Welcome to What’s the Concept?! Every week, we’ll take a look at one of the greatest concepts albums in rock history. For this first edition, we have one of the first and most prolific in the concept album game: The Who’s Tommy.
What’s the Concept?!
Going by the album itself and not the film, Captain Walker goes missing and is presumed dead during WWI, leaving behind a pregnant wife. He’s alive and returns to find his wife has a new man, and the new man shoots and kills Captain Walker in front of Tommy, Walker’s young son. Tommy’s mother and step-father convince him he never saw or heard anything and he will never speak of the affair, causing a PTSD-induced, psychosomatic form of blindness, deafness and dumbness. Tommy is abused by basically everyone in his life, and his mother takes him to quacks to cure him.
Tommy is really, really good at pinball for some reason. He can feel the vibrations of the machine, so that makes it all work out, apparently. His mom takes him to an actual doctor this time, and he says there’s nothing physically causing his deafness, blindness and dumbness. He keeps staring in a mirror, so dear old Ma Walker smashes that mirror and, lo and behold, Tommy’s “mental blocks” are removed and his senses come back to him. He ends up famous, not only as a pinball player, but as a bizarro religious leader. His followers grow disillusioned with him, however, and he ends up completely isolated and alone.
Pinball Wizard, which was written to impress an influential rock critic who was obsessed with pinball, is the song everyone knows from this album. It was the last song written, yet everyone now knows that Tommy is the concept album/rock opera about pinball, which is hilarious. See Me, Feel Me and I’m Free were also released as singles.
I will say it straight up: Fiddle About is one of the most disturbing songs I’ve ever heard, yet it’s the song that gets stuck in my head the most from Tommy. A song about Tommy being molested by his Uncle Ernie (who is depicted perfectly by Who drummer Keith Moon in the film), it just gets under your skin. Cousin Kevin is another creepy track, albeit one with gorgeous harmonies, about the abuse Tommy suffers at the hands of his cousin.
The Acid Queen is a damn good track, though it’s most frequently associated with Tina Turner, who plays The Acid Queen in the film. Sally Simpson is a great song about the idiocy of groupies who will follow just about anything or anyone. First she follows Tommy obsessively, against the wishes of her parents, tries to get onstage and ends up with a gigantic gash and scar on her face from it. She then ends up marrying a rock musician from California.
Tommy was adapted into a film in 1975 by Ken Russell, starring Roger Daltrey as Tommy, Ann Margaret as his mother, Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Jack Nicholson as the doctor who says nothing is physically wrong with Tommy, and has an absolutely delightful appearance by Elton John singing Pinball Wizard, where his pinball machine is also a gigantic keyboard. The film is great. The war Tommy’s father is lost in is WWII for this one, changing the song 1921 to 1951. But the story is enhanced a bit, there’s a scene with Ann Margaret rolling around in chocolate and beans that spilled out of a television that is marvelous, and Tommy’s family all die for being people that exploited him, which is great, while Tommy himself seems to have some kind of promise of a happy ending.
It was adapted into a Broadway show in 1992, and the story is completely destroyed and made nonsensical. Now Tommy’s father returns from war and kills his stepdad, who was clearly abusive to his mom, yet this is what sends Tommy over the edge. Sally Simpson is turned into a love interest instead of a one-off character in a single song. Tommy begs for forgiveness from his family at the end for some reason, including Uncle Freaking Ernie, which will never make sense to me. I call this the “Pete Townshend needs to pay his mortgage, coke and hookers tab” version. The less said about it the better. I mean, the visuals on stage are cool, but this is not something meant for Broadway, especially when adapted in such a ham-fisted manner. I’m also angry that there’s no chocolate and bean scene.
This album is pretty much universally beloved by rock critics, and for good reason. It’s not the best concept album- hell, it’s not even the best concept album by The Who- but it’s damn good. It’s over the top, sometimes indulgent, entertaining, with great music and some really haunting stuff in it. And isn’t that what we want in our concept albums?
Tommy was performed at Woodstock, and while the whole thing was recorded, only some of it has been released.
The album was dedicated to Mehar Baba, an Indian spiritual leader that Townshend had been following.
Townshend originally conceived of the album being called Deaf, Dumb and Blind, wanting it to be about the life of a deaf, dumb and blind kid and the things that happens to him.