Posted in 1960s, Music, The Who

Happy 50th birthday to Tommy, Part III (What it means to me)

Tommy was my first Who album, bought at the original location of Mystery Train Records in Amherst, Massachusetts on 7 September 2000. At the time, I had no idea that was Keith Moon’s 22nd Jahrzeit. It was truly one of those times where I knew, even before I knew.

I became interested in The Who at age thirteen, in ’93, and liked them from the time I was fourteen. At age twenty, in early 2000, I finally began graduating to serious fandom. Long story short, I chickened out on buying an album several times before deciding it was now or never.

That was the only Who CD in stock, though they had a bunch of their LPs. For almost all my succeeding trips to the various music stores in Amherst, this was my default modus operandi. I bought the sole CD, or sometimes two CDs, available. As I got more albums, I had to buy the one(s) I didn’t have yet.

I’d been so reticent about taking the plunge already because I was afraid of not liking an entire album of unfamiliar songs. I only knew the massively overplayed “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

I played the first three songs on 8 September, but didn’t have the time to play it all the way through till 9 September, a Saturday night. Until pretty far into my junior year, I obediently went home to Pittsfield every weekend instead of staying on campus like a normal person. Learnt helplessness, but I digress.

I didn’t know what to do with this album at first. It was so unlike The Beatles’ albums which I was so familiar with. At one point, I almost thought about returning it, since this kind of music was so different.

The more I listened to it, the more it grew on me, though I didn’t understand what all was going on for awhile. Some things definitely aren’t directly stated in the songs, but the listener can fill in the blanks based on context clues and one’s own imagination.

As Charles Chaplin said, “While watching a silent picture, each individual supplies the unspoken words according to his own understanding of the action. The dullard sees the story in his own way as does the intelligent, the wise, and so on–each one, as I said before, supplying his own understanding, and everyone is pleased…”

At this early stage of the game, I didn’t even know who was whom, except Roger, the only blonde and lead singer. I correctly guessed straightaway Pete was the one with the higher-pitched voice, and John had the thicker, lower voice. It was obvious which one Keith was. Then I learnt to distinguish the three dark-haired ones.

As a child, I had a character named Carmel Allison Jaywalker, who loses all her senses on the eve of her third birthday. In my juvenile mind, the culprit was “the killer pimples,” giant pimples growing over her eyes, ears, nose, mouth, tongue, and skin as she slept. Tommy’s surname is Walker. It’s another of those uncanny experiences of knowing, even before one knows.

From an early age, I’ve been fascinated by the blind-deaf. What must it be like to be cut off from the two most major senses, living so deeply in one’s own mind, processing everything through sensations, communicating without speech or sign language? I did a paper on the blind-deaf in a class I took on special education in 2005. Someday I’d like to resurrect Carmel.

It’s such a powerful, intense journey, both for the character of Tommy and one’s own emotional feelings listening to the story. Every time feels like the first time all over again. Tommy isn’t what I’d personally recommend as an ideal first album for a new fan, but it was my first Who album, and as such is so, so, so special to me.

Once I began understanding it and was firmly in love, there was no turning back. My amazing journey had begun, and I’ve never regretted it. This band has had my heart, soul, and mind since I was twenty years old. All these years, they’ve never been unseated as my #1.

And it all started with the story of a blind-deaf-mute boy which saved The Who from bankruptcy and breakup. If Tommy hadn’t succeeded, they might never have gone on to become such legends, and I never would’ve fallen so deeply in love with them and been interested in buying any of their albums.

Posted in 1960s, Music, The Who

Happy 50th birthday to Tommy, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Note: All images are used solely to illustrate the subject for the purposes of an album review, and thus consistent with Fair Use Doctrine.

Tommy was recorded from 19 September 1968–7 March 1969, and inspired by Pete’s guru Meher Baba (25 February 1894–31 January 1969). This is particularly meaningful in the context of Tommy because Meher Baba voluntarily went silent on 10 July 1925 and remained so till his death. He communicated with an alphabet board and hand signals. To this day, many of his followers observe Silence Day on 10 July.

From the early days of The Who, Pete wanted to break out of the box of three-minute pop singles, and to explore deeper themes even within said short songs. Traces of his magnum opus Lifehouse can be heard as early as 1966’s “I’m a Boy.”

Pete’s musical evolution continued full-force with the very uncharacteristic (for the era) nine-minute title closing track on A Quick One. This song has six different movements, telling one continuous story.

The Who’s 1967 album closes with another mini-opera, “Rael,” which continues with the brief “Rael 2” on the CD remaster. The roots of “Sparks” and “Underture” are heard here. “Glow Girl,” the closing bonus track (which also appears on 1974’s Odds and Sods), is about a plane crash ending in reincarnation and the refrain “It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker, it’s a girl.”

This became “It’s a Boy,” only “Of course, Tommy was a dear little boy,” as Pete wrote in the liner notes to O&S.

A number of Tommy‘s songs were originally written for other projects or about other subjects, but Pete repurposed them. In August 1968, he gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he went into great detail about this album in progress. He described the storyline better than the final product!

Pete later regretted spilling so many details, since he felt compelled to follow them precisely instead of editing and revising his story as he felt necessary. The other three bandmembers loved his ideas, however, and gave him complete creative control.

Working titles included Journey into Space, The Brain Opera, Amazing Journey, Omnibus, and Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy. In that era, “dumb” was the standard word for “mute,” though of course we know today that mutism doesn’t mean one is stupid. It wasn’t used to be deliberately offensive and hurtful. Context and intent are so important in looking at things from bygone eras.

Pete settled on Tommy because it was a nickname for soldiers in WWI, and a common British name of the time. Being the self-admitted pretentious guy he is, Pete prefers to call this album Thomas.

John wrote and sang “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About” because Pete couldn’t bring himself to handle such dark subjects as bullying and child molestation. Contrary to what certain people are still convinced of, Pete has long campaigned against child abuse, and was molested himself.

All evidence has cleared Pete and the thousands of others wrongly accused during the mishandled Operation Ore. Real fans know this, and Pete himself admits he did something really stupid and dangerous to try to take down the real abusers. Unlike a certain other person (coughmichaeljacksoncough), he doesn’t have a decades-long history of huge red flags and creepy behaviour with kids.

Unusual for the band at the time, many songs were more vocally-driven than instrumental. Tommy has a less hard rock sound in its studio version, though it absolutely cooks live.

Though Keith probably didn’t write “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” he got songwriting credit for suggesting the idea.

After rock journalist Nik Cohn (born 1946) poorly reviewed a working version, Pete suggested Tommy might become a pinball champion. Mr. Cohn, a huge pinball fan, immediately changed his tune. And thus was born one of the most overplayed songs in the history of classic rock radio.

Co-manager Kit Lambert wanted an orchestra, but Pete was firmly against it. That was too pretentious even for him, and their budget and schedule wouldn’t allow it anyway.

Like 1973’s QuadropheniaTommy had Sides 1 and 4 on one LP and 2 and 3 on the other, to accommodate record changers. These devices played multiple LPs in sequence without a human flipping them.

Tommy was #2 in the U.K. and #4 in the U.S., and reached gold status in the U.S. on 18 August. It had mixed critical reviews, but saved The Who from breakup and bankruptcy. Final track “Listening to You” was a genuine song of thanks to their loyal fans who stood by them for so many years, in lean times as well as prosperous.

Over the years, Tommy has been adapted by several opera and dance companies, and became a movie in 1975 and a Broadway musical in 1992. The Who played the album live until 20 December 1970, and used shorter portions throughout the decade. They revived it in its entirety during their 1989 reunion tour, often called The Who on Ice because of all the extra musicians and backup singers.

Tommy is truly the miracle that turned The Who’s entire career around forever.

Posted in 1960s, Music, The Who

Happy 50th birthday to Tommy, Part I (General overview)

Image used solely to illustrate subject for the purposes of an album review, and consistent with Fair Use Doctrine

Tommy, released 17 May 1969, was The Who’s fourth studio album, and the album that saved them. While they’d had a bunch of hit songs in their native England and played at Monterey Pop in 1967, they still weren’t giant superstars. They desperately needed a hit, both for the sake of their finances and their personal reputations.

Enter their glorious Hail Mary pass.

Tommy not only pulled them back from threatened bankruptcy and irrelevance, it also did wonders beyond wonders for Roger’s voice and self-confidence. Classic rock fans are well familiar with Roger’s powerful pipes on songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Slip Kid,” “Who Are You,” and “The Real Me,” but before the experience of touring Tommy all over the world and singing the powerful role of this character who goes through such an intense journey, Roger’s voice was rather unrefined.

Just look at 1967’s The Who Sell Out for proof. Roger only sings lead on five of the thirteen original tracks. Pete sings five more, and John sings the rest. One of those songs features Pete and Roger sharing lead vocals. Roger just wasn’t a vocal powerhouse yet, and lacked ample range.

The storyline on the album (versus the slightly different one in the movie):

Captain Walker goes missing and is believed dead. His widow presently gives birth to a boy named Thomas, whom she raises with a new lover. In 1921, Captain Walker returns home and discovers his replacement. In a violent rage, he murders the lover, and Mrs. Walker tells Tommy, who witnessed the murder, that he didn’t see or hear anything. He can never tell anyone what he knows is the truth.

Tommy becomes a psychosomatic blind-deaf-mute due to this traumatic experience, similar to how the unnamed narrator of The Painted Bird becomes a psychosomatic mute after cruel, suspicious villagers horrifically attack him on the holiday of Corpus Christi.

Tommy can now only experience the world through vibrations, all of which he interprets as beautiful music, even horrible things like getting molested by his Uncle Ernie and tortured by his sadistic cousin Kevin. However, Tommy can see his own reflection in the mirror.

LP One closes with Tommy’s sexual awakening with the Acid Queen, who also gives him LSD. The ten-minute instrumental “Underture” has always sounded exactly like I’d imagine an acid trip to be.

As he gets older, Tommy becomes a pinball champion, thanks to Pete wanting to butter up music critic Nik Cohn for a good review. Mr. Cohn was a big pinball fan.

Captain and Mrs. Walker take Tommy to a doctor who cures him, but he’s still mentally blocked from engaging with his senses until his mother realises he can see his reflection in the mirror. After she smashes it, Tommy wakes up as if from a dream, and begins to see, hear, and speak again.

Tommy becomes a Messiah figure, everyone’s hero, but ultimately grows very uncomfortable with his idol status. His disciples also reject him, displeased with his teachings, and leave the holiday camp where he’s preaching. Tommy reverts back to being a psychosomatic blind-deaf-mute and plaintively cries out for healing.

Track listing:

“Overture” (mostly instrumental)
“It’s a Boy” (hearkening back to the bittersweet, haunting ending of “Glow Girl,” but for the change of the baby’s sex) (sung by Pete)
“1921” (sung by Pete)
“Amazing Journey”
“Sparks” (instrumental)
“The Hawker” (a.k.a. “Eyesight to the Blind”) (written by Sonny Boy Williamson)
“Christmas”
“Cousin Kevin” (written and sung by John)
“The Acid Queen” (sung by Pete)
“Underture” (instrumental)
“Do You Think It’s Alright?”
“Fiddle About” (written and sung by John)
“Pinball Wizard” (#4 in the U.K.; #6 in South Africa and Canada; #8 in New Zealand; #12 in The Netherlands; #14 in Ireland; #15 in Switzerland and the U.S. Cash Box chart; #19 on U.S. Billboard; #25 in Germany; #45 in Australia; #89 in France) (one of the most overplayed songs ever!)
“There’s a Doctor”
“Go to the Mirror!”
“Tommy Can You Hear Me?”
“Smash the Mirror”
“Sensation” (sung by Pete)
“Miracle Cure”
“Sally Simpson”
“I’m Free”
“Welcome” (total throwaway garbage)
“Tommy’s Holiday Camp” (sung by Keith)
“We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You”

Posted in Music, The Who

Remembering Keith on his 40th Jahrzeit

Forty years ago today, 7 September 1978, Keith John Moon, rock’s greatest drummer, left the material world at the very young age of only 32. I was sadly born fifteen months too late to have the privilege of sharing Planet Earth with him.

While I’ve felt a soul connection to Pete since February 1994, while I was quite ill with chickenpox, Keith has been my second-favorite member of The Who since late 2000, when I made the transition from longtime casual lawnseat fan to serious, hardcore fan. I love men with soft, boyish facial features, and brown hair and eyes. He also had such a great sense of humor, twisted as it could be.

Keith obviously didn’t have one of the greatest, most classical voices of all time, but when he did sing, it came from a very honest place, and he put his heart and soul into the few songs he sang lead on. His personality made up for his lack of smooth vocals.

Keith trades lead vocals with John in this fun, cute song. He’s more on-key than usual.

Each of the four bandmembers has a theme song on Quadrophenia, and this is Keith’s.

Keith wrote this cute instrumental for the band’s sophomore album, A Quick One.

I have this album on vinyl.

May your beautiful light shine forever, dear Keith, and may your memory be for an eternal blessing. You left us such an incredible legacy with your music, and the many wonderful stories friends and acquaintances have shared.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Music, The Who

Celebrating The Ox on his 16th Jahrzeit

This year, in honor of the 16th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) of The Who’s bassist, John Alec Entwistle, I’m featuring my favorite songs he sang lead on. He was such a dear, special treasure, and often underappreciated. My estrogen Who lists were very active in the early Aughts, and it was rather uncommon for us to get a John girl. Most of us held one of the other three as our fave raves.

My all-time favorite John song! The lyrics are particularly poignant after his premature passing. Yet again, he proved how very deep still waters run.

This is John’s solo lead vocal on Who Are You, though he wrote three of its songs. It’s quite unusual how Roger sings two John songs. Like “When I Was a Boy,” “905” too has extra poignancy since his untimely passing. I also see parallels with Brave New World and We.

One of John’s two songs from A Quick One. It’s so cute how he sings his Rs as Ls and Ws (noticeable in the words “friend” and “drink”) in the hopes that they’ll run together and come out properly. He had a hard time singing his Rs at this early stage.

One of John’s songs from The Who Sell Out. Like so many of his other songs, it’s so full of his trademark dark, quirky, deadpan humor. His sense of humor is one of my favorite things about him.

John’s song on The Who by Numbers (which I’ll be writing a proper review of soon). It’s also full of his trademark quirky, dark humor, and fits so well with the overall mood of the album. While it’s not as dark and depressing as the rest of the songs except the insipid “Squeeze Box,” it still has that same sort of edge and mood. It also brings some levity to the mix, in its own quirky way. I also love the deep Boris voice he uses on the “fairy manager” line.

Originally the lead-off track on Odds and Sods, but moved closer to the end on the CD remastering. The songs (original tracks as well as bonus songs) are arranged in chronological order on the reissue. Yet again, it’s bursting with his trademark style of humor.

Doesn’t everyone love this song? It’s one of John’s classic Who songs, and the reason I named my stuffed spider keychain Boris. The name is truly pronounced Bah-REECE, not BOR-iss, but I can’t help but use the Anglo pronunciation for my spider when that’s the one used in his namesake song.

I’ve got the VHS of their incredible 1970 Isle of Wight show, and watched it so many times in my early twenties. Sadly, I haven’t been able to play it in years, due to not having a VCR at the moment. The Who often opened with “Heaven and Hell.” The lyrics have extra poignancy since John’s passing. The studio version on the remastered Odds and Sods majorly pales in comparison to the live classic. The Who were known as a live band, not a studio one. Even their greatest studio songs gained an extra level of fire onstage.

John’s song on Who’s Next. It’s one of his most belovèd and quintessential, and of course full of his trademark style of humor. So many of his songs are bursting with it.

John’s solo lead vocal on the rather unfairly denigrated Face Dances, though he also wrote “You.” This is one of his signature songs, and perfectly sums up so much about who he was. There are so many parallels between him and George Harrison, starting with the obvious fact that each was labeled The Quiet One of his respective band. Speaking from personal experience, once you’ve been saddled with that label, it’s damn-near impossible to throw it off, and people often don’t take you seriously. We have to prove how very deep still waters can run.

May your beautiful light shine forever, dear sweet Junnykins. The world is a better place because you were in it for 57 years. It was an honor to share Planet Earth with you for 22 and a half of those years.