Review Summary: Come on the (not so) amazing journey
Pete Townsend has always been a bit of an innovator. From essentially creating the genre of power pop, to incorporating feedback and strong power chords into his work, Townsend was eager to experiment further. After first meeting the Meher Baba, Townsend attempted to translate his teacher's preaching into music. He crafted a story of a boy who is blind, deaf and mute. The Who had flirted with conceptual songs before on their second album 'A Quick One', and their entire third album 'The Who Sell Out' was Based around the concept of a radio broadcast. The closer on that track 'Rael' was the group's first attempt at a serious full album story, though the idea fell through and the suite was cut down to 5 minutes. But now, Townsend was ready to take on a whole album with his story. 6 arduous months later, The Who had finished Tommy. Released to massive commercial and critical acclaim, Tommy is sometime's regarded as the Who's best work and one of the greatest albums of all time. But is it really though" Let's take a look at this sprawling double album beast and see if the story of a blind, deaf and dumb boy still strikes a chord today.
Musically, Tommy sounds like their previous LP, though now backed with horns and some strings. Tommy isn't a record that attempts to break any ground and be incredibly experimental and unique sonically. The group played it safe and worked with what they knew best, a sound that could be easily replicated on stage. Most songs stick to a brisk 3-4 minute pace though there are exceptions. The lengthy instrumental 'Underture' which ends Side 2 breaks a good 9 minutes and cycles through several motifs found through the album and the closer 'We're Not Gonna Take It' clocks in at around 7 minutes is basically three tracks rolled into one. The band is on point as per usual, with Keith Moon's famous fills complimenting nearly all the tracks, good guitar and bass accompaniment by Townsend and John Entwistle and a powerful vocal performance by Roger Daltrey. The use of horns enhances a few of the album's tracks, notably the incredibly bizarre and uncomfortable 'Fiddle About' which features a booming horn riff, performed by Entwistle and the opener 'Overture'. There's some lovely group harmony on the track 'Tommy, Can You Hear Me"' And the frequent reoccurring gem 'See Me, Feel Me'. Other than that, it's the group's basic Late 60s sound with reverb soaked acoustics and heavy drums. This may seem good but there's a catch though. Due to Tommy being a concept album, there is indeed a heavier focus on story and lyrics than music here and the record suffers greatly due to that. A lot of the tracks here feel flat and weak, compared to the group's usual ferocity. Everything feels lesser here. Keith's drums are there and as brutal as ever but they sound tinny and weak, along with the dreary organ tracks on the album. While this is just as much as a fault in production, the vocals are front and centre here oddly bar a few tracks including the hit single 'Pinball Wizard', 'Sally Simpson' and 'Go To The Mirror!' I can't help but feel this was intentional, to have the listener's focus on the words rather than the music here.
That would be understandable and acceptable if the lyrics on here were amazing but, I digress. Lyrically, Tommy is messy. Very messy. While Townsend gets the idea of the story across (somewhat), this is a case of someone having too many ideas (or too little material depending on what way you look at it). The songs all tell a narrative with band members voice characters or Daltery singing about an event in the story. This comes off two ways. Sometimes its powerful and emotional ('See Me, Feel Me', 'Christmas', 'Pinball Wizard') and sometimes its cringy, bizarre and laughable ('There's A Doctor', 'Fiddle About', 'Tommy's Holiday Camp'). Tommy is a record crammed with filler. There's a good number of tracks here that can be deleted from the record that wouldn't affect the story at all. The songs 'Cousin Kevin', 'Fiddle About' and 'Sally Simpson' are all detours that serve nothing to increase the album's plot besides showing that (in the first two's case), people are dicks and in the latter case, don't believe the hype. Tommy is a confusing mess of a story. For some bizarre reason, Townshend decided to keep parts of the plot intentionally vague on a story focused album, making the whole thing, already a confusing idea, even more absurd. The story begins in the 1910s where Mrs Walker's husband goes off to fight in the war. She gives birth to his son, which she names Tommy and then discovers he is KIA. She finds a new lover and has him round only for Tommy's blood father to return, not quite dead and kills the new lover in rage. The young Tommy witnesses the whole event in the reflection of a mirror and is told that he "didn't see it, didn't hear it" and "won't say nothing to anybody". The boy goes blind, deaf and mute as a result and the following remaining three sides chronicle his popularity, his recovery, his fame and his downfall.
Like I previously mentioned, Townsend favoured story of music here so Tommy has a couple of what I call 'Plot tracks' to get the story going with very limited music. The absolutely pointless 12 second *** about 'Miracle Cure' and songs like 'There's A Doctor!' And 'Tommy's Holiday Camp' exist purely to progress the already confusing plot and ironically the story makes just as much without them there. Some ideas and plot points show up only to never be mentioned again, such as Cousin Kevin who appears purely to torture Tommy and then buggers off for the rest of the album and The Acid Queen shows up for one song, gives Tommy LSD and hits the road never to be mentioned again. This is where Tommy fails the most. It's the case of an album that has too many ideas, so they're all crammed into the record, or too little, so a bunch of filler is placed along side it. I think Townsend knew deep down too that the story led concept was a bringing his music down and attempted to change this on the band's followup album 'Lifehouse' which got canned when Townshend's surreal story ideas finally proved too much for the band to grasp, and 'Qaudrophenia' which managed to blend quality instrumentation with a story, without bringing down the album to strong success.
Overall, Tommy is an album with good ideas and music, but it's bogged down by a bizarre story, more focus on plot than actual music and odd production in some spots. There are moments of brilliance that shine through occasionally, and when the album is good it's REALLY good. While it has its flaws, I consider it an important part of The Who's history. Not as an amazing point, but a lesson. A lesson in crafting a story and an album. They saw the faults and improved them in later records and for that I applaud Tommy. Not because it's great, but because it helped.
Go To The Mirror!
We're Not Gonna Take It
See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You
'I ain't seen nothin like him in any amusement hall, that deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball' - Pinball Wizard
'They worship me and all I touch
Hazy eyed they catch my glance,
Pleasant shudders shake their senses
My warm momentum throws their stance' - Sensation
'Listening to you, I get the music. Gazing at you, I get heat. Following you, I climb the mountains. I get excitement at your feet' - See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You