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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 Quadrophenia, Tommy 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.