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Tommy
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Tommy

Tommy (1969) is one of The Who's two full-scale rock operas, and the first musical work explicitly billed as a rock opera. In some older publications it is called Tommy (1914-1984). The opera was composed by Who guitarist Peter Townshend, with two tracks contributed by Who bassist John Entwistle and one fictitiously attributed to Who drummer Keith Moon, though actually written by Townshend. An earlier song by R&B; artist Sonny Boy Williamson was also incorporated into the opera. Playing time is 74 minutes.

Table of contents
1 Story
2 Analysis and history
3 Editions
4 Live recordings
5 Other incarnations
6 Notes

Story

Tommy is the fictitious biography of Tommy Walker. Tommy's father had been listed as missing in action during World War I, but he returns unexpectedly in 1921 (changed to World War II and 1951 in some later versions) and kills his wife's new lover in front of the seven-year-old Tommy. Tommy's parents enjoin him that "you didn't hear it, you didn't see it ... you won't say nothing to no-one", and Tommy retreats into deafness, dumbness, and blindness as a consequence. He has a vision of a tall stranger dressed in silvery robes with a golden floor-length beard, presumably an ersatz father figure, and the vision sets him on a spiritual journey. During the remainder of his childhood he suffers abuse at the hands of various family members, and he interprets all the physical sensations as music. One Christmas he is given a poxy pinball machine and he soon becomes the master of the game, with fans and groupie-wannabes just like a pop star (hinting that the whole story is a satire on its author's own career). He is finally cured when a doctor places him before a mirror and his mother, noticing that he seems to see his own reflection, shatters the mirror in a pique. Thereafter he assumes the messianic mantle and tries to lead his fans to an "enlightenment" like his own, but the heavy-handedness of his cult and a bit of exploitation by his family cause his followers to revolt against him. The story ends ambiguously with the "Listening to you" chorus from "Go to the Mirror", suggesting that Tommy may have shut the world out and returned to his fantasies again after the revolt.

Analysis and history

Musically the opera is built up with many overdubs by the four members of the band, including bass, electric, and acoustic guitars, piano, organ, drumkit, gong, horn, three-part vocal harmonies and occasional doubling on vocal solos. Despite this richness the sound tends to be very "stark", especially in comparison to the band's later work. Many of the instruments only appear intermittently -- the ten-minute "Underture" features a single toot on the horn -- and when overdubbed many of the instruments are mixed at low levels that require careful listening to notice. Townshend mixes fingerpicking in with his trademark power chords and fat riffs, and in some delicate moments his guitar sounds almost like a harpsichord. Moon mostly drums at a sane intensity but finds his opportunities to show off. Entwistle mostly stays in the background but effectively takes the instrumental lead in several cuts. Daltrey swaggers as lead vocalist, but shares that role with the others on a surprising number of tracks. Townshend's later interest in synthesizers is foreshadowed by the use of taped sounds played in reverse to give a whistling, chirping sound on "Amazing Journey"; on the same track the background singers imitate the sound of seagulls. The original LP was somewhat mushy, but the recent remastered CD is a significant sonic improvement.

"Amazing Journey" can be interpreted as the central pivot of Tommy, since its lyrics are essential to understanding what the opera is about (beyond the facile story line). "Go to the Mirror" is the climax of the opera both musically and dramatically; tradition holds that when the band was touring the show live the audiences would spontaneously stand up during "Go to the Mirror" and remain standing until the end -- listening in silence, unlike the customary behavior of Who fans. "We're Not Gonna Take It / See Me, Feel Me / Listening to You" is the denouement, with its ambiguous return to the earlier state of the story reinforced in concert by returning to the riff from "Overture" and "Go to the Mirror" at the very end rather than the long fade from the studio recording. Various themes are repeated in different songs in order to give the opera a coherent feel.

The tracks "Pinball Wizard", "I'm Free", and the "See Me, Feel Me / Listening to You" reprise were released as singles and got a decent amount of airplay, though only the first ever approached being a hit. The "Overture" was also covered by a band called The Assembled Multitude and received a lot of airplay. Tommy was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

The child abuse that features so prominently in the story caused a good deal of outcry when it was first released. There have also been complaints that the basic idea of the story was lifted from S.F. Sorrow.

A couple of years before the album came out Peter Townshend explained his ideas and apparently actually thought out some of the structure of the opera during a famous Rolling Stone interview. John Entwistle claimed years after the release that he had never actually listened to the album because he was so sick of it after the endless takes and re-takes in the studio.

Editions

Tommy was originally released as a two-LP set with a thin booklet of lyrics and artwork in a triptych-style fold-out cover. All three of the outer panels of the triptych are spanned by a single Pop Art painting by Mike McInnerney. The drawing is a sphere with diamond-shaped cutouts and an overlay of clouds and seagulls rendered with a figure-ground ambiguity. To one side a star-spangled hand bursts from the dark background, index finger pointing forward. (The image above only shows the central panel of the triptych.) The label's executives insisted on having a picture of the band on the cover, so small, barely recognizable images of the band members' faces were inserted into the gaps in the sphere, each with an outstretched hand like a groping Tommy Walker. (The most recent remastered CD release reverts to McInnerney's original artwork without the faces.) The internal artwork consists of a photo of some jugglers/magicians and some very simple paintings that only hint at illustrating the story.

MCA re-released the album as a two-CD set in 1984. The CDs were in separate jewel cases and each had a miniaturized copy of the original artwork and lyrics in the insert, though it only included two panels of the magnificent triptych. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab later published it on a single gold-plated Ultradisk in their Original Master Recording series, with a much improved reproduction of the artwork (including a fold-out of the full original cover), but with the unfortunate substitution of an alternate take on "Eyesight to the Blind". MCA finally released their own remastered edition on a single disk in 1996, complete with good artwork and a written introduction by Richard Barnes; this is the edition you should seek out if you intend to buy it.

Live recordings

Live recordings of Tommy are available on The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 and The Who: Live at Leeds (Deluxe Edition), both recorded in 1970 but not released until 1996 and 2001, respectively. The Live at Leeds version is somewhat stiff, as if the were trying too hard to get a clean take for publication. The Isle of Wight version is rowdy and full of the trademark energy that made the Who a live powerhouse, but is unfortunately split across the two disks of the set. The Who also performed Tommy for its 20th anniversary during their 1989 reunion tour and it can be heard on the Join Together recording, but though that recording has its high points it comes nowhere close to capturing the spirit of the era that produced the opera. The Who also performed Tommy at Woodstock, but only a small part of the performance has been released.

Other incarnations

Tommy has also enjoyed other incarnations. In 1972 the London Symphony Orchestra released a symphonic version with the singing roles assigned to the band members and various other pop stars of the era, including Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart and Ringo Starr. Peter Townshend also plays a bit of guitar, but otherwise the music is entirely orchestral. In 1975 Ken Russell released a tongue-in-cheek movie version featuring The Who and an eclectic supporting cast including Elton John, Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson; this version has achieved cult film status due to scenes such as Arthur Brown's portrayal of a priest in Tommy's cult, Ann-Margret's frolic in a pool of beans, and the brilliant satire on pop music presented by the "Sally Simpson" scene. In 1993, Townshend and San Diego playwright Des MacAnuff wrote and produced a Broadway musical adaptation of Tommy. Featuring several new songs by Townshend and an all-star cast, the production won a Tony award that year, and various touring revivals have met with popular acclaim since.

Notes

The album Snow (2002) by Spock's Beard has a storyline and themes very similar to Tommy.