A rock opera is a collection of rock music songs with lyrics that relate to a common story. Rock operas are typically released as concept albums and are not scripted for acting, which distinguishes them from operas, although several have been adapted as rock musicals. The use of various character roles within the song lyrics is a common storytelling device.
This time I’ll take you on a ‘trip down memory lane’. If there is one album that can serve as the soundtrack to my (early) youth, it’s The Who’s Tommy, the double album and rock opera from 1969.
The Who and rock opera
My father was a great admirer of The Who. As a child I was fascinated by the gatefold covers and booklets of Tommy and Quadrophenia alike, both rock opera’s.
Pete Twonshend, the main composer of the band, had a thing with big stories, that didn’t fit the context of a standard rock song. Tommy was the first release to fulfill Townshend’s desires, but he had done it before in some kind of form. As early as 1966 he wrote I’m A Boy, which was part of a larger story named Quads (which details a future where parents can choose their child’s gender). Ultimately Quads was discarded, but I’m A Boy was released as a single in August 1966.
When it became obvious that Townshend didn’t have enough material for the second The Who album, A Quick One, the choice was made to fuse several musical pieces into one. A Quick One, While He’s Away was the first song connected by one lyrical theme with different musical moods.
One year later this move was repeated with the song Rael on The Who’s third album The Who Sell Out. The album did resemble a rock opera, because the record mimicked a radio broadcast, including advert messages.
Townshend had three reasons to expand on the idea of setting a larger story to music:
- at the end of the 1960’s the album as a medium became increasingly important as an art form, income and artistic recognition
- recently he had discovered the Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba and his messages; he had always wanted to combine spirituality with rock music and now wanted to share his (life) lessons; the album was a perfect fit for that ambition
- the need for money: The Who’s standard routine of smashing their (rental) gear night after night on stage was weighing heavily on their budget. The band wanted to stop it, but audiences expected (or rather demanded?) it. A vicious cycle. Obtaining a more serious image would probably break that
In 1968 Townshend talked to Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner about The Who’s next project:
It’s a story about a kid that’s born deaf, dumb and blind and what happens to him throughout his life. The deaf, dumb and blind boy is played by the Who, the musical entity. But what it’s really all about is the fact that because the boy is deaf, dumb and blind, he’s seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music. That’s really what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play.
At the end of 1968 the band started recordings for the new project.
Around the time the album was nearly finished Pete Townshend played the album to friend and music critic Nik Cohn. Cohn wasn’t too impressed and after a lengthy discussion they both concluded it was all maybe a bit too heavy. It needed something lighter, less heavy, something catchy? Cohn was a huge pinball lover, so Townshend suggested that Tommy could maybe be a mythical pinball wizard. Townshend quickly wrote Pinball Wizard, which the band immediately recorded and incorporated into the album. It worked: upon relistening to the complete sequence Cohn called Tommy a masterpiece. It’s funny to realize that Pinball Wizard, one of the pinnacle songs in The Who’s career and the history of rock music nearly wasn’t composed and thanks its existence to a pinball loving music critic.
As previously stated, Tommy is a rock opera, so there is a coherent story which serves as the album’s foundation, right? Yes and no. There is a story, but coherent? It is rather farfetched to be honest.
Captain Walker is an aviator in the First World War who goes missing. He is presumed to have been killed. The widow who’s left behind is pregnant and delivers a baby boy. She falls in love and has a new lover. In 1921 her husband shows up at her doorstep. An argument ensues and the lover (or the husband) gets killed, right in front of little Tommy’s eyes. He has to promise to act like nothing has happened: “You didn’t hear it / You didn’t see it / You never heard it, not a word of it / You won’t say nothing to no-one / Never tell a soul”. Tommy takes the assignment deadly serious and becomes deaf, dumb and blind.
Next, we follow the search for healing. The church, family, drugs, etc., nothing seems to work. Along the way Tommy seems to be a natural at pinball; he even beats the champion.
Meanwhile, the search continues. After some tests, it is established that there’s nothing physically wrong with Tommy, it is a psychological condition. Eventually, his mother’s patience runs out and she smashes the mirror Tommy gazes in all day long.
The smashing of the mirror awakens Tommy’s consciousness. Due to the miracle Tommy is worshipped like a guru. He takes himself ever more seriously and starts preaching in order to bring enlightenment to those in need. He builds a holiday camp and people gather in droves. He ordered his disciples to experience what it’s like to be deaf, dumb and blind. In the end the message fails to register: the disciples rebel and desert him. He is alone again.
Even though the story is somewhat over the top, it’s still a successful rock opera. Musically the songs are stunning. It all stems from the mind of someone just 23 years of age, who thought it all out, wrote and composed it. An impressive feat.
As said earlier, I can’t separate Tommy from my (happy) childhood years. Whenever I hear the opening tune of Overture a happy feeling comes over me, which isn’t merely brought on by the music itself.
Besides, musically it is all very, very good. Townshend has grown as a musician, just like the rest of the band. The guitar is the dominant instrument and Townshend plays it fantastically. John Entwistle is a highly competent (and original) bass player who always brings something extra. Keith Moon is, well, Keith Moon. He is one the best rock drummers of all time, who can lift the music to new levels with his dynamic way of playing. On top of that, singer Roger Daltrey seems to have finally found his voice. In short: the band is on fire and plays like virtuosos.
However, to support the story, the album does contain quite some filler songs. Songs that, as a consequence, are fairly uninteresting: It’s A Boy, Cousin Kevin, Do You Think It’s Alright?, Fiddle About, There’s A Doctor, Tommy Can You Hear Me?, Miracle Cure and Tommy’s Holiday Camp.
But the rest of the material is strong and phenomenal. Some of it can move me to tears. The musical themes in Overture are exquisite, with a Moon who’s unleashed at times. The central See me, feel me, touch me, heal me theme can be heard just like the Pinball Wizard riff. Beautiful.
Christmas is the first song in which Tommy ‘speaks’, next to his parents’ complaints and worries he will never know Jesus (thus, he will be doomed): “And Tommy doesn’t know what day it is / he doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is / How can he be saved from the eternal grave?”. The song marks the first time that See me, feel me, touch me, heal me is audible on the album. It still moves me to this day.
The family sadists that appear are genuinely obnoxious. Townshend asked John Entwistle to write two songs about violent and sexual abuse to happen to Tommy, which resulted in Cousin Kevin and Fiddle About. Entwistle took his assignment seriously and came up with these two horrendous songs, both of which are probably meant as dark humor. Much later on it turned out Townshend himself suffered abuse as a child and (probably unbeknownst to himself) therefore delegated this task to Entwistle.
Instrumental pieces like Overture, Sparks and Underture are beautiful and show the band’s capabilities to full extent.
Pinball Wizard is a top rock song, that has become emblematic to The Who, just like Go To The Mirror!. LP side three is where the heart of the story and the music resides.
But the closing We’re Not Gonna Take It is my favorite, particularly the closing coda. For me, it could last forever.
Listening to you I get the music
Gazing at you I get the heat
Following you I climb the mountain
I get excitement at your feet
Right behind you I see the millions
On you I see the glory
From you I get opinions
From you I get the story
© 1969 Pete Townshend
At the time the album was hailed as a true masterpiece. Over the course of the years that has been downgraded a bit. The record is still regarded as a classic rock album, but doesn’t get lauded the way it was at the time of its initial release. The fact that The Who released another rock opera in 1973, Quadrophenia, which was even better received, undoubtedly has something to do with it.
Another reason may be that a kind of Tommy fatigue has set in. The album was (and is) everywhere. Following the 1969 release, Tommy has been released in many other formats as well.
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (1970)
In 1970 the first dance performance of Tommy was created by Ferdinand Nault. In 1971 the ballet also visited New York.
Seattle Opera (1971)
The first transition to theater was made by Richard Pearlman. Bette Midler played a number of roles, including Acid Queen and Mrs. Walker.
London Symphony Orchestra (1972)
On December 9th, 1972, two shows of a concert version of Tommy were organized in London. The shows featured The Who, the London Symphony Orchestra and many guests.
The guests ranged from Sandy Denny, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart and Richie Havens to Ringo Starr. The recordings were released as a (double) LP.
The shows were also staged in Australia on March 31st and April 1st, 1973. These shows were filmed for television and broadcast on April 13th, 1973.
On December 13th and 14th, 1973, the show was staged in London once again, with different guests, like David Essex, Elkie Brooks and Roy Wood.
Tommy, the movie (1975)
In 1975 Tommy was turned into a movie script and filmed by Robert Stigwood and Ken Russell. Townshend wanted the different parts to be played by people who could actually sing, but Russell opted for a known cast, which was impressive:
- Ann-Margret as Nora Walker, Tommy’s mother
- Oliver Reed as “Uncle” Frank Hobbs, Nora’s lover
- Roger Daltrey as Tommy
- Elton John as The Pinball Wizard, who is defeated by Tommy
- Tina Turner as The Acid Queen
- Eric Clapton as The Preacher, leader of a Marilyn Monroe cult
- Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie
- Jack Nicholson as The Specialist, the doctor
- Robert Powell as Captain Walker, Nora’s husband
- Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon as The Who during Pinball Wizard
- Arthur Brown as The Priest
- Victoria Russell as Sally Simpson
Townshend was very disappointed when he wasn’t allowed to have Stevie Wonder play The Pinball Wizard. The song Pinball Wizard became a huge hit for Elton John. In the movie The Who act as the backing band, while on the recordings Elton John is backed by his own touring band.
Townshend produced the soundtrack, which he worked on for nearly 4 months in 1974. It contained 6 new songs that weren’t part of the original album.
The movie was a huge success and the band’s popularity soared to unprecedented heights. Actress Ann-Margret won a Golden Globe Award for best actress in the movie.
N.B.: Because Keith Moon was working on the movie Stardust, Kenney Jones played the drums on many of the album’s songs. Jones would take Moon’s place in the band after his death in 1978.
Tommy, the Broadway musical (1993)
In 1991 Townshend had broken his wrist and was unable to play guitar. With time available he agreed to make a musical version of Tommy. In the summer of 1992 the musical opened and was very successful. However, critics weren’t impressed, at all. Yet, the musical won Tony Awards in the categories Best Director and Best Choreographer in 1993. The musical played over a period of two years on New York’s Broadway (from 1993 to 1995).
On September 29th, 1969, The Who played at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. It was the world premiere of the live performance of Tommy. The band had played songs off the album before, but this marked the first time the rock opera was played in its entirety.
Was this just a coincidence? No. Townsend in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf:
Because the pop-scene blossoms in Amsterdam like never before. I think that Amsterdam has overshadowed London completely as a cosmic relax center.
The performance at the Concertgebouw is a test case for the rest of the continent, where Tommy is playing in April ’70. We plan to make a tour of all opera houses in Europe, but we want to experience whether it isn’t too pretentious first, right here in Amsterdam. Chances are, we move into an area where people think we have nothing to add.
During the concert Keith Moon had fallen off stage and continued the gig with a bloody head. It has been said moving pictures have been shot.
The Dutch press was unanimous in their lauding of the show: this was one of the very best pop concerts ever to be staged in The Netherlands.
Three singles were culled from the album:
- Pinball Wizard (March 1969)
- I’m Free (July 1969)
- See Me, Feel Me (October 1970)
All songs written by Pete Townshend, unless stated otherwise.
- It’s A Boy
- Amazing Journey
- The Hawker (Sonny Boy Williamson II)
- Cousin Kevin (John Entwistle)
- The Acid Queen
- Do You Think It’s Alright?
- Fiddle About (John Entwistle)
- Pinball Wizard
- There’s A Doctor
- Go To The Mirror!
- Tommy Can You Hear Me?
- Smash the Mirror
- Miracle Cure
- Sally Simpson
- I’m Free
- Tommy’s Holiday Camp (Keith Moon)
- We’re Not Gonna Take It
- Roger Daltrey – vocals, harmonica
- Pete Townshend – vocals, guitar, keyboards, banjo
- John Entwistle – bass, french horn, vocals
- Keith Moon – drums
When Tommy was released on CD for the first time, I immediately bought it. Upon arriving home it turned out that this was one of those releases that were made for one reason only: profit. The recordings sounded hideous. Flat, lots of tape hiss, incorrect speed. A complete and utter failure. The worst CD release I ever bought. The first remasters made Tommy sound the way it was intended: sparkling, fiery and exciting.
Tommy still is an important rock album and is the most famous rock opera ever. And it is one the most successful albums of The Who’s career. Sales have been estimated to be around 20 million copies.
What do you think of Tommy as part of The Who’s body of work and as the best known rock opera in the world? Let me know!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: The Who’s Tommy: the ultimate childhood sentiment. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.
The Who – Live at Woodstock 1969 image: catskillcarriage.com
The Who – I’m A Boy (single), A Quick One & Sell Out (albums) image: discogs.com/thewho.com/apoplife.nl
The Who – Tommy – Gatefold & Booklet images: mikemcinnerney.com
The Who – Tommy image: thewho.com
London Symphony Orchestra – Tommy image: allmusic.com
Tommy – The movie image: neatorama.com
The Who – Concertgebouw 1969 image: pinterest.jp
The Who – Tommy – Singles image: discogs.com
The Who – Tommy – Ad image: pinterest.com