When The Who released their fourth studio album "Tommy" on May 23rd, 1969, the times were certainly a-changin'. The Beatles were on the verge of breaking up and, with America fully absorbed in Vietnam, the hippie movement and the Summer of Love were in full bloom. Social ideologies the world over were in a complete state of flux, and while America was busy putting a man on the moon, its civil rights leaders were being assassinated.
You can watch old newsreels or read history books, but if you want to be able to feel where a past society was at, your best bet is to listen to the music of the times.
Billed as the first “rock opera”, "Tommy" was primarily composed by Pete Townsend. It's a double album that tells the story of a young boy who, traumatized after witnessing his father murder his mother’s lover, develops a psychosomatic condition that renders him deaf, dumb and blind. The narrative subsequently embeds itself into the fantasy world that exists inside Tommy’s head, to which he retreats from the horrors of his waking life.
Hailed by some as a musical masterpiece and likened to being both pretentious and exploitative by others, the critics were split at the time of Tommy’s release. Despite being banned from The BBC and various radio stations in the U.S., the album succeeded in becoming a commercial hit and launched The Who to international stardom.
"Tommy" established The Who as much more than a singles act, carrying them beyond the previous success of songs like “My Generation.”
Allegedly inspired by Townsend's experience with the enlightenment teachings of Indian spiritual master, Meher Baba, the album was certainly a lofty ambition. While some have argued that ambition was never fully realized, Townsend's ability to create a successful, long-form, conceptual narrative, blew the doors wide open for rock music.
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"Tommy" was as vivid structurally as it was sonically, seeking to, as Townsend once put it in an interview with Rolling Stone: “create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play."
"Tommy" also found a great deal of success beyond the recording, during The Who’s live show. Unlike other rock operas that followed in its footsteps, "Tommy" was always performed in the raw and as a straightforward rock concert; it was not accompanied by a live theatrical show. Guitarist John Entwistle once said: “I don't think 'Tommy' was all about [what] was on the record –– I think it's on the stage. The message is much stronger on stage than on record."
Despite the album’s inherent complexities, Townsend and The Who were intelligible enough to ensure that if necessary, each song could exist on it’s own. Never loosing sight of music’s most fundamental elements––solid pop melodies, harmonies, and persuasive instrumentation––"Tommy" produced some of the band’s most recognizable hits. Not only did songs like “Pinball Wizard,” “I'm Free” and “See Me, Feel Me,” come to define Townsend as one of the most intriguing and innovative songwriters of the 1960's, but also cemented The Who’s place amongst rock and roll royalty.
In 1969, "Tommy" was as unusual as it was groundbreaking. An amalgamation of eccentric ideas and modern perversions presented in a fully imagined form, thematically it was a microcosm of the chaos that existed in the real world while sonically it sought to embody the idea of itself. The Who's ability to successfully present the notion of a “rock opera” to a commercial audience, has since seen "Tommy' directly influence everything from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1970) to Bowie’s "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" (1972) and Pink Floyd’s "The Wall" (1979), all the way to Green Day’s "American Idiot" (2004).
Forty-five years later, The Who's "Tommy" endures, making its presence known across musical genres and artistic formats, and continuing to appear on most influential album lists the world over.