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The Who - Tommy CD (album) cover

TOMMY

The Who

 

Proto-Prog

3.99 | 362 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
5 stars One of the many attractions that drew Pete Townsend to opera was the basic concept of telling an involved story, something that rock & roll doesn't do very often. Beneath opera's flamboyant, pompous surfaces there were usually compelling emotional and/or psychological human issues being dealt with and Pete was inspired to bring that characteristic into the topsy-turvy 60s where society and culture was in a state of upheaval and constant change. Progressive rock has a much broader definition than just being interesting, inventive music. It can also be a combination of intelligent lyrics and meaningful compositions that urge the listener to think. To consider philosophical questions that ask who we are and why we act like we do. In that respect "Tommy" is much, much more than a novelty or an aberration. It is the essence of progressive music.

There are many who consider the music on this album dated. My response is that even a 21st century power trio can only fill up so much space and, if anything, the still-evolving production and engineering techniques of that era are more at fault than the instrumentation. Keep in mind that they didn't bring in outside musicians or utilize any kind of orchestration to enhance the sound so it was pretty much the threesome of Pete, Keith and John with Roger adding only vocals. You'll hear some rudimentary piano and organ as well as Entwistle's strategically placed horns here and there but, for the most part, it's drums, bass and guitar. In that respect the music they created here is quite impressive and courageously bold.

The six-minute "Overture" may be the tightest track of all as it ebbs and flows across the various themes of the work seamlessly. At the tail end Townsend presents a concise prelude for the story and they segue into Tommy's birth with "It's A Boy!" This blessed event is soon marred as the innocent and perfectly normal baby's parents, in a blatant act of self-preservation where they drum into the youngster that "You Didn't Hear It," screw the kid up royally and send him tumbling into a catatonic state. We're still discovering the long-term effects of Mom & Dad's direct influence in an infant's development so this is just the first of many deep insights this tale will be bringing to light. But any pity you might feel dissipates during "Amazing Journey" as you learn that the impaired Tommy hasn't been abandoned by his creator. Rather, He opens up his adolescent mind to places "where minds can't usually go" and allows each sensation to manifest as fantastic music in his consciousness. The moving instrumental "Sparks" is a fitting representation of the energy and light-filled world Tommy inhabits. Meanwhile, his Ma and Pa live in denial and, predictably, turn to the church to fix their son in "Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker)." Cleverly borrowing words from bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, Pete clearly displays how clueless the orthodox clergy is in this case as they piously spout their usual archaic and ineffective dogma. All the parents get for their trouble is a truckload of guilt right at "Christmas" as the priest has basically told them that since little Tommy "doesn't know who Jesus was or what praying is" that he's on the highway to Hell. Well, that's just great. (I personally prefer to believe in a God that is better and more understanding of circumstance than all of us put together.)

Entwistle's "Cousin Kevin" is as relevant today as it was in 1969. In the light of our tragic school shootings the cruel behavior of bullies (once viewed as being harmless) has become something experts suspect is a whole lot more destructive and malevolent than believed. Gee, ya think? Tommy's desperate folks next turn to "The Acid Queen" for a chemical solution but all that does is send their son flying into a private psychedelic wonderland demonstrated musically by the "Underture" where the band turns in a stellar and dynamic performance. By this time the frustrated parental units briefly discuss "Do You Think It's Alright?" to leave the poor child with a trusted but eccentric family member in John's "Fiddle About." Again he was way before his time here because we have since discovered that most instances of molestation come from those closest to us. And if not Uncle Ernie then even the aforementioned priest can't be ruled out anymore. Just when things seem darkest for our naive protagonist he discovers his savant-like gift for arcade games and becomes a bonafide "Pinball Wizard," thus attracting the attention of the media. The irony of this tune is that, after years of the group trying to manufacture a hit single in America, this unlikely but brilliant deep album cut broke into the top 20 in the US and remains an icon of classic rock radio to this day. Go figure.

Anyway, Mommy and Daddy hear that "There's A Doctor I've Found" (a shrink) who can cure the boy but, after multiple tests and diagnoses, the doc tells them that the problem lies solely in his subconscious, that there's really nothing wrong with him at all and perhaps he just needs to "Go To The Mirror." Here you learn that Tommy, too, yearns to break out of his prison and silently pleads for someone to "see me, feel me, touch me, heal me." This leads up to Tommy's dramatic epiphany when his mother, in a fit of anger expressed during the emotional "Tommy Can You Hear Me," smashes the mirror that the boy (figuratively) is trapped in. Of course, the media gets whipped into a frenzy and swoops in to cover the "Miracle Cure," giving the guy a messianic complex and leading him to believe the hype he sings about in "Sensation." Now that he's a phenomenon despite the fact that he hasn't done anything but wake up he is elevated to teen idol status and attracts the likes of lonely girls like "Sally Simpson" who ends up being a scarred victim of love. Tommy just goes with the flow and makes the simple truth of "I'm Free" the catchphrase of his ministry. Much like Forrest Gump would do a few decades later, he attracts a following of unsolicited but "Welcome" lost souls who want what he seems to have. This necessitates the founding of "Tommy's Holiday Camp" by his opportunistic family that advertises it as a place where "the holiday's forever" while disguising the obligatory tithe hidden in the fine print.

Then comes the "catch" of Tommy's path to glory. He informs his enamored followers that in order to achieve enlightenment they must first leave all their pleasures (smoke, drink, partying, etc.) at the gate and prepare themselves for some serious self- examination and hard work. This is summarily rejected. Tommy further makes the mistake of preaching that his experiential route to righteousness is the one and only path to spiritual freedom and, therefore, insists that his flock submit to being struck deaf, dumb and blind in front of a pinball machine and go through what he suffered. (Do not most "prophets" ask the same from their devotees?) Well, that brings the grand soiree to a screeching halt. The crowd that once adored him shouts derisively that "We're Not Gonna Take It" because they just wanted to feel good about themselves. They "don't want no religion" and "they never did and never will." They almost crucify him but figure he's not worth the trouble and decide, instead, to "forget you better still." Tommy doesn't even get to be a martyr but the happy ending is that he is now truly free to become "The Seeker" of fulfillment on his own terms.

I've gone a long way to say that, like any great work of art, "Tommy" is open to personal interpretation and that's the beauty of this rock opera. To this day I can't listen to it without finding another angle to ponder about society or my own psyche. If you've only heard a few tracks here and there without ever experiencing it as a whole then I can state with certainty that you have an "Amazing Journey" to go on. Don't miss out on this cornerstone of progressive rock and roll.

Chicapah | 5/5 |

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