Review Summary: The Who give birth to the "Rock Opera".
In 1969 The Who unleashed Tommy to the world. The 24 track concept was written entirely by guitarist/co-vocalist Pete Townsend minus a few tracks. The album itself is unique in that it’s one of the first albums to tell a specific story throughout, so basically it’s one of the first concept albums ever recorded and really set the bar for future endeavors into the world of concept albums. Pete Townsend first got the idea to write an album of this magnitude with the track A Quick One, While He’s Away on a previous album. That song nears the 8 minute mark and features many different shifts and sections to the song and was dubbed a “rock opera”. The sound of a rock opera intrigued Townsend so he got to work on an album that tells the story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy, who rises up to become a messiah like figure.
To sum the album up in a nutshell, Tommy utilizes acoustic guitars mostly, some keyboards and horns are thrown in for good measure, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend seem to share vocal duties about equally, and John Entwistle’s bass is very prominent as well. Of course you’ve got the legendary Keith Moon on drums who really shines throughout the album. With 24 tracks this sounds like a task to get through the whole album, but when you listen from start to finish it seems that time flies because it’s truly mesmerizing. The moment you hear the opening chords of Overture you know you’re in for something truly special.
After the instrumental opener, It’s a Boy starts things off signaling the birth of our protagonist, Tommy. Horns introduce the birth and Townsend wailing “A Son, A Son, A Son!” marks our journey. 1921 continues the story where we find the mother of Tommy with a lover, because Tommy’s father had gone off to war and never returned, he however does return and murder’s the lover. Tommy, being very young, was told he didn’t see or hear it and wouldn’t tell a soul. This causes a mental block for Tommy and he becomes deaf, dumb, and blind though it appears to be a psychological disorder. Amazing Journey and Sparks come up next which signal the ride that’s about to beginning. These songs feature the great drumming of Keith Moon with his furious fills being very prevalent. One of the best parts of the album is the beginning of Sparks which begins immediately after Amazing Journey. It starts with a foot stomping drum part and some powerfully strum chords, then some studio magic occurs when, what appears to sound like a looped guitar, creates an effect that sounds like seagulls (think middle of Echoes by Pink Floyd). After that the song continues in a hypnotic state with Townsend and Moon jamming furiously and Entwistle adding some very smooth bass lines underneath it.
Up next is a hard rocker Eyesight to the Blind. The highlight here is Daltrey’s powerful vocals. Lyrically the song seems insignificant but either way it’s a fun quick rocker. Christmas is an obvious highlight of the album. The song deals with Tommy’s parents concerned that Tommy isn’t aware of Jesus or Christmas and his soul is in danger. Again Daltrey’s voice is phenomenal and the backing vocals of Townsend and Entwistle are a fresh welcome throughout the song. After the second chorus the song goes off into a recurring theme throughout the album, with Townsend singing, “Tommy can you hear me?” over and over again. The next major theme of the album comes right afterwards with the beautiful, “See Me, Feel Me” part. Daltrey’s voice is yearning and powerful here as he sings the part of Tommy, pleading for somebody to reach him. After this incredible middle section, Christmas dives right back into another verse and chorus to end the song. As said before this song is a great catchy rocker, but it’s that middle section that truly makes this incredible.
The next couple songs, Cousin Kevin and The Acid Queen, which deal respectively with Tommy’s abusive cousin and a gypsy who tries to cure Tommy with some, you guessed it, Acid. Cousin Kevin is pretty slow paced and interesting with what sounds like Daltrey, Townsend, and Entwistle all sharing lead vocals which adds a certain eerie depth to the vocals. The Acid Queen is a pretty standard tune for Tommy; Townsend takes over the mic here. Musically it’s a little unremarkable compared to earlier in the album but still solid. The first side of Tommy closes out with a 10 minute instrumental called Underture. This is supposed to be Tommy’s acid trip in musical form. The song covers many musical themes already covered earlier in the album; it musically sums up the whole first side.
The second half opens up with a couple lackluster songs about Tommy’s wicked Uncle Ernie before we delve into Pinball Wizard. It was added at the last minute because a rep from their record company was a fan of Pinball so they added the song to help convince him that the adventurous double album should be made. Most of you have heard it but for those who haven’t, it’s a quickly strummed rocker with more outstanding vocals that deal with Tommy’s uncanny ability to dominate Pinball machines.
After another interlude we get to Go to the Mirror which tells of Tommy meeting with a doctor who thinks he found a cure. The song covers themes that occurred back in “Christmas” including the See Me, Feel Me part but another part is added which is usually referred to as “Listening to You” which is a very epic part that most have probably heard. Roger and Pete share vocal duties and it’s very much a call and response, the Doctor is singing the verses, then Tommy sings the “See Me, Feel Me” part as he calls for help. It’s another highlight of the album. The next few tracks are crucial to the story but musically insignificant. They finally realize that to cure Tommy they need to smash a mirror that he constantly stares at. After this he is cured and becomes a messiah figure to people who are mesmerized by this miracle. 6 of the remaining 9 songs are less than 2 ½ minutes long and really fly by, they are here primarily for the story.
I’m Free signals the beginning of the climax of the album. It’s a pretty good shorter track with Daltrey’s voice sounding very angelic and a lot of Ahh’s by Pete and Entwistle. At the end there is a musical reprise of Pinball Wizard. After this you get Welcome and Tommy’s Holiday Camp. Welcome is very progressive in nature with a lot of tempo changes and different instruments being used like the piano and a harmonica. This part signals the beginning of the end as Tommy and his followers begin a weird little camp.
The final highlight of the album is the epic closer We’re Not Gonna Take It. Lyrically I can’t say I’m confident with what’s going on here but I’m thinking while at the camp, Tommy’s followers realize he’s not the messiah they thought he was and decide they aren’t going to abide by the rules of the camp. The song is split into three part, with We’re Not Gonna Take It taking up the first half with its own verse chorus progression. The verses are telling the rules and the chorus seems to be the followers proclaiming they are “not going to take it”. The next two parts should sound familiar; the “See Me, Feel Me” part is next which is similar to what we’ve heard it before. But this time it really builds up from Roger’s fragile voice pleading for somebody to help him once more, and after this there’s the final “Listening to You” part. The lyrics and melody are very uplifting and it repeats on and on until it slowly fades away and we are left win awe of this masterpiece.
That was a pretty thorough explanation of the entire album but what exactly makes this a classic in my eyes? Well it’s the piece as a whole. If you were to randomly listen to certain tracks it just wouldn’t work. Instead one must really listen from beginning to end, notice the recurring themes you hear over and over again and really enjoy the story. I really think it’s crucial to understand the story going on because it adds to the emotional depth of the experience.
Tommy has left a legacy, and that legacy is the foundation for all concept albums to come. I can’t help but feel if not for Tommy there wouldn’t have been other defining concept albums such as The Wall or Bat Out of Hell or even another Who album Quadrophenia. This really shows the humble beginning of the “rock opera” and most of the time The Who use simple instruments: guitar, drums, and bass, to craft a diverse sounding album that covers a lot of ground. So come one and all on the amazing journey, and learn all you should know.