It’s a myth, perpetuated in the accompanying press release here, that Tommy was the first rock opera. That honour, doubtful or otherwise, probably belongs to The Pretty Things’ 1968 album SF Sorrow, while The Kinks’ Ray Davies wrote and released Arthur, originally intended as a soundtrack for an abandoned BBC TV special. In the era of Hair and Lloyd-Webber, meanwhile, which had used rock to apply a transfusion to stage musicals, the idea seemed even less far-fetched. Tommy it was, however, which not only transformed the fortunes of The Who on its 1969 release but also helped transform rock’s sense of its own scope.
Townshend was chafing at the limitations of the four-minute song format as early as 1966, as the extended “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, on A Quick One, indicated. The Who Sell Out from 1967 concluded with “Rael”, a lengthy piece that prefigured Tommy’s themes. By this time, Townshend was bitter with the music industry, following the failure of “I Can See For Miles” to chart. He declared himself “anti-pop” and threw himself into the demos for Tommy, a last throw of the dice for a band who were mired in debt and in dire need of reinventing themselves. For The Who, Tommy represented a necessary graduation.
Over two discs, Tommy told the story of a young boy whose father returns from the war unexpectedly and shoots his wife’s lover. The infant Tommy witnesses this and is so traumatised, he’s struck deaf, dumb and blind. As his parents seek out a cure for the boy, he’s left to the mercies of Uncle Ernie, a paedophile, and the bullying of his cousin Kevin. Tommy becomes an unlikely hero when he shows he can play a mean pinball and then, just as his parents are considering having him institutionalised, he undergoes a miracle cure, then goes on to become a cult figure until his followers become disgruntled with him. He finally achieves reconciliation with himself and his family.
Tommy’s rise and fall from hero status perhaps speaks more about Townshend’s disgruntlement at The Who’s commercial decline than the phenomenon of celebrity itself. What it does convey in broad strokes, however, is a glumly anti-nostalgic sense of the furtive mundanity of British life in the mid-20th century?holiday camps, terrible secrets in the top drawer of the dresser, clandestine sadism. Set against that is an almost mystical yearning for truth, connection and beauty which is most resoundingly contained in the lingering refrain, delivered with cracked passion by Roger Daltrey, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me”.
Tommy is also intriguing musically. Townshend’s ability to craft ringing, bending, lingering power chords is immediately evident in the opening, “Overture”. Keith Moon’s rumbling percussive style, as if his kit’s in perpetual danger of collapsing atop the band, keeps the pulse racing, and the hits, like “Pinball Wizard”, hit hard. Here’s where Townshend scores over the likes of Lloyd-Webber who, for worse and for worse, has dominated the popera scene before and since Tommy. Townshend, by contrast, retained a facility to set off sound grenades in the imagination. Only occasionally, as on “Sally Simpson”, do you sense that The Who are struggling to match long-winded narrative imperatives with short-winded rock thrills.
Tommy is often accused of being overblown but, if anything, it’s strangely underblown?this in an era when the likes of Hendrix and The Beatles were discovering the possibilities of the studio. It feels much of the time like an acoustic song cycle, and sounds as if it were recorded in a small, low-ceilinged room, with none of, say, “I Can See For Miles”‘ feeling of infinite space. This may have been due to a reluctance to smother the narrative in overdubs of which it could probably have done with one or two more, but it has its benefits also?intimacy, clarity and a claustrophobic sense of terrible predicament.
As well as enhanced sound, this new edition boasts numerous studio happy-snaps which speak of a more jovial atmosphere in the studio than has often been suspected. This is further borne out by the rough outtakes included on the bonus CD?sketch versions of the songs often tailing off with extended bits of banter between band members. By far the best of the extra tracks included here is the nagging, punkishly monotone “Trying To Get Through”, driven by the boyish self-pity and longing for epiphany at the heart of Tommy.
Strangely out of kilter with The Who’s musical history to either side of it. Tommy doesn’t quite realise its ambitions, though it achieves a lot on the way. Quadrophenia would be a more fleshed-out version of what is attempted here. Still, Tommy remains fascinating, not least for its exploration of the theme of child abuse, of which Townshend stated he was a victim?a preoccupation that recently came back to haunt him. Tommy’s also an undoubted milestone in rock’s growing self-confidence and maturity, the knock-on effects of which are far broader than the unfortunate Ben Elton abominations we’re now groaning under. And its best, recurring moments?the signal, hankering guitar motif borrowed from “Rael”, the thundering windmill riff of “Pinball Wizard”, the eyes-wide-open release of “I’m Free”?still blaze.