50 years of The Who's rock opera

Thursday 23rd May 2019

Sitting alongside other albums of 1969 such as The Beatles' 'Abbey Road', The Stones' 'Let It Bleed', Pink Floyd's 'Ummagumma' and King Crimson's 'In The Court Of The Crimson King', The Who's 'Tommy' was released on 23rd May 1969. 

Like many of its contemporaries, the inspiration behind the album originated in mysticism from the East. Pete Townshend had become a follower of Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba (later referenced in the song 'Baba O'Riley'). Among Meher Baba's practices, were a self-imposed silence that lasted for decades, and work with individuals who he claimed were disabled in the physical world by their ascension to a higher spiritual plane. He also campaigned against recreational drug use, especially LSD. All themes that may sound familiar to those acquainted with the Deaf Dumb and Blind Boy

Stylistically, 'Tommy', seemed to draw a line under The Who's previous works which had enjoyed success as hit EPs, LPs and singles. 'Tommy' saw Townshend set his sights on a more ambitiously scaled project. Townshend's first rock opera was the result, following a loose narrative around a young boy left unable to see, hear or speak following a psychological trauma, made worse by his family members abusive treatment of him and exposure to LSD.

Sensing the world through vibration and interpreting it as his own musical reality, Tommy famously becomes a pinball champion, leading to the creation of one of The Who's best-known songs 'Pinball Wizard'.

Tommy is eventually cured of his psychosomatic afflictions and has a sort of spiritual epiphany, becoming the leader of his own religious movement. Tommy's enlightenment is portrayed in the song 'I'm Free'. Townshend was reportedly inspired by another iconic '60s song when creating the song's structure, stating that it was inspired by The Rolling Stones' 'Street Fighting Man'. Its reprise of the famous 'Pinball Wizard' guitar intro reminding listeners that they are still in the protagonist's world.

The album finishes with 'We're Not Gonna Take It', a song which Townshend claims was written before the rest of the project about politics, but fit well as an element of the Tommy story, telling of Tommy's followers' eventual rejection of his strict stance on avoiding drugs and alcohol and his prerequisite practice of spiritual exercise through blindfolded pinball. 

The change of attitude from The Who was a natural one as the currents of popular culture shifted at the end of the 1960s. While some disliked the idea of a rock opera others accepted that times had moved on and music needed to progress with them, splitting opinions as to whether 'Tommy' was one of The Who's greatest moves or a poorly judged self-indulgence. The opinions of critics became irrelevant as 'Tommy' took on its own life, spawning a Broadway musical, a ballet and the 1975 Ken Russell film with its all-star cast, from Tina Turner as The Acid Queen to Elton John as The Pinball Wizard - and Roger Daltrey as Tommy.

Pete Townshend seemed fulfilled by the epic storytelling format and went on to create another in the form of Quadrophenia in 1973, which again became a film and a cultural entity in its own right, cementing itself as an integral part of the mod-revival subculture of the late '70s and early '80s. While musical snobbery started to reject the idea of rock operas in the ensuing decades, not helped by the birth of the jukebox musical phenomenon, 'Tommy' was perhaps not given the respect it deserved in Who history. 

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