Tommy

I’m a Tommy junkie.  I have been since college.  How did that come about?  Well, the story kinda connects to another rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar.  Back when I was a wee little boy, mi madre used to have Superstar on an 8-track.  Later, when I was in high school, it had major revival due to the sudden popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.  We even did an entire competition show devoted to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music when I was a sophomore in the marching band, and we had a commissioned arrangement of “Superstar”.  So I was into it, and the year after I graduated, the Ashtabula Arts Center was doing Superstar at their summer Straw Hat Theater.  So I auditioned…and didn’t get in.  I was bummed.  Black Cloud got in.  And some of my other friends.  But not me.  I was cast in Fiddler on the Roof, which I promptly quit.

But the next summer, I auditioned for another Andrew Lloyd Webber show, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and this time I got in.  And that became my initiation into the Arts Center crowd, some of the most fun people I’ve ever hung out with, and I spent the next three summers of my life doing shows at the Arts Center, eating bread bowls (with ranch dressing) at Perkins, nightswimming at Walnut Beach, and generally living the bohemian, starving-artist lifestyle while I was home from college (I guess I pretty much lived the starving-artist lifestyle while I was in college too, but really, who doesn’t?).  So how does this connect to Tommy?  Well, the Broadway Musical version had just come out around that time, and all those budding young musical theater artists were Tommy junkies (and Rent junkies too).  Always the teacher (and historian), I was quick to point out that it was based off a concept album by the Who. This remaster had been newly released, and I remember picking it up somewhere at a local record shop (one of the rare times I have paid full-price for a CD) so that we could all listen to the original.  This was back in the days of the old Blue Bomber and the talking CD player (“HELLO-CD-PLAY”), and I have fond memories of tearing through the back streets of the Ashtabula Harbor while we all song rousing choruses of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

So there are three distinct versions of Tommy that I am familiar with: the original, the movie, and the Broadway musical.  Each one has strengths and weaknesses, but I really do enjoy all three.  There is a fourth version as well, performed with the London Symphony Orchestra and some pretty famous guest stars (Rod Stewart as the Pinball Wizard and Ringo Starr as Uncle Ernie), but it has been out of print for about 30 years and I have never heard it.  Oddly, it is being remastered and re-released on 9/11/2015, so I’ll try to check it out and update this post afterward. But anyway, the general plot of the story goes like this: Man meets woman.  Man lost at war.  Woman has baby.  Woman takes new lover.  Man returns.  Man kills lover.  Boy witnesses lover’s murder.  Boy retreats into self, essentially becoming deaf, dumb, and blind.  Conventional treatments don’t work.  Unconventional treatments don’t work.  Boy shows aptitude for pinball.  Frustrated mother smashes family mirror.  Boy suddenly cured.  Boy becomes celebrity.  Boy becomes Messianic figure.  Boy’s followers become disillusioned and leave.  Boy finds enlightenment.  End.  Not exactly Shakespearean quality storytelling, but then again, neither was Ziggy Stardust or the Wall.

Let’s start with the original.  It’s the best.  ‘Nuff said.  Moving on…just kidding.  It is the source material, and the only version entirely performed by the Who, so it is the best.  The songwriting really shines through, and of course, the Who plays extremely well together as a band.  And the remaster that I have (I think its the ’96 version) really brings out the French horn in the “Overture”.  Apparently the Who destroyed the master tapes after the initial vinyl pressing, so I was awhile before a quality CD version was released, but this one is real good.  However, the plot is really hard to follow in the original version.  Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend pretty much sing everything, but there is no distinction between the characters.  Sometimes Daltrey is Tommy, sometimes it’s Townshend.  Sometimes Townshend is the father, sometimes he’s the mother, sometimes he’s a relative like Cousin Kevin or Uncle Ernie.  And overall, the vocals are pretty bland on this recording.  Townshend’s voice is just too thin, and Daltrey hadn’t had the benefit of a million live performances to grow into the role yet.

Tommy Blu RayTommy Movie

Then there’s the movie, which is largely terrible, but the soundtrack is great.  The movie itself tries to be psychedelic, but the symbolism is painfully obvious and it comes across as campy instead.  The plot is solidified though, and they make the interesting choice to kill off Tommy’s father instead of the lover.  This changes things dramatically, as the whole movie you get to root against the sleazeball lover (well acted, but poorly sung, by Oliver Reed).  There is also a fantastic guest appearance (again well acted, but poorly sung) by Jack Nicholson as the Specialist who cannot cure Tommy (but hits on his mother).  Elton John is hilarious as the Pinball Wizard, and Tina Turner rocks the house as the Acid Queen.  Eric Clapton gives a surprisingly bland performance as the Preacher (changed from the Hawker in the original), but his guitar work is great.  The real treat, however, is Daltrey’s performance as Tommy.  By the time this movie was made in 1975, he had several years of live performances under his belt, and thus his vocals much more powerful and soaring than in the original recording.  He simply owns the second half of the movie.  And his acting is decent too.  Unfortunately, the movie used quite a few studio musicians, and instead of orchestrations it gets really synthesizer happy at times.  But Pete Townshend played on every track (except for “Pinball Wizard”…Elton used his own band) and it holds together.

Tommy Broadway

And then there’s the Broadway musical.  If you hate Broadway voices, don’t bother with it.  It you can handle a good belting mezzo or a tenor with soaring vibrato, check it out.  The Who doesn’t play anywhere on this record, but it was completely overseen by Townshend.  He even wrote a new song for it (yes, it’s easily the worst song on the album).  And the recording was produced by George Martin.  Yes, that George Martin, the studio wizard behind Saints John, Paul, George, and Ringo.  Don’t believe me?  Listen to how the French horn flares shine throughout.  It’s as if Tommy grew up on Penny Lane.  Joking aside, I think it’s a pretty good rendition of the source material.  The plot is as clean and tight as it’s ever been, and Tommy’s father is restored to his rightful place as the survivor of the fight with the lover.  There is a lot of incidental music for dance numbers and scene changes that bogs it down a bit, and some extra dialog that is somewhat inane, but in the long run it’s more faithful to the original than the movie.

Other lists: See the entry for Who’s Next (#28) for the accolades Rolling Stone bestows upon the Who.

My favourite track: “Go to the Mirror”

Honourable mention: “We’re Not Gonna Take It”

Quote 1: “How can men who’ve never seen light be enlightened?”

Quote 2: “If I told you what it takes to reach the highest high, you’d laugh and say ‘Nothing’s that simple’.”