Monday, December 27, 2010
THE BRAIN OPERA
For all of the invention of Pete Townshend's compositions through the 1965-67 period, there was to be a retreat of sorts during 1968 while he worked tirelessly on the next song cycle. Though they were a force to be reckoned with on stage and were well respected by their peers, The Who had not yet delivered the "monster hit album" prior to 1969.
The Walker boy would change everything.
Eight months of planning, discussion, recording, re-recording and mixing culminated in the breakthrough release that would make them superstars.
Given the amount of scrutiny that this record has been subjected to in a search for some higher "message" or "meaning" in its construction, there is little point in adding to the scrapheap of scribblings by armchair analysts. Pete has said that Meher Baba's teachings greatly influenced him during this time (and still do). Freshly inspired, he then distilled and subtly worked these philosophies into the framework of many of the songs that made the final cut.
That being said, the impetus for creating Tommy came directly from Kit Lambert, who really did not care much for rock music and pushed Pete to delve into something much more substantial. Lambert and Townshend kicked around ideas (Kit had actually typed up a manuscript) with multiple approaches. The song "Glow Girl", recorded during the Sessions for Sell Out contained bits that would be incorporated into the larger piece. (Rael has a section from which the main chord sequence for the "Underture" was taken and expanded upon)
Did Pete have The Lemon Pipers in mind when he was cranking out a certain section of the Overture?
Think about it.
On second thought, don't.
Very deft, impressive acoustic playing is the engine that drives much of the material, along with Moon and Entwistle who excel, as usual. Daltrey comes into his own, as he becomes Tommy, carving out a distinct position for himself in the group and projecting an iconic, onstage persona that would remain in place through the following decade.
There is a lightness of touch present on this record that the band would never quite return to. Yes, Moon still manages impossible flourishes across the kit and Entwistle's rollercoaster bassmanship is prominent, though the live attack that each instrumentalist was capable of was not in evidence.
I have no reason to be over optimistic/but somehow when you smile, I can brave bad weather
Some of finest melodies in the Townshend catalog grace these grooves ("1921", "Pinball Wizard", "Christmas", "Amazing Journey" "I'm Free" "Sensation" all stand out in this category) though for all of the brilliance that is obvious here, the story itself is somewhat disjointed and weaves all over the road, narrowly avoiding the ditch as the curtain comes down amidst the "listening to you" refrain.
Having discovered this record in childhood, I got lost in both the sounds and the illustrations in the booklet that came with it. Without any conception of a deeper message, I only knew it was first class all the way. "Amazing Journey" was a far better summation of the disc as a whole (for a 12 year old at least). The plot line of Tommy has been hacked to bits and stitched back together in many different formats for the stage and film. None of these incarnations improves upon the original. (The 1975 movie is unintentionally hilarious) Plus, Townshend had done his usual job of talking himself into a corner before the album came out and was stuck with certain elements of the story that he could have easily pruned away to make it slightly more lucid.
It is to the credit of all involved that Lambert's suggestion of overdubbing an orchestra was vetoed. Entwistle's decorative horn parts and Pete's keyboards are the only augmentation and are quite tasteful, at that.
Again, all of this is trivial in light of the accomplishment itself. Tommy really gained strength as a stage piece and The Who owned ever note. It was a masterful performance that brought the audience to its collective feet every night (always at the same point as Pete recalled) and held them in powerful sway until the end. Encores were regularly called for.
Townshend created an almost impossible act for himself to follow. He would spend the next few years trying to do just that, attempting to raise the bar with each new project.
In terms of impact, it was so overwhelming that many thought Tommy to be the name of the band. The Who quickly became internationally known and all four were freshly minted millionaires almost overnight. Along with critical plaudits came the endless symposiums on what label actually belonged on this ambitious work: Was it a Rock Opera? A Cantata? An Oratorio?
I'd call it great rock record.
Listen and decide for yourself. After all, the whole point of this magnificent exercise is simply to realize that the "answers" to life's great mysteries (that we all ponder occasionally) can only be found within ourselves.
Cast of characters:
Tommy: Main character
Father: "Captain Walker", who is presumed missing in battle but returns home unannounced and unscathed
Mother: Mrs Walker
The Lover: A romantic partner of Tommy's mother, killed by Captain walker upon his return
Uncle Ernie: Tommy's 'wicked uncle', a paedophile who molests him.
Cousin Kevin: Tommy's cousin who brutalises him when the two are left alone.
The Hawker: A pimp for prostitute the Acid Queen, who peddles her services.
The Gypsy: A prostitute who deals in acid and exposes Tommy to the drug in an attempt to heal him.
The Local Lad: Reigning champion of the game of pinball, until Tommy beats him.
The Doctor: Attempts to heal Tommy and realizes that his disabilities are psychological rather than physical.
Sally Simpson: A minor character, who tries to climb on stage to touch Tommy at one of his appearances in his newfound messianic role and falls, cutting her head.