The Who: Tommy - Album Of The Week Club Review

Strictly speaking, Tommy wasn't the first rock opera. But it's the one that catapulted The Who into the major leagues

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The Who - Tommy

1. Overture
2. It's a Boy
3. 1921
4. Amazing journey
5. Sparks
6. Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker)
7. Christmas
8. Cousin Kevin
9. The Acid Queen
10. Underture
11. Fiddle About
12. Pinball Wizard
13. Go to the Mirror!
14. Tommy Can You Hear Me?
15. Smash the Mirror
16. Sensation
17. Sally Simpson
18. I'm Free
19. Welcome
20. Tommy's Holiday Camp
21. We're Not Gonna Take It

Always more ‘important’ than genuinely satisfying, Tommy talks a better game than it delivers. Produced under enormous pressure, while the band teetered on the brink of onstage auto-destruction hastened bankruptcy (all that smashed gear, much of it hired, racked up king’s ransoms of debt) the creative hothouse of the late sixties demanded back-to-back releases and full-tilt progression as standard. 

The band’s instrumental interplay is nothing short of electrifying and Michael McInnerney’s game-changing cover art stunning. Pinball Wizard swiftly captured the public’s imagination and Townshend’s grand, Kit Lambert-encouraged operatic vision gradually came to full fruition in the live arena, saved The Who financially and broadened rock’s scope with an ambitious high concept that brought sixties pop to adulthood and presaged seventies prog.

With its Overture, recurring motifs and fuzzy allusions to spiritual salvation, it became a template for lesser-able groups determined to dress up their half-baked ideas in a then fashionable swathe of portentousness.

While this bold but flawed work is now better experienced via the expanded version of Live At Leeds, and Townshend’s penchant for repeated musical themes was more thoroughly accomplished on Quadrophenia, Tommy remains a significant and hugely influential album.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

The story of Tommy is allegorical. On one level it aimed to reflect the rise, the glory and the subsequent fall of a pop star. On another it represents the spiritual quest of a young man who was reputedly Townshend himself. The Who guitarist had been in and out of the psychedelic experience, enduring a terrifying STP trip during the flight that brought him back to England after the Monterey Pop festival in 1967. 

Asserting that mind-altering drugs could rip a personality apart without any guarantee of putting it back together, Townshend had taken refuge and comfort in the teachings of Eastern guru Meher Baba, and the guitarist was determined to chart this personal journey in his writing.

But if Tommy was a massive confessional for Townshend, it meant just as much to Roger Daltrey, who later revealed that it enabled him, finally, to find a real voice in The Who. And what he found was a rock voice. A rock voice that still ranks among the finest ever committed to vinyl.

The Who were working on Tommy throughout the second half of 1968, and their excitement, their true commitment to the music the group were making, resulted in an unusually harmonious working atmosphere.

It emerged as an album of contrasts, of light and shade, with enormous power chords ringing out in urgent contrast to moments of fragility and calm, all fitting together perfectly. At the time, it was big and it was clever.

Other albums released in May 1969

  • Clouds - Joni Mitchell
  • Stand! - Sly & the Family Stone
  • Beginnings - Ambrose Slade
  • Electronic Sound - George Harrison
  • Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions - John Lennon & Yoko Ono
  • After the Rain - Muddy Waters
  • Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
  • Unicorn - Tyrannosaurus Rex
  • Pickin' Up the Pieces - Poco
  • Crosby, Stills & Nash - Crosby, Stills & Nash
  • Home - Delaney & Bonnie
  • Last Exit - Traffic

What they said...

"Tommy is a fucking woeful album; individual tracks like I'm Free, Eyesight To The Blind and Pinball Wizard are classic Who - hence the album isn't a total (0) - but the padding around them is like drinking vomit. How a man capable of writing Substitute or I Can See For Miles could also be responsible for 1921 or Go To The Mirror is a major mystery. This was the absolute nadir for Townshend and The Who; and the heavily-flawed Quadrophenia seems like a masterpiece in comparison. Tommy stands as an object lesson for any of today's young turks; as soon as you think, 'Rock opera: good idea', then it's time to think, 'Give up drugs'." (NME)

"Hailed as a breakthrough upon its release, its critical standing has diminished somewhat in the ensuing decades because of the occasional pretensions of the concept and because of the insubstantial nature of some of the songs that functioned as little more than devices to advance the rather sketchy plot." (AllMusic)

"Overall, Tommy is an album with good ideas and music, but it's bogged down by a bizarre story, more focus on plot than actual music and odd production in some spots. There are moments of brilliance that shine through occasionally, and when the album is good it's really good. While it has its flaws, I consider it an important part of The Who's history. Not as an amazing point, but a lesson. A lesson in crafting a story and an album. They saw the faults and improved them in later records and for that I applaud Tommy. Not because it's great, but because it helped." (SputnikMusic)

What you said...

Hai Kixmiller: A rock opera? What the heck is a rock opera? To me, it makes about as much sense as a football bat.

I enjoyed the melodies of Overture, it gave me the imagery of an epic story about to begin, only after the second listening did I realize that Overture was a medley of some of the songs throughout the album.

I got confused during the song 1921, what exactly did the boy witness/ experience that he wasn't supposed to? I had to Google it to find out. How the heck do you not make something that integral to Tommy's condition obvious? That really distracted me from appreciating the next couple of songs cause I didn't know what the hell was going on until the song Christmas.

The physical and mental abuse of Cousin Kevin and Acid Queen, and especially the pedophilia of Uncle Ernie in Fiddle About are quite disturbing. I guess at this point in the album Tommy's religious parents are frustrated at Tommy and are neglecting him. It seems that Townsend is trying to show us Tommy's formative experiences. 

Underture?! WTF! I know what an Overture is but what the hell is an Underture? Again, the album frustrates me. 

Pinball Wizard just comes at you from out of the blue. I love the song, but the lack of continuity of this rock opera is just maddening. 

Go To The Mirror is another exceptional stand alone song. It's also a wonderful respite from all the abuse and neglect imagery from the previous songs.

So the smashing mirror snaps him out of his psychosomatic blind, deaf, and mute state? And suddenly he's a Sensation/cult leader? He calls himself The Light!?

I enjoyed the music. I like the fact that Townsend was bored of the 2-3 minute song format of the day and made this album to thumb his nose at the industry. 

I don't much care for the religious undertone of the album. I don't understand the hero worship that so many rock stars of the late '60s had for the Guru. Townsend's admission that this album was majorly influenced by Meher Baba kind of sours my appetite for Tommy. My rock'n'roll doesn't need to enlighten me, it just needs to rock.

Robert Dunn: Oh dear. One listen was all it took to remind me why I don't have any Who albums. Some great songs (you know them already), a lot of pretentious filler, this reminds me of some Who songs - great riffs, some boring keyboardy stuff, and a feeling of being slightly underwhelmed. Not so much a concept album (if you want one of those, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society is the late 60s album to head for) as a soundtrack to a fun but overlong movie. Sorry.

Maxwell Marco Martello: Consistency fails this rock opera a tidy bit, but when it’s on, it’s really on. It still sounds fresh. Pete Townsend gave a masterclass in doubling electric power chords with acoustic strums.

I’m a huge WASP fan and this is where they drew their biggest inspiration. I’d give it a 9/10, although some parts are skippable.

Mike Rowell: I think the album is brilliant! The mighty Who at the peak of their powers (Live at Leeds and Who's Next weren't far away) Have never heard it on vinyl but intend to one day...

Roland Bearne: Eeek, I'm going to be putting my head in the Lion's mouth, given the iconic status of this work, but here goes ... I don't like it! Sorry, I've tried dipping into The Who over the years, but something just makes my teeth go wiggly. This does sound incredibly dated, but I do love a lot of stuff from the 60's (The Arthur Brown, for example I thought was brilliant.)To me, weird but not in a good way and there's something very "self conscious" about it. My failing I'm sure but there it is [Hangs head and stands by to be drummed out of the Brownies].

Alberto Baroncelli: Guitar-wise, it is a great textbook for rhythm playing and texture composition. I always preferred Who’s Next and generally The Who live (the second disc in the deluxe edition of Live at Leeds is the REAL Tommy in terms of grandeur) rather than studio, but Tommy will always hit a soft spot of mine since it was one of the very first albums that I enjoyed exploring when I was 15 and still discovering much about rock music.

Chris La Bar: I never really used to like The Who. Then, I found my moms copy of Tommy. I have gotten into concept albums lately. And so I decided to give it a try. It was the first time I really listened to The Who and I was skeptical at first. But I got through it. And holy crap. Absolutely blown away. I’d highly recommend.

Tony Cruse: Huge production and some quality songs. Probably only three fillers which for a double album isn't bad! 

The album starts with a bang and a few sparks with Overture but I find it snuffles out at the end with the holiday camp thing!

The album kicked The Who into the elite and defined Roger Daltrey as rock god at the front of the quality band.

Benjamin Kelk: This is an essential for any classic rock fan! Of The Who's rock operas, this one has a stronger story. I always find the narrative easier to follow than the narrative in Quadrophenia. While Tommy isn't perfect, it's still THE blueprint on how to do rock operas and concept albums. I'm always finding something else to love about this album with every listen.

Carl Black: I was really looking forward to this one but can't help feeling a little bit disappointed. I read the storyline on a popular Wiki website and I'm glad I did. It was not as self explanatory as say a operation mind crime or the wall. Plus the story was so out there I was curious to know how the hell could anyone came up with such a story. And then I thought, alcohol, pills and lashings of cocaine over an album writing period, would result in some off the wall ideas. 

The music I found same-y. Strumming an acoustic, mad crazy drum fills and some cool licks on the electric will only see you so far. However when it hits... it hits. The majesty of Pinball Wizard and Christmas really show what the Who can do. In summary an enjoyable album with some very high, high points but 75 minutes of roughly the same song made the ending a welcome relief... unfortunately.

Mike Knoop: This album reminded me how much I love The Who - as a singles band. Give me Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy or The Ultimate Collection. Tommy may be the first pick where I really had to work up the energy and enthusiasm to get through my requisite three spins. Overlong, overthought, and overwrought. Pinball Wizard? Yes! The other 70 minutes, not so much. Still, I'm glad this album "saved" The Who, otherwise we would have never had Baba O'Riley, The Real Me, Who Are You, You Better, You Bet, Eminence Front, etc.

Alan Scott: It's better live, but this signals the beginning of The Who as an albums band, big ideas and thinking outside of the box started here.

Amazing Journey, Acid Queen and Pinball Wizard are excellent songs, for the next ten years they kept exploring.

Marko Jokela: I heard it for the first time in 1985 and I really liked it, still do. It is one of the records I still listen a lot. To me Tommy is the best The Who album ever. The deluxe version is awesome!

Gabriele D'Angiolo: One of the best in terms of importance, ambitions and artistic value. Some of the songs still stand the test of time incredibly well, but I do agree that it feels slightly dated, specially if compared to Who’s Next or Quadrophenia, that still seem to come from the future musically... but it doesn’t really matter to me. Tommy’s just too good, like pretty much everything The Who has ever recorded.

Final Score: 8.45 ⁄10 (316 votes cast, with a total score of 2673)

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