Lately, I have had Tommy on my mind. I am not sure why, really. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I managed to locate a recording of the “Original Broadway Cast” last week and have been listening to it pretty regularly. It is not as bad as what you might think. The most unusual thing about the album is it’s Lazarus like resurrection every few years. Of course, “Pinball Wizard” will always be played on the radio and The Who will always be considered one of the greatest bands in history. But this album in particularly is an anomaly. Can you name any other concept album that has evolved in the same way? Maybe Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but that has yet to get it’s own Broadway show.
I guess I should start at the beginning. When Tommy first came out, The Who were hardly a household name in the U.S. They had “My Generation,” but that was about it. Tommy catapulted The Who into superstardom. Why? Because nothing else like it existed anywhere. This was the first “rock opera” or at least, the first album to tell a complete story. And what a story! It dealt a major blow to the messiahs of the flower children and the evils of the mass commercialization of the “counter culture” movement of the time. I would say that I am not sure how it was received, but I cannot due to my pre natal status at the time. Maybe people knew exactly what it was. After all, The Who was invited to play the entire album at Woodstock and later performed live at the Leeds Festival. Tommy was the Who’s first big success and made them what they are.
The success of the album lead to a film in 1975 by Ken Russell. This was the first of its kind. It is also one of the greatest bad movies in history. This is a film featuring Oliver Reed sucking his way through
“Christmas,” Jack Nicholson wheezing through “Go to the Mirror” and Ann Margaret being drowned in baked beans and soap. How on earth does such a film get off the ground? At least it is never boring. I could watch this far more than, say, Plan 9 From Outer Space. Plus, the Who do show up. Roger Daltry even plays Tommy in the last quarter of the film or so. He is also the best with the material, but so what? It is not like it would be any stretch for him to begin with. By the time the film came out, the connection to the original material was lost. The problems that were going on had evolved. Nixon was in the White House, Vietnam was winding down, and even Hunter S Thompson had already declared that “the wave had finally broke and rolled back” three years before. So what was the point? That question frequently came back to me during the film. The Rent movie faced a similar problem when it was released. The material was strong, sure, but had become more of a nostalgia piece than a film with anything relevant to say. Even worse, it came before the nostalgia had even kicked in.
It had by the time the play debuted in 1993. I have not seen the play performed live on stage. But the original soundtrack appears very spirited and far more into the spirit of the material than Ken Russell ever was. Some of the lyrical changes also make far more sense…although I didn’t care for their redo of “Fiddle About.” It was far to slow, almost playful, when the material asks it to be far from playful (a song about child molestation should never be described in that manner.) Overall, though, it was definitely a spirited version of the film that works wonders.
So there you have it. A (very, very brief) examination of Tommy. Entire books and articles have been written on this stuff. Start searching if you want to know more.