‘Generation’. A word that encompasses, perhaps, the defining era for legendary British rock band The Who, and yet the irony lies in how wrong that should be.
I have only recently started listening to the four British boys, crawling through the Pinball-shaped rabbit hole like so many others, but now I think I’ve truly realized their gem. The thing that should have made them far more memorable than ‘My Generation’ or a tune about arcade machines.
In 1969, only a year after the seminal White Album was released by fellow Brits The Beatles, another experimental collection of curious tracks was released, this time by The Who. And its name was, simply, Tommy. The concept was simple: a thirty-track (the very same total as the eponymous Beatles’ record) concept-album that doubled as a pure, raw rock-opera for the masses. Following the story of a ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ kid who happens to be amazing at Pinball for some reason (in reality, the record company didn’t like the idea of a rock opera at first from the previously (relatively) standard rock band, and so they agreed to take it on based entirely on whether legendary Who guitarist – and chief songwriter – Pete Townshend could write a song about Pinball.), Tommy is a bizarre adventure, an odyssey into the brain and humanity, and how sometimes we need to break ourselves out of norms and live as we should be: free.
There’s no real way to explain such an odd album other than going through it, track-by-track. This might take a while so bear with me, but, naturally, a good handful of these tunes are no more than scraps of dialogue thirty-seconds long, used just to keep the narrative going. Remember, Townshend and (amazing) singer, Roger Daltrey, have to keep this back-and-forth between an entire ensemble of characters, spanning an entire play. It’s a rock-opera. It’s a performance, a story, made up of nothing but songs. Even its 1975 adaptation onto the big screen, ‘Tommy – The Movie’, featured no dialogue other than the aforementioned filler tracks.
And so, strap yourself in and prepare for a ride that reaches from the pure happiness of human nature all the way to its darkest depths. A story of religion, abuse and, most importantly, a damn good amount of Pinball.
Tommy begins with a track entitled, ‘Overture’, a five-minute sequence of trumpets and triumphant melodies used to prepare your body for the Heaven and Hell it’s about to go through. In case you think I’m making this album sound far more cryptic than it needs to be, I’m not. This grand piece finally comes to a stop, dropping back down to earth with a thirty-second vocal from Townshend, telling us that a boy has been born to a ‘Mrs. Walker’. This is where the real story of young Tommy begins.
‘1921’ is a point-of-view from Mrs. Walker and her lover (in the movie adaptation, it is shown that Tommy’s real father, a pilot in the war, has seemingly died, only to return later, finding her wife in bed with this new man from a holiday camp. The lover kills Tommy’s father, and the boy watches it all. It is unknown in the album how much of this is still true – though of course the wars had not happened yet, one should bear in mind), remarking on how this year is going to be a very good year together. However, as Tommy’s real father comes back into the picture off-screen and is killed by the lover, we learn that Tommy, the ‘boy’ chanted about here, has seen it all. His new parents drop to their knees and tell him he ‘…didn’t hear it, didn’t see it, how absurd it’d sound without any proof’, seemingly triggering some amount of unprecedented trauma in Tommy. This event throws the young child into a state of permanent existence as deaf, mute, and blind.
Another fully-charged automobile of ecstasy-induced chord progressions slams into us next, in the form of ‘Amazing Journey’, supposedly an insight into the mind of Tommy after his parents completely mess up his mental state. He talks about ‘this Amazing Journey, together we’ll ride’ several times over this exciting – almost crass – upbeat segment, before pulling in to ‘Sparks’. Supposedly (it’s relatively unclear in an instrumental, as you can imagine), this tune is about Tommy coming to the dawning revelation that the world around him can be perceived as music, though quite how he does this being deaf remains unclear – I’ll be saying that a lot over this review.
The bluesy cover (The only such on Tommy), ‘Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker)’ is our next stop, and it tells the story of a desperate mother. Mrs. Walker, uncertain of what to do with her now-traumatized child, takes the boy to a pimp named, well, ‘The Hawker’ (in the movie adaptation, he is, indeed, the leader of a cult that worships Marilyn Manson. He’s also Eric Clapton, so there’s that) who believes a girl of his might be able to cure Tommy for good. It may be a cover, but the Who’s version is both faithful to the original and its own thing. And it sounds so great, it’s actually a highlight of the album for me.