Authors have quite a difficult profession. Taking a miniscule, simple idea and turning it into a complete, detailed novel is beyond my competence, and having those ideas come from a single source of inspiration, where more often than not, it is during a very unlikely, inattentive period of time just makes it even worse. But, no matter how many authors the world has seen, from novel writers to poets, to Dr. Suess, in the music world, concept albums are an even more problematical task. Because not only must the writer engineer a comprehensive storyline, but put those thoughts and emotions into melody and lyric, forming a piece of music which narrates a story that interests listeners. Oh, since you put it that way, that old Pete Townshend must’ve had one hell of a time writing The Who’s first concept album. Since he attempted to write concept albums for the band, three have been acknowledged, while only two thrived. Tommy, the band’s first, was Townshend’s earliest, an epic tale of a deaf, dumb and blind boy named, you guessed it, Tommy, born in 1921. It might have been Pete’s earliest shot at a record with a cohesive storyline, but it remains to be the most popular, and successful. While its younger brother, Quadrophenia, is the sound of the band coming into and accepting its gritty sound, Tommy is a much more raw, premature sound which shows the apprehension and angst of the band at one of it’s earlier stages in their career. It has proved to be so popular in fact, that the band even made a valiant move and make a movie based on the album (an option that would be mimicked in 1979, by Pink Floyd for their concept double album, The Wall), and Pete Townshend has even recently altered Tommy into a musical theater performance that apparently shows on Broadway, in New York. Sure enough, the double concept album amazes all with its simplicity, pop appeal, and intertwined narrative make Tommy quite an enjoyable listen, that doesn’t dull. It is also quite unique from most other Who albums, mostly because of the instruments used in the production of the record.
From the opening blows of the record’s opening number ‘Overture’, Tommy makes its mark as a unique concept record. For one thing, at the time it was written, concept albums were scarce and wild, its predecessor only being Sgt. Pepper’s, from the Beatles. What’s so unique about Tommy is that sounds different from the other Who records because of being volatile and electric, like the other Who records, Tommy happens to be somewhat laid back in comparison. Townshend trades his electric guitar which he smashed on stage, for a humble acoustic guitar on a good percentage of the tracks on Tommy. And when he does play his electric guitar, rather than making it raw, punky, and obnoxious by using massive amounts of feedback(*cough* My Generation *cough*), his electric playing is made to seem grandiose and dramatic, with a thespian presentation by limiting the playing to explosive chords and by dividing them into quick picks of four. It’s actually a technique that plays a vital role in sculpting the sound of Tommy, because without the theatrical guitar explosions, Tommy would be dull, lifeless, and more of a virus to listen to than anything else. John Entwistle has dropped his wowing bass playing for a more grounded role, more often than not standing silent in the background. But he adds his ox flair with his ostentatious trumpeting. He makes the militant theme with his flair on trumpet, and slowly emerges as quite the brass player. Keith Moon is what he’s always been- a coked up crazy man who drives his Rolls Royce into swimming pools, but justifies his actions with some absolutely insane drumming. Sure, it might be a little unruly and random, but his talent on drums is very well received and quite frankly, awesome. Something very different about Tommy as well is that Townshend also takes up the role of lead vocals much more often than on other Who albums. Not that Roger Daltrey does not sing, because his soaring voice basically makes the album, but Pete does sing on a large number of songs.
Tommy’s storyline is much more complex and immersed than the music that acts as its voice. Let’s face it, without the plot, this record would probably be more dull than Bob Ross. The title of the album, taken from its distressed hero and protagonist, is about a hopeless, disabled boy who, if he existed in another world rather than fantasy, would have died almost immediately. Tommy is born in 1921, and is born deaf, blind, and a mute. As his life (which I can sympathize for, because it must be hell) progresses, it becomes worse, but in a very clichéd way that is not at all different from any other damsel in distress short story out there. He is sent to live with his alcoholic, malicious Uncle Eddie, and only there is when he finds his talent as an arcade junky, a pinball wizard. At this point, the album is at its climax. After numerous foster homes, Tommy’s guardian finds doctor who can cure him, and he finds true love, and becomes a successful musician who retires to California. As horribly clichéd as the storyline is, it provides an adhesive for the songs, and if it didn’t coexist between the songs on the album, it would have suffered a rather large demise, because of sheer lackluster and boredom. It really saved the album. As for the songs on here, there isn’t really a bad song, but not a whole lot stands out. The material ranges from ten minute instrumental suites, to standard time rockers, and sometimes, manifestos that last under half a minute. But as far as standout tracks, the opener, Overture, the single, Pinball Wizard, the rocker, I’m Free, and the catchy jangle interlude, Tommy Can You Here Me.
It may seem as if Tommy is the most epic concept album ever to be produced in all time, but once you get past the glitz and glam of a competent storyline being placed into a musical production, it is really just an average rock n roll album. Not much else other than acoustic guitars, vocals telling a plot of a helpless little boy who should‘ve died, and good rhythms. Believe me, I really want to like this album. I want to really badly, considering The Who are my favorite band. But no matter how many times I listen to it, or what mood I’m in when I do, Tommy just sounds good. It is good, but it does not calibrate anything better than ‘good’. Maybe it’s the edginess of a songwriter’s first endeavor at a plot within music, and how jagged the results can be. But even so, Quadrophenia has proven to be a much stronger record than Tommy, and if you are currently trying to access the Who via concept album, invest your money in Quadrophenia first, and work backwards to Tommy. Thankfully, not many other Who records I’ve had this opinion on, and I hope to keep it that way.
Tommy, Can You Hear Me
Why is Tommy the first concept album by them? What happened to The Who Sell Out?
Good review, I'd disagree with the rating of course though. And aren't there a few plot mistakes in there (1921 being when Tommy's father unexpectadly returns, he doesn't actually live with Uncle Ernie...). I always saw it as Tommy's parents trying to get him cured the whole time, not foster homes
Good review, but you got the plot a little bit mixed up. Sally Simpson goes to see Tommy, then tries to go onstage to tell him she loves him, but a bodyguard knocks her off the stage, giving her "a gash across her face". Her marrying a rock musician is only what happens to her. What actually happens is that Tommy decides to start a camp for his followers, because his house isn't big enough. While at this camp, the followers decide to rebel against him. what happens after is pretty much interpretive.
This album kicks ass, I don't see why you think its boring....
i don't really care for the story too much, I care for the music....and the story is really a metaphor: "See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me" multiple times in ours lives, we just break down, get on our knees, and think that phrase; maybe not the exact phrase, but the exact emotion.
Lot of plot points are wrong as well too, as been pointed out...
If you can, hear Tommy live....it blows this away.
It's a real different Who. It's not as well-produced as Quadrophenia, and doesn't make such extravagant use of horns like Quadrophenia. However, it tells its story wayyy more coherently than Quadrophenia does and is an incredibly enjoyable listen. Personally, I prefer Quadrophenia, but this is right behind it. Very, very strong. I think you'll like it.
I'm surprised you haven't already listened to Tommy, it's probably their most famous work.
My third least favorite Who album. It's not a bad record. Even Who Are You and It's Hard are not bad, average as they are. But this is kind of under produced nonsense. I never connected with Tommy the "concept". So I find it hard connecting with this album, thus also the music. And I don't think the various themes and characters come together incredibly well. Couple that with the lackluster production and oddities found and this is still a good record with much to offer. But true greatness it does not achieve, IMO. It's certainly not the masterwork many make it out to be. The review explains the story very well, and I just have to chuckle....I pretty much agree with the reviewer.This Message Edited On 04.20.06
I've got The Who at the Isle Of Wight DVD and it goes to show (even edited as it is on the DVD, a lot of the opera was chopped off) that Tommy is one hell of a thing to see live. Tommy definitely comes alive on stage.
The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow was actually the first recorded concept album/rock opera in the history of rock and roll itself. It beat Tommy by about 6 months.
In fact, lots of people claimed Townsend decided to leech off of the success of the growinug rock opera trend by creating Tommy, but this is usually disproven by the fact that he was a growing rock opera writer before S.F. Sorrow was even concieved(A Quick One, While He's Away/Rael)
And.. why the hell didn't you include songs like Go To The Mirror, Boy!, and Amazing Journey(Sparks)? Townsend and Daltrey said it themselves that if they could choose one song to sum up Tommy, it would have to be Amazing Journey.
As far as amazing goes, this album was absolutely groundbreaking. There are parts in Overture, AJ, Underture, Go To The Mirror, Boy!, Welcome, etc. that are absolutely astounding. While I'll admit that Quadrophenia was more complex and all-around better music-wise, remember that this was released four years before while The Who were just exiting their rebellious mod phase. And they weren't even close to the end of their 'singles' phase yet.
If I could choose to have one song sum up rock and roll, I'd have to deeply consider Sparks. You may not agree, but listen and see for yourself. This Message Edited On 05.31.06
He means rock opera. Never mind what came out first, this is the one (first off, that was sold as a 'rock opera', nobody called it that before The Who [I think I recall Pete saying that the term 'rock opera' was a joke in itself, sort of mocking how pretentious some rock albums were getting]) that made the rock opera a huge popular format for a rock album. Tommy showed people that it was possible to write an album that told a coherent story with excellent rock n' roll, and for it to be very popular.
I'd say Go To The Mirror is my favorite song on this album, though it's tough to call.