The Who's Tommy

Rock and opera weren't supposed to mix. But in the late 1960s, the Who's Pete Townshend dared to fuse the styles. The unlikely offspring was a deaf, dumb, and blind kid named Tommy, who changed the musical landscape forever.

Every once in a while, music takes a giant leap forward, generating a whole new species of sound. One of those rare occasions occurred in 1969, when guitarist Pete Townshend, the mastermind behind The Who, created a concept album unlike anything written before. The world's first rock opera, Tommy proved that pop songs could tell stories as complex, profound, and heart wrenching as any classical form. It became a hit album, but that was only the beginning. Townshend's masterpiece went on to become a movie, a ballet, and a Tony Award-winning musical that inspired countless Broadway shows.


When the band formed in 1964, The Who were the kings of London's Mod scene- a subculture devoted to drugs, fashion, motorbikes, and pop music. Teenagers gulped down amphetamines and danced to The Who's revved-up, R&B inspired hits, like "Substitute"  and "My Generation." The band's early shows were notorious for their anarchic spirit. Sets often ended with drummer Keith Moon kicking over his kit, lead singer Roger Daltrey swinging his microphone high in the air, and Townshend smashing his guitar.

The destruction made for good entertainment, but it was an expensive habit the band couldn't afford. Finances weren't the only thing The Who had trouble keeping up with. In the mid-1960s, music was changing fast, and the group found itself outpaced. In 1966, The Beach Boys released its avant-garde album Pet Sounds. The following year, The Beatles put out the equally groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. By 1968, The Who's music already sounded dated.

Townshend had a plan, though. He believed rock albums could do more than provide lively dancehall music; he believed they could take listeners on a spiritual journey. All he needed was the right canvas. Like many artists of the era, Townshend studied meditation and eastern philosophy -specifically the teachings of Meher Baba, an Indian mystic who'd taken a 40-year vow of silence to better hear the word of God. The guru's ideas about heightened awareness through sensory deprivation intrigued Townshend, and he was especially interested in the concept of experiencing songs through vibrations and physically feeling the music.

From these seeds, Townshend cultivated the narrative for his new album. The story begins when a father returns home from the war. He catches his wife with another man and murders him, and the couple's young son witnesses the act. The boy is so traumatized that he can no longer see, speak, or hear. Incapable of communicating with those around him, he finds solace in the vibrations of music.

Once Townshend had the story, he wrestled with what to name the boy. Ultimately, he settled on Tommy, a nickname for a British soldier during WWI. After a fight, battlefields could be littered with Tommys, shell-shocked and devoid of their senses. Townshend also liked that at the center of the word was the mystical syllable "om."

As for the notion to make Tommy an opera, that idea actually started as a joke. A few years earlier, The Who was playing some demo tapes for their manager, Kit Lambert. Townshend played a funny song he'd written, which consisted of falsetto voices singing Latin over melodramatic guitar chords. As everyone laughed, one of his friends said, "It's a rock opera!" Lambert looked at Townshend and said, "Now there's an idea." From then on, Lambert, the Oxford-educated son of a classical composer, plied Townshend with records by Mozart and Debussy and encouraged him to incorporate classical motifs into his music.


Townshend immersed himself in composing. But he also spent his days buried in research. He read books on post-traumatic stress and consulted music therapists. At a time when most radio-friendly hits were about love and heartbreak, Townshend's investigation into childhood trauma and spiritual healing were unheard of. Within a year, he'd completed nearly 30 songs. To make the sound cohesive, Townshend borrowed techniques from opera, such as recitative (sung dialogue used to drive plot) and continuo (instrumental interludes), then blended them with conventional verse-chorus songwriting. In the end, the songs sustained an album-length narrative, a first in rock 'n' roll.

In the recording studio, Townshend drove The Who relentlessly. For each track, there were multiple takes and lengthy rehearsals. The band bolstered their instrumentals with gongs, timpani and French horns, and choral vocal arrangements. But unlike Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds, which were pure studio creations, Townshend avoided any elements that couldn't be performed on stage. He wanted Tommy to be presented to an audience; he wanted it to be a show.

After four months of studio work, the album still wasn't finished, and execs at the Who's record label, Decca records, were unhappy with the songs they'd heard. They especially hated two tracks: one about an uncle who molests Tommy, and another about a prostitute who gives him LSD. Decca threatened to pull the plug if the band couldn't produce a marketable single. Frantic, Townshend consulted famed rock critic Nik Cohn, who suggested lightening the album's heavy tone. Townshend then had the idea to let Tommy indulge in some kind of sport. Because Cohn was a pinball fanatic, he made Tommy one, too. "Pinball Wizard" was dashed off in the eleventh hour. But with its flamenco guitar strum and catchy chorus, it quickly became the album's commercial centerpiece. Decca released the song ahead of the album, and the single shot up the charts.


When Tommy was finally released on May 31, 1969, it was met with wildly mixed reviews. Some critics were outraged, claiming it exploited the handicapped. Others hailed it as a genre-defying work of genius. The good news was, everyone seemed to have an opinion. Conductor Leonard Bernstein called it "a powerful performance that outstrips anything that has ever come out of a recording studio." Meanwhile, the BBC refused to play a single cut off the album.

Response from the public was more unified. To the fans, Tommy was a triumph. The album sold 200,000 copies in the United States in its first two weeks and eventually sold 20 million copies worldwide. When The Who toured America in 1970, they broke more new ground, playing in places that had never welcomed rock musicians before, including the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

Since then, Tommy has influenced dozens of concept albums, from Pink Floyd's The Wall to Green Day's American Idiot. Yet, its most profound impact may have been on musical theater. Shows such as Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hedwig & the Angry Inch owe a huge debt to Townshend's masterpiece. That deaf, dumb, and blind kid did more than play a mean pinball; he took rock 'n' roll to a new dimension.


The article above, written by Bill Demain, is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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The Mods most certainly did not ride motorbikes - or only in the broadest sense. The chosen Mod vehicle was an over-mirrored scooter, preferably a Lambretta, which would be ridden to the seaside on holiday weekends for running battles with the Mods' enemies - the motorbike-riding Rockers.
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