The Who Give Birth to Tommy
“Deaf, dumb and blind boy; he’s in a quiet vibration land; strange as it seems, his musical dreams ain’t quite so bad.” These opening lyrics to the song “Amazing Journey” summed up the story of rock’s preeminent operatic concept album. In 1969, the British band The Who delivered a double LP set that forced critics and fans alike to reassess the limitations previously affixed to the trappings of rock and roll and concur that the group’s work had legitimately molded a new art form in modern music. The Who had brought forth “Tommy,” a rock opera.
In 1966, Pete Townshend had dabbled a little with the idea of a “rock opera.” His ribald song “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” had a sense of operatic sweep. And in January 1968, when the album “The Who Sell Out” was released, a cut called “Rael (1 and 2),” which imagined the Red Chinese as world leaders in 1999, was a truncated version of a much broader-scoped idea he was unable to flesh out into operatic proportions.
The group had toured mercilessly throughout the years 1967 and 1968. They appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival and were the highest paid act to play the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Groupies, drugs and Keith Moon’s antics had dogged their reputation everywhere they went. Pete Townshend had a seriously bad trip on LSD during this period and felt the need to look elsewhere to heighten his awareness. When a journalist friend mentioned the teachings of an Indian spiritual guide named Meher Baba, Townshend delved into a mystical quest for inner peace and answers to the mysteries of life. Only Beatle George Harrison seemed as devoted as Townshend in seeking spiritual truths at this period of time in rock history.
Baba was born in Poona, India in 1894 and, through the course of several mystical events, came to see himself as the Original Enlightened Soul, a being that allegedly returns to our planet every 700 to 1,400 years to reawaken mankind to a higher path of spiritual awareness. In 1925, he took a vow of silence and remained speechless until his death in 1969. Baba “spoke” through the use of alphabet cards and hand gestures. The essence of his teachings were grounded in love, pure and simple. No rituals or ordained deeds were required of his followers. Just by loving him, one would presumably begin to recognize, live with, accept, and then diminish their own faults in life. Meher Baba’s best known phrase, “be happy, don’t worry,” was incorporated by singer Bobby McFerrin when he released the hit single of the same name in 1988.
Townshend has always been intellectual in his assessment of rock music and the generations that champion it. His music in the 1960s explored the adolescent themes of rebellion, distrust, and carefree nihilism that gripped, in particular, the “mods” and the “rockers” of his native England. As he came out of the grueling tour schedule in 1968, his take on the “underground” youth movement of the ‘60s was one of misguidedness. As much as they claimed to seek enlightenment, the young people of his day were instead caught up in the actions and hedonistic gains of the secular world to the same extent as those individuals they vociferously denounced. True spirituality, like the teachings he was reading from Baba, were alien to the peers around him. Through this enlightenment yearning, and his desire to please Baba, Townshend began to conceive a story, one that would eventually evolve into “Tommy.”
Kit Lambert, the band’s manager, brought much of the fuel to Townshend’s fire in creating his rock opera. Lambert, the son a classical composer, bombarded Pete with numerous notions and once they had the seeds of their story, he helped to cajole, shape, and bounce ideas off of Townshend and the band.
Townshend turned to the teachings of Baba for inspiration. As he related in “The Story of Tommy,” Townshend said, “Meher Baba talked of our lives being led in an ‘illusion;’ that we were dreaming; that reality was Infinite, and that we would realize that Infinity only through denying the lust, greed, and anger of the material world, through love, and starting our journey ‘back’ to God.” Since, according to Baba, our five senses tend to limit our minds to what is “real,” Townshend, in turn, thought someone with physical limitations of the senses would aptly reflect, symbolically, our society, in general, which is “trapped” in reality. He studied the work of Professor Nordoff, who worked with autistic children, helping to bring the youngsters out of their “trance-like” state with loving care and specifically with the aid of music. He began to see the lead character of his concept project as more severely handicapped, that is, being deaf, dumb and blind. “I always loved circus and freaks,” he related, somewhat sarcastically, in “The Story of Tommy,” “and the only group I ever produced, Thunderclap Newman, was another expression of this love of freaks who make it (Thunderclap Newman went on to release the hit single, “Something in the Air.”) The fallen raised up. I also nearly produced Tiny Tim.” He went on to say, “My idea was, that I would write a series of songs that flashed between the point of view of reality and the point of view of illusion, seen through the eyes of someone on the spiritual path, a young boy, and I called the basic idea ‘Amazing Journey.”
By May 1968, Townshend was firmly caught up in shaping a full-length narrative centered around these ideas. He confirmed it to Melody Maker magazine that month, saying “I’m working on an opera, which I did once before (“Rael”), and I am thinking of calling it ‘The Amazing Journey.’ I’ve completed some of it, and I’d like to put it on an LP. The theme is about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who has dreams and sees himself as ruler of the cosmos.”
In June, the band went back on the road to America for another 9 weeks of touring. Townshend continued to formulate his story, which he did not want to be overly pious or pompously pretentious. Unlike the studio wizardry of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” album, Townshend wanted his concept to be free of complicated engineering feats so that it would be able to be performed in concert hall venues. “What I wanted to do at that particular time was to be sort of musico-diplomatic,” he said in “The Story of Tommy.” “I wanted to hit everybody all at once. So I did, cautiously, put across a spiritual message because I did feel that I had learned a fantastic amount through my life and perhaps even through dope, which had led me to Baba, and I knew that Baba was something very special, and I wanted this all to be wound up. But at the same time, I wanted “Tommy” to be rock and roll, I wanted it to be like singles that you could pull out and play. You could pull out “I’m Free” and “Sensation” and they’d be good just as songs.”
“Tommy,” of course, still wasn’t named “Tommy” at this point. “The Amazing Journey,” “The Brain Opera,” and “Journey into Space” were all titles that were being bandied about. By the time The Who wrapped up the second of two shows at the Fillmore West in San Francisco on August 15, 1968, the title “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy” was the latest moniker for the piece. On this night, after the performance, Pete Townshend went to Jann Wenner’s home. Wenner, the owner and editor of Rolling Stone magazine, talked with Townshend throughout the night, and it was during this interview, that Pete felt his comments about the rock opera’s story truly solidified, shaping in his mind what the piece was going to be about. He conveyed that this deaf, dumb, and blind boy would perceive things as musical vibrations, music that would be interpreted in The Who’s songs. He talked about a scene in which the boy’s father would be talking to the kid, trying to reach the boy, and as the boy lays there unresponsive, the father would strike his child in a violent outbreak. Townshend said in the interview, “And the kid doesn’t catch the violence. He just knows that some sensation is happening. He doesn’t feel the pain, he doesn’t associate it with anything. He just accepts it.” The same complacent acceptance occurs when a perverted uncle “plays” with the boy. The boy just interprets the pedophilic intrusion as music. His self-imposed deaf, dumb, and blind isolation would be lending him spiritual harmony and a blissful, escapist world of imagination impervious to the violations of the outside world. Many listeners would misinterpret Townshend’s intentions during these song vignettes and translate them simply as cases where a handicapped boy is being tragically abused.
As for the pivotal moment when the boy would realize he has had his senses all along, and he rises to a higher plane of heightened awareness, Townshend acknowledged this transition would be a “difficult jump” to compose. “The music has got to explain what happens, that the boy elevates and finds something which is incredible. To us, it’s nothing to be able to see and hear and speak, but to him, it’s absolutely incredible and overwhelming; this is what we want to do musically.”
The name of Tommy, very commonplace in Britain as a “regular bloke”-sounding moniker, was now being used to refer to the central character. Townshend even put the mystical spin on the selection by mentioning that Tommy could be broken apart as “To Me,” positing some sort of spiritual slant. Whatever the reasoning, “Tommy” lurched forward at a more accelerated pace. On the way back from the West Coast, The Who stopped off in New York to play on the bill with The Doors at a concert. As The Doors performed their set, a female fan leapt upon the stage trying to get Jim Morrison’s attention. A bodyguard slugged her in the gut and sent her on her way, and Morrison apparently ignored the whole episode. Townshend, watching from the wings, made a mental note of this event, and fashioned the song “Sally Simpson,” which told of a female fan getting hurt trying to make a connection with Tommy at an appearance, for his new rock opera.
Back in England, the band gave Pete Townshend and Kit Lambert the space they needed to mold the piece into a coherent, plausible narrative. A song Townshend had written about a very spiritual girl he’d met in Australia, with the line “she’s a sensation” was switched to “I’m a sensation.” Thus, the song “Sensation” became one of the pivotal tunes portraying Tommy’s awareness of his heightened senses above those of the society around him. Townshend had also written a song that was an anti-authoritarian diatribe, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and he incorporated this tune as the anthem of rejection Tommy’s followers chant at the end of the story. Two other songs, “Welcome” and “I’m Free” had originally been conceived as straightforward examples of his love and devotion to Meher Baba but were also placed into the Tommy opera.
The rock opera became reality as the band began recording tracks in November 1968. On the simplest of summaries, the concept told of a boy who is born during World War I while his father is off fighting for England. When the father returns, he ostensibly discovers his wife with a lover. Something horrible occurs (during the song “1921”) which is never described, but presumably, the lover is murdered by the parents in front of their boy. Telling the boy, “you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing to no-one, ever in your life,” the parents effectively send him into his own shell. He withdraws, becoming deaf, dumb and blind in “a quiet vibration land” where he takes an amazing journey with a bearded guide (Meher Baba perhaps?). In this world he is unreachable. A magic healer comes in contact with Tommy’s situation. Tommy is oblivious to Christmas celebrations and its very meaning. A babysitting cousin abuses him. A pusher/prostitute tries to draw him out. A perverted uncle “fiddles” with him. A pinball champion battles the boy, who is mysteriously proficient at the game. A doctor tells his parents that the boy’s “eyes can see, his ears can hear, his lips speak,” that the boy is fully capable of reacting to their pleas. The boy’s only outward sense is when he stares at himself in a mirror. His reflection is interpreted by him as god-like. When his mother smashes the mirror, Tommy’s senses are heightened to a point that everyone sees him as a “messiah.” He appears before the masses like a rock star. A fan is injured when she tries to make contact with him. Tommy proselytizes his experiences to the masses. At his holiday camp, the followers are harangued to give up their vices, to experience sense deprivation, and they revolt, leaving Tommy alone.
The group spent six months in the studio, an uncommon amount of time for most bands in the late ‘60s. Kit Lambert pushed to incorporate orchestrations into the album, but the band felt it needed to be a true “rock” concept and dismissed any attempts Lambert had at using any outside musicians. The Who’s record label, Decca, had been informed by the band that the next album they were to receive would be ready by Christmas 1968, but they obviously could not rush this new, daring experiment. A tour had already been booked for the end of April 1969, so the group worked overtime to try to complete the double album before that date. As the studio costs escalated, the members of The Who would oftentimes spend half their sessions just talking about the direction each song, each lyric, each nuance of the opera needed to head in.
In an effort to placate a prominent rock critic who was an avid pinball player, Townshend introduced Tommy’s innate pinball abilities while the group was in the midst of recording. He wrote “Pinball Wizard” very quickly, not confident it would fit into the overall piece, but the band loved it. With its musical pings and bells, the pinball machine worked cleverly with the notion that Tommy’s deaf, dumb, and blind world was sensitive to musical vibrations.
When Townshend was stumped over how to present a unique “religious” setting for Tommy’s new converts, drummer Keith Moon came up with the idea of a holiday camp instead of a church surrounding. Bassist John Entwistle contributed significantly to the nasty lyrics associated with “Uncle Ernie” and “Cousin Kevin.”
Townshend’s allusions to the teachings of Meher Baba were evident throughout the albums. When Tommy’s mother smashes the mirror, Tommy’s “miracle cure” pushes him to the level of spiritual guide, and he starts his own organized “religion,” making specific demands upon his followers. This scenario is in direct contrast to what Baba advocated in that no one should follow a hierarchical organization of religion. When Tommy tells his followers to stop drinking and smoking pot, both tenets are recognized as consistent with the ways of Baba.
Many fans and critics have debated the exact meaning Townshend was implying at the end of the opera. After the disciples sing “we’re not gonna take it,” Tommy chimes in with the lines “listening to you, I get the music; gazing at you, I get the heat; following you, I climb the mountain; I get excitement at your feet.” These verses are the same ones Tommy has said when he looked at himself in the mirror. Some people presume that Tommy is left alone at the end, shattered, babbling to the heavens. Townshend presumably saw this ending as Tommy’s way of returning everybody back to their former selves. They tried to follow him, but they fell short on being able to learn from him and grasp his true message. Tommy realizes he can’t be their god and that they are never going to be “complete.” This alligns with Baba’s teachings that Man is never truly complete, and thus, that is the very essence of Infinity. Tommy’s ultimate purpose, therefore, is to look upon his followers, as they retreat from him, with love and understanding, seeing them as part of the overall “incomplete” plan. He’s now listening to them, getting the music from them, not from the god he saw in the mirror, which was himself. Of course, it is a piece of music. Music can be interpreted in many ways, so the listener is free to come up with his or her own conclusions.
In the end, because of cost cutting needs exacerbated from the record label’s tightening budget, Lambert’s production technique and the quality of the studio, IBC, was not flattering to the important historical significance of this music milestone. The album’s overall sound was muted and not as multi-layered as it could have been. Time constraints were a factor, of course, but it is a fact that the band was not entirely happy with the production outcome of their effort. Nonetheless, The Who had fashioned a true rock masterpiece. It told a coherent story, it had standout single songs, and it connected with Townshend’s original vision for a spiritual message. Roger Daltrey’s commanding vocal gymnastics led listeners on the amazing journey, and he truly became Tommy throughout the piece. Rock had given birth to the long-form concept album.
The Who played the entire opera in concert in Dolton, England on April 22, 1969. “Pinball Wizard” was released as a single around this time and immediately went to number 4 on the U.K. charts. They then performed the opera at an official press gathering at London’s Ronnie Scott club in early May. Shortly thereafter, on May 9th, the band began a tour of the U.S. in Detroit, Michigan. Finally, on May 23, 1969, “Tommy,” the double album itself, was released. The BBC banned the record, as did several other radio outlets, perceiving the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” in the songs made a mockery of handicapped children. Townshend retorted, “The kid is having terrible things done to him, because that’s life as it is. In fact, what I was out to show is that someone who has suffered terribly at the hands of society has the ability to turn all these experiences into a tremendous musical awareness. Sickness is in the mind of the listener, and I don’t give a damn what people think.”
The Who’s tour took them to ballrooms and theatres, but did not include arenas or stadiums. By August they were truly exhausted. The band virtually were coerced into appearing at the Woodstock festival on August 16th. They took a short break and then continued performing “Tommy” sporadically through November 1969. At the turn of 1970, The Who performed their conceptual album in the opera houses of London, Paris, Copenhagen, Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin, Amsterdam, and finally, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
In the summer of 1972, an orchestral presentation of the rock opera was proposed. Subsequently, the band worked with guest artists, as well as with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir, and an album was issued featuring this collaborated effort. By the end of 1973, director Ken Russell was hired to shoot a film version of the rock opera. Townshend laid down new tracks featuring actors from the film, primarily Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed, and Roger Daltrey took the part of Tommy. The film was released in March 1975. At the time, Townshend hated the film, which reduced the story to high camp and overheated melodrama. As with all things “Tommy,” his opinion, as well as those of his bandmates on their crowning achievement would waver over the next two decades.
“Tommy” was interpreted by the Royal Canadian Ballet. It was released in a synthesizer opus called “Electric Tommy.” The piece was even arranged for college bands everywhere as “Marching Tommy.” The Who’s successful rock opera opened the door for people like Andrew Lloyd Webber to concoct heavy-handed musical interpretations of the life of Christ and the Phantom of the Opera. Artists like Rick Wakeman and Pink Floyd owe a certain amount of debt to this conceptual forebear.
Although “Tommy” is seen as a true milestone in the annals of rock history, time has sometimes not made the heart grow fonder. Pete Townshend thoroughly dissed his accomplishment in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview: “I suppose the mistake I made in “Tommy” was instead of having the guts to take what Meher Baba said – which was ‘Don’t worry, be happy, leave the results to God’ – and repeating that to people, I decided the people weren’t capable of hearing that directly. They’ve got to have it served in this entertainment package. And I gave them “Tommy” instead, in which some of Meher Baba’s wonderfully explicit truths were presented to them half-baked in lyric form and diluted as a result. In fact, if there was any warning in “Tommy,” it was ‘Don’t make any more records like that.”
However disagreeable he appeared towards his rock opera, Townshend and his bandmates decided after their January 1989 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to re-form and perform the album once again. On June 27, 1989, The Who performed “Tommy” onstage at Radio City Music Hall in New York for the first time in 19 years. They churned through the material in a little over an hour’s time. Afterwards, Pete grumbled, “’Tommy’ is very flawed…It doesn’t hang together very well,” and Roger Daltrey said, “It’s a bit laborious.” Nevertheless, the band went on to perform it in its entirety in Los Angeles with an all-star cast, featuring artists like Elton John, Patti Labelle, and Billy Idol. Both concerts benefited the Nordoff-Robbins Research Foundation, the very same professor whose research Townshend had found inspiration for “Tommy” in its musical/medical applications for autistic patients 20 years before.
Townshend either had another change of heart concerning his rock opera, or he relished the dollar signs he would reap when he and director Des McAnuff collaborated on a theatrical stage version of “Tommy” in the early ‘90s. With over two dozen slide projectors, 30 foot wide screens, numerous video control computers, and over 20 tons of scenery and equipment, “Tommy” opened to critical and audience praise on Broadway in 1993. While the story’s ending was made a little more family friendly (Tommy goes back to his mom and dad and everything’s hunky-dory), the essential themes of misguided messiah worship and heightened awareness still hummed through the subtext of the splashy stage presentation.
With a mediocre box office turnout for the band’s 1996-1997 concert renditions of their follow-up rock opera “Quadrophenia,” The Who, seemingly to the millenium generation, may finally be perceived as treading on the downward curve of their career. Time will only tell how future rockers respond to raucous call-to-arms like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “My Generation.” But with its many incarnations continually springing forth with an always-relevant message, their crowning achievement of “Tommy” may ultimately serve to outlive the legacy of the band itself.
© 2000 Ned Truslow