Thursday, May 23, 2019

The 50th Anniversary of The Who's Tommy

It was 50 years today, on May 23 1969, that The Who's album Tommy was released in the United Kingdom. While Tommy was not the first rock opera (British band Nirvana's The Story of Simon Simopath pre-dated it by nearly a year and a half and The Pretty Things' S..F. Sorrow by several months), it was the album responsible for popularising the format. Tommy would also be the album that took The Who from being a popular British band of the Sixties to one of the major groups in the history of rock music.

The origins of Tommy can be traced back to 1966. It was that year that Pete Townshend begin exploring the possibility of going beyond the format of the traditional three-minute pop song. To this end Mr. Townshend developed an idea for a rock opera to be titled Quads, which was set in a future where parents can choose the gender of their children. Ultimately the concept would move no further than the song "I'm a Boy," and Pete Townshend abandoned it. "I'm a Boy" was released as a single on August 26 1966 in the United Kingdom.

While Quads would never come into being, The Who's album A Quick One saw the band record a nine minute, 10 second suite of short songs (described by The Who's manager Kit Lambert as a "mini-opera") titled "A Quick One, While He's Away." "A Quick One, While He's Away' has its origins in a mock oratorio written by Pete Townshend titled "Gratis Amatis." When he played it for Kit Lambert, Mr. Lambert suggested that he write a more serious, mini-opera. "A Quick One, While He's Away" consisted of six short songs. It centred a young woman who cheats on her boyfriend while he is away.

It was while working on the concept album The Who Sell Out that Pete Townshend began work on a rock opera that would be set in 1999 and followed a man during the conquest of the world by Commnist China. This idea would eventually be reworked into a thirty minute work titled "Rael." Over time "Rael" would be cut down to the 5 minute 44 second version, consisting of several movements, that appears on the album. The original, longer version of "Rael" would never be recorded.

It was then in 1968 that Pete Townshend learned of the Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba from his friend Mike McInnerney (then the art director for International Times). Mr. Townshend became interested in Meher Baha's teachings and he wanted to pursue a project that would include those teachings. At the same time Pete Townshend had concerns about what direction The Who should take. It would be Pete Townshend's interest in Meher Baha's teachings and his concern for the direction of The Who's career that would lead to the rock opera Tommy. Tommy would be written with two concerns in mind. The first was that, while part of a cohesive whole, the songs could still stand on their own. The second was that the entire album could be performed live.

Pete Townshend developed a concept variously called Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy; Amazing Journey; Journey into Space; The Brain Opera; and Omnibus. Eventually he titled it Tommy, for the rock opera's protagonist. He chose the name because it was a common British name, as well as a slang term for British soldiers during the First World War. The album centred on Tommy, a deaf, mute, and blind young man who develops a preternatural sense of touch. As a result he becomes an international pinball star and later a messianic figure.

The Who recorded Tommy from September 19 1968 to March 7 1969. Pete Townshend wrote the bulk of the albums on the song. John Entwistle wrote the songs "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About." Keith Moon wrote the song "Tommy's Holiday Camp." The album was released on May 23 1969 in the United Kingdom and later in the United States. It proved to be a hit on both sides of the Pond. Tommy peaked at no. 2 on the UK albums chart and no. 4 on the Billboard albums chart.

Tommy would be adapted several times over the years. The first adaptation was a ballet developed by Ferdinand Nault of the Montreal ballet group Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. It was first performed in 1971. The first stage version was produced by the Seattle Opera in 1971. It was in 1975 that a film adaptation, directed by Ken Russell, was released. In 1991 a Broadway musical adaptation of Tommy debuted.

Tommy would prove to be a historic album. While there were rock operas that pre-dated Tommy, it was that album that would popularise the format. It was Tommy that paved the way for such rock operas as Jesus Christ Superstar, Pink Floyd's The Wall, and Green Day's American Idiot. While it seems likely that rock opera would have developed without Tommy, the album certainly allowed for it to develop earlier than it might have otherwise.

Tommy would also have a large impact on the career of The Who. Prior to Tommy, The Who had been fairly successful in their native Britain. Their first two albums reached the top ten of the UK albums chart, while The Who Sell Out peaked at no. 13. They also had several hit singles, eight of which reached the top ten and others that reached the top forty. While The Who had a good deal of success in the UK, they were not nearly as successful in the United States. Their second album, A Quick One, peaked at no. 51. Their third album, The Who Sell Out, peaked at no. 48. Their singles only did a little better. The Who would not have a hit single in the United States until "Happy Jack" reached no. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966. Prior to Tommy, they would only have two more hit singles in the United States: "I Can See for Miles" (which peaked at no. 9) and "Magic Bus" (which peaked at no. 25).

Tommy changed The Who's fortunes in the United States. Tommy peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard album chart. Its singles would also do well. "Pinball Wizard" peaked at no. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, while "I'm Free" peaked at no. 37. Tommy also did well in the United Kingdom, peaking at no. 2. "Pinball Wizard" went to no. 4 on the UK singles chart. Following Tommy, The Who's albums would regularly rank in the top ten of the Billboard album chart, with no studio album ever peaking lower than no. 8. Quite simply, Tommy propelled The Who to the top ranks of British bands in the United States.

Tommy also marked a shift in The Who's musical style. The early work of The Who can quite rightfully be described as "power pop (in fact, Pete Townshend coined the term to describe The Who's music in an interview published in NME in 1967)." Tommy was a step towards the hard rock style that would characterise The Who's music for much of the Seventies, while at the same time including softer songs as well. That having been said, The Who had not abandoned power pop completely with Tommy--"Pinball Wizard" could be counted as a harder version of their earlier power pop sound. The Who's sound would continue to evolve with their next album, Who's Next, released in 1971.

While Tommy is not as highly regarded as it first was upon its initial release, it still remains as a highly regarded album. It was certainly a revolutionary album, both with regards to the evolution of rock music and with regards to The Who's career. Prior to Tommy, The Who was simply a reasonably successful British rock band. Following Tommy, The Who would come to be counted in the same ranks as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

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