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Why The Who’s ‘Tommy’ Remains A Masterpiece

Released 23 May 1969, The Who’s ‘Tommy’ is a masterpiece…a word that is applied to all too many recordings, but in the case it probably doesn’t go far enough.

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The Who Tommy

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 23 May 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.

Listen to Tommy right now.

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.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Tommy, Roger Daltrey and his band are releasing a new live, orchestral recording of The Who’s classic album titled Tommy Orchestral,  set for release on 14 June that can be pre-ordered here.

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11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. tommy

    May 23, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    I saw ‘Tommy’ upon release, as a premier in Liverpool (Pullman seats) 🙂

  2. Uncle Ernie

    May 24, 2015 at 2:20 am

    The Who is the best motherfuckin rock band eva!! And Tommy, as incredible as it is, is not even their best album. Long Live Rock!

  3. michael ingle

    May 24, 2015 at 6:42 am

    ABSOLUTELY!!

  4. Albert

    May 24, 2015 at 8:17 am

    For a teen-ager of the time who I was, who knew all the lyrics by heart since, who acquired and collected all the following versions of the album, and knew them as well, it is indeed a masterpiece.

  5. jimbo

    May 24, 2015 at 11:39 am

    The best. As soon as I heard it I needed to learn it on the guitar.

  6. Randy

    May 24, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    This album was pure genius , the music- perfectly in sync, powerful, melodic and beautiful. Vocals- awesome , harmonies were amazing, and again very powerful. No other band could have had the same material , and put it out like The Who did.

  7. Midge

    May 24, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    Was amazed in 1969; still amazed today….each time I listen to the album fully something new opens up in my mind and heart….thanks, Pete for all of your contributions to society.
    loved the show in AC….looking forward to November 4.

  8. Chuck

    May 25, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    All but 4 of the 24 tracks were written by Pete gets even more amazing when you consider he was 23 at the time he wrote most of it. And then eventually there was Lifehouse

  9. wandu

    September 15, 2015 at 6:35 am

    I can’t believe I was only six years old and my brother David was eight when we first heard Tommy. WOW..I remember we were at at a beach or something like a park. Someone was playing music loud,! and then we heard it TOMMY..we knew it was something great.and that would be just the beginning of our life of loving ROCK and ROLL..

  10. Philip

    May 23, 2018 at 12:24 pm

    Nice article . As much as I love the studio album, I would say te version on Live at Leeds Deluxe is an even better presentation of the piece . The dichotomy of visceral energy and melody is fully realized in that performance.

  11. Jonathan Christian Birch

    May 14, 2019 at 10:09 pm

    Tommy was not the first rock opera. The Pretty Things released the rock opera “S.F. Sorrow” a year earlier in 1968.

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