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Counterbalance No. 113: The Who's 'Tommy'

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Friday, Jan 18, 2013
I thought I was the Bally table king, but I just handed my pinball crown to the 113th Most Acclaimed Album of All Time. Counterbalance goes rock-operatic with a 1969 magnum opus.
cover art

The Who

Tommy

(Decca; US: 23 May 1969; UK: 23 May 1969)

Mendelsohn: It used to be we couldn’t spit at the Great List without hitting a double album—gatefold behemoths with more vinyl than the seats of my car. And then, we would have to determine whether said double album was a Grand Artistic Statement or a Pile. Thankfully, we won’t have much of an argument today as we dig into the Who’s Tommy because Tommy is, without a doubt, one of the Grandest Artistic Statements to ever grace the airwaves. Now, I could, given enough time and expletives, make a case that Tommy is indeed a pile, but just a regular old pile as in relating to crap, not the capital ‘P’ Pile that indicates a chaotic work of genius. It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest Who fan and it had been years since I listened to this album, but dear lord, this album is so freaking pretentious and that makes it very hard for me to take it seriously.
  




That being said, I will defer to you, Klinger. You, in your younger days, had much more of an affinity for the Who than I will ever be able to muster. Help me frame this record in such a way that I can appreciate its artistic merits. But do it without getting into that whole child abuse theme—that’s going to get real depressing really fast.


Klinger: Jeez, Mendelsohn, that’s like asking me to discuss a Pink Floyd album without discussing themes of alienation, or a Loverboy album without talking about red leather trousers. It’s woven throughout the plot of Tommy, to the extent that Tommy has a plot that makes any sense at all. To recap: It’s about a boy named Tommy who sees something involving his mother and another guy and maybe his dad, who they thought was killed in the war (Wikipedia says that his dad kills the other guy, but I couldn’t hear anything in the lyrics or musical cues to indicate this). So then someone tells Tommy that he didn’t see whatever it was he saw, and as a result he becomes a blind deaf mute.


At this point, Pete Townshend apparently begins developing the plot using a book of Mad Libs, because then it’s [HOLIDAY]


Christmas! Later, his parents leave him with his [ADJECTIVE] abusive [RELATIVE] cousin, who [VERB] tortures him. Then they try giving him [NOUN] LSD, but that doesn’t work! So then he gets [VERB] molested by his [NOUN] uncle and later discovers that he’s really [ADJECTIVE] good at [NOUN] pinball

.


But then a doctor tells his parents that Tommy’s problems are all in his head (which you’d think his parents might have surmised since they were standing right next to him and shaking him when he went deaf, dumb, and blind). So of course Tommy (and not, you know, the doctor who cures him) becomes famous and opens a holiday camp where he tells people that they should quit getting high and act like blind deaf mutes who play pinball. But his followers all of sudden don’t want to do that, so they (I think) overthrow Tommy and become better people, as does Tommy. And . . . scene.




Mendelsohn: I remember seeing Tommy the musical at my local theater house as a kid and thinking it was pretty cool. But as I’ve gotten older, this album, and all of the Who’s work in general, seems to get more and more . . . hokey. Let’s go with hokey. Can you really tell me that you don’t find this album just the slightest bit hokey?  As a fairly well-adjusted adult, am I going to have a hard time with this album regardless simply because I didn’t love it as a teenager, thereby allowing myself to gaze beyond the Mad Libs lyrics, silly interludes, plot and thematic issues, and general hokeyness, and tap into a much simpler time?


Klinger: I bought Tommy when I was about 14, and it’s never failed to disappoint me. I figured I needed the album because and I loved Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (and I’ll stand by that LP to my dying day) and Who’s Next (which, as we’ve discussed, I now recognize for what it is), and I kept reading about the importance of Tommy. And from a musical standpoint, much of Tommy serves as a tipping point between the power pop of the band’s early work and the arena rock of their ‘70s output. But gosh darn it if I haven’t always found myself checking out about halfway through this album every time. Maybe it’s that 10-minute instrumental “Underture”. Yikes.




Interesting to note, though, that this album received a lot of good press from not only the usual rock suspects, but also more mainstream media outlets like Life magazine. It seems as though they were waiting for rock to “grow up”, and an ambitious double-vinyl rock opera filled the bill quite nicely.


Mendelsohn: I’m sorry, there is nothing “grown up” about this album. I find the idea that Tommy acted as some sort of bridge between rock’s terrible teens and a more responsible, adult version of rock is laughable at best. This record may be pretending to be grown up by tackling serious subjects, but it’s done in such a slap dash, half-assed manner that I’m surprised anyone would really consider it to me a legitimate entry on the Great List, let alone a respectable rock album in general. Being that this record is completely hokey, I can understand why Life, the magazine that seems perpetually stuck in the 1950s, would finally come around to that new-fangled rock music.


Speaking strictly on the merits of this record, I’m a little surprised to find this record hovering just outside the Top 100. I would be more comfortable seeing it pop up in the mid-200s or further back, you know, with the rest of the Who’s middling output. So what’s the deal? Has this record been helped out by the extended, off-Broadway showings of Tommy? Or did it benefit from simply being the first rock opera?


Klinger: Oh, it wasn’t the first rock opera. I had always heard that the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow was the first, having come out a year before Tommy. But now that the Internet neatly lays information in front of us like a cat dragging a dead rabbit into the house, it looks like a British group called Nirvana even beat them with something called The Story of Simon Simopath. Of course, the Who was the highest profile band to have a go at it, and they’d also released a shorter form of rock storytelling in 1966 with the actually-quite-awesome “A Quick One, While He’s Away”. (Also anyone who calls the rest of the Who’s output “middling” has clearly never heard The Who Sell Out, a fantastic concept album in its own right.)


But silly plots and undertures aside, there are a few things on Tommy that do tickle my fancy. Townshend creates moments of real beauty—lyrically in “1921” and the surprisingly affecting “See Me Feel Me” for example, and musically in his expanded use of fingerpicking.




And it’s worth noting that not only did this album mark the moment where Roger Daltrey came into his own as a frontman, but it also showcased Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon’s ability to maintain their individual frenetic approaches to playing within the context of more orchestrated song structures. The Who had long since left Maximum R&B behind, and their new-found semi-classical approach, brought to full fruition here, helped shape the sound of the next decade (for better or worse).


Mendelsohn: I don’t see it, but then the Who’s more classical approach to rock ‘n’ roll never sat well with me. Coupled with the fact that I find rock operas in general to be overly pretentious leaves me feeling cold whenever I listen to Tommy. I will be glad to put this record back on the shelf. I am also be glad that we won’t have to talk about the Who for a couple more years until we hit more of that middling output I was talking about earlier. And yes, at this point I’m just being contrary. I don’t want to delve into my subjective tastes when it comes to music, but there are certain groups—and this includes the Who—that I’ve never been able to connect with. Not to say that I don’t understand why people enjoy the Who’s music. It’s pretty obvious they could write some high quality rock ‘n’ roll, but I don’t think Tommy‘s image and place in rock culture stands up to the actual content of the album. Call me a contrarian, call me obstinate, call me a cab.


Klinger: I suspect diehard Who fans will be calling us quite a few things after this, but I have to concur that Tommy doesn’t hold up all that well for me. It’s interesting that Townshend and Daltrey are back to touring 1973’s Quadrophenia, and that album seems to be growing in critical stature. While its plot is more abstract than Tommy (albeit far less random), it’s also a good bit more affecting as a cohesive work than this album. Still, Tommy has the advantage of having garnered a huge amount of approval from the get-go—it’s the album that finally broke the Who stateside, and in many people’s perceptions the two have become completely intertwined (in fact, there’s a story that people would approach them and ask if they were “Tommy the Who”). So as long as the Who remains an important part of our rock heritage, I think Tommy‘s place in the canon is pretty well secure.



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