The Who had a run of 45s in the 60s to match anyone, but as far as the band’s guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend saw it, the quartet still had a big point to prove as the decade was coming to a close. Enter Townshend’s conceptual masterpiece Tommy. Released in 1969, Tommy was a rock opera that dramatically recalibrated what people thought they knew about The Who, a record that drew a line under one era of the band and ushered in another, upping both expectation and ambition in the process.
In Townshend’s mind, it was an absolutely necessary transformation that altered the course of their career, and not just because it sold by the bucketload. “Tommy had been more successful than we expected,” Townshend told Classic Rock, looking back on his magnum opus. “All of us in the band quickly forgot the reality of our situation, what might have happened. If Tommy had failed, we would have slid into ignominy.” Townshend, you see, was (probably rightly) of the opinion that a collection of ace seven-inch’s did not make for a long-lasting band. You needed something that dug a little deeper, something like Tommy.
“We had been a UK singles band who smashed guitars and wore funny outfits prior to Tommy,” he continued. “We were not all that far from Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick And Titch – appearing every month on Top Of The Pops, and trying to get to number one. Jimi Hendrix and Cream – and even Pink Floyd in their very early days – threatened to expose The Who as a lads’ band who were failing to rise to the spiritual and subversive romanticism of the psychedelic era.”
If that last bit is a slice of prime Townshendspeak, a nod to the fact that the man can either be a rock’n’roll lightning conductor or cultural academic or both at the same time, what’s true is that Tommy proved to the guitarist and his group that they had it within themselves to fully stretch their artistic horizons.
Two years later, they released Who’s Next, an expansive hard-rock triumph that perfectly blended high-concept thinking with huge, singalong choruses. It wouldn’t have been possible without Tommy, the shot in the dark that saved The Who’s arses.