My first encounter with the universe of The Who was at the music conservatory in France, almost a decade ago. I have to thank my drum teacher for this. She came one day with a stacked set of stapled paper and told me to read it for the next lesson. It was the printed Wikipedia page of The Who. “Are you familiar with rock operas?” she added. I didn’t even know who The Who were.
She was organizing an end of the year performance of Tommy and I was assigned the drum part for “Amazing Journey”. Surely, it was the start of an amazing journey from that point on.
Actually, I’d like to thank her for much more than just this experience. She was the one who pushed me to go beyond my limits as a drummer and perfected my skills as a well-rounded musician overall.
On another occasion, she came back from her trip to India, she sat us, drum students, down to teach us the Indian rhythmic system. Not sure if it was Meher Baba’s teachings that influenced her, but it sure was instructive and inspiring.
Anyway, back to Tommy.
Tommy is the fourth studio album released by The Who in 1969. It is considered as the first rock opera ever written, integrating the traditional opera form into a rock concept album.
Originally called Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy, the album explores the life of a deaf, dumb and blind boy that experiences sight through the vibrations of music while becoming a sensational pinball player.
To be completely honest with you, the first time I listened to Tommy, I thought it was weird. I thought the French horn was strange for rock music, just as Pink Floyd’s orchestra in Atom Heart Mother felt cacophonous.
But as I listened over and over, it changed my perspective of it. My point of view shifted from weird to exceptional. Don’t get me wrong, you might say these words both mean “out of the ordinary” but one is pejorative while the other is meliorative.
What I deem exceptional is the coherence of the musical themes throughout the double album. It can be very tricky to repeat certain chord progressions throughout the album without being redundant.
In “Overture”, several musical themes are presented to the listener as an overview of what to except. Amongst others, the themes of “Go to the Mirror!”, “Pinball Wizard”, “See Me, Feel Me” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” can be heard. Later in the album, “Underture” serves as a closing act that forms a duality with “Overture”, as the name suggests.
In Gizzy Limelight, “Anti-Star” was an attempt to recreate an instrumental theme that could be repeated in other parts of the album. The acoustic guitar solo at the end of “Overture” and the beginning of “Pinball Wizard” influenced my composition. Jimmy Page’s Danelectro solo on The Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin’s “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” was also a strong inspiration for my playing.
Another of these records you have to listen in your lifetime, just for its impact in rock history and as an overview of Pete Townshend’s musical achievements.