(If you haven’t done so already, read Part 1 of this review where “Tommy” is introduced, and the context in which it was created is detailed)
The album had 20 tracks. It was the first double album the band had released. The operatic connection was made evident through a formal overture and an “underture” which was mostly the extension of a theme called “Sparks”, also featured on the album and derived from a chord pattern found on “Rael” from the previous record.
Highlights included “Pinball Wizard” (the first single from the album) and “See Me, Feel Me”, a prayer sent to the most private space within the soul of every listener, a pronunciation of faith and endearment like no other within their repertoire. Other songs which merit mentioning are “The Acid Queen” and “I’m Free”, both very fine rockers. (“I’m Free” was to be released as a single too, and some time later an orchestrated version would be a minor hit.)
All the characters were handled by The Who, and a libretto was part of the package so that everything would be more accessible and understandable (it wasn’t, but that was another matter altogether). Most importantly, not a single session musician was featured – Pete handled keyboards, John took care of every horn, and the album had a somehow streamlined sound that turned into a distinctive advantage: Tommy was a phenomenal stage piece.
That was the main merit of Tommy, if you ask me. Conceptual music back then was something relegated to the studio, and something which under no circumstance could be replicated live. The Who broke that barrier, and Tommy was not only reproducible on a stage, but it was actually something which gained preeminence there. The sound of the record is too soft, and there are even compositions that rely on acoustic guitars like “Welcome”. The mix was also not that good, owing to Lambert’s lack of studio dexterity. Live, it was a different story, and one worth listening to every single time. Pick up the “Live At The Isle Of Wight” album for a definitive rendering of Tommy. The original studio album is good any way you look at it. But it is only when you listen to Tommy live (and performed by the original lineup on its own, not with a hundred bit players on the background) that you can realize why it had such an impact.
As I said, the songs came from sources ranging far and wide. A gig with The Doors which ended up in tumult inspired “Sally Simpson”, “It’s A Boy” was recycled from a song of Pete named “Glow Girl”, “Sensation” was about a fan he met while The Who toured Australia with The Small Faces… If it doesn’t click, if it all doesn’t fit snuggly side to side it is because the sources were not really something which could be consolidated. Leaving aside his spiritual awakening, Pete was making a statement about the culture he was part of, and that bred him. The culture that he once played to at The Marquee club, where The Who “led by following”, and the culture which was beginning to lose its innocence and the connection with its performers. The Manson murders were around the corner. So was Woodstock. So was Altamont. So were Pete’s identity crisis and nervous breakdowns. What was he playing for? What was the purpose of The Who in a world that was losing its artistic integrity and values, not to mention the qualities that make people humane to begin with?
Ultimately, “Tommy” was too imbued in its original timeframe for us to be able to understand now (40 years down the line) why songs about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who played pinball and then became a divinity could have such a resonance. We have lost far too much frailty, and nothing can remedy that. And I don’t listen to Tommy very often. Not because it is bad. It is not bad. It is good on first listens, and once you realize what surrounded its inception and how that found its way into vinyl it becomes even better. But it speaks about values that Western society does not believe in now, and it makes me sad to realize that as human beings we have lost a part of ourselves that we can not hope to recover. That part is found within Tommy. It is found there, but we can not retrieve it no matter what we do. And realizing how far we have come and how little we have advanced as human beings is not something I cherish doing that often.