It's been a while, but Wo. returns to his series of albums released in 1968 and 1969. The years that defined his taste in music. A lot happened since than, of course. The posts on this blog attest to that, but this is where it sort of all started.
In the spring of 1969 a single was released by a band he had not really heard of at the time. A band that never really became one of his true favourites, although he acknowledges the quality of its singles through the years. This single was the first to come of the Tommy album, he learned a few years later. It's name? 'Pinball Wizard'.
Tommy for me is, despite the fact that I have the album on cd for probably over 20 years not an album that I play a lot. In fact the same goes for most of The Who's albums. It somehow is just not my band, despite the fact that I relate to the energy, love Pete Townsend's playing, Roger Daltrey's singing, am impressed each time I hear John Entwhistle's bassruns explode and laugh at the madness of Keith Moon and admire his playing. I can dream several of the singles and know how good they are. Somehow as an album act it is always a bit too much.
Tommy is a rock opera none the less, but that is something that I was totally unaware off at the time. I just knew that one single, that powerhouse of riffing 'Pinball Wizard'. Thinking back I'm almost sure that I didn't know any other song by the band (well). None of my older friends and family members at the time had anything by The Who. Which is surprising in a way. The Who is still seen as one of the five biggest U.K. bands of the 60s, if not #3.
All this means that I can still look with a fairly fresh ear to Tommy. I haven't heard the album in years. Basically the two songs on the 'Woodstock' compilation album, 'We're Not Going To Take It'/'See Me Feel Me'. Looking at it like that the beginning is quite alright. I recognise now much more what the link with The Who's previous music is, their 1966 and 1967 hits. They simply come back in a different guise. I even hear where Boudewijn de Groot got his riff for 'Jimmy' from. Anyone who listens to the ending of 'Sparks' will know too.
Tommy is a real opera in the sense that themes in the music return throughout the record. A story is told, which I presume is well enough known, to not have to repeat it here. What I hear in the music 47 years after the release, is something I never heard in the past. What I hear is that this four piece band is stretching the format of a band to the max and beyond. A tour de force of some proportion. I'm not so much pointing at all the embellishments around some of the songs, no, this is about what The Who is doing as a four piece. There is so much going on and still it is only drums-bass-guitar. The playing by all three is larger than life and over that the rough voice of Daltrey and the harmonies by Townsend and Entwistle. Nothing subtle and still it fits all so well.
At the same time I'm amazed that The Who managed to restrain itself at this point in time. That may have been a financial restraint, but a lot of these songs could have been filled with whole orchestras and loads of overdubs. In a way that is as much the strength of Tommy as its weakness. Some songs may have profited from additions, they just sound too bare for my 2016 ears. At the same time they sound raw and pure. In a way that surprises me again and again during this listen session. Have I been fooled to long by the "It's a boy, Mrs. Walker" and the fiddling about uncle parts to miss what is really going on on Tommy? I'm starting to suspect that the answer is yes. This album was part of the concept section of this blog for over two years and I only started working on the review only now. Why? I read an interview with Joe Bonamassa saying that the best rhythm guitar ever recorded is on Tommy (and 'Who's Next'). O.k., I thought, let me check that out. And so I did.
Has there eve been an opera with "Underture" as a title of one of the songs? Probably not. By now familiar themes come by again and a prelude to some still to come. Talking about rhythm guitars. Townsend is as adept on acoustic as on electrical guitars. Underneath is the dark sound of the man who went by the nickname 'The Ox'. Until abuse of substances at a fairly advance age brought him down.
At the same time Tommy is an hybrid form of an album. There are songs that go straight back to British pop of the mid sixties, others even preclude that era and songs that are the new The Who and preclude 70s rock. The band excels in all. And then the phenomenal intro to that rock staple song 'Pinball Wizard' starts. That extremely fluent acoustic downwards progression using the sustained chords accented by the single electric chord strokes. Underneath are the true solo instruments of The Who: the bass and the drums. They can go off on all sorts of runs, while Pete Townsend keeps things together. On top are the harmonies the three singers create, as that is the perhaps too unsung strength of The Who.
The hitsingle of Tommy is 'See Me Feel Me', released after the Woodstock soundtrack in 1970. The song comes by for the first time with the lyrics in 'Go To The Mirror!'All mixed with that strong guitar and bass melody that comes through in the whole opera. What to think of that beautiful, small song 'Tommy Can You Hear Me?'? It sounds so simple, yet it is so extremely strong and effective. At the same time totally fitting to the story. How to contact the boy who is shut off from the world? By stimulants and that is what happens to Tommy next.
The third hitsingle or chronologically the second is 'I'm Free'. That contrast between that strong riff driving the song, with a whiff of 'See Me Feel Me' in there and the soft singing of Roger Daltrey. The largely elementary piano playing in the verses is a powerhouse, the acoustic solo strong and effective. Someone who only listens to singles on the radio, must think it strange that also the riff from 'Pinball Wizard' comes by again. But such is Tommy, an opera.
Psychedelia is back for just under one minute when the fiddling uncle Ernie opens 'Tommy's Holiday Camp', with an ominous "welcome". It all ends with 'We're Not Gonna Take It'. Tommy lets people have his experience playing pinball blind, deaf and dumb. By then the song takes on darker overtones where all the familiar themes of Tommy return.
The most surprising thing about Tommy is that there is not one song called 'See Me Feel Me' on the title track. It is a part of 'We're Not Going To Take It'. That deeply sensitive song of an almost religious nature. "See Me. Feel Me. Touch Me. Heal Me". Not to forget all the things that are promised, within grasp, when submission is total. I was so impressed when I saw the clip in 1970. With Roger Daltrey with his eagle wings under his arms and the jumps in slow motion and windmilling by Pete Townsend that were impossible to enact for real. And then I got to know the Woodstock live version and there was no looking back. The Who may have played 'We're Not Gonna Take It' better at some date, but not for me. This is the version.
So, did I revise my opinion of Tommy? I think you know if you got this far, my reader. No, I don't like all songs, but as a whole, this is a five star album. There's no doubt about that.
You can listen to 'See Me Feel Me live' here: