Featured Album – Tommy – The Who

It’s a boy Mrs. Walker, it’s a boy.”

“Rock opera” is one way to describe the pioneering ambition in Pete Townshend’s musical exploration of childhood trauma, sexual abuse, repression, and spiritual release (after all, it does have an overture). Here’s another way: the slash and thunder of “My Generation” blown wide open.

Driven by the hellbent drumming of Keith Moon, the Who surge and shine, igniting the drama in Townshend’s melodies (“Pinball Wizard,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It”). “We worked out the sociological implications, the religious implications, the rock implications,” Townshend said. “When we’d done that, we went into the studio, got smashed out of our brains, and made it.”  – Rolling Stone

I have written about The Who a number of times and if you care to read those, probably easiest if you just go to the search bar on my site.

According to Pete Townshend’s autobiography Who I Am, he was convinced to write longer pieces by one of his managers, Kit Lambert, whose father was “a British composer, conductor, and author. He was the founder and music director of the Royal Ballet, and (alongside Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton) he was a major figure in the establishment of the English ballet as a significant artistic movement.”

Lambert, recognizing Pete’s talent, asked if he could do a “pop opera” inspired not only by his father’s work but also perhaps by the more mundane need to fill out an album. Townshend needed to do this quickly.

Taking “quickly” as the primary order, Townshend came to the title A Quick One for the album and “A Quick One While He’s Away” for a song he started to write inspired by his childhood experience. Townshend reveals in his autobiography that “A Quick One While He’s Away” briefly refers to his molestation as a child, but not explicitly.”

I mention this because, in a sense, “A Quick One While He’s Away” might be considered the first true (at least mini) rock opera. That was in 1966 and for all intents and purposes that eventually led to the bigger, more ambitious Tommy from 1969.

Tommy was a revelation. Nobody had ever heard anything quite like it before and to this day I think of it as something akin to a small miracle. Townshend’s ability to tell a story (albeit sometimes a silly, confusing one) is impressive enough. But combine that with the highly melodic, inventive music, great musicianship (Moon is all over the place) and terrific harmonies,  and you have what I personally think is one of the best albums of all time. (I’ve seen both Ken Russell’s outrageous over-the-top movie and the play and well, the album was good enough by itself.)

Synopsis: “Tommy is traumatized from witnessing his father murder his mother’s lover. Tommy’s parents compound his trauma by denying the experience. In reaction, Tommy becomes dissociative (“deaf, dumb and blind”). Tommy then experiences the trauma of being sexually abused. As a way of coping with his trauma, Tommy dissociates further through playing pinball.

He gains a following because of his skill at playing pinball. After numerous misguided attempts to heal Tommy, a doctor prescribes him a mirror so he can confront himself and his experience. Instead, Tommy becomes self-absorbed and comes to think of himself as a messianic figure. When the mirror is eventually broken, Tommy comes out of his dissociative state. Tommy then tries to lead his followers to believe that the only path to healing is through him. His followers eventually reject him and his teachings.”

“Overture” is a 3:50 instrumental piece with French horns (Entwistle?) that stands alone as a nice piece of music. As all good overtures do, it samples themes from a number of the upcoming tunes including “1921,” “Pinball Wizard,” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The criminally underrated (by himself) Townshend plays great guitar on this in his inimitable style:

So how did Townshend decide to make the deaf, dumb and blind kid a pinball wizard? Some great revelation? No, actually, in the most mundane of ways.

Pete played a rough copy of the album for critic Nik Cohn who shrugged. To lighten the album’s heaviness, Townshend decided to make the kid good at a game. Since he knew Cohn liked pinball, he went with that. So I suppose if Cohn had played marbles Tommy would instead of have been the king of that. (I was a fair pinball player in my day as well. Is it still even remotely popular?)

While this album is clearly Townshend’s baby, John Entwistle made some key contributions in his own twisted style. The song “Fiddle About” tells us about Uncle Ernie’s sicko methods. (There’s that molestation theme again.)

I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie
I’m glad you won’t see or hear me
As I fiddle about, fiddle about, fiddle about
Your mother left me here to mind you
Now I’m doing what I want to

Fiddling about, fiddling about, fiddle about
Down with the bedclothes
Up with your nightshirt
Fiddle about, fiddle about, fiddle about

According to Townshend, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” wasn’t originally destined for Tommy. “Again, something written before Tommy had actually been formed as a total idea, and that particular song wasn’t about Tommy’s devotees at all. It was about the rabble in general, how we, myself as part of them, were not going to take fascism, were not going to take dreary, dying politics; were not going to take things the way they were, the way they always had been and that we were keen to change things.”

I’m not gonna play the whole album. You probably know it and either love it or you don’t. If you do and you haven’t heard it in a while, put on some headphones and give it a listen. It is and is not at the same time typical Who fare. Live at Leeds released the following year rocks way the fuck harder. But they are this band and that band, too.

In  202, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list included Who’s Next at number 77, Tommy at number 190, The Who Sell Out at number 316 and Live at Leeds at number 327. All of these have dropped down substantially from previous lists and Quadrophenia is entirely missing. I suppose in another generation we’ll be lucky if there are any rock albums on there at all.

Yes, yes I know, you hate Rolling Stone and their lists suck. But even if you don’t entirely agree, their lists are a pretty good bellwether of where popular tastes have shifted over time. And it ain’t towards rock.

17 thoughts on “Featured Album – Tommy – The Who

  1. Great album for sure, even though at times the songs sound not completely finished and more like demos. One the other hand, this does give them a certain charm. The one thing I always felt and still do is that “Pinball Wizard”, a song I absolutely love, was faded out too early. I wish The Who would have extended it like Elton John did in his great cover.


    1. That’s interesting. I never felt like any of them were demos, but rather a number of sometimes short pieces strung together. Regardless, it was a blast driving around listening to it. I haven’t listened to it beginning to end for years.


  2. Great album and great write-up (as always), Jim. I was obsessed with Tommy and all things Who-related throughout high school and beyond, with them always being in my top 5 bands. If I have any complaint, it’s the timid production of the record. Most of these songs came alive (no pun intended) in concert.


        1. Damn right. Never saw them till fairly recently for reasons that escape me. I listen to ‘Live at Leeds’ a fair amount and the Deluxe Edition contains most of ‘Tommy’ played live.


  3. CB “plays a mean pinball”. At one time I really did. I listened to this record for hours back when. I like a good story and this grabbed me. So much good music and sounds on this one. I took it for a walk yesterday when I saw your post. Pete’s guitar work (especially the acoustic) is like you said “criminally underrated”


    1. And me I just got tired of hangin’ in them dusty arcades, bangin’ them pleasure machines. Me and my buddy Steve will hit the pinball machines when we’re together and can get away from the wives. Yesterday was the first time in years I heard that album all the way through. Hasn’t lost its punch. I was telling Kamer that Live at Leeds Deluxe Edition has most of Tommy on it. As if it wasn’t great enough.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Another great lyric. Yeah it’s a bit of a special album in my pile. I think I have two copies. One for each ear.
        I have the ‘Deluxe Edition’ Im not usually to quick to go for all the reissues. I still love the original for the place it takes in my music listening history. Saying that, the “Deluxe’ is just more of a good thing. Some other great cuts along with the Tommy stuff.


        1. Yeah, once you get used to the original it stays with you. I have a box set of every show the Allmans did that weekend at Fillmore but I still prefer the original.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I hear you. I’m hit and miss with my interest with all these lost recordings, remastered etc. Not that I wont go listen but Im not running. I’m still catching up with lots of other music.
          Ive always been an album listener and I know albums are in a lot of cases painstakingly sequenced song by song. If they moved one song around on Tommy, my ear would know something was up right away.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. You and Kamer have the album thing in common. It’s rare that I listen to an album all the way through anymore. Spotify spoiled me.

          PS. You will dig my next post.

          Liked by 1 person

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