For one, the album was becoming more important than the single in rock and roll (thanks to bands like the Beatles, the Beach Boys and, yes, the Who). Townshend wanted to do something to fully capitalize on the album as a continuous art form... even more so than Sell Out. He also wanted to reach new audiences, ones who had not been particularly interested in the Who's blasts of "Maximum R&B," and people he felt would be interested in a longer musical piece.
Townshend has joked that, in the run-up to Tommy, he would talk about the notion of a rock opera to anyone who would listen. That included Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner, who spoke with the guitarist at length in the summer of 1968 about the Who's next project. "The package I hope is going to be called Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy, he said. "It's a story about a kid that's born deaf, dumb and blind and what happens to him throughout his life. The deaf, dumb and blind boy is played by the Who, the musical entity...But what it's really all about is the fact that because the boy is 'D, D & B,' he's seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music. That's really what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play."
Feeling that he had captured most of what was happening in his head, Townshend played a rough version of the album for critic Nik Cohn, who was not as impressed with the scope of Tommy as Pete was. The two discussed Cohn's reaction and concluded that the serious tragedies of the story could be lightened by the presence of a breezier tune. Knowing that Cohn was a pinball buff, Pete suggested that Tommy could be a mystical master of pinball. Townshend hastily wrote "Pinball Wizard" and the Who recorded it in the winter of 1969. They slapped it in the middle of side three and Cohn now called Tommy "a masterpiece."
Other critics were similarly taken with Tommy, lavishing praise on the double-LP as a breakthrough for the Who and as one of the most daring albums in rock and roll. With "Pinball Wizard" as a hit single and the Who hitting the road for marathon performances of (most of) Tommy along with other live staples, the album introduced the band to a new level of superstardom.
Tommy, the original album, remains a cornerstone of rock culture as music's most famous rock opera. It's one of the Who's most commercially successful albums, having sold more than 20 million copies. If Tommy's reputation has since been downgraded from "masterpiece" (because of Pete's pretensions or some silly plot-connector songs), it's partially because Townshend topped himself in 1973 with the Who's more substantial Quadrophenia. One rock opera is never enough.
Recorded at London's IBC Studios between September 1968 and March 1969. Produced by Kit Lambert.
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- The WhoThe Who are an English rock band formed in London in 1964. Their classic line-up consisted of lead singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist and singer Pete Townshend, bass guitarist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon. They are considered one of the most influential rock bands of the 20th century, selling over 100 million records worldwide.
- Concept albumAlbum with an overall theme.
- Rock operaWork of rock music that presents a storyline told over multiple parts, songs or sections in the manner of opera