Rock operas are a very daunting undertaking, rampant with historical failures and bloated reputations that make their creation somewhat of a rare occurrence. However, those actually daring enough to write a rock opera often look to The Who’s Tommy for inspiration. It’s the consummate rock opera, filled with a touching plot that incorporates music in an interactive manner. The protagonist, Tommy, is rendered deaf and blind by an early childhood traumatic event. It means that he renders the reverberations of speech and actions as music. The Who place the listener in Tommy’s head, as bizarre events of his life become translated in melodic form. The result is something both unforgettable and highly idiosyncratic. There’s nothing quite like it, and there will never be.
Tommy was The Who’s fourth album, released in 1969 after three classic albums that revealed the London quartet as a stylistically multifarious tour-de-force, whose multiple stylistic entities were echoed in the varying personalities of the band’s members. It wasn’t until Tommy that the band’s star power became apparent. Some tracks on the album – namely “Pinball Wizard”, “I’m Free”, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” – have become trademarks of rock music. But let’s keep in mind the album is 24 tracks long. The hits are just the tip of the iceberg. Tommy takes an obvious chronological approach, with “Overture” and “It’s a Boy” capturing both the excitement of a newborn and the majestic “Overture” capturing the preceding events. In the superb 1975 film version of Tommy, the track captures the events leading up to Tommy’s conception. The jubilant announcement-style presentation of “It’s a Boy” kicks off the album in proper form, giving the protagonist a glowing status.
Tommy travels from a mute boy, to a young adult with plenty of obstacles only to morph into a messiah of sorts. The bulk of the opera involves “enlightening” Tommy, as it is determined that his deafness and blindness are not physical, but mental. Tommy’s mother finally “cures” him by smashing a mirror, which Tommy gazed endlessly into. This transforms him into a phenomenon, which is short-lived as others (particularly his Uncle Ernie) use Tommy’s status for profit and exploitation. Eventually his followers realize that Tommy’s current reincarnation is not what they’re seeking to be “cured”. Rather, it’s his previous awareness, where he grasped life without vision and hearing, and relied more on feeling. This is generally the theme of Tommy, a narrative that is melodic and accessible while delving into more complex areas of the human psyche. Mix this with infectious rock music loaded with booming power chords, orchestral flourishes, and atmospheric synthesizers, and listeners have a treat in both melodic and narrative approach.
The impact of Tommy on music today cannot be underestimated. It allowed future artists like Queen to embrace their inner theatrics, and to create albums for narrative and structural power rather than radio-friendly hits. Tommy had both; radio hits and sprawling narratives combined for a truly magical release. Some even claim that it influenced The Beatles’ Abbey Road, especially as Ringo had played Uncle Ernie in the UK production. Regardless, the influence of Tommy continues to echo throughout music. The Who’s sturdy legacy is even stronger because of it.