First Listen?!? – The Who’s ‘Tommy’
Ask my music-centric friends and they will tell you that I have some stupefying blind spots when it comes to the rock-n-roll canon. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I learned that Joe Walsh was in a band named James Gang which even had a song (“Funk #49”) that I knew. I had always thought Walsh was the least grumpy and most likely to be high member of The Eagles (both of which might be true) and that “Funk #49” was recorded by Foghat. Or maybe Nazareth.
Coming of age in the 1980s, some of the classics were bound to slip through the holes and The Who have always been in my blind spot. Raised on MTV, the first impression of The Who was the video for “Eminence Front” which sounded cooler than it looked at the time. As I grew older, the band’s biggest hits became familiar on radio but I still never gave a listen to an album. I currently own The Kids Are Alright on vinyl which someone passed down to me and it gathers dust.
In looking at various “greatest rock albums of all-time”, it was pretty clear that The Who’s Tommy was a consistent pick to make the Top 100 albums. So, with only the knowledge that “Pinball Wizard” was on the album and that it is (wrongly) called the first “rock opera”, I sat down and gave it a full listen this week. Here are five thoughts from someone far too old to be hearing Tommy for the first time.
I. The Who get psychedelic.
Opener “Overture” sounds more Sgt. Pepper than I ever thought The Who would sound. Only Pete Townshend’s acoustic guitar work makes it sound like The Who that I know. The same goes for the magnificent “Underture” which serves as a musical interpretation of Tommy’s LSD trip with the Acid Queen and which holds its own with some of Pink Floyd’s most experimental material. Released four years after their thunderous debut, the band’s accelerated growth as musicians might rival that of even The Beatles.
II. The Who are tackling some serious topics on Tommy.
The story behind “that deaf, dumb, and blind kid” is far darker and more developed than I anticipated when approaching a “rock opera”. From adultery to murder to molestation (“Fiddle About”), The Who do not shy away from mature topics. While 1967’s The Who Sell Out helped ease their fans into the idea of a concept album, Tommy probably still felt quite shocking. Gone are the funny fake adverts between songs and the overall sense of play inherent in their earlier work. For a band with such a reputation for living the rock-n-roll lifestyle to the extreme, coming together for such a serious project and pulling it off might make Tommy their finest hour as a group.
III. Rock Operas are a lost art.
It takes a certain level of artistic pretension to even attempt a rock opera and rarely are they pulled off well. Green Day’s American Idiot and My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade might be loosely classified as such and are both excellent. They are the rare modern day examples of highly successful bands making that leap into the world of rock opera. In a post-Cobain world, we celebrate Courtney Barnett for recording songs about vegetables and real-estate agents (rightfully so) and the album format itself has become an endangered species in the world of streaming. The ambition of The Who and the willingness of the audience to listen makes me nostalgic for 1969 when rock-n-roll’s possibilities seemed more endless.
IV. Moon the Loon’s drumming makes everything awesome.
Recording a “rock opera” requires musical finesse and control which weren’t always Keith Moon’s best attributes but it all works perfectly on Tommy. In fact, Moon’s loose style and wild drum fills add to the emotional arc of Townshend’s storyline. Sounding like no drummer who came before or after, Moon’s impossible style always gave The Who an edge that other bands have never found. The sheer exuberance with which Moon attacks the skins brings life to the album and keeps it from becoming boring in its own pretensions. The deeper I dive into The Who, the more I think Keith Moon kept them from being a pretty dull and overrated band.
V. I will probably never listen to Tommy again.
I can appreciate the importance of Tommy at the time and how it fits into the rock canon but listening to a rock opera is a bit like watching a film. If I am going to choose between listening to Tommy or watching Spinal Tap for the 100th time, I’m afraid Nigel Tufnel will win the duel every time. I’m glad Tommy exists because it encouraged bands to push popular music as an art form further than it had been pushed before. I’m also glad I can check that off my list of rock blind spots. I have made it through an entire album by The Who and lived to tell the story.
What are some of your rock-n-roll blind spots? Post them in the comments!
EDITOR’S NOTE: “Jason, you really need to complete your indoctrination by watching the psychedelic, self-important and totally entertaining Ken Russell film adaptation from 1975.”