Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Music of Woodstock, Part 2 - Tommy

Tommy is an LP in the same ilk as Dark Side of the Moon; an accomplishment for the ages, not  based on the musicianship, creativity, production, arrangements,  or quality of songwriting individually, but instead focusing to create a nearly perfect whole; a Rubric’s Cube, but a solved one. That cohesiveness wasn't always the end product of The Who's ventures. Arguably The Who has the greatest of rock vocalists, guitarists, bassists and drummers. No other band is that cohesive or talented, with the possible exception of Led Zeppelin. No one accuses Nick Mason of being the greatest drummer (essential and instrumental in the PF sound, but distanced by many) or Jon Anderson as the greatest vocalist (greatly overshadowed by Squire, Howe, Wakeman and White – or Bruford or Moraz – despite his vocals guiding the ethereal Yes design). But The Who's brilliance was often flawed, the mod/garage ideology never fully exorcised, and Tommy is one of the few Who LPs of consistent brilliance (Who's Next and Quadrophenia round out the bill).

While there had been concept albums before, none of them had been on this scale. Tommy was a double LP meditation on loneliness, murder, child abuse, spiritual guff, rejection and a host of otherweirdly shit. Townshend's desire for the album to be taken seriously is underlined by the instrumental passages "Overture" "Underture and "Sparks," which hold up as well as anything from Les Miz. As many of the songs on Tommy are a part of the much larger narrative, there few songs that work well as stand-alone tunes, with only the rocking "Pinball Wizard" and to a far lesser extent "Sally Simpson" able to thrive outside the confines of the parent album. "See Me, Feel" and "I"m Free" would only gain their minimal airplay in the golden age of FM. But it doesn't matter. Tommy is an album you listen to in totality. There's no point in which you can happily let your mind wander (other than "Underture," which may explain why it's one of the most popular tracks on the album (i.e. it gives one the chance to put on the kettle roll a spliff). 

The music of Tommy is often neglected when it comes to foam-at-the-mouth battles over the importance of the rock opera and whether it makes sense or not, and if it does, whether it matters. But screw the plot - name me a record that has more original guitar riffs and I'll call you names. Indeed, this is Townshend's high point as a composer. The themes for "Go To The Mirror," "Pinball Wizard," "Amazing Journey," "I'm Free," and "See Me Feel Me" are all unique, but they have something in common: each is built on short, simple, catchy and consequently brilliant riffs. And, since it's an opera, these riffs permeate the session. The majestic  theme in "See Me Feel Me," for example, is reprised four times throughout the epic.

Like Pet Sounds before it, and Sgt. Pepper, Tommy was revolutionary. Here rock takes its boldest step; Tommy is more than conceptual, it is indeed opera, with each of its components fully in place: the overture, the recitative (a dramatic element that moves the story forward – "21" and "Sally Simpson"), the aria ("See Me, Feel Me"), the secco ("Gypsy Queen"), and the acompagnato ("Sparks"). Not to mention the impressive, overloaded libretto.

What Townshend's over the top script is really about is left up to the listener. One can view the story in spiritual terms, psychoanalytical ones and sociopolitical ones. The truth is likely that Townshend lost track himself. There are so many different ideas crammed in, that Tommy's message is buried under puzzling symbolism and outright campiness. Oh, by the way, in case that sounds like criticism, that’s the case with a plethora of opera. Opera was an entertainment that took the pulse of society – hinting simultaneously at politics and love and tragedy and cultural fads, with a touch of the sublime. That's pretty haughty shit. Mozart comes to mind.