Classic Music Review: Tommy by The Who

The Who - Tommy (Remastered)

Oh, my fucking god.

I hadn’t heard Tommy in ages, and after the first run-through I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel. However, my conscience reminded me that I have made a commitment to my readers to listen to anything I review three times, and I’m a person who firmly believes in the motto, “Do what you say you are going to do.”

Note to self: Be more careful when making commitments.

After the final fade of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” I got my dad on the phone.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Yo!”

“Tommy.”

“Yeah?”

“What the fuck?”

I heard a sigh. It’s so nice to have parents who can understand my shorthand.

“I don’t know. We were all so proud that one of us had created an opera. It gave us legitimacy—anything you can do, we can do better—that kind of thing.”

“But I thought you were all revolutionaries. What need does a revolutionary have for legitimacy? And how does using an art form of the upper crust square with all that down-with-the-ruling-class crap you were into?”

Another sigh. “To borrow a phrase, ‘I Can’t Explain.'”

“Well, then, can you explain why someone thought it was a good idea to make it into a movie—a pretty crappy movie at that—and a Broadway musical?”

Sigh. “Let’s just say it was an important cultural event and leave it at that.”

I pondered that last comment for a while before deciding it was as good an explanation as I was going to get. Nothing about Tommy makes the least bit of sense.

Let me put it bluntly: Tommy is a half-baked piece of crap. There are more holes in the narrative than in the biggest whorehouse in Nevada. “Pinball Wizard” was written and inserted into the story after a critic with a passion for pinball had a lukewarm reaction to the preview—The Who felt they needed this guy to sell records, so Tommy got a new favorite pastime. Wow. The plot was so badly constructed that the movie reversed who killed whom in “1921” and it didn’t make a bit of difference . . . not that you could tell that anyone was killed at all by listening to the song. Imagine Shakespeare turning Iago into Desdemona’s murderer and tell me it wouldn’t change the meaning of Othello just a teeny-weeny bit. Later The Who changed the track order for live performances to emphasize “I’m Free” as the moment of liberation, another sign that Townshend had a germ of an idea and no clue about how to turn the idea into a coherent narrative that anyone could actually follow.

I loathe Tommy. Not the album (okay, I loathe the album, too), but the lead character. As difficult a feat as it is, Townshend managed to make a blind, dumb and deaf child completely unsympathetic, even before the magic cure that turns him into a messiah. When in his allegedly helpless state, Tommy never convinces me that he’s anything more than a self-pitying fakir. He becomes absolutely insufferable after he is healed, for after years of alleged isolation from humans and society, his first thought is how to capitalize on his miracle cure (“I’m a Sensation”). I guess he wasn’t so dumb after all! He naturally becomes messiah to the gullible, then strangely recruits Uncle Ernie, who molested him, to aid him in his efforts. So much for the belief that sexual abuse of children is a traumatic experience.

Now that I think about it, there isn’t a single character in Tommy who is halfway likable. The father’s a murderer, the mother an accomplice, the neighbor kid a sadist, Uncle Ernie a sicko, The Acid Queen a megalomaniac . . . it’s more of a horror story with no heroes to save us from the evil monsters.

As far as the music is concerned, the record starts out somewhat promisingly with “Overture,” although the transitions between themes are anything but smooth. They lose me pretty quickly with “Amazing Journey” and the purposeless insertion of “Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker),” a song “borrowed” from Sonny Boy Williamson. “Christmas” is sentimental tripe, “Cousin Kevin” creepy, “The Acid Queen” intensely annoying and “Underture” is a rehash of “Rael” from The Who Sell Out saved only by the improved recording techniques that make John Entwistle’s magnificent bass playing more audible. It’s followed by the Uncle Ernie sequence and then “Pinball Wizard.” Intellectually I appreciate the power in Daltrey’s vocal in this song, but to be honest, this song has been played so much on the radio that I can barely stand to hear it anymore.

After that we go on a scavenger hunt for a narrative with a series of fragments that lead to Tommy’s transformation into greedy savior. The music in this sequence is choppy and uninteresting. “Sally Simpson” is one of the more pleasant melodic pieces, but it’s followed by the aimless wanderings of “I’m Free” and then the entire camp scene. From a musical perspective, the ending is as strong as the opening, giving Tommy the musical structure of two decent bookends between which you’ll find twenty or so books with empty pages.

The lyrics are not well thought-out and sometimes unintentionally comical. Whenever I hear “I get excitement at your feet” I picture a boot-licking foot fetishist. Does anyone have any idea what the line “My warm momentum throws their stance” means? We’re also constantly and unnecessarily reminded that Tommy is blind, deaf and dumb as if Townshend assumed his listening audience consisted of people with short-term memory problems. The “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me” line becomes rather maudlin after repetitive use, and the lines from the climax are very badly worded and as empty as the rest of the album.

My theory is that Pete Townshend had some personal psychological issues he needed to work out, but instead he turned Tommy into a massive avoidance mechanism and disguised his lack of courage with all the rock opera hype. Not one to learn from his mistakes, he would repeat them in Quadrophenia, an album I loathe even more than Tommy, if that’s possible.

Preceding each of those disasters, The Who produced my two favorite Who albums, The Who Sell Out and Who’s Next. Most artists go into a slow and steady decline, like The Beatles and The Stones. The story of The Who is instead marked with wide swings, stunning inconsistency and inexplicable twists and turns . . . just like Tommy.

What an amazing journey.

19 responses

  1. You listened to the whole thing? Quoth Keith Relf: “Mister you’re a better man than I, yeaaahh!”

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    1. I deserve a Victoria Cross or something!

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      1. How much liquor does that have in it? Better make it a double.

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  2. Thanks for listening three times. Your devotion to duty is honorable. I still don’t get Tommy’s plot, though. I’ve listened to the album off and on for almost 45 years (never in one sitting, I don’t think) and I think I saw the movie somewhere in there, or at least pieces of it on TV. Maybe my own lack of attention has gotten in the way, but the plot of this concept album (why would anyone want to do a rock opera, anyway?)…could you try to explain it in a paragraph? I’m not honor-bound to listen to this thing anymore and don’t really want to. Tommy, like parts of Sergeant Pepper, don’t pass the “church test” with me. My parents made me go to church for all of my formative years, and the thought of going to mass evokes a sense of powerlessness (I don’t want to), of guilt (I should want to), and intense boredom (I can’t stand doing this even one more time). There are certain albums that you were supposed to like in the 2nd half 60’s that I have almost grown to almost loathe because I don’t like them but risk cultural damnation if I admit it. This is the unpleasant underbelly of 60’s “freedom.” Anyway, I find it very hard to like the Who that much because of the wild swings of the quality of their music and because this album made them so popular in the U.S. Oh my fucking God, Oh for fuck’s sake, and What the fuck all apply here.

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    1. My dad has a great collection of early National Lampoon magazines when they were a hard-edged, unflinching publication. I remember one piece that hit the nail on the head: it was called something like “Grace Slick’s Handbook of Radical Do’s and Dont’s” The whole notion of an “in crowd” should have been repugnant to the professed “we are one” values of the 1960’s, but snobs proliferate in any human environment.

      Here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia. The author is straining to make connections; his attempt to tie “Underture” to the story is as stupid as stupid gets. How can an instrumental advance a story line?

      British Army Captain Walker goes missing during an expedition and is believed dead (“Overture”). His widow, Mrs. Walker, gives birth to their son, Tommy (“It’s a Boy”). Years later, Captain Walker returns home and discovers that his wife has found a new lover. The Captain murders this man in an altercation (“1921”). To cover up the incident Tommy’s parents tell him that he didn’t see or hear it. Traumatised, Tommy drops into a semi-catatonic state and becomes deaf, dumb, and blind. Years pass, during which he is outwardly immobile. Inside his head, however, sensations from the outside world are changed into amazing visions accompanied by music (“Amazing Journey/Sparks”).
      His parents are aware of none of this, and fret that he will never find religion in the midst of his isolation (“Christmas”). Tommy’s parents sometimes go on outings and leave their burdensome son with relatives, many of whom take advantage of his helplessness; he is tortured by his malevolent “Cousin Kevin”, and molested by his uncle Ernie (“Do You Think It’s Alright?”, “Fiddle About”). Meanwhile, a pimp referred to as the “Hawker” is introduced and peddles his prostitute, who promises to return “Eyesight to the Blind” and is reputed to heal the deaf, the dumb, and the blind. Tommy is ultimately taken to this woman, who calls herself “The Acid Queen”; she tries to coax Tommy into full consciousness with hallucinogenic drugs. Although the attempted treatment affects him strongly (“Underture”), he does not lose his disabilities. Nevertheless, he subsequently gains public attention by his curious interest in pinball, which he plays very successfully by touch (“Pinball Wizard”).
      At last the Walkers take Tommy to a respected doctor (“There’s a Doctor”), who determines that the boy’s disabilities are psychosomatic rather than physical. Told by the Doctor to “Go to the Mirror!”, Tommy appears to look at his reflection and later becomes obsessed with the mirrors in his house. Mrs. Walker grows so irritated at the habit that she smashes the glass into which Tommy is looking. The action somehow destroys Tommy’s mental block, and he recovers his senses and speech (“Sensation”, “I’m Free”). The “miracle cure” becomes a public sensation, upon which Tommy seizes (with uncertain motives) to make himself into a guru (“Welcome”). His era’s interest with Messianic figures wins him a huge following. In a side story, a wealthy teenager named “Sally Simpson” becomes smitten with Tommy and tries to climb onstage as he speaks, only to be violently repulsed by security guards.
      Uncle Ernie capitalises on his nephew’s popularity by starting a tatty and expensive “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” for the disciples, who are promised a life of hedonism therein. In fact, Tommy treats his audience brusquely and demands that they live in an austere manner in his presence. The discontent caused by this reversal is intensified when he asks the crowd to plug their eyes, ears, and mouths and play pinball—he is less interested in his recovery than in sharing the things he saw while paralyzed (“We’re Not Gonna Take It”). As the story ends, the disciples reject Tommy in a body and leave the camp. In response, he retreats inward again and becomes wrapped in his fantasies (“See Me, Feel Me”).

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      1. Thanks for the paragraph explanation. This would be the correct situation to use “Oh for fuck’s sake,” yes?

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        1. Yes, indeed! What a convoluted mess!

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  3. I would add that perhaps there should be a blank space for the review.
    A memorial ,a testament , to Pete Townshend’s confused and chaotic mindset.

    Mr . Townshend, not happy with the legacy of Tin Pan Alley , or Rythym and Blues
    That he found on the landscape , must have peered into his Norton Anthology of British
    Literature , and the companion American tomb, and decided he will make ART.

    The turn down this road might explain a great deal.

    Perhaps a passing familiarity with Boheme , or Butterfly , or Carmen , or Figero
    Was the closer for Mr.Townshend.

    Andrew Lloyd Webber’s moment was a bit different ,he looked around and said
    ..I will make money , and I am deluded enough to believe I make art.

    Every performer who has penned their memoirs , from Bill Wyman , to Ray Manzareck
    has revealed that $$$$$ was number one, all else came second.

    Someone should have confided to Pete Townshend that that he is in the entertainment
    business, not a performing self of culture authority .

    That accident or fate bind Lennon and McCartney together to produce , well ……
    Music that is not ART, but IMHO stand with anything Rogers and Hammerstein
    have made is simply lost on Townsend.

    That Townsend made another ” opera” after this is …well…..more the pity.

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  4. Wow, you are just a total Jackass. If you can’t appreciate the BRILLIANCE of Tommy, if you don’t understand how Hollywood works and frequently destroys quality work, if the cultural significance of Tommy alludes you, and if you really are unable to recognize incredible, passionate, complex music, well, there’s no fucking hope for you. Pathetic, clueless, and sad…. or apparently: Deaf, Dumb, and Blind. Your DEFINITELY DEAF!!

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, but I think it would be more helpful to the reading public if you would state your case for why you think Tommy is brilliant so people can see an alternative view and judge for themselves. I can take the insults, but I don’t think name-calling is a particularly effective way to make your case. As far as being unable to understand complex music is concerned, I think my reviews of A Passion Play, Sketches of Spain, The Vicar’s Songbook #1, In the Court of the Crimson King and others speak for themselves.

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    2. She has too much class to say it, so I will: grow the fuck up. I’m sorry she disagrees with you about what you believe to be a cherished treasure but instead of spouting off like a moron, say something intelligent instead of insulting someone who’s written more intelligent and insightful reviews of music than anyone I’ve read. I may not always agree with her, but she has the right to express her views and doesn’t deserve such a childish, tantrum-like reaction.

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  5. TOMMY was the album that sucked me into the Who nearly 25 years ago! The sight of Roger at Woodstock mystified me! And the 1975 movie – wonderful!!!!! ❤

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    1. Roger Daltrey is one of my favorites, one of the greatest lead singers ever. His ability to interpret Townshend is simply amazing; it’s not easy to capture the emotions and mindset of another person and translate them into moving performances. Just because I didn’t care for Tommy doesn’t negate the fact that I wrote positive reviews for Who’s Next, The Who Sell Out and Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy. I didn’t like The White Album or Abbey Road, but I still love The Beatles; I didn’t like Arthur but still love The Kinks. I’m just not an all-or-nothing kind of girl. Thank you for the RT.

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  6. I watched the movie when it was released. Fucking brilliant. Disclaimer, I was thirteen.

    I saw it again a couple years ago, and it was an ordeal. My biggest regret is perhaps that when the crowd got wise to the bullshit, they took out Frank and Nora, but they let the little prick get away to deliver a joyous salvo of nonsense in “Listening to You” where a more subdued, “Mommy and Uncle are dead and I’m a little tool” would have been far more appropriate.

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  7. ‘Tommy’ is a conceptual and musical masterpiece, and very much the definition of a rock opera. Pete Townshend runs the full gamut of emotions, doubts and sometimes narcissism here, but it’s all sung brilliantly by Daltrey and backed-up amazingly by the greatest rhythm section in rock (Entwistle and Moon). It was also the centerpiece of their live act during the years where they turned into the greatest live band in the world…until Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band came along, that is.

    I feel that both ‘Who’s Next’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ are the two best Who albums. But make no mistake — ‘Tommy’, as an album, was better than any Who album before it. Notice I say “as an album”, because I’m not discounting the collection of fabulous singles from 1965-70 that are collected on ‘Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy’, that fabulous compilation released in 1971.

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  8. I will pass on the self-indulgent, 1975 Ken Russell film monstrosity, however.

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  9. Simply the best review of this album – ever. For reasons that smack of hype and delusion, this album is regarded as one of the greatest ever made therefore nobody is allowed to take it to pieces and see it for what it really is – a pompous, meaningless monotonous muddled piece of tosh. Therefore this review is very refreshing since it sits neatly alongside my own view and feeling about the album.

    Wow… there’s some amazing songs in here – I could hum “Extra extra read all about it”, “Tommy can you hear me?” or “Do you think it’s alright?” all day as they’re songs of immaculate construction and profound lyrical imagery… of course I’m being sarcastic but that’s problem number one – a bunch of brief “songs” that were shoved in only to try and give this “plot” some kind of a narrative because Townshend and Kit Lambert knew the main songs didn’t explain the plot at all… so straight away, with filler tracks like those, you know this is a work of incompetence.

    The Who were by then getting known for being a powerful rock band onstage but Kit Lambert’s production is so polite, unadventurous and monotonous they sound sterile. Every track almost sounds and mixed the same. The mid 90’s remix did give it a bit more balls but still couldn’t disguise that the production on this album is weak. It’s the band’s blandest album sonically and musically. Live recordings of the wretched “opera” from Isle of Wight, Hull, Leeds and even Woodstock blast the album out the water for sheer raging power but still doesn’t make the thing any easier to listen to.

    There is no denying that in places The Who prove they had the musical chops and had progressed but they’re playing music that doesn’t deserve to be played. Daltrey did find his voice and gave it all he had but what he’s given to sing… well… Townshend was a confused mess post-acid as he was searching for spiritual values but to dress up his search and issues best left to a therapist in the guise of this so-called “rock opera” and then inflict it upon the world was not a great idea – OK, it made money, got the band out of a financial mess but that’s not a good reason for it’s existence. Unfortunately thanks to hype from arse licking critics, a godawful movie called “Woodstock” and audients in states of chemical alteration, it was accepted and heralded instead of being rejected and derided.

    Lou Reizner’s stage version complete with an all star cast and an orchestra was a farcical mess and where does one start with Ken Russell’s movie? The point being that neither could find any more sense within this plot and were useless pieces of work that amply prove that “Tommy” is an empty meaningless bloated mess. Unfortunately because it’s somehow regarded as a masterpiece, Townshend keeps returning to it every so often to siphon more cash from it since hey, we’re supposed to believe this is a work of his genius… for fuck’s sake indeed! Like “Pet Sounds” this is another “classic” album that’s only “classic” because people keep regurgitating the myths. The reality is less romantic. Time to wake up… ah…. smell that coffee…

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