50 Years Ago: The Who Debut ‘Tommy’ in Concert
Though the Who, to this point, had been best-loved for their hard-hitting singles, the roots of their evolution into conceptual works had been on display for the previous three years. The title cut to their 1966 album A Quick One was a "mini-opera" that told the story of a marital infidelity. It came about when manager Kit Lambert suggested the idea to Pete Townshend when they needed about 10 minutes worth of material to fill out their next LP.
The next year, they released The Who Sell Out. The album was a full-fledged musical statement of Pop Art disguised as a love letter to U.K. pirate radio, complete with fake commercials about deodorant. But it also contained "I Can See for Miles," which became their only U.S. Top 10 hit.
Townshend's next step was to take the idea of a conceptual and unified album to another level, possibly just to keep up with some of the other London bands. In the spring of 1968, the Small Faces put out Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, the second side of which was a whimsical suite that told the story of "Happiness Stan." At the tail end of that year, the Kinks (The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society) and the Pretty Things (S.F. Sorrow) had come out with their own full-album song cycles.
Around the time of Flake's release, Townshend told Chris Welch of the Melody Maker about his new project. "I'm working on an opera, and I'm thinking of calling it The Amazing Journey. The theme is about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who has dreams and sees himself as ruler of the cosmos." Recording began in early 1969, with the first single, "Pinball Wizard," issued in March.
But the new album presented a challenge as to how to present it in their live show. By the time they rolled into Bolton that evening, the decision was made to present Tommy as a whole, rather than just mixing some of the songs into a regular set. "We did the whole thing from start to finish, and that was when we knew we had something cohesive and playable," Townshend told Welch. "We sat there, incredulous at it had come together. We noted how suddenly Roger [Daltrey] had become something else, and we debated what would happen and how it would change everything. We knew we had something that was magic, and that magic wasn't as clear on the album as it would be in live performance."
Given the unfamiliarity of the material -- to say nothing of the concept -- Townshend gave the small crowd a brief synopsis of the story before performing Tommy in its entirety, at maximum volume, to a somewhat confused audience.
In Dave Marsh's book Before I Get Old, Welch recounted that "scores of people" were left "literally deaf," adding that his own ears were ringing for the next 24 hours straight, but happily so. "There were moments during Tommy when I had to clutch the table for support, I felt my stomach contracting and my head spinning," then adding, "But we wanted more!" By 1970, the Who would take Tommy on the road to actual opera houses around the world, including the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
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