Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Tommy" by The Who (May, 1969)

Brad's Take:

This double album was the first album to be deemed as a "rock opera." Tommy tells the story of a young boy named Tommy, who witnesses a murder between his father and his mother's new lover. After his parents tell him that he "didn't see or hear anything", Tommy continues his life as being "blind, deaf, and dumb." He goes through a lot of terrible things in his life (and plays a lot of pinball), until he becomes "magically cured." The story is a lot more in-depth than that so you'll just have to listen to it to get the full story. It's really sad and intriguing.

It's obvious why this album is considered such a classic. It's a compelling  rock opera that must have been an incredibly large undertaking for the band, and on top of that, it must have been such a risky move for them to take. Fortunately though, it definitely paid off. It's sold over 20 million copies and was even inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 for "historical, artistic and significant value."

Although I can absolutely see why Tommy was and still is such a classic album, the music itself is very hit or miss to me. I got through the first 10 songs and didn't even realize I'd listened to that many already. Most of the songs blended together. In a way, I can see that as being a compliment, in that the songs blend together because it's all just one big story. I understand if that was the intention, and I can see the appeal there, but I personally am not really turned on by that kind of thing. To me, it's just a long album that all blends together, but with an occasional awesome song or moment.

I love all kinds of music, but I think it's become apparent that I'm not much of a reader. I like a good song, but a good story within a song doesn't necessarily make it a "good song" to me. For me, I get the most pleasure from a song by the way it actually makes me feel; the way the guitars punch, the melodies of the vocals, a catchy beat, etc. Technicality and lyrics have always been lower on my list of "what makes a good song good." That may or may not be why Tommy doesn't connect with me on its first run through.

The amount of thought that had to have gone into the writing and making of this album is extremely commendable. That's about all I will take away from listening to this though. It's an album that every music fan or musician should listen to it at least once, I must say. It shows that music can be more creative and thoughtful than just a catchy chorus and a pretty face. Music should be original and viewed as a piece of artwork and not just a money-grabbing monster. Tommy proved that it can be both.

Dad's Take:

The boy's take on this one was about what I expected. And it was pretty spot on.

Although often referred to as the first rock opera, Tommy was actually preceded by almost a year in that category by S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things, which we reviewed a few months ago. Brad's right that the music can be hit and miss, but I give it credit for a lot more hitting than my offspring does.

It's a highly ambitious project, and is best listened to with full attention. The story is odd but interesting. The music is the highlight, though, as it should be. It is given a more dramatic treatment, maybe, in the movie soundtrack, but I very much prefer the Who's original version.

Pete Townshend was really stretching himself here, far beyond what would have been expected of this band when the first came up. They were always creative and a little weird, but were best known for being loud and for their destructive behavior, especially that of Keith Moon. They are not the band you'd expect to challenge the limits of their genre this much--not, at least, unless you'd really paid attention to what they had done previously.

The music here is mostly excellent. It's the Who, after all. Because of the nature of the rock opera, it often feels a bit fragmentary, but the fragments hold together very well, for the most part.

What sets this apart from S.F. Sorrow and the few other attempts at rock operas is the characters. Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin are two of the weirdest characters you're likely to find in any kind of storytelling. They are creepy and cruel and sick and disgusting and tremendously fun. The Acid Queen is memorable, and Tommy's mother is pretty messed up, although she's nowhere near as prominent in the original as she is in the movie. But, hey, if you have Ann-Margret hanging around, you give her screen time. And beans and chocolate to roll around in. I mean, duh. But no wonder Tommy is so screwed up. Unlike Bradley, I'm a big fan of stories and story songs, so the strength of these memorable characters is a big part of why I love this album. I mean, just the guts it takes to try to tell a story from the point of view of somebody who can't tell it. Brilliant.

And then there are the songs. Although several of the pieces are obviously there to link the plot elements, there's some great music. "It's A Boy," "Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker)," "Christmas," "Cousin Kevin," "The Acid Queen," the brilliant "Underture" with Moon's excellent drumming, "Do You Think It's Alright," "Fiddle About" with its dark chords and even darker subject matter, "Pinball Wizard," "Go To The Mirror," "Tommy Can You Hear Me?," "Smash The Mirror," "Sally Simpson," and the anthemic songs from the climax, "I'm Free" and "We're Not Gonna Take It"--those are all obvious highlights, but there are other great songs between these.

This album is easily one of the high points of sixties rock, the culmination of the concept album trend. The story is strangely satisfying, even if summarizing it makes it sound like a hopeless mess. And the music stands up well, even now. That said, it is definitely a product of its era, a time when limits were being pushed everywhere. Being as separated from that time as Brad's generation is, the fruits of that experimental iconoclasm are going to be appreciated differently. I don't know how well Tommy stands up as nothing but a rock album, because I can't separate it from its context, but that's how these young whippersnappers are going to hear it. And that's to be expected. I can understand it being kind of a generation-gap album, like Straight Outta Compton is on the other side of the gap. My generation is right, though, of course.

So, I'm going to go back to listening now, basking in the brilliance that is Tommy.

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