The Making of The Who’s Tommy

It is said that “The Who” made Tommy and Tommy made “The Who”. Until 1969, “The Who” were little known in the US. Due to legal problems with the producer Shel Talmy they recorded much less than the other bands of the 1960s and were constantly on tour to make money. Then came Tommy, which rescued the band from financial ruin and turned “The Who” into superstars, making them millionaires along the way. At the beginning of the 1960s, an album was merely a collection of singles. Then came the concept album. Tommy is the rock opera that everyone remembers. There has never been anything quite like it before or since–a rock album that has been made into a mainstream movie and a Broadway-style musical. At first, Tommy’s story of a deaf, dumb and blind kind, who becomes a pinball wizard, then a rock guru, was condemned as pretentious. The word circulated that it held some deep philosophical messages and was inspired by Meher Baba, Townshend’s Indian guru.

Sophomore intellectuals maintained that it was the classic story of a messiah figure, elevated by his disabilities to other-worldly loftiness, brought down by mundane reality, and then deified as a rock god–perhaps an avatar of Meher Baba himself. But when “Pinball Wizard” became a hit, Tommy caught on–particularly in the US where audiences would rise and remain standing in reverence throughout performances. It reached Number 2 in the UK charts and Number 4 in the US, but continued re-entering the Billboard chart. It stayed there for a total of 126 weeks, far longer than any other Who album. Troupes mounted productions around the world–“The Who’s” performances were a concert version. Then in 1972, Townshend oversaw a new recording with Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, Sandy Denny, Richard Burton and the London Symphony orchestra. Then in 1975 came Ken Russell’s movie version starring Elton John as the Pinball Wizard and Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, along with Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson. Keith Moon and Roger Daltrey also appeared in the film, leading to a brief movie career for Daltrey.

But Townshend was the genius behind Tommy, though John Entwistle contributed two off-beat tracks–“Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About”–while “Eyesight for the Blind (The Hawker)” was an old blues number written by Sonny Boy Williamson. Millions of words have been written about Tommy. Townshend himself contributed a 129-page book with his friend Richard Barnes in 1977. Since then “The Who’s” output has been the subject of doctoral theses. The show regularly reappears on stage all over the world and new CD editions have included bonus tracks.