The Who

MCA Records, 1969

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


It seems like in the music industry, there are certain albums which are unofficially considered "sacred cows" by the fans. These are the albums considered to be untouchable classics, and heaven help anyone who dares to speak negatively about them.

In the past, I've not been afraid to tackle some of these albums, with mixed results. But I do have to admit, right off the bat, that I've never really liked Tommy, the 1969 "rock opera" that cemented The Who's place in the annals of rock history. Since the time I bought my battered vinyl copy when I was about 17 to today, when I listened to the album via compact disc, I've always wondered why people hold this album in such high regard.

Granted, this could be seen as the album which made rock music acceptable for the "high-brow" crowd: a story told with electric guitars. It's been powerful enough to be the focus of one of the many Who reunion tours, a major motion picture, a symphonic rendering, and even a Broadway musical. But when you boil it down to the essentials, Tommy is a rather disturbing tale backed with a selection of questionable music -- though some of it is fabulous.

For the moment, let's forget the three hits off of the album - namely, "Pinball Wizard," "I'm Free" and "We're Not Gonna Take It." Chances are these songs are as familiar to you as the picture on your driver's license. Let's also not get into the re-telling of the plot, as there are enough differences of view on it to rival the Kennedy assassination in terms of theories.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The issues I have with Tommy are two-fold. First and foremost, the music often seems disjointed and has an air of under-achievement. Sure, tracks like "Christmas," "Overture" and "Eyesight To The Blind" stand out as being exceptional, showing the power of Pete Townshend and crew. But more often than not, the musical structure of the songs seems like they were not fully developed. Maybe it's not that tracks like "Tommy, Can You Hear Me?" and "Fiddle About" are bad, it's just that they could have been so much more.

Forget, for a moment, the content of "Fiddle About," which is a tad disturbing. But if you compare it to a song like "Cousin Kevin," which also features the central character getting abused (albeit in a different way), there's a real hatred you build up against the school bully as he details the ways he'll "have fun" with Tommy. Uncle Ernie, the lead character of "Fiddle About," is merely passed off as a drunken pervert -- and, frankly, while there's some outrage this one builds, it's not quite as strong as it needed to be.

Likewise, the music has a confused air about it, as if The Who wasn't comfortable with turning up the amps and going into full-smash mode this time around. In terms of power, the songs on Tommy just don't have the wattage to light up my speakers - surprising when you compare the whole album with the well-known tracks.

The second issue is the story itself. Yes, I find many aspects of it bothersome - but my quarrel isn't with that. No, it's that the story moves far too fast to really come up with some explanation of why Tommy remains in his deaf, dumb and blind world and how he goes from Helen Keller-like rigidity to becoming a Jim Jones-like character (as illustrated in "Sally Simpson" and "We're Not Gonna Take It"). I'll concede that, due to time and space limitations on vinyl, certain aspects of the story had to be truncated, otherwise this would have been something like a six-album box set. But there is much more information needed to make this story a complete picture.

Biased, you say? Actually, I went into this listen of Tommy wanting to like it. After all, it is revered by Who fans as one of, if not the, ultimate Who album. But like other cultural icons such as The Beatles' White Album, I have no choice in the end but to admit that, while it has some bright moments, Tommy seems to be much ado about nothing.

Rating: C-

User Rating: B+



© 2004 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.