The effortless flow of The Who’s genre defining rock opera Tommy – which was completed on March 7, 1969, the very day “Pinball Wizard” was released as a single – is deceptive. Beneath its sonic mesh of electric and acoustic guitars and the superb song-to-song integration of its lyrics lays a hotbed of turmoil that pushed Pete Townshend to the brink and left his bandmates feeling, at times, disenfranchised.
For Townshend, Tommy was an attempt to unite the spiritual teachings of his guru Meher Baba with a message about the increasing detachment he saw within the late 1960s counterculture as its creative endeavors continued to become more handily exploited by the mainstream. As if to embody those notions, Townshend, for the most part, created the songs for Tommy in a vacuum. Nonetheless, he believed strongly in The Who’s music as a unifying force and wanted to be sure that all of those ideas and contradictions were carefully threaded into the album’s storyline.
Another defining factor was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Clubs Band and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. These albums were sonically and musically daring, and asked important questions about identity and life in interesting ways. They were a challenge to Townshend, who yearned to move his band – previously an outfit concentrating on pop singles like “Substitute” – to the same conceptual level. The Who’s manager Kit Lambert also pushed Townshend toward this goal, believing it would heighten the group’s popularity, but Townshend and Lambert had serious conflicts about how that should be done during the recording’s execution.
As Townshend wrote and polished the majority of the songs for Tommy at home (eventually two were contributed by bassist John Entwistle), the band also began tracking on September 19, 1968, at London’s IBC Studios, where The Who had previously recorded A Quick One.
Tommy would be far from quick. Townshend turned the studio into a sonic proving ground, beginning the experimentation with synthesizers that would ultimately give Tommy its orchestral sound and leave an indelible thumbprint on the follow-up album Who’s Next. Between perfecting the use of synthesizers for Tommy, developing what would become a signature guitar sound via a blend of acoustic and electric instruments and refining the lyrics and storyline, The Who needed to revisit and re-cut many of the album’s numbers as Townshend constantly refined his vision.
The late Gibson Thunderbird IV bass giant Entwistle recounted the exhausting process thusly: “It took us eight months altogether, six months recording, two months mixing. We had to do so many of the tracks again, because it took so long we had to keep going back and rejuvenating the numbers that it just started to drive us mad. We were getting brainwashed by the whole thing and I started to hate it.”
Another source of tension was Townshend’s battles with Lambert. The Who’s manager and producer wanted an absolute smash album. Townshend wanted a work that also conveyed his ideas, and he felt the recording was become too safe and clean. One of their most dramatic clashes was over the two-LP set’s orchestration. Lambert wanted a full orchestra, like the London Symphony. Townshend wanted to stick to his synthesizers so the band could reproduce the album on tour. His one concession was Entwistle’s French horn, which appears on several of the disc’s transitional instrumental compositions.
As for Townshend, he deployed an arsenal of a half-dozen guitars for Tommy. His famed 1968 Gibson J-200 sunburst acoustic is spotlighted prominently in the rock opera’s tracks, as is his 1968 Gibson SG Special with P-90 pickups and a Gibson ES-355. Both guitars made it through the sessions and onto the road – including at Woodstock – after Tommy was released in 1969, although Townshend used the ES-355 only in promotional appearances.
After its release, “Pinball Wizard” shot to the top of the charts in the U.K. and the U.S., reaching numbers four and 19, respectively, and the album became an instant classic when it was released in May 1969, going on to sell 20 million copies in ensuing years.
Tommy’s success was more than novelty at a time when rock operas were a new idea. Townshend’s first masterpiece has continued to take on lives of its own. In 1971 the Seattle Opera staged a version of Tommy that included Bette Midler as the Acid Queen. Two years later Kit Lambert got his wish belatedly when The Who and the London Symphony Orchestra teamed up on stage at the Rainbow Theatre to perform Tommy. In 1975 cinema auteur Ken Russell made his famed movie version, starring the band – with Keith Moon turning in a particularly wicked performance as Uncle Ernie – along with Oliver Reed and Ann Margaret. And finally, in 1993, Tommy made its way to Broadway.