Friday, May 31, 2013

96. Tommy (1969) The Who



Tracks

1. Overture
2. It's a Boy!
3. 1921
4. Amazing Journey
5. Sparks
6. The Hawker
7. Christmas
8. Cousin Kevin
9. The Acid Queen
10. Underture
11. Do You Think It's Alright?
12. Fiddle About
13. Pinball Wizard
14. There's a Doctor
15. Go to the Mirror!
16. Tommy Can You Hear Me?
17. Smash the Mirror
18. Sensation
19. Miracle Cure
20. Sally Simpson
21. I'm Free
22. Welcome
23. Tommy's Holiday Camp
24. We're Not Gonna Take It

Rock Opera: none of what makes Opera good mixed with the worst aspects of Rock. Two great genres combined to make a new, third genre which should never exist.

Still if you're going to listen to Rock Opera then you might as well listen to the best of them. The Who's Tommy is the tale of a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball. It's one of the first albums to ever aspire to the title Rock Opera and definitely the best the genre has to offer.

It's still crap though.

Tommy is just deplorably awful which is a pity because The Who aren't. They're one of the most talented quartets of their day (only Led Zeppelin could match them instrument for instrument) and they wrote some great songs. Their next album after this one (Who's Next) is a magnificent collection of rock and roll music and if they needed to get this nonsense out of their system in order to record it then we should be grateful that Tommy exists. But that doesn't meant I need to actually listen to it.

Like all good operas (and bad ones too) Tommy opens with an overture which outlines the musical themes the listener will encounter if they can endure the entire thing. Then it launches into the story which is reminiscent of the sort of thing 12 year olds write when they sit down to write something just for the sake of testing out a fancy new pen, or it would be if 12 year olds had an understanding of LSD, prostitution, murder and sexual abuse.

A young boy named Tommy witnesses his parents committing murder and as a result loses his ability to see, hear or communicate. He takes LSD and has sex with a prostitute, gets hooked on pinball, recovers his abilities and starts a cult. Does any of that have anything profound to say about hero worship, perception, experience or even arcade-hall amusements? Probably not, which is something we could easily forgive if it had riffs, hooks, solos and songs that got stuck in your head. The truth is that there's not really much on the album that would stand alone outside the overblown concept-album approach. The obvious exception is Pinball Wizard, a staple of classic rock radio and deservedly so. You're singing it now in your head. In fact you started as soon as you saw the title of this post. You're not only singing the lyrics you're making that silly dum-dum sound people make when trying to verbally replicate guitar riffs: "That deaf dumb and blind kid Sure. Plays. A. Mean. Pinball! dum dum dum dum dum!" Go ahead. Take the time to enjoy it. I can wait.

Sadly the rest of the album is nowhere near half as good and is often unintentionally hilarious. Even the opening It's a boy! sounds more like a band trying to send up bad musicals than an earnest attempt to create rock and roll. It's hard not to laugh at a lot of Tommy and the effect is cumulative so the listener finds themselves giggling right up until track 12 which totally wipes the smile off your face.

Before he regains his ability to see, the title character has two unpleasant encounters with two unpleasant relatives. His cousin tortures him for fun, which is fairly nasty, but definitely topped by his uncle who sexually abuses Tommy when left in his care.

Now I'm not sure when the sexual abuse of children is an acceptable topic for popular music to address but I'm fairly sure that when it is it should be roundly condemned. Aerosmith tackled it in Janie's Got A Gun and explored the idea that abuse could destroy lives completely. Steven Tyler and Co didn't really shine much light on the issue but at least they didn't appear to revel in it. The Who turned molestation into a catchy sing-along: "Down with the bedclothes, Up with your nightshirt! Fiddle about, Fiddle about, Fiddle about!" Modern listeners can't help but be uncomfortable with this as a concept but it must have been jarring even back in 1969 surely? Was everyone really that jovial about sexual abuse back in the late sixties? Could we turn it into something fun if we made it melodic? Seriously?

Fiddle About might be enough to make some people stop listening to Tommy which means it's technically doing them a favour. True they'll stop listening one song before the album's highlight but it won't be long before you hear Pinball wizard on the radio anyway so it's no great loss. You also won't be missing out on the compelling narrative which just tootles along aimlessly until its conclusion anyway. You can give the whole thing a miss and opt for a Who best-of instead.

Rock Opera. Stop it, it's silly.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Tommy was just done brilliantly by the Little Theatre of Alexandria in Virginia, and I enjoyed it immensely, several times. Hoping to buy a CD of the music they used, I bought this one. Immediately I was disappointed."

-Apparently The Who aren't quite as good as The Little Theatre of Alexandria. I hope they tour beyond Virginia because with that recommendation I'm keen to try them out.

So do you enjoy Tommy or would you rather hear a version performed by a community theatre company from Virginia? Let me know below.

3 comments:

  1. I agree. I actually find The Who to be a rather frustrating group because they have some REALLY good songs, that REALLY stand above the rest; but they are also quite inconsistent, in my opinion.
    This was actually one of the first albums that I bought on CD. (To give a little bit of background, I was born in the 90s.) When I first heard it, although there were some highlights ("Pinball Wizard", "Tommy Can You Hear Me?" and, most of all, "Smash The Mirror", which is my favorite track on the album), but, overall, I found the story to be weak and amateurish, and, although I liked the IDEA of the rock opera, it just didn't come together particularly. To be honest, there was not that much musically and lyrically that was interesting, and, instead of taking me on a voyage, I felt like I was in the same dark (for cinematic effect) basement. I really want to like this album, but I feel like I have no choice to call this album overrated.
    P.S. "Fiddle About" is overwhelmingly creepy and irritating and makes me want to smash the Stop button.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree with you entirely. The idea of a rock opera is good but they generally don't work.

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  2. This is hilarious, even if I disagree with most of it. Tommy is chock-full of hummable, memorable bits, and, the Little Theater aside, the greatness of the original album has only been highlighted by the silly movie and stage versions.

    My favorite use of a bit of Tommy is that bit of the "Overture" where Entsistle plays the rising notes on the french horn - 'blump - balump - Balump!" -- this was used as the background for a long-running set of radio ads for the local dragstrip, where you could see all manner of amazing sights on "SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY!" (blump=balump-Balump!").

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