The Who's Sensational Tommy
Looking Back at the Rock Opera
During the wonder years of rock, roughly 1964 through 1974, every new album seemed to be a leap ahead of whatever came before. One of the longest strides from that era, The Who’s Tommy, gets its making-of documentary in Sensation: The Who’s Tommy (out on Blu-ray, DVD and assorted digital formats).
Sensation successfully sets the stage and provides the context with a brief summation and rare footage of The Who’s early days as a mod sensation. The onset of psychedelia caused the world to turn more quickly (and in kaleidoscopic colors). Pete Townshend wrote a pocket size rock opera as early as 1966 with A Quick One, but other groups also raced to find new ground. With its World War I theme, The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow (1968) was surely an inspiration for Tommy (1969), even if Townshend choses to dismiss the comparison.
Regardless of who came first, The Who became the group that put the term rock opera in circulation. It was an ambitious project. With Tommy, Townshend tried to make sense of reality in terms of Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba; he essayed the hollowness of pop culture and the brutality integral to what passes for civilization in a set of songs that told a story. Of course, as one of the journalists interviewed for Sensation says, most of The Who’s early hits also told stories and likewise articulated the feelings of the inarticulate, whether the stuttering spokesman of “My Generation” or the emotionally uncertain narrator of “I Can’t Explain.”
Townshend is generous in acknowledging his debt to those around him in composing Tommy. Managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp helped Townshend sort out his ideas; he drew inspiration from artist Mike McInnerney (designer of the album’s gatefold cover) and rock critic Nik Cohn, whose idea of making the protagonist a pinball star helped bring the lofty concept down to earth.