The Who were at the end of their rope when they went in to record their rock opera Tommy. The decadent rock and roll lifestyle and destructive tendencies of the quirky foursome wasn’t charming enough to sell records. Consequently, they didn’t have much to show for their efforts and were on the verge of bankruptcy. Fortunately, Pete Townshend was creatively inspired from the positive feedback for his mini opera “A Quick One.” He felt compelled to explore a conceptual piece on a much grander and more spiritual scale. Producer Kit Lambert in his corner, Townshend spun the amazing journey of a deaf, dumb and blind pinball champion who miraculously overcomes his affliction and becomes a messiah with mass commercial appeal.
However unorthodox and twisted the story may have been, the music was presented with expressive flair and incredible interplay between Keith Moon’s flagrantly incredible drumming, John Entwistle’s rock-solid bass lines, French horns and writing contributions, Roger Daltrey’s dynamic vocals and Townshend’s power chords and acoustic work. And through it all, a loose narrative develops as Tommy struggles through family-related traumas like “1921,” “Christmas,” “Cousin Kevin,” and “Uncle Ernie.” It is only when he becomes a “Pinball Wizard” that his senses begin to unfurl in new and wondrous ways. “There’s A Doctor” who tells Tommy to “Go To The Mirror!” shattering his present world. He’s a “Sensation.” Tommy regains all of his senses and the headlines declare it a “Miracle Cure.” As he sings “I’m Free,” Tommy dazzles “Sally Simpson” and opens “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” Somewhere along the line, members of his flock feel betrayed, declaring “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” That’s pretty much Tommy in a nutshell.
Obviously, there are deep layers to Tommy that could take pages to explain. This would come in handy when it was made into a feature film with Daltrey cast as the lead character. Tommy would also become a successful stage play on Broadway. When the Who performed it live, none of that seemed to matter. They dragged it around the world for over two years, from Woodstock to Isle of Wight to the New York Metropolitan Opera House. At one point, it looked as if Tommy would overtake the Who. But in the end, the band was put on a throne, denting the pop market and regarded as respected artists to be taken seriously. Since its release, the album has been available in a variety of configurations. It began as a gatefold double LP with a graphically enhanced lyric booklet. It also came in twos as an 8-track, cassette, and CD.
When CDs were introduced in the 80s, Tommy was whittled down from two to one. A Deluxe Edition version was released in 2008 with two Super Audio CDs (playable in both regular CD players and Super Audio CD players) remastered in stereo and 5.1 surround. The set’s second disc was filled out with demos. For 2013, a limited Super Deluxe edition features a 5.1 surround mix of the complete album on a Blu-ray disc. Three CDs include a stereo remaster of the album, demos and live material. Completing this box set is a full-color 80-page book with photos, memorabilia, and an essay by Richard Barnes, plus a Tommy poster for the living room. Which ever format you choose, I think we can all agree that Tommy is a universal statement on adversity, triumph and faith that stands as the Who’s greatest achievement.
~ Shawn Perry