|MILESAGO: Australasian Music & Popular Culture 1964-1975||Stage Shows|
Australian concert production, 1973
The Who's Tommy is usually cited as "the world’s first rock opera" although neither part of this claim is strictly true. Most rock historians now agree that the 1967 album S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things was the first true rock opera / concept album, and at the time of Tommy's release, The Who's Pete Townshend admitted that S.F. Sorrow had been a major influence (although, as Pretty Things vocalist Phil May noted in a recent interview with Richie Unterberger, Townshend now denies any explicit connection between the two works).
Author and Who historian Richard Barnes also points out that, strictly speaking, Tommy is not an opera since it has no staging, scenery, acting, or recitative -- in fact, it would be more accurately described as a cantata or a song cycle. But however it is categorised, Tommy remains The Who's best known and most influential work and one of the most celebrated creative works of the rock era.
Pete Townshend had been experimenting with broader musical structures and formats for several years before Tommy was realised. The first major evidence of this was the suite "A Quick One / Rael" which formed the closing section of The Who’s 1966 LP A Quick One. Although it was obviously an early and rather clumsy attempt at a longer-form piece, it was significant for containing an instrumental theme which resurfaced in Tommy as the instrumental "Sparks". Townshend was much more successful with The Who’s classic 1967 LP The Who Sell Out, one of the first attempts to create what later became known as a "concept album". It featured some of the band’s best songs to date, most of which were cleverly located within the album’s satirical, pop-art anti-consumerist theme and linked together by real radio advertisements and station IDs (lifted from the recently defunct and hugely popular UK pirate station Radio London) which were part of Townshend’s original conceit to present the album as a mock radio broadcast.
Like much of Townshend’s work in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Tommy concept was strongly influenced by his rejection of drugs and his consequent burgeoning interest in spirituality and mysticism. This interest had blossomed in late 1967 when he was introduced to the life and teachings of Meher Baba by artist by Mike McInnerney, who went on to do the famous cover illustrations for the first Tommy LP. Townshend subsequently became a lifelong Baba devotee, dedicating Tommy and several subsequent works to his avatar as well as contributing to three limited-edition albums issued by the Meher Baba Association. The idea for a major musical project that expressed his new-found spirituality gradually evolved over the next eighteen months. The first time Townshend spoke publicly about the prototypical Tommy concept was during his 1968 Rolling Stone interview with RS editor Jan Wenner (published in Rolling Stone No. 4 and the first of the many famous Rolling Stone interviews) and he later commented that this was also the first time that he clearly articulated the concept for himself. He discussed the finished product at length in a subsequent 1969 Rolling Stone interview with Rick Sanders and David Dalton, published in Rolling Stone No. 37 (July 12, 1969).
As well as drawing heavily on the writings and life of Meher Baba, the Tommy story was interwoven with allusions to and references drawn from Christianity, Eastern esoteric philosophy and twentieth century popular culture. Obvious reference points were the life of Helen Keller, the 1926 scandal of controversial American evangelist Amie Semple McPherson, the pop star phenomenon in which The Who themselves were immersed, and of course, pinball. </p>
Richard Barnes: “He was working on a metaphorical story device that put across the idea of different states of consciousness. The premise was that we had our five senses but were blind to Reality and Infinity. "There was a parallel within the shape of the autistic child," explained Townshend, "so the hero had to be deaf, dumb, and blind so that seen from our already limited point of view, his limitations would be symbolic of our own."
In both plan and execution, Tommy was very much Pete Townshend’s project. He wrote all the songs except "Fiddle About" and "Cousin Kevin" (written by bassist John Entwistle) and "Tommy's Holiday Camp" (by drummer Keith Moon). The only non-original song included was "Eyesight To The Blind" by veteran American blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson.
The project went through frequent changes and adaptations. Some of the earlier working titles were The 'Amazing Journey', 'The Brain Opera', 'Journey Into Space', and 'Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy'. As the concept evolved songs were written and changed, then dropped and others slotted into place. The first song written specifically for the work was "Amazing Journey", with lyrics taken from the first few lines of an extremely long Townshend poem. The project took on a momentum of its own and Townshend has since remarked how perfectly some songs that were written earlier "just fell into place” in the Tommy framework.
The Tommy album was recorded over the first half of 1969, on eight-track at London’s IBC Studio, and it turned out to be a make-or-break effort. The recording process was long and difficult and required huge amounts of discussion within the group -- Roger Daltrey recalled: "We probably did as much talking as we did recording." Sessions were further complicated by the fact that the group was continually forced to break off recording and play gigs to bring in money. This in turn made it difficult to maintain a consistent recorded sound, because drummer Keith Moon owned only one kit, which they had to continually dismantle for gigs and then reassemble when they returned to the studio. IBC generously extended considerable credit but by the time the sessions were finished the band was heavily in debt. To quote Townshend, they were "... in dire fucking straits."
Overdubs were another contentious issue. Critical opinion is sharply divided on this point -- some feel that the 1969 version sounds too thin and flat, whereas others feel that the sparse and austere arrangements are ideally suited to the subject. The group were concerned that Lambert was planning to overdub the tracks with a full orchestra and Townshend reportedly fought the idea tooth and nail -- although some reviewers (e.g. Bruce Elder) have since claimed that Pete later regretted not have recorded the complex arrangements that he had originally envisaged. But the reality was that orchestras and other such complex overdubs would have added enormously to the cost. Above all it would have rendered Tommy almost impossible to perform on stage at the time, and the band were determined to have a finished work that they could tour with, not only to prove its worth but also of course to realise the huge investment of time and money and get out of debt.
Much of Tommy project was the product of Townshend’s "intense ‘control freak" planning” and of many months of concerted work. Ironically, the signature tune "Pinball Wizard" and the now-famous pinball plot device were devised on the spot and purely for the sake of expediency. With recording dragging out over months, and debts inexorably mounting, The Who were desperate for a favourable review that would stoke up public interest. They knew that influential rock journalist Nic Cohn was one of the few who might provide one, so they played him a rough mix of some of the recordings. To their dismay, Cohn was lukewarm about what he heard, so on impulse, knowing Cohn was a pinball fan, Townshend suggested a plot device whereby Tommy might play some sort of sport like football “or perhaps, even pinball." Predictably, Cohn immediately gushed "It’ll be a masterpiece!"
Townshend rushed home and hastily wrote the song to order. He later said that, at the time, he felt he was merely “grabbing for ideas”, that the lyrics were “the most clumsy piece of writing” he’d ever done and that the song would be “a complete dud”, but he persevered. He quickly knocked out a demo in his home studio then took it back to IBC. To his amazement, everyone loved it and declared it would be a hit.
Richard Barnes: “Red herring or not, the addition of 'Pinball Wizard' dramatically changed everything. Wizard and the other obvious rock songs raised the work from being just “worthy”, “interesting” and “artistic”, to being all of those plus popular, exciting and successful. Prior to 'Pinball Wizard', the whole project was beginning to get bogged down. The Who were trying to include Mose Allisons 'Young Man Blues' and it wasn’t working. Lambert thought it was in danger of becoming “too religious”. 'Pinball Wizard' made it more Rock Opera than God Opera.
released as a 2LP set on Track Records in May 1969. Bizarrely, at the
end of the Tommy
sessions in New York, after the first cut to vinyl was completed, Kit
Lambert declared the album a “masterpiece” and
reportedly destroyed the original master tapes by ceremonially burning
(This, says Barnes, may be why many Who fans claim Tommy sounded
on the original vinyl than on early CD issues.) It wasn’t
until 1988 that a first generation copy of the master tape came to
light, although the most recent CD reissue was totally remixed from the
original IBC multitracks.
Tommy recieved a mixed reception on release:
“British reviews were broadly split into two camps: those who
thought it a masterpiece and those who claimed it was
‘sick’ and exploitative. A deaf, dumb and blind
child who is sexually molested by his uncle. No pop album before had
contained songs as remotely daring as these. The album was promptly
banned by the BBC and various US radio stations. The controversy, of
course, did nothing to damage sales.”
“Tommy changed everything for the Who. Previously a “singles” band, they were now an “album” band with all the prestige this now dated categorisation conferred. Townshend went from being a song writer to a composer. The Who’s live shows became rock theatre, and Roger Daltrey was propelled into a major rock frontman. Suddenly Daltrey was Tommy, and Tommy was Daltrey.”
Equipped with the most powerful touring sound system yet built, created by Who sound man Bob Pridden, and a dazzling lightshow by John Wolfe, the band toured Tommy all over the world for the next two years. Many of these performances were recorded, including the concerts at Woodstock on 17 August 1969, the London Coliseum on 14 December 1969, Leeds University on 14 February 1970 and their triumphant appearance at the Isle Of Wight Festival on 29 August 1970, which was filmed and recorded. As it had during its conception, in concert took on a life of its own -- the band were soon earning ecstatic rave reviews and their thrilling concert performances of TommyTommy were crucial in establishing them as the premier live rock act of the early ‘70s.
But eventually and predictably The Who began to feel
“an albatross round our necks” although the public
demand for it never really abated and even after they dropped the
full-length performances, the band would include key songs from Tommy
in their sets throughout the ‘70s and beyond. The most
frequent choices were "Pinball Wizard" and "See
Me Feel Me", but they also played "Amazing Journey",
"Sparks", "The Acid Queen", "Fiddle
About", "I'm Free", "Tommy's Holiday Camp" and
"We're Not Gonna Take It!" on numerous occasions.
In 1972, with the blessing of Pete Townshend, producer Lou Reizner began work a new a lavish new all-star orchestral version of Tommy backed by a rock ensemble and the London Symphony Orchestra. It was one of the first rock music projects to use a full symphony orchestra as an integral part of the arrangement, presented a fuller realisation of the characters and boasted an all-star cast in the various roles, with Pete Townshend as The Narrator, Roger Daltrey as Tommy and John Entwistle as Cousin Kevin. The other featured performers were Sandy Denny (The Nurse), Graham Bell (The Lover), Stevie Winwood (The Father), Maggie Bell (The Mother), Richie Havens (The Hawker), Merry Clayton (The Acid Queen), Ringo Starr (Uncle Ernie), Rod Stewart (The Local Lad) and Richard Harris (The Doctor).
To celebrate the November 1972 release of the 2LP recording, Reizner and conductor David Measham staged a full orchestral concert performance at the Rainbow Theatre, London on Saturday, 9 December 1972 featuring David Essex, Marsha Hunt, Elkie Brooks, Roger Chapman, Graham Bell, Bill Oddie, Merry Clayton, Vivian Stanshall, Roy Wood and John Pertwee and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Davis Measham. A second version of Tommy, also performed at the Rainbow on 9 December 1972 was recorded and later broadcast on British radio on December 26, 1972. It featured Rod Stewart, Keith Moon, Roger Daltry, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Ringo Starr, Peter Sellers, Steve Winwood and Maggie Bell. The Reizner/Measham orchestral version was very successful and will be well-remembered for its lavish boxed-set presentation, which was at the time the most elaborate album package yet created.
In 1975, iconoclastic British director Ken Russell made his controversial film version of Tommy, starring Roger Daltrey in the title role with The Who appearing in several scenes. The all-star cast was led by Hollywood star Ann-Margret as Mrs Walker, with Oliver Reed as The Lover, Paul Nicholas as Cousin Kevin, Keith Moon brilliantly reprising his role as the lascivious Uncle Ernie, Elton John as the Pinball Wizard, Tina Turner (in one of her first solo outings after splitting from Ike) giving a truly electrifying performance as The Acid Queen, Eric Clapton as The Preacher (formerly The Hawker) and Jack Nicholson as The Doctor.
Townshend reworked both the storyline and the music for the film version. The major plot changes were the shifting of the time forward from the end of WWI to the end of WWII, and having Capt. Walker die at the hands of his wife's lover (it was the lover who was killed in the original version). The soundtrack was totally re-recorded using both The Who and an all-star team of British session players; Elton John's own band performed Pinball Wizard. Townshend also made extensive use of synthesisers for orchestration, which added considerably more 'punch' than the rather ponderous arrangements on the Reizner version.
The film gave Russell ample scope to indulge his fertile visual imagination and his conceptual approach proved ideal for the subject. Although critical and fan opinion is still sharply divided, many feel that Tommy is both one of Russell's very best films, and the best version of the work. It also marked a breakthrough in cinema sound, being originally released with a high-fidelity "Quintaphonic" (five track) soundtrack, and concert-power amplification was installed in the cinemas in which it was shown -- the first time that such high-powered sound systems were employed for film. As anyone who saw and heard it on the opening season can attest, it was an impressive (and very loud) experience. A soundtrack LP was released, although the mix on the LP proved to be noticeably different from the actual film soundtrack in many respects.
The 1973 Australian Concert Production
Only months after the release of the Reizner version of Tommy and the London concerts, Australian promoter Jim McKay scored a coup by staging a highly publicised concert production with the participation of Reizner, David Measham and Keith Moon. An all-star cast of Australian rock luminaries was assembled and the work was performed twice, once in Melbourne and once in Sydney.
First show: Saturday 31 March 1973, Myer
Music Bowl, Melbourne
The highlight of the first night (and thus seen by Melbourne audiences only) was The Who's Keith Moon, reprising his role as Uncle Ernie in the Australian stage version of Tommy, promoted by Jim McKay. The first show, performed before 30,000 people at the outdoor Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, was originally scheduled for the previous night but heavy rain put it back a day. Who lead singer Roger Daltrey had been offered the starring role, but undoubtedly still smarting form the band’s rough treatment during their controversial 1968 Australasian tour, he declined the offer.
"I went over there and just generally intimidated the Australian cast," Moon explained. "Graham Bell came over with me. It was a good idea really, because any experience we'd got from the London show, we were able to help the others because we'd seen how it worked in London."
Lou Reizner and conductor David Measham were also
involved in the production. The cast, who rehearsed at the Braite
Institute Hall in Prahran, was drawn from the cream of
Australia’s pop-rock performers. The title role of Tommy went
to Daryl Braithwaite, lead singer of rising Sydney band Sherbet, who were
soon to become one of the most popular and successful Australian bands.
(ex-One Ton Gypsy) played Tommy’s mother Mrs Walker and
lead singer Broderick Smith, who had just joined The Dingoes, played
Mr Walker. Jim Keays’ role as The Lover was his first major
solo outing following the split of the Masters Apprentices
the previous year. Wendy
Saddington (ex-James Taylor Move, Chain) played The Nurse.
The Hawker was played by Doug
Parkinson. He had been the lead singer of The Questions, one
of the bands that had supported The Who on the infamous ‘68
tour. Doug of course went on to front Doug Parkinson In Focus and Fanny Adams
before embarking on a solo career. Daddy Cool’s
Ross Wilson, who was at that time putting together his new band Mighty
Kong, played Cousin Kevin. Linda George played The Acid Queen, Billy Thorpe was The
Pinball Wizard, and Bobby
Bright (ex-Bobby & Laurie) was The Doctor.
Besides Keith Moon, the only other non-Australian cast member was British singer Graham Bell, who performed as The Narrator. Bell started his interesting career in The Chosen Few (with keyboard player and future Blockhead Mickey Gallagher); this was followed by Griffin (with drummer Alan White, later of Yes), Every Which Way (with Brian Davison, ex-The Nice) and Bell & Arc (again with Gallagher) who released a self-titled album in 1971. This was followed by Bell’s self-titled solo album in early 1972. Bell performed the role of The Lover and sang lead on the song "1921" on the Lou Reizner symphonic recording of Tommy and reprised this role at the December 1972 concert production at the Rainbow Theatre in London.
Keith received unanimously good reviews, and promoter Jim McKay sent a "thank you" letter, praising him as an "extremely shrewd showman". One source reports that there was a second "due to popular demand" show held in Melbourne, but this is unconfirmed.
Second show: Sunday 1 April 1973, Randwick Racecourse, Sydney
The second Australian Tommy show was staged at the Royal Randwick Racecourse, Sydney, commencing at 8:15pm. The concert was videotaped by outside broadcast units and was screened on Friday 13 April by Channel 7 from 8:00-10:00pm, sponsored by Ford Australia. The telecast later received the Australian TV Award for the year's most outstanding creative effort. After the first Melbourne show, Keith Moon had to return to the UK due to previous commitments, so Ian "Molly" Meldrum took his place for the second show. It is not known whether the videotape of the Sydney performance still exists.
References / Links
Andy Neill & Matt Kent
Anyway Anyhow Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle Of The Who 1958-1978
(Barnes & Noble 2002)
The Musician’s Olympus – Graham Bell
The Creative Fire of Ken Russell
Tommy film site
The Who In Australia
The Who: Recording Chronology
thewho.net - articles:
Liner notes from the Tommy CD reissue
Pete Townshend Rolling Stone
& David Dalton
Rolling Stone article on Townshend and Tommy, 1969