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Fifty Year Friday: The Who’s Tommy

tommy2

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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