Much more than an album

By Sergio Ariza

Tommy is one of those albums that is much more than an album, Tommy was quite an event that turned The Who into a group as popular as the Beatles and Stones. In its time it was considered to be the first rock opera in history and had a tremendous impact on its contemporaries, it may not be true but it was the album that best exemplified the concept and turned The Who into the unstoppable force of live rock. Nowadays one can discuss its legacy or historical validity but not the enormous force of the music, with some of the best songs ever penned by Pete Townshend such as Pinball Wizard, I’m Free, Amazing Journey, Christmas, Go to the Mirror! and the iconic closer We’re Not Going to Take It which includes one of the favourites of his live shows, See Me, Feel Me.

In 1968 Townshend had been flirting for some time with the idea of expanding his horizons from pop and rock beyond 3-minute singles. In 1966 he had already toyed with the rock opera idea with the wonder called A Quick One, While He’s Away, which closed the band’s 2nd album. In 1967, during the recording of The Who Sell Out he composed a song called Glow Girl and began to weave the idea that would become the birth of Tommy. The song ended with the following words, “It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker, it’s a girl, although, of course, Tommy would be a boy in the end, also the end of the record, with Rael, would give him musical ideas that he would use again in Sparks and Underture.    

With the blessing of their manager Kit Lambert, Townshend began to write the story about a boy “deaf, dumb and blindand his relationship with his family in particular and life in general. The guitarist was strongly influenced by the writings of Indian guru Meher Baba and the story turned his ideas into music. While he was immersed in the process of writing he dropped into the legendary music store Manny’s in New York and left with 2 guitars with which he would build the record, a Gibson J-200 and a Gibson SG Special, both from 1968. With the first one he started to fool around one day and the famous riff from Pinball Wizard appeared, which is one of the best songs of his career. The creator of My Generation was on a roll and his songs came easily, besides the band was reaching its peak on stage which was evident in their live performances. In the midst of recording Tommy, the 10th of December 1968, the Rolling Stones invited them to perform in their Rock and Roll Circus, and The Who gave a legendary show playing A Quick One, While He’s Away with Townshend and his SG. The Stones decided not to release the special, The Who had stolen the show, and for the next 3 years there wasn’t a band who could throw shade their way on stage.    

When the record was released on May 17, 1969 in the USA (a week earlier than in his native U.K.) it became an instant hit (currently it has sold over 20 million copies) and the band went on to become one of the most important in the world. It did not matter that the Pretty Things had gone ahead with S.F. Sorrow, or that the Kinks would deliver a much more interesting story with Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), from then on The Who would become synonymous with Rock Opera and made one of the most (and worst) copied records in history. The strength of Tommy wasn’t in its concept and story but rather in the music created by Townshend and developed by the incredibles Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon. The singer would find his own voice and would become one of the best singers in rock history, the bassman again shows his prowess on the 4-string besides writing 2 songs, while the drummer proves that if he wasn’t the machine of precision that John Bonham was, he was certainly the heart of the band and the one who got the rest going. Not to mention the incredible role of Townshend who gave a masterful class on how to be the perfect rhythm guitarist, dubbing his amazing electric ‘power chords’ with acoustic guitars delivering some of the best riffs of his career, like the aforementioned Pinball Wizard, Go To The Mirror and I’m Free.     

Unlike what happened with other masterpieces from the 60s like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s, Tommy would be played live. What is more, one could say that the definitive versions of the songs were made on stage, be it in Woodstock, the Isle of Wight or Leeds University. The importance of Tommy gave The Who perfect material to become one of the most amazing live rock bands in history.  There are few things more intense than seeing these four Englishmen lash out while screaming “Listening to you I get the music. Gazing at you, I get the beat. Following you, I climb the mountain, I get excitement at your feet”. And the lyrics are thrown to wind but the force and conviction in their interpretation made them one of the essential groups in music history.