Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the original post below he looks at the 40the anniversary of the “rock opera” Tommy.
Forty years ago, the opening chords of the Who’s Tommy startled listener minds and introduced the story of a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid.” In the process, we witnessed art worlds overlapping and regenerating. Band manager Kit Lambert had been encouraging guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend since 1964 to think of pop music as art and the protégé willingly responded. Lambert’s composer-father Constant Lambert had studied with British musical icon Vaughan Williams and now Kit sought to tutor a new generation. Townshend presented the perfect vessel. He had studied at the Ealing Art School in West London where, starting in 1961, Roy Ascott had initiated a new curriculum emphasizing the interconnections between the arts by linking drawing, painting, printing, sculpting, and design. In particular, Ascott’s theories about art education embraced the emerging electronic technologies of the day and he encouraged students to do the same. At Ealing, Townshend encountered a number of important contemporary artists such as Bernard Cohen, Adrian Berg, Noel Forster, and Ron Kitaj and the aesthetic ideas of Gustav Metzger, Gordon Pask, and Stephen Willats.
Elements of the music that Kit Lambert had been playing for Townshend began showing up in the songwriter’s work at least as early as 1966. The tantalizing experiment on the Who’s second album, A Quick One comes with the title number, a nine-minute-and-eleven-second pastiche telling the story of a woman seduced and redeemed. Lambert and Townshend described the work as a “mini-opera” and set the stage for others to construct collective works from individual pop songs. A year later, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band incompletely achieved the concept. In 1968, the Pretty Things (produced by the Beatles’ former engineer Norman Smith) rendered S. F. Sorrow, an extended story relying upon spoken narration between songs. But many knew that Townshend had something larger and more ambitious under development. On 22 April 1969, students at the Bolton Institute of Technology heard an unofficial debut of at least parts of Tommy.
The story of a traumatized child’s coming of age, his parent’s attempts to free him of his emotional handicap, and his subsequent release, triumph, and rejection comes entirely through the texts of the songs, mostly composed by Townshend with contributions from bassist John Entwhistle and drummer Keith Moon and an appropriation from American blues musician, Sonny Boy Williamson. Recorded at the IBC Studios at 35 Portland Place in London (now the location of the Consulate General of Columbia), the disk’s clean sound complemented its ambitious narrative and musical goals. All that remained was for the Who to sell the recording.
The promotion began with the official London premier at the venerable Soho jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s on 1 May 1969 followed immediately by a tour of the US. The first American performance of Tommy came a week later on 9 May in Detroit’s Grande Ballroom (which locals pronounced “grand-E”) where local DJ “Uncle” Russ Gibb promoted the show. (Detroit had emerged as the Who’s first major fan base in the US.) On 16 May at Bill Graham’s Filmore East in New York City, the Who again played parts of Tommy. However, when a fire broke out in the building next door and Daniel Mulhearn of the NYPD grabbed for the microphone to close the show, the band did what they always did when someone invaded their space: they pummeled him. Bail and court appearances ensued.
Still, by the time the album appeared in stores on 23 May 1969, the Who had already established Tommy as something uniquely different from anything else in the pop repertoire and audiences sensed that the musical world had changed. The music and its concept fit the college mind of the baby boom generation perfectly and by that fall, the album blasted from speakers in dorm rooms across the western world. In the early 1970s, extended narratives with even more fantastic tales became the norm for prog rock bands most of whom could credit Pete Townshend establishing the genre.