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The Who, Tommy, and a Pop Classic, May 1969

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.

Recent Comments

  1. JL

    Excellent piece – I’m glad to see someone recognize the significance of the 40-year anniversary!

  2. Gordon Thompson

    Thanks. Such significant music should not go unrecognized.

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  4. Dan Mulhearn

    I can’t believe this is on the internet; I am the NYPD Officer involved in the incident at the Fillmore East that night. I was working plainclothes assigned to trying to get “mugged” on the Bowery and responded to the Fillmore as a fire was reported there. The adjacent building was heavily involved in fire and the Battalion Chief from FDNY requested we evacuate the FIllmore ASAP. I went in with uniformed officer Bruce Gehrig and the theater was full of smoke; but the Who were still playing. Officer Gehrig began to usher people out the fire doors and I approached the stage, in plainclothes but with badge in hand. I thought the band understood what was going on as I was handed the microphone by Roger Daltrey. Then I was kicked in the groin area by Pete Townshend and two large gentlemen grabbed me from behind and I was thrown out the fire door backstage. I then assisted people coming out of the building and coming down fire escapes. During the entire time I was in the building the band continued to play until the kick and the Fillmore employee’s were taking no action to empty the building. The Daily News account of the story says I ran down the aisle like a madman screaming “Fire”. That is certainly incorrect and the reporter never spoke to me before writing his story. Had I been yelling “Fire” or anything else; no one could have heard it above the din of the band. The Village Voice claimed I was gauche in that no one enters the stage at the Fillmore from stage left. There was no real injury as Pete missed his mark by a couple of inches, thankfully. No one was arrested due to this incident. Pete Townshend was issued a summons for simple assault. The charge should have been Felony Assault for attacking a police officer in the line of duty. However, the fix was in and supposedly the powers that be were afraid that if Mr Townshend had been charged with a felony he would have had to be arraigned that night and there would be a riot if they could not do that evening’s show (this was the night after the incident at the Fillmore, as I remember.) Upon his court appearance Mr Townshend was assessed a fine and the incident was over. The good part of the whole thing was that no one was injured in the large crowd. I remember thinking on the night it happened that my sister, Patti, was in the theater; but it turned out she was part of the crowd in the street waiting for the second show. Dan Mulhearn; retired in Pipestem WV

  5. Gordon Thompson


    Thanks for commenting and presenting your take on the show and what happened. I can well imagine the scene as chaotic and that you were trying your best to insure the well-being of the audience. I never doubted your intentions at this concert and the information you have provided are valuable.

    Apologies that I did not see this sooner. We do not receive notification if someone comments on our blogs.


  6. Binky Philips

    I was in my usual seat, AA113, front row, directly in front of Pete’s mic stand that night at the Fillmore East.
    For some reason, right at the start of “Summertime Blues” I looked up at the follow spot. It looked like you could walk on the beam of light, the smoke in the theater was so thick. I kinda laughed to myself about all the pot being smoked.
    But, about 60 seconds later, I looked up again and now the follow spot was deeply smoky. I turned to my right and saw Bill Graham talking to two fireman in the wings. I looked up at Pete to see if he’d seen this. But, he hadn’t. I looked back over my left shoulder to see how bad the smoke was and saw a guy charging down the left aisle from about the 15th row. He was about 30, stocky, in a white tshirt and jeans with a Marine crewcut. My first thought as he bounded up on stage was Oh shit a Viet Nam vet has gone crazy at a Who concert. Without warning or explanation, he lunged at Roger and grabbed the mic. Roger, a genuine street fighter, didn’t let go and fought back good and hard. Pete, seeing this, flew at the guy and kicked him in crotch. Two Fillmore crew guys dragged the prone “Marine” off staqe. The Who finished “Summertime Blues”.
    Bill Graham then made a calm announcement about a fire “across the street”… and… we all left.

    There is no truth whatsoever that this guy yelled “Fire!”.

    It is also untrue that he had a visible badge.

    It is also not true that Roger handed the mic to the “Marine”.
    Without a word, the guy grabbed Roger’s mic with both hands.
    I saw this less than 20 feet away.
    There was no badge in either hand.

    I was 16. This is 42 years ago. But, I have video in my head of this whole incident.

    By the next night, I’d heard that the guy was a plainclothes NYPD officer.
    I have often wondered what he was going to say into that microphone had Roger just said, Oh, do you need this? Please, be my guest.

    The general demeanor of Officer DH as he charged the stage kind of came off as a guy who was way off his meds and on his way to attack a Rock Star. Which is precisely what he then did.

    I have never had a problem with the NYPD. I was never an Off The Pigs kinda guy.

    One of my dearest and oldest friends (and fellow Who fan) just retired from the NYPD.
    I have huge respect for that gig.

    That said, Officer Dan has, according to my memory, kinda candy coated how the sh** went down.
    In the (literal) heat of the moment, knowing what he knew, and what none of the rest of us knew, I can well imagine that his memories of this event are entwined with his (obviously) pure motives.

    That said, as I witnessed it, it really did appear that Roger and Pete had subdued (with fists and feet) a maniac from off the Bowery.

    Okay, back to 2011…

  7. Gordon

    Wow, I need to get a digital feed to know when you folks comment on these columns.

    From my perspective, this exchange provides a great example of how different individuals can arrive at unique interpretations of the same event. Dan certainly has his understanding, shaped by his role’s objectives and his status as an outsider to the culture of the Filmore. You saw this as a regular member of the Filmore’s concert audience. (I envy your front-row seat.)

    Dan thought his identity as a cop was obvious and that Daltry and Townshend would easily capitulate to an authority figure commandeering their stage. I can tell you as a former musician that in many of the places I played, we would have reacted the same way. If we didn’t know who a guy was running up on stage and attempting to grab the singer’s microphone, we would have piled on him in a flash and asked questions later. Indeed, just last week in a club in NYC, I saw a jazz musician deck an audience member who had had the temerity to step up to him during the performance, lean onto the stage, and utter what the musician understood as a slur.

    Thanks to both you and Dan for your perspectives. I’ve learned from this exchange.

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