It’s all too easy to go, “Yeah, The Who’s Tommy is great, love it.” But just put it into perspective for a moment. This was one man’s imagination, one man’s vision and it was groundbreaking. Add into the mix, Roger, Keith, and John, who along with Pete, created what is one of the most amazing records of the rock era. It was released on May 23, 1969, and every home should have one.
From the opening chords of “Overture,” you know you are in for something different. But try imagining what it was like to hear this for the very first time in the last week of May 1969 when The Who released their magnum opus, the much-vaunted, Tommy. To add to the sense of wonderment “Overture” features a French Horn, previously the sole preserve of the Beatles in popular music, but here played by The Who’s bass player, John Entwistle.
This was rock music, but not as we knew it. It wasn’t the first extended musical piece in rock, but it was the first to have the audacity to bill itself as an opera. Being a double album it certainly demanded to be taken seriously; to this point, there had been few such lengthy albums, even ones that were not a cohesive piece of work. With its triptych of a fold-out sleeve that was a lavish presentation of Mike McInnerney’s fabulous painting, it all helped to make this an even more auspicious musical work.
A quick check of the album credits showed that all but four of the 24 tracks were written by Pete Townshend. It’s another reason why this monster of a work should command such respect. Few individuals had the ability, or the vision, to create such a complex and such a long piece of work; Pete’s inspiration came from the teachings of the Meher Baba.
Tommy took six months to record, and another two months to mix, while not unheard of even as long ago as 1969, but it was even then very unusual. With layers of Townshend’s acoustic guitar and the numerous overdubs Tommy was for the time a sonically very different album from most everything else. It’s another example of the passage of time fooling us into believing that this was not as significant an album as it was. So much has happened since the release of Tommy that it dulls the collective retrospective – what is now commonplace was then a step outside the accepted, a step into uncharted territory.
“Pinball Wizard,” “Go to the Mirror!,” “I’m Free,” “Christmas,” and “See Me, Feel Me” all came out as singles, with the first and last becoming hits in both America and the UK. “See Me, Feel Me” was one of the highpoints of The Who’s appearance at Woodstock – has there ever been a better rock vocalist than Roger Daltrey? If The Who doing Tommy at Woodstock doesn’t send shivers down the spine try checking that you are still alive.