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Release date: 23 May 1969
Tracks: (Click for codes to singles charts.) Overture / It’s a Boy / 1921 / Amazing Journey / Sparks / The Hawker / Christmas / Cousin Kevin / The Acid Queen / Underture / Do You Think It’s Alright? / Fiddle About / Pinball Wizard (3/7/69, #19 US, #4 UK) / There’s a Doctor / Go to the Mirror! / Tommy, Can You Hear Me? / Smash the Mirror / Sensation / Miracle Cure / Sally Simpson / I’m Free (7/5/69, #37 US) / Welcome / Tommy’s Holiday Camp / We’re Not Gonna Take It (“See Me Feel Me” excerpt, 9/26/70, #12 US)
Sales (in millions): 2.5 US, -- UK, 20.0 world
Peak: 4 US, 2 UK
Review: The Who’s fourth studio set bears the distinction of being “the first musical work to be billed overtly as a rock opera.” WK The double album, written almost entirely by guitarist Pete Townshend, “launched the band to international superstardom.” AMG The story focuses on a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who becomes a Messiah-like figure. This gave Townshend a chance to explore “the larger themes of emotional scars, freedom and religion.” RV When initially released, some critics hailed it as a masterpiece and “the beginnings of a new genre” WK Life magazine said “for sheer power, invention and brilliance of performance, Tommy outstrips anything that has ever come out of a rock recording studio.” WK
However, some considered it exploitative and the BBC and some U.S. radio stations even banned it. Detractors also cite the “pretensions of the concept and…the insubstantial nature of some of the songs that functioned as little more than devices to advance the rather sketchy plot.” AMG
One device used to get attention was pinball. The album’s main character is “a blind pinball wizard who was worshipped as the new messiah.” RVThe story goes that Townshend tailored the song Pinball Wizard to rock journalist Nic Cohn’s tastes to get a positive review from him. His reaction: “It’ll be a masterpiece.” RV
I’m Free (live)
“Though the album was slightly flawed, Townshend’s ability to construct a lengthy conceptual narrative brought new possibilities to rock music. Despite the complexity of the project, he and the Who never lost sight of solid pop melodies, harmonies, and forceful instrumentation, imbuing the material with a suitably powerful grace.” AMG One of the highlights comes when “frontman Roger Daltrey fully embodies the tortured essence of Tommy, displaying his newfound liberty in I’m Free.” RV
The album has some other “excellent songs, including…Sensation, Christmas, We're Not Gonna Take It, and the dramatic ten-minute instrumental Underture.” AMG “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was whittled down to “See Me Feel Me” for the singles-friendly radio market.
See Me Feel Me (from the ‘Tommy’ movie)
The group has frequently played the entire album live in concert, but not as a staged theatrical show. Several live performances have been released in their entirety, including the 2002 Deluxe Edition of the 1970 live album Live at Leeds and the Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 release in 1996. In 1975, the album was adapted into a film with major stars such as Ann-Margret, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, and Jack Nicholson. Elton John’s performance of “Pinball Wizard” became a top 10 hit in the U.K. The band re-released a soundtrack version of the album.
Pinball Wizard (Elton John performing it in the ‘Tommy’ movie)
In 1993, Townshend and theatrical director Des McAnuff adapted the album for a Broadway musical. The show initially received mixed reviews, but won five Tony Awards that year, including Best Original Score.
Tommy (an entire live performance)
Resources and Related Links:
- The Who’s DMDB Encyclopedia entry
- album page on DMDB website (even more in-depth look at album)
- AMG All Music Guide review by Richie Unterberger
- NO TheNightOwl.com review by Steve Marshall
- RV The Review “100 Greatest Albums of All Time” by Clarke Speicher (October – November 2001; Vol. 128: numbers 12-23).
- WK Wikipedia