When the Who released "Tommy" in 1969, most of it written and conceived by the band's Pete Townshend, it was a crap shoot. Nothing like this sprawling double-album had been heard in rock music before. In fact, the story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy had more in common with the traditional classical opera form. Accordingly, it was dubbed as such, becoming the world's first acknowledged 'rock opera.' The success of that album turned the Who's career around. Before 1969, the band was spinning into debt and having a hard time breaking out of England and Europe, but "Tommy" brought fame and fortune to Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon.
You thought you knew a lot about the Who or "Tommy;" see if you know these deeper facts about the album!
1 Although “Tommy” was the album that made the Who international stars, it was not the band’s highest charting album in either England or the U.S. In the mother country, “Tommy” did reach #2, but “Who’s Next” would reach #1. Here in the States, the rock opera sold 2 million copies and got to #4, but both “Quadrophenia” and “Who Are You” bettered that by getting up to #2.
2 The Who began recording “Tommy” in late 1968, at that point, the album title was “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy”
3 Pete Townshend played the largely-finished album for friend and critic Nik Cohn, who thought that the sprawling work needed some levity and also a hit single. Armed with that viewpoint, Townshend wrote “Pinball Wizard” and stuck in the middle of the work. The last song recorded for “Tommy,” also became the hit the group needed to expose their latest masterwork.
4 Roger Daltrey told this reporter that the hardest song to sing on “Tommy” is “Cousin Kevin,” with its high, complex harmonies. “It’s murder!” he exclaimed. Well, he can’t blame Pete Townshend for it because bassist John Entwistle wrote that particular track!
5 In early 1968, the seeds of “Tommy” were already being planted in the studio when the band recorded Pete Townshend’s “Glow Girl.” The closing lyrics: “It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker, it’s a girl” were transferred directly to “Tommy,” with a change in gender, of course. “Glow Girl” would remain unreleased until 1974 when John Entwistle gathered it together with other outtakes for the “Odd n’ Sods” album.
6 Pete Townshend experimented with the multi-song story concept, later termed “rock opera” by the critics, with the Who’s 1966 “A Quick One While He’s Away” and 1967’s “Rael.” In fact, some of the musical themes in the latter ended up in “Tommy.”
7 Keith Moon got the songwriting credit for “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”, but Pete Townshend actually wrote the song and sang it. Moon got credit because he’s the one that came up with the idea of a holiday camp cult. Moon does perform the song in 1975 movie version.
8 The song of teenage Tommy fanatic fan “Sally Simpson” was written well in advance of the album. It was inspired by a show the Who performed with the Doors that turned into a riot (as many of those Doors concerts did).
9 After the original album was a worldwide hit in 1969, a version three years later was staged by the London Symphony Orchestra with guests like Peter Sellers, Rod Stewart and Ringo Starr. The infamously-wacky Ken Russell movie followed in 1975 starring Roger Daltrey with members of the Who and the likes of Elton John, Ann Margaret, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, and Jack Nicholson. In 1993, the Broadway stage version opened and ran for two years. Roger Daltrey mentioned to this reporter that there was even an ice skating exhibition based on the rock opera!
10. The album in its entirety was performed many times by the Who from 1969-1970. Usually Keith moon introduced it, asking the crowds to show some respect because it was a “F*#%in opera!!”