Wednesday, August 8, 2007
No. 96: Tommy
Band: The Who
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Tommy" is one of the first real rock operas and maybe the genre's most celebrated achievement. It's surprisingly dark -- themes include murdering a homewrecker, disability and child molestation -- but it's also sprawlingly beautiful. Unlike a lot of thematic albums, "Tommy" actually follows a more traditional theater pattern of having themes and overtures. It beats "The Wall" on that level, certainly.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's dark. It's real dark. It was clearly influenced by drugs (Pinball? Really?) and possibly Townsend's own life experiences. It's sprawling beauty is sometimes just sprawling and tedious.
Best song: It'd be easy to say "Pinball Wizard" as it was the only real single from the record, but the final song, "We're Not Gonna Take It" uses most of the themes in the piece and ties them together well. "1921" is a beautiful song, as well and fits the plot well.
Worst song: There isn't really a terrible song on the record.
Is it awesome?: Yes.
"See me. Feel me. Touch me. Heal me."
Pete Townsend's words -- sang by Roger Daltrey -- rang out over Bethel, New York in the morning of Saturday, August 16, 1969. As the sun was rising, the Who was finishing up "Tommy." It's among the most striking rock moments caught on film and it shows the simple power in the rock opera's message as it related to the '60s.
The Broadway version has won Tonies. The film version features marquee stars like Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret. The live album versions (Isle of Wight and Leeds, specifically) are some of the best live recordings ever pressed.
The original, though, is nearly unstoppable. There's nary a bad song on there, structurally it's cohesive while still interesting and the actual plot is strange enough to keep a listener's attention. It's real strange, actually.
(It was 1969. There were a lot of drugs going around. So, having a plot where the main points involve a child molesting uncle, pinball, the "Acid Queen" and a deaf, dumb and blind protagonist.)
There's an inevitable rock opera catch-22 that "Tommy" experiences. The structure of a cohesive plot makes for a pointed listening experience. It's certainly a foray into a realm in which rock hadn't previously stomped about. Rock operas, at the time, were a relatively new concept, certainly on this level.
On the other hand, Townsend's adherence to the opera style keeps (almost) all the songs on a theme. Nearly every song pushes the plot forward in a way that just isn't radio friendly. Unlike a more conceptual rock opera like "The Wall," the songs on "Tommy" all have a serious storytelling element in them. So, "Christmas" sounds kind of silly outside of the context of the rest of the opera.
(Also, the record has some unfamiliar musical theater elements -- namely the "Overture" and "Underture" on the record. That's small potatoes, though.)
Does "Tommy" survive that? I'm not sure. I mentioned in my piece on "Who's Next," the Who were my favorite band before I discovered indie rock. So, "Tommy" is basically tattooed on my brain. I hear any single song and know the place in the plot of the song. "Pinball Wizard" was something of a single and continues to get played on classic rock radio, so maybe that's not as big a problem.
Still, it's "Tommy." There are some classic records and "Tommy" is one of them, certainly. It should be higher; This is one of the precursors to progressive rock and one of the landmark albums of the last 40 years.