[8 January 2014]
There is arguably no rock album more iconic and influential than the Who‘s 1969 masterpiece, Tommy. Every element (such as its songs, structure, story, production, and even its cover) broke new ground not just for the band, but for the entire genre. Over the last 45 years or so, there have been countless reissues and remixes that promised new reasons to purchase it (which, to be fair, is as much a sign of the greed of the industry as it is of the importance of the record). Fortunately, fans finally have a definitive version via the recently released four disc deluxe edition. Thisis the treatment Tommydeserved all along (pun intended).
Honestly, just about everything that could be said about Tommy historically and contextually has already been said numerous times by musicians, fans, and critics, so I’ll just stick to the bare essentials. Tommy was not the first time mastermind Pete Townshend toyed with elaborate song structures (A Quick One) or conceptual framing (The Who Sell Out), nor was it the first narrative album (in fact, many feel that Tommy was directly inspired by the Pretty Things’ 1968 classic, S.F. Sorrow); however, it’s often considered the first true rock opera, as its orchestration, overtures, melodic reprisals, and call and response vocal treatment were groundbreaking.
In addition, Townshend borrowed a few bits from The Who Sell Out for Tommy (namely, the closing arrangement of “Rael” appears several times on it). Thematically, Tommy was fairly dark for its time, as its overarching tale (about a “deaf, dumb, and blind” outcast turned messianic pinball prodigy) includes hints of molestation, murder, and torture (it was also partially autobiographical, as Townshend was abused as a child).
Tommy also marked the conclusion and peak of the group’s initial era, as it was the last time they’d sound so eccentric and boyish (Who’s Next was noticeably more mature, bold, and refined, and Roger Daltrey‘s voice was definitely more aggressive and full). Taking all of this into account, it’s easy to see how the record probably influenced every subsequent rock epic, including Pink Floyd‘s The Wall, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and even Green Day’s American Idiot (although that one seems more like a modernization of Quadropenia). Although the band would eventually top itself with 1973’s Quadrophenia, no other album has ever captured the charm of Tommy. There’s just something special and everlasting about it, which is why its popularity and acclaim hasn’t diminished at all over the last 45 years.
As for the box set, it includes many gems. First and foremost, there’s the newest remaster of the album, which sounds more vibrant, multifaceted, and varied than ever (in fact, it feels fresher and more original than most modern music). “Overture”, “Sparks”, and “Underture” continue to overwhelm with their colorful timbres, invigorating dynamics, gripping melodies, and brilliant continuity, while the transition from “Fiddle About” to “Pinball Wizard” still contains the most wonderful acoustic guitar texture I’ve ever heard. It’s interesting to note how relatively prepubescent Townshend and Daltrey sound on tracks like “1921” and “Christmas”, as well as how goofy certain bits (like “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”) are compared to their latter work. Closing anthems like “I’m Free” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” feel as joyous and boundless as ever, and of course the “See Me, Feel Me” and “Listening to You, I Get the Music” motifs are still pure magic.
Elsewhere there’s a disc of outtakes and demos, including a lot of previously unreleased material. As always, it’s fascinating to hear how developed Townshend’s early attempts were, as he essentially recorded the album himself and then brought it to the band to flesh out with their own modifications, elaborations, and unique characteristics. The whole album is here, as well as two other tracks, “Trying to Get Through” and “Young Man Blues”. Both are too rudimentary to appeal, but it is interesting to hear them nonetheless.
There’s also a live “bootleg” album consisting mostly of tracks that Townshend wanted destroyed (and sound man Bob Pridden kept). The majority of the contents come from the band’s performance at the Capital Theatre in Ottawa, Canada, in October 1969, while a few songs come from later shows. Townshend starts the night with a bit of humor and modesty, explaining how they’re recording the tour with less than top-notch equipment, as well as purposefully leaving out a few tracks and hoping that no one notices. As for the performances, they’re fantastic. In fact, the band sounds heavier and more rambunctious than they did on the studio versions, which makes sense considering how rebellious their concerts were. Many tracks, including “1921”, “Christmas” and “Go to the Mirror”, feel faster and edgier than their official counterparts, and Townshend does some amazing guitar work during the finale of the show.
Physically, this release is incredible. An LP sized case houses a lengthy hardback book, as well as a large black and white poster for the Who’s performance at the London Coliseum. As for the contents of the book, it’s the usual assortment of photos, artwork, lyrics, and recollections. The standout feature is the 20,000 word essay by Richard Barnes (a close friend of Pete Townshend and aficionado of the Who). He details every aspect of the record’s construction and legacy, with plenty of personal anecdotes and quotes from the band and related personnel. The way he breaks down his essay into different subsections is helpful too.
Tommy has never sounded or looked as good as it does here. This deluxe set (which also includes a 5.1 mix of the record) is a must buy for any devotee, even if you own other versions. The amount of material included is impressive, and the complementary book provides the definitive accumulation of background information, alternate imagery, behind the scenes glimpses, and the like. It’s like a love letter to both the Who and fans, and it belongs in every music lover’s collection.