It was 53 years ago today — May 17th, 1969 — that the Who's double album rock opera Tommy was released. The work, which was conceived and primarily written by Pete Townshend, was based on a boy, Tommy Walker, who although born healthy is traumatized into an autistic state at the sight of his father murdering his mother's lover. Once rendered deaf, dumb, and blind, Tommy is abused by multiple outside forces and eventually becomes treated as a new messiah due to his flawless pinball prowess, which is seen as a sign of his divine spirituality and purity.
Back in 2013, Townshend shed light on his original idea and work process behind the original Tommy album back in 1968 and 1969, telling The Globe And Mail: “Originally in the story, pinball was not a part of the exercise. The boy was not deaf, dumb and blind except in clinical terms. He had been traumatized. . . I spoke to our manager, Kit Lambert, who was the son of Constant Lambert, and who knew about opera, who knew about music outside rock n' roll. And he was very encouraging of me to do something very audacious and grand that was challenging, and challenging in a way that would challenge our audience.”
He went on to say, “The only thing that is important is the audience. The only thing. And the message is from the audience to the stage, not the other way round. It's a strange mechanism, the one that underlies rock n' roll. The hero is not on the stage. So the hero is not Tommy. It's everybody in the audience. And I know that sounds like a pat cliche, but it happens to be true.”
That same year, Townshend told TheStar.com that due to the sexual abuse he suffered as a child, he needed to hand some of the more disturbing plot twists in the storyline to bassist John Entwistle to compose. Townshend explained, “(Uncle) Ernie isn't about specific sexual abuse, it's about the threat of it, the inference if it, the fear of it. I actually asked John Entwistle to write that one, because I couldn't deal with it. I'd had my own bad time with my grandmother. I had been eroticized at an early age and I'd had to learn to deal with.”
Townshend explained that dealing with such topics in his art was cathartic — but only to a point: “I found that this is something that is not unique to me. It's a worldwide syndrome. And I couldn't write about a purely spiritual journey. I had to deal with hideous social scars that touch all of us.”
When asked about what Tommy meant to him decades after writing the piece, Townshend said: “Sadly, not a lot has changed. There's still a sense that the family is in trouble, that the way religion operates is still in trouble, that the celebrity system is still in trouble and that all of these things. . . well, they're all the same. There's a poignancy to that. I think about my generation and think that it's sad that things were as they were.”
The Who's original Tommy album peaked at Number Four on the album charts. Ken Russell directed the 1975 film version of Tommy, which included a new score by Pete Townshend and starred Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, and Oliver Reed. The film also featured appearances by Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, and Elton John.
The Broadway version of The Who's Tommy ran for over two years on Broadway and won the Tony for director Des McAnuff's direction and Townshend's score, which tied with the score for Kiss Of The Spider Woman.
The Who performed Tommy in full throughout 1969 and 1970.
In response to the hit movie version, in 1975 and 1976, the Who reprised major portions of the album during their shows, and in 1989 performed most of it nightly on their 25th Anniversary reunion tour.
Tommy was re-released in 2013 as a “super deluxe” four-disc box set.
On the Who's current “Who Hits Back” tour, the band, with orchestration, opens the show with a set of Tommy material featuring “Overture,” “It's A Boy,” “1921,” Amazing Journey,” “Sparks,” “Pinball Wizard,” “We're Not Gonna Take It / “See Me, Feel Me.”
Roger Daltrey told us that he remains awed at how Who fans have continued to embrace the legendary rock opera over the decades: “It's wonderful to watch people's faces at the beginning of Tommy, because it is truly wonderful. Because it starts with an overture and I'm not singing, I can watch the audience a bit more than I usually do. And it is pure joy on. . . . It's been incredible, the reception this has had.”
Daltrey, who toured Tommy in 2018 with his solo band, is quick to stress that piece is actually the work of the Who — not just composer Pete Townshend: “I've treated it like a classic piece of work written by one composer; and obviously it's not, it's written by a group of people, Every bit of music on there is written by a group of people. Pete might've written the top lines of most of the songs, but all the little bits and intricacies that were all part of the group's character belong to the individuals in that group. But I've treated that as though it was one composer and treated it with that kind of respect. It's a very different animal than when the Who took it on the road.”
During a chat with renowned Who historian and author Matt Kent, Pete Townshend shed light on the primary elements that inspired what's considered among his and the Who's most groundbreaking and beloved works: “When I was making Tommy — about a year before I started to write it, I'd come across an Indian spiritual master, called Meher Baba, and started to read about his message and was very inspired by it. But all around in the time, pop at the time was a lot of acid, a lot of psychedelic drugs, a lot of psychedelic imagery — a lot of hippie stuff going on. I felt, if we could achieve anything; if I could achieve anything — if it had a spiritual subtext, it would straddle the world of pop in which we'd come and this new hippie world that seemed to be about new age values. . . And I felt that the pop song, in a way, was designed to deal with spiritual issues with young people. That, that was all it was about. Y'know, when people say, 'No. Pop music is for singing and dancing' — My response is 'Yes, well, hey, what could be more spiritual than that?'”
Out now on DVD, Blu-ray and CD is the Who's 'Tommy': Live At The Royal Albert Hall. Back on March 30th and April 1st, the band played the first complete performances of its 1969 rock opera in over 25 years, when Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey took to the stage to celebrate the 100th show performed for their patron charity, Teenage Cancer Trust at London's Royal Albert Hall.
Also out now on DVD and Blu-ray is Sensation: The Story Of The Who's Tommy. Townshend and Daltrey — along with archival interviews with the late-Keith Moon and John Entwistle — trace the band’s progress from being a top UK singles band as their live show begins to gain steam positioning them to finally to break them in the U.S. with their double album opus.