Popular Culture (Music) 20110603: Tommy Part I

(9 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

In 1969, the seminal Tommy was released by The Who.  Track Records, The Who’s own brand, in collaboration with Polydoor was the UK record company, and in the United States Decca was.  I have a mint Decca one.  It was billed as the first rock opera, but it actually was not.  There had been at least a couple before Tommy came to us.

Not counting the composition effort (by far the bulk of it by Pete Townshend), it took the better part of year to record, edit, and redub the work.  This was Kit Lambert, their producer, at his finest, and also extremely fine efforts by all of the band and the production and engineering staff.  It is truly a masterpiece.

Before we go any further, let me say that I consider this to be the band’s finest work.  Please do not get me wrong, I love all of the albums by the original band, and most of the ones after Keith left us.  Quadrophenia was excellent, there is no doubt.  Who’s Next probably was the epitome of the abilities of all of the band members, but it was really just a derivative of Lifehouse, which never came to completion during the lifetimes of Keith and John.  However, I find Quadrophenia to be somewhat overproduced, thus detracting from its charm, at least for me.  I really do not want to get into a “no, this one is better!” argument.  This is a matter of personal preference, not science.  I like the rawness of Tommy over the refinement of Quadrophenia, because The Who cut their teeth in rawness.  We may discuss this in the comments, but let us please not argue over it.

I am not going to go into the ideas in Pete’s head when composing the album, because there are many interviews with him that explain it in his own words.  Nor will I go into what the critics think about the record.  However, I shall go into my feelings about it, and hope that you share yours in the comments.  Most if not all of you know that I am a geek, so let us look into the history of rock operas that predated Tommy.

As far as I can tell, the term was first put in print on 19660704, in a reference to a work that Bruce Cockburn and William Hawkins were composing.  That was never released, and I do not know if even the composition was ever completed.  Around the same time, a rather obscure band called The Who released in the UK a record called A Quick One (in the US a slightly different album titled Happy Jack was its counterpart), with the final tracks being a cohesive set of compositions that very much resemble what we now call a rock opera.  I have written extensively about this work in earlier installments of this series, so use your mouse (AFTER Comment Time, please!) to examine them.  That pretty much at least ties The Who with Cockburn and Hawkins for precedence for the genre, if not the term.

In 1967, the Italian Tito Schipa, Jr. glued together a bunch of Dylan songs into a coherent theme, so there might be some merit to his claim, but A Quick One was before it, but not billed as a rock opera.  In 1967 Nirvana (the UK band) released The Story of Simon Simopath which probably qualifies as a rock opera.  Mad Birds Of Prey by the Canadian band Influence was also released that year, as was Miss Butters by The Family Tree in 1968.  Also in 1968 S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things, a front band who really were Jagger and Richards of The Rolling Stones was released.  Do you remember any of them, except for A Quick One?  I did not think so, except for you Stones fans.  Before someone calls me out on this, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a Beatles release from 1967 is a concept album, much like The Who Sell out from the same year.  Whilst both of those records tell a series of stories, they are not operatic in the sense that a single story is linked together.

Then in April of 1969, the music world changed.  The Who released Tommy, and nothing was ever the same.  I know that I have used a lot of words for this series, but background is important.  Without further ado, let us listen to the studio version of Overture, from Tommy.  It is wonderful.  Listen to the acoustic guitar by Pete, near his peak at the time.  The punctuation by John with French horn is pretty awesome as well.  Please enjoy!

For the purposes of this piece, all of the composition was by Pete, and any exceptions will be noted.  Is that fair?

This is also the longest piece with John playing French horn about which I am aware.  The Hammond organ (we could argue if it is a B-3 or a B-2, but probably will not know for sure) with its Leslie speaker adds lots of effect.  This piece probably did more to establish Pete as a virtuoso on acoustic guitar than anything.  But you know that I like live pieces, especially if there is video with it.  Entwistle said some time later that the studio version was painful, and that Tommy was really meant to performed live.  Let us see what we can find on the good old You Tubes.

Oh, Man!  I found a live version that I have NEVER seen before!  Now you know why I love doing research for this series.  In this one, Pete says something that I never considered before, but I think to be true.  Pete calls Keith the “conductor” of the band.  That is actually quite accurate.  I often called him the soul of the band, but in musical terms, “conductor” is much more apt.  That explains why, as good as he was, Kenny Jones did not fit in well.  When Zak Starkey joined, they once again had a Keith Moon style conductor.  I should have picked up on that decades ago, but one can not think of everything.  I am not ashamed to say that tears are flowing as my understanding of the dynamics of the band become more clear.

For sake of not overdoing bandwidth, I shall not add any more Overture live shots.  We have a LONG way to go.  That was a nice video, though.

The next song was It’s a Boy.  This is interesting because there is a very obscure song by The Who that uses essentially the same movements to say It’s a Girl.  I leave it to you dear readers to hash it out here.  The point is that Tommy would not have worked with a female protagonist in the late 1960s, but could very well work now.  We have come a very, very long way.  Here is the studio version:

Personally, I believe that it is the finishing part of The Overture, but on the original record it is credited as a separate piece.  It might have to do with royalties, but I am not certain.

Here is Glow Girl, (not to be confused with Glittering Girl) released on Odds and Sods, to be explicated in a future installment of this series.  Listen closely to the ending words.  Since it appears to have been written in 1967, my antennae sort of perk.  Please tell me what you think.

In any event, the next song was not associated with any other.  It is 1921, and that goes with the theme of Tommy as being a child of a World War I veteran.    I am not sure why Pete chose WWI, but can speculate that WWII might have been too close to him, being born at about the time, and so little history have been written as he became of age.  This is only speculation by me, and perhaps he even used WWI as an allegory for WWII.  I would love to interview him on this subject.

This is on the surface a very uplifting song, but has extremely dark thought tendrils running through it.  The new man and the widow are starting to make a new life, and that part is optimistic.  The rest is just extremely dark.  I can rarely listen to it, let alone write about it, without becoming quite emotional.  In the movie (more about it later) they explicitly show Captain Walker being killed by the new couple when he finally returned home, but it is only implied in the original album.  Here is the studio version of 1921:

The stepdad HATED Tommy!  Listen very carefully and you can hear the first of Daltrey’s singing, in counterpoint to Pete’s.  I was extremely blessed NOT to have parents like these.

Now for a live one:

This is one from the Isle of Wight concert, and better video is now available, but I like this one for being raw.  I looked at many live performances, and could not find one with Pete singing the main part and Roger the back part.  If any of you can post one with Pete taking the lead, please do so.

Next on the album was The Amazing Journey, one of Daltrey’s very best vocals anywhere.  The next song, Sparks, in an instrumental that generally is thought of as a continuation of The Amazing Journey, so we will treat them together.  Here are the studio versions:

Here is a marvelous live version of the two songs.  Daltrey’s voice sounds just a bit tired, but still wonderful.  More notable is the outstanding bass, much more complex than on the studio album, that Entwistle plays.  This is from 1970, and Moon was on the top of his game at that time.  I think that I could argue pretty convincingly that at the time he was the best rock and roll drummer in the world.  Note also that they were using their Hiwatt sound system, designed especially for them.

The last song of the first side is Eyesight to the Blind, this tune written by Sonny Boy Williamson.  It fits so well with the rest of Tommy that it is an obvious inclusion.  Here is the studio version:

And here is a live one, from the same concert as some of the previous videos, Tanglewood from 1970.

For historical reference, here is the studio version recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson in 1951:

The first song on the second side is one of my all time favorites, Christmas.  Townshend’s wordcrafting skills are evident here.  Listen very closely how he wrotes and Daltrey masterfully sang,

“Did you ever see the faces of the children, they get all excited!

Waking up on Christmas morning hours before the winter sun’s ignited!

They believe in dreams and all they mean including heaven’s generosity!

Peeping ’round the door to see what parcels are for breeding curiosity!”

To me, that is just brilliant.  Here is the studio version:

Here is the Tanglewood version.  Even though Daltrey’s voice is still a bit off, I like these videos because they show lots of Entwistle and Moon, and they do not get enough camera time.

The next song, Cousin Kevin, is very dark.  An Entwistle piece, it is one of two Entwistle songs on the record, and the other is very dark as well.  Entwistle also does the bulk of the singing.  I could not find a decent live version (if someone does, please post it in the comments), so the studio one is all you get.

Here is a song about which most people are familiar.  It was originally slated to be on Tommy, but was dropped during editing.  It is noteworthy for being one of the longest songs that was sung predominately by Moon.  It is interesting in that it was Moon’s persona that was Cousin Kevin, NOT Uncle Ernie like in the movie.  Generally accepted to be written by Townshend, it is called Cousin Kevin Model Child.  As far as I know it was never performed live, but here is the studio version:

Following that is the famous The Acid Queen, sung by Tina Turner in the motion picture, for which I have little use.  The studio version, here, was sung by Townshend.

Here is a live version from the very good Isle of Wight performance from 1970.  Daltrey’s voice is in better shape than it was at Tanglewood.  Before The Acid Queen, another rendition of Christmas appears.

Finally, the last track on side two is Underture.  Townshend has a pretty good sense of humor, and since it is HIS opera it gets both an overture and an underture.  I am cool with that!  Here is the studio version.  Note that it is an adaptation of the instrumental part of Rael that we discussed when I wrote the piece about The Who Sell Out.

Here is a live version, audio only.  Not too bad.  Underture does not actually start until about a minute and a half into it.

Finally, here is some insight to how Townshend made his intentions clear to the rest of the band after writing songs.  He would go to the studio and record the songs himself, playing all instruments and doing the vocals.  Then he would play them for the rest of the band to give them the general idea.  The other three would then take his germ of an idea and add their own distinctiveness to it, making it sound like The Who.  There is actually a series of releases of these demos by Townshend that goes by the name of Scoop and variations thereof.  Here is the demo for The Acid Queen and a little bit of Underture.

Next week we shall start with side three.  If anyone has other videos, particularly early live performances, please add them to the comments.  I intentionally did not include anything for the movie because the quality is much lower than when just the band themselves performed.  Ann-Margret singing Christmas just does not do it for me, although I thought the scene where she was swimming in baked beans was a nice reference to The Who Sell Out.  Please join us for the discussion in the comments.

Warmest regards,



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  1. one of the most significant albums ever?

    Warmest regards,


  2. I can play that.

    I have noticed that it kind of vibrates your internal organs, probably due to the position you hold it.

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