After the witty, but flawed The Who Sell Out, The Who still hadn’t been really accepted as a serious album act. That was it, if they were going to conquer the world, they were going to have to use the big guns. It was time for the rock opera. While there had been concept albums before, none of them had been on this scale, Tommy was a double album meditation on loneliness, murder, child abuse, spritual guff, rejection and and a whole host of other weird stuff. On top of this it also had some fantastic tunes and was easily the best Who album to date.
Townshend’s desire for this album to be taken seriously is underlined by the instrumental passages “Overture” and “Sparks”, though admittedly the ambitious “Underture” was far too long for its own good. Most of the characters in this cantata are given voice by Roger Daltrey, though each member of the band seems to get to voice at least one character. As many of the songs on Tommy are a part of the much bigger narrative, there’s actually not that many songs that work well as stand-alone tunes, with only the rocking “Pinball Wizard” and to a lesser extent “Sally Simpson” able to thrive outside of the confines of the parent album.
Tommy is an album you have to listen in totality. There’s no point in which you can happily let your mind wander, other than “Underture”, which probably explains why it is one of the most popular tracks on the album (i.e. it gives you chance to put the kettle on). Arguably the thing that makes Tommy work was the drive and ambition of Pete Townshend and the fact at this stage in their career, The Who were a particularly well-drilled band, capable of making a good job of almost anything thrown at them.
Of course since its release Tommy has inspired countless bands to attempt ill-conceived and frankly tedious concept albums, all trying to be hugely significant and open the doors of perception. Ultimately Tommy is a much more intelligent and creative album than its questionable legacy suggests.