The Who - Tommy - Review
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critics' view

Thirty five years on from its original release many myths have been born and subsequently dispelled about Pete Townshend's sprawling tale of the deaf, dumb and blind boy. The most common is the one about the original master tapes being destroyed/original pressings being lightyears ahead of later versions etc. Now the tapes have been found and the rather spiffing reissue from 2000 has apparently been superseded by this new-fangled SACD. But how did the world's most famous concept album end up with such a twisted sonic history, and how does this version really compare?

Answers can be found in Townshend's own candid telling of the story of Tommy's conception. This was the zenith (and, ultimately, the end) of his creative partnership with the band's producer/manager Kit Lambert. Lambert's utter belief in Pete's ability to take a bunch of West London mods into a studio to forge a coherent statement that came to be known as 'rock opera' was the fire that lit the fuse. Well, that and the fact that the bailiffs were knocking at the door. Years of auto-destruction in the name of performance art had left a lot of repair bills to be paid. Yet Lambert's ambitions to turn the whole thing into a film (as if…) were rejected out of hand by Pete. The end was nigh…

Townshend had already attempted the concept format with his semi-successful A Quick One. In reality this and Tommy had much in common. Both showed the composer to be fast outgrowing his r 'n' b roots to become an accomplished explorer of themes and moods. (Tommy's true glory lies in its extended instrumental passages that, while being a little repetitive, blend themes gloriously). And both had librettos which were, somewhat shakey. Yet, while A Quick One concerned a woman's extra marital affair with a train driver, Tommy took itself slightly more seriously.

It being the late sixties, certain substances and philosophies were even creeping into the vocabulary of a Shepherd's Bush boy. Tommy's vague plotline of childhood trauma, spiritual chicanery and redemption to this day remains just as impenetrable. Much of it was conceived on the hoof with the killer single ''Pinball Wizard'' only added on Lambert's insistence that they needed an obvious hit, suggesting that pinball was a hip enough subject for the kids. The band, honed by touring, threw themselves behind Lambert and Townshend with little of the usual bickering, and the playing on this mix indeed sounds exuberant. The project overran massively, only ceasing when time and money ran out and there's still an incompleteness to parts of the work. Yet the SACD only serves to make this pared-down quality more exciting.

In fact, the quality so roundly hits you between the eyes that you wonder how on earth anyone put up with anything less over these three decades. Every slip, every bum note and every wobbly vocal (Townshend took up far more of the vocal duties on this album) merely makes it more precious. Tommy we can hear you…

Chris Jones
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading. external-link.png

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