titled, “The Hawker” as well as two John Entwistle tunes, written on request from Townshend to cover the heinous actions of Cousin Kevin and Uncle Ernie.  Not surprisingly, given the nature of his earlier compositions, Entwistle makes use of chromatic passages in both songs, creating a darker, perverse mood that contrasts sharply with the usually brighter Entwistle compositions.

In short, this is a classic rock album, and though Who fans may freely dispute if this is better than the preceding Who Sell Out or the two subsequent albums, “Who’s Next”, and Quadrophenia, one point is indisputable: this album has stood the test of time for the last fifty years and will stand up just as nicely for the next fifty years.  It is my favorite Who album, filled with musical color and magic, and it continues to sound fresh, alive and vital to me — even though I listened to it this time around at much lower volume levels!

What is your favorite The Who album and why?

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Pete Townshend, except where noted.

Side one

#

Title

Lead vocals

Length

1.

Overture Townshend

3:50

2.

“It’s a Boy” Townshend

2:07

3.

“1921” Townshend, Roger Daltrey on chorus

3:14

4.

“Amazing Journey” Daltrey

3:25

5.

“Sparks” Instrumental

3:45

6.

The Hawker” (Sonny Boy Williamson II) Daltrey

2:15

Total length:

18:36

Side two

 #

Title

Lead vocals

Length

1.

Christmas Daltrey, Townshend

5:30

2.

“Cousin Kevin” (John Entwistle) Entwistle and Townshend

4:03

3.

The Acid Queen Townshend

3:31

4.

“Underture” Instrumental

10:10

Total length:

23:14

Side three

#

Title

Lead vocals

Length

1.

“Do You Think It’s Alright?” Daltrey and Townshend

0:24

2.

“Fiddle About” (Entwistle) Entwistle

1:26

3.

Pinball Wizard Daltrey, Townshend on bridge

3:01

4.

“There’s a Doctor” Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle

0:25

5.

Go to the Mirror! Daltrey and Townshend

3:50

6.

“Tommy Can You Hear Me?” Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle

1:35

7.

“Smash the Mirror” Daltrey

1:20

8.

“Sensation” Townshend

2:32

Total length:

14:33

Side four

#

Title

Lead vocals

Length

1.

“Miracle Cure” Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle

0:10

2.

“Sally Simpson” Daltrey

4:10

3.

I’m Free Daltrey

2:40

4.

“Welcome” Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle

4:30

5.

“Tommy’s Holiday Camp” Townshend

0:57

6.

We’re Not Gonna Take It Daltrey, with Townshend and Entwistle

6:45

Total length:

19:12

The Who

 

 

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Fifty Year Friday: The Who Sell Out

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“Power pop is what we play—what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop the Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun‘ which I preferred.” Pete Townshend (1967)

Somewhere in the mid sixties, rock and roll was replaced with rock.  The rock and roll music of the fifties, primarily based on blues and variations of blues chord sequences, slowly was overshadowed by music that was more message and substance oriented. The Beach Boys classic “Fun, Fun, Fun”, and the 1967 masterwork “Good Vibrations” is clearly Rock and Roll. The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is clearly rock.  I don’t recall the year, but sometime in the late sixties, I started correcting my dad when he referred to rock music as “rock ‘n roll” — I disdained Rock and Roll as a relic and lower form of music,  and loved Rock for its broad musical diversity and, for the best of it, it’s reach beyond dance music to serious listening music.

The Who, part of the British Invasion, deviated from what was pretty much a rock and roll group in 1965, opening their first album “My Generation” with “Out in the Street” immediately followed with James Brown’s “I Dont’ Mind” and songs like “The Good’s Gone”,  “La-L-La Lies”, “Please, Please, Please”, “It’s Not True”,  and Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man. ” However, like the Beatles, there were significant forays into a newer musical expression as hinted in “A Legal Matter” and in the instrumental “Ox.” By their second album, we get true rock pieces like John Entwistle’s classic “Boris the Spider.  By the third album, “The Who Sell Out”, an imaginative concept album that includes commercials interspersed throughout, mocking the format of commercial radio stations, The Who are a seasoned rock group writing and performing rock compositions, making use of such “power pop” chord progressions, modulations, and power chords (chords structures found in earlier Who songs such as”My Generation” and “Boris the Spider” — chords that just have the root and fifth — this not only omits the note that provides the major or minor quality of a traditional triad, but produces a simpler harmonic footprint producing an especially powerful effect when played loudly) that create a sound that is easily identifiable as the sound of The Who.  This is not the power pop of rock and roll, but power pop that is part of the new rock music movement.

The album opens strikingly, and aligning with it’s wanton-commercialism concept, with a jingle followed by John “Speedy” Keen’s (a friend of Who main songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend) “Armenia, City in the Sky” — starting out much like a radio ad, lyrically, with “If you’re troubled and you can’t relax” but soon followed with more mind-altering-like lyrics and with a 1967 psychedelic and imaginatively crafted arrangement including backwards french horn bursts and various guitar effects.

“Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand” is both melodically appealing and lyrically bold (“Mary-Anne with the shaky hands — what they’ve done to a man, those shaky hands.”) Musically, “Odorono” is even more notable, forging towards the musical style perfected on their next album and yet done as a deodorant jingle.  If one doubts the genius of Pete Townshend to align music and lyrics without compromising either, this is prima facie evidence of his capabilities, as is the track that follows: “Tattoo” a tune that could work very well as jingle for the Tattoo industry.

“Our Love Was” is an ethereal gem, maintaining energy and vibrancy to the end, with Entwistle’s French Horn providing just one of many elements that make this arrangement special.

The Who’s 1967 hit, and arguably the best song of the album, if not of Townshend’s career, is “I Can See for Miles”, punctuated perfectly by Keith Moon’s drums and cymbals.

The second side, is also excellent and includes  “I Can’t Reach You”, “Relax”,  Entwistle’s chromatically-flavored, organ-accompanied “Silas Stingy”,  the beautiful “Sunrise” and the Who’s second miniature rock opera, “”Rael (1 and 2)”, even shorter than their first mini-rock opera, “”A Quick One, While He’s Away” on their previous album.

Released in the UK in December 1967 and the US on Jan 7th, 1968, some of the musical techniques employed in “The Who Sell Out” will be more fully explored in their 1969 full-length rock opera,  “Tommy”, which also further develops  musical material in the songs “Sunrise” and “Rael.”  Though this album was only marginally successful in the US when first released, climbing no higher than the 48th spot on the Billboard album chart, perhaps due to its unusual jingle-based concept, it is one of the best albums of 1967, music that should be explored by those looking to better understand the history of rock (as opposed to  rock and roll) or just looking for some well written, enjoyable power pop music.

Track listing and song credits

Last week’s Fifty Year Friday

 

 

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