[Review] The Who: Tommy (1969)

The first real rock opera and the gold standard for every great concept album that came after, from Lamb Lies Down to The Wall.

Kronomyth 4.0: Dumbstruck.

This is the grandaddy of rock operas, an opus whose stature eclipsed nearly everything that came before it and influenced nearly every concept album that came after. Without Tommy, there is no Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Wall, etc. While Pete Townshend had earlier tried his hand at a miniature musical story (“A Quick One, While He’s Away”), nothing in The Who’s catalog really prepared you for Tommy. Beginning with the brilliant “Overture,” The Who unfurl a dazzling tapestry of ideas that will be woven through the music over the next 75 minutes.

Where earlier concept albums used a printed or spoken narrative to move the story along (S.F. Sorrow, Days of Future Passed), the storytelling in Tommy happens in song. It’s not always clear what’s happening; “You Didn’t Hear It” never speaks of the murder of Captain Walker, the catalyst for all that follows. If there are some holes in the story (and there are), they’re filled by wonderful music. “Amazing Journey,” “Christmas,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Go To The Mirror,” “I’m Free” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” stand as some of the best Who songs over an illustrious career.

What amazes me on Tommy is that The Who never let the heavy task of producing an opera get in the way of creating great rock music. Keith Moon delivers his best drumming to date (“Amazing Journey,” “Smash The Mirror”), John Entwistle continues to spin macabre tales (“Cousin Kevin,” “Fiddle About”), Pete Townshend brings his acoustic guitar kicking and thrashing into a hard rock setting (“It’s A Boy”) and Roger Daltrey makes the metamorphosis from singer to actor.

The Who had already displayed an ability to write hard-rock songs around complex character studies (“Pictures of Lily,” “Happy Jack,” “I’m A Boy”), and Tommy is peopled with the same sorts: Tommy, Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie, Sally Simpson, the Acid Queen. They’re broken, misunderstood unfortunates. Whether or not Tommy has a happy ending is open to conjecture. In a sense, the end of Tommy’s cult of personality is a relief, but it’s accompanied by an open, chilling rebellion in “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” There is something eternally unsettling in the several ways that the word “welcome” is presented at the end of the album, and the whispered “we’re not gonna take it” is terrifying in its implied power.

Tommy stands as one of the greatest achievements in rock history, and Townshend’s most effective attempt at musical storytelling (although Quadrophenia is pretty awesome in its own right). In the 1970s, Ken Russell directed the film version of Tommy featuring re-recorded versions of the songs from Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and the band; a tribute to Tommy that set the stage for countless tribute albums to come.

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Original 2LP Version

A1. Overture / It’s A Boy (5:58)
A2. *You Didn’t Hear It (2:48)
A3. Amazing Journey / Sparks (7:09)
A4. Eyesight To The Blind (Sonny Boy Williamson) (2:11)
B1. Christmas (4:31)
B2. Cousin Kevin (John Entwistle)  (4:03)
B3. The Acid Queen (3:33)
B4. Underture (9:59)
C1. Do You Think It’s Alright / Fiddle About (John Entwistle) (1:51)
C2. Pinball Wizard (3:00)
C3. There’s A Doctor I’ve Found (0:23)
C4. Go To The Mirror Boy (3:46)
C5. Tommy Can You Hear Me (1:34)
C6. Smash The Mirror (1:32)
C7. Sensation (2:24)
D1. Miracle Cure (0:11)
D2. Sally Simpson (4:08)
D3. I’m Free (2:39)
D4. Welcome (4:30)
D5. Tommy’s Holiday Camp (Keith Moon) (1:01)
D6. We’re Not Gonna Take It (7:02)

Opera by Pete Townshend. Songs written by Pete Townshend unless noted.
* Re-titled as “1921” on later reissues.

Deluxe Edition 2CD reissue
A1. Overture
A2. It’s A Boy
A3. 1921
A4. Amazing Journey
A5. Sparks
A6. Eyesight To The Blind (The Hawker)
A7. Christmas
A8. Cousin Kevin
A9. The Acid Queen
A10. Underture
A11. Do You Think It’s Alright
A12. Fiddle About
A13. Pinball Wizard
A14. There’s A Doctor
A15. Go To The Mirror!
A16. Tommy Can You Hear Me?
A17. Smash The Mirror
A18. Sensation
A19. Miracle Cure
A20. Sally Simpson
A21. I’m Free
A22. Welcome
A23. Tommy’s Holiday Camp
A24. We’re Not Gonna Take It
A25. See Me Feel Me/Listening To You
B1. I Was
B2. Christmas (out-take 3)
B3. Cousin Kevin Model Child
B4. Young Man Blues (version 1)
B5. Tommy Can You Hear Me? (alternate version)
B6. Trying To Get Through
B7. Sally Simpson (out-takes)
B8. Miss Simpson
B9. Welcome (take 2)
B10. Tommy’s Holiday Camp (band’s version)
B11. We’re Not Gonna Take It (alternate version)
B12. Dogs (part 2)
B13. It’s A Boy (demo)
B14. Amazing Journey (demo)
B15. Christmas (demo)
B16. Do You Think It’s Alright (demo)
B17. Pinball Wizard (demo)

The Players

Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Pete Townsend. Produced by Kit Lambert; engineered by Damon Lyon-Shaw; executive producer: Chris Stamp.

The Pictures

Cover design by Mike McInnerney. Photos by Barrie Meller.

The Plastic

Released on 2LP on May 23, 1969 in the UK (Track, 613 013/4), on May 31, 1969 in the US (Decca, DL 75126) and in 1969 in Canada (Decca, DSXW 7205) and Germany (Polydor, 2612 006) with trifold cover and lyrics booklet; reached #2 on the UK charts and #4 on the US charts (RIAA-certified 2x platinum record). Also released on 2 reel-to-reel tapes in the US (Decca, ST7-2500).

  1. Re-packaged as Tommy Part One and Tommy Part Two on two separate elpees on May 13, 1972 in the UK (Track, 2406 007/8) with unique covers.
  2. Re-issued on 2LP on November 3, 1973 in the US (MCA, MCA2-10005) [black rainbow label] and in 1973 in Greece (Polydor, 1184 216/7) with trifold cover and lyrics booklet.
  3. Re-issued on compact disc in 1984 on 2CD in the US (MCA, MCAD2-10005).
  4. Re-issued on 2LP on November 1, 1986 in Japan (Polydor, 28MM 0533/4) with
  5. Re-issued on compact disc in 1996 in the US (MCA, 1417-2).
  6. Re-released as Deluxe Edition on expanded remastered super audio 2CD in 2003 in the US (Geffen, B0001386-36) with 17 bonus tracks.
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