History of The Who’s Tommy: 54 Years Ago
HISTORY OF THE WHO’s TOMMY
Fifty-four years ago today, on May 23, 1969, the British rock group The Who released the double-album rock opera Tommy. Commercially the record went Gold in the UK and Double Platinum in the US.
Several songs were released as singles that charted in the Top 20 in the UK and US. Its success signified a breakthrough for the band and elevated The Who to a world-class touring and studio band. The album has sold over 20 million copies worldwide, representing about a fifth of their total records sold.
The rock opera tells the disturbing story of an apparently “deaf, dumb, and blind boy” who following a childhood trauma, becomes the Pinball Wizard. Despite several attempts to cure him, he has a spiritual awakening and becomes a sensational religious leader. “Tommy” is a common English name and a nickname for British soldiers during World War I.
The late 1960s was a time of spiritual enlightenment and revival. In addition to the counterculture rock and hippie scene at that time — especially in New York’s Greenwich Village, San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury, and Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue — we saw the rise of the Jesus Movement with its attendant Jesus Music, as well as the secular rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
Tommy’s lead guitarist and writer Peter Townsend claims that the rock opera came from his exposure in 1968 to Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba. The 1971 song “Baba O’Riley” was named in part after the leader. Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was also inspired by a popular quote from Baba.
The Who performed Tommy live throughout 1969 and 1970 and did selections from it during the ’70s. Several songs have appeared in their live tours up to the modern-day. In 1976 The Who was listed as the “record holder” of the loudest band ever at 126 dB, measured 32 meters away when performing in London, beating the 1972’s Guinness Book of World Records leader Deep Purple at 117 dB. I always wear earplugs to their concerts now.
Unbeknownst to Peter Townsend, he lost part of his hearing during a performance in 1967 on an episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The band routinely smashed guitars and kicked over drum sets to conclude their performances. This time drummer Keith Moon had set high explosives in his drum set behind Townsend. Years later, while watching a recording of the show, Townsend realized this was when his hearing loss began.
Multiple Incarnations of Tommy
Like “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the rock opera Tommy has had several incarnations.
- Album: The initial 1969 record was just the beginning
- Concerts: Songs from Tommy appeared in eponymous rock concerts like Woodstock in 1969 (featured in the film) and the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 (which also resulted in an album.)
- Ballet: Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens did a dance version in 1970. It was also performed at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1970
- Opera: During which Bette Midler performed two roles in the Seattle Opera production.
- Symphony: The London Symphony Orchestra in 1972 did two live concerts, with a recorded studio album to follow. Roles were played by several well-known professional musicians, actors, and The Who.
- Arena shows: Selections from Tommy were considered crown favorites and played at almost all live concerts they performed at large sports arenas and stadiums.
- Film: The movie version of Tommy by Ken Russell in 1975 featured The Who in various roles, playing the music and leading session players. Roger Daltry, the lead singer of The Who performed the starring role of Tommy. Several film actors, actresses, and rock musicians appeared in the movie. The song “Pinball Wizard,” performed by Elton John with his own band, was released as a promotional single and charted in the UK and US.
- Broadway Musical. Though it opened in San Diego in 1992, I saw the show when it came to Broadway in New York in 1993. It was later transferred to Toronto in 1995 and the West End, London in 1996.
- Roger Daltry’s Tommy tour. In 2011 Roger Daltry performed all of the original Tommy on tour across the UK and North America. Several non-Tommy favorites were featured as well, including “Going Mobile,” sung by Simon Townsend, the younger brother of Peter Townsend. I attended it in (Broomfield) Denver, in October of that year. Curiously, at the beginning of the concert, the arena displays posted a request that attendees do not smoke weed, and this was followed up by Daltry himself asking attendees not to smoke it, saying he’d developed allergies to it. Ironically, the last song of Tommy, “We Ain’t Gonna Take It,” includes the line:
“Hey you smoking Mother Nature…”
Despite that, several people around me lit up as soon as the concert began.
- The Who’s Tommy Orchestral: This is a new recording, coming out in a couple of weeks, of all 24 songs from the original that comes from the Roger Daltry 2018 tour.
My First Tommy Concert
The first time I saw any of the Tommy songs performed live was four years after the album’s initial release, at their concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in November of 1973. This concert was the American premiere of their next rock opera, Quadrophenia. The band intended to do several Tommy songs as well, but the performance was cut short when their drummer Keith Moon twice passed out into his drum set from a drug overdose. The first time, guitarist Pete Townsend excused it as:
“It must have been something he ate. It’s your American food.”
The band took a break. After they resumed, Moon passed out again in the middle of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Roger Daltry came over and hit the cymbals with his hand to end the instrumental portion of the song and resume his singing portion. Townsend subsequently asked the audience:
“Can anybody play the drums… I mean good, real good.”
Every third hand in the audience went up. I would have raised mine if I could play the drums. It would have been the opportunity of a lifetime. 19-year-old Scot Halpin was picked out of the crowd, performed three songs with the band, and completed a somewhat shortened playlist.
I’ve since seen them over half a dozen times over 50 years at other venues in Washington, DC, Oakland, and Denver. In the intervening years, Keith Moon died of a drug overdose in 1978 in London at 32. His best friend in the band, legendary bass player John Entwistle died in 2002 of a cocaine overdose at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas at the age of 57.
- Who’s Next was the follow-up album to Tommy, released in the summer of 1971. I listened to it endlessly when I was in college. It includes the popular anti-revolution song Won’t Get Fooled Again.
- Quadrophenia was a double album released in October of 1973 and told the story of “Jimmy,” a London-based ’60s Mod who travels to Brighton and brawls with Rockers. The title refers to examining the four personalities of the young ’60s Mod man (and The Who) and being recorded in quadrophonic. Beatles trivia: in the movie “A Hard Day’s Night,” Ringo is interviewed by a press woman asking him if he’s a Mod or a Rocker. He answers, “A Mocker.”
- Quadrophenia, the movie, followed in 1979, featuring Sting as the archetypical Ace Face.
- The Kids Are Alright was a 1979 rockumentary tracing the history of The Who. It became a precursor to the satirical mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap.”
- Live Aid in 1985 at Wembley Stadium has recently been repopularized by a 22-minute segment of the Queen movie “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Technical difficulties plagued the Who’s set during the transatlantic broadcast, but they did several hits from Tommy. But Queen stole the show.
- Full orchestra-backed tour last year. In October 2022, I was in Denver to catch their latest tour.
Please read my review of that concert here.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Entering my early teen years, when I first started developing my taste in music, I steered heavily towards classic rock. The Who were one of my favorites, and I still crank up the car stereo for the piano/drum entrance in Baba O’Riley now and then.
That’s one of my favorite songs of theirs. I’ll see The Who again in Denver in 3 weeks.
I saw a version of the rock opera “Tommy” sometime in the mid seventies? in Florida. The band who performed the music for it was called “Grandma’s Remedy”. They were from Joplin Missouri.