Sunday, July 25, 2010

May 23, 2009: Revisiting Tommy on its 40th Birthday

I’ve long been more of a fan of “Tommy the album” than “Tommy the rock opera,” “Tommy the motion picture,” “Tommy the London Symphony orchestra performance,” “Tommy the musical,” or “Tommy the breakfast cereal.” Released 40 years ago today, the Who’s pioneering rock opera has been a lot tougher to love than it has been to avoid. This is unfortunate because Pete Townshend and producer Kit Lambert’s mad scheme to pump a pop record up into a long-form narrative really was pretty innovative, and groups ranging from Hüsker Dü to Green Day to the Decemberists have since taken a ride on the rock opera gravy train. Be that as it may, “Tommy the rock opera” suffers in my opinion because the story is unapproachable, and Rock & Roll at its most wonderful is usually approachable. As weird as The Who Sell Out had been, it’s a lot easier for a listener to laugh along with a parody of a baked beans commercial than it is to, say, comprehend a holiday camp established by the huckstering, child-molesting uncle of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball messiah.

That being said, Tommy delivered the goods when it came to what Townshend and the Who always did best: composing and bashing out exhilarating three minute-pop/rock songs with ferocious rhythms and heavenly harmonies. Your “Pinball Wizards” and your “Acid Queens” aside, there are a lot of incredible songs on Tommy that tend to get buried beneath the hype and hoopla of the record’s pretentious concept. Well, I’m here to dig those tracks out and lay them on your plate, Jack. Here are my five favorite songs from Tommy:

“1921”: In his book Before I Get Old, Who biographer Dave Marsh wrote that “1921” is the worst song the Who ever recorded. Well, he is wrong. “One Life’s Enough” on It’s Hard is the worst song the Who ever recorded. “1921” is a lovely track that may be heavy on the exposition (the reason Marsh hates it), but it is a perfectly structured pop song with a nice call-and-response chorus. Granted, the subject of the song is ridiculous (Tommy is struck deaf, dumb, and blind after he witnesses his father, an air force pilot thought to have died in WWI, come home and murder his wife’s new boyfriend), but the “you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing to know one” warning Dad gives to his son is a nicely symbolic explanation for Tommy’s condition.

“Amazing Journey/Sparks”: Two three-minute pop songs in one! “Amazing Journey” (an early title for Townshend’s opera) is definitive Who, with its jazzy, dreamy, descending chord structure and ornery explosions into rumbling rock with plenty of deranged drum fills from Keith Moon. “Sparks” is yet another variation on the hard-hitting riff introduced on the mini-opera “Rael” from The Who Sell Out. The track is notable as the first time Entwistle really stretched out his bass-work on a studio recording since his solo on “My Generation” back in ‘65.

“Christmas”: This holiday tune is both one of the heaviest and one of the most dynamically varied songs on Tommy. Townshend’s lyrics raise a provocative question: If you’re some sort of religious or spiritual type (as he was and is) who believes one must pray (or at least be aware of God) in order to achieve salvation, what becomes of an innocent like our boy Tommy, who cannot see, speak, or hear? Kind of puts him up Shit Creek, I’d say. Along with all of that junior philosophizing is a jack-hammer verse with some absurdly/fabulously operatic falsetto backup vocals, the introduction of the “see me, feel me” refrain that provides much of the record’s emotional immediacy, and a line about Tommy picking his nose on Christmas morning. I’ll take it over “Winter Wonderland” any December 25th.

“Cousin Kevin”: Pete Townshend had a handle on Tommy except for when the storyline veered toward the violent. Who better to call upon to compose the “Tommy gets molested” and “Tommy gets beaten up” sequences than band mate John Entwistle, who’d already proven himself a master of perverse songwriting on “Boris the Spider”, “Whiskey Man”, and the manic hypochondria ode “Doctor Doctor”? “Fiddle About”, the song that details Tommy’s unsavory groping, is disposable. “Cousin Kevin”— in which Tommy’s sadistic cuz makes the unfortunate lad eat glass, sticks pins in his fingers, and tries to drown him in the tub—is not. Creepy and infectious and unforgivingly nasty, “Cousin Kevin” proves that it was John Entwistle, and not Pete Townshend, who was really responsible for the moments on Tommy that caused critics to accuse the record of poor taste. Kudos, Thunder Fingers!

“Sensation”: Composed quite some time before the Tommy concept struck him, Townshend wrote “Sensation” about a girl he met during the Who’s disastrous tour of Australia in early ‘68. Like most of the best tracks on Tommy, “Sensation” would have fit beautifully among the romantic numbers on The Who Sell Out, with its its chiming acoustic guitars and sensitive lead vocal by Pete (who sang so many of the tracks on Sell Out). Lyrically, there is enough mystical mumbo-jumbo to justify the song’s inclusion on Tommy (“The few I touched now are disciples/ love as one, I am the light”), but it works completely independent of the album because there are no specific references to the rock opera’s bizarro plot points. One of the Who’s very best songs.

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