Tommy stood the music world on end. It changed the way we viewed rock-n-roll almost to the same extent that The Beatles' album "Sgt Pepper" did. "Tommy" was the ultimate concept album in that it is a fully integrated piece of music which tells a single story.
Interestingly, the author, Pete Townsend, admits that he was unsure exactly what the story was until the movie was made of the "opera!" The basic story is of "Tommy," who was born while his father, "Captain Walker," is away at sea. Captain Walker returns home after several years absence and discovers Tommy's mother with her new lover. Tommy's mother and her lover kill Tommy's father in front of the young Tommy. (Although the movie has the lover kill the father, the notes at the beginning of this concert have Tommy's father kill the lover.) Although left vague, Tommy may have been beaten to keep him quiet. At a minimum, he was forcefully admonished not to let anyone know about the killing. The mother and lover sing "You never heard it! You never saw it! You'll never tell a soul what you know is the truth!" At the same time, Tommy sings at a nearly inaudible level, "I heard it, I saw it ..." but complies by adding, "I'll never tell a soul what I know is the truth." The psychological trauma from the incident caused Tommy to comply by becomming deaf, dumb and blind so he could never reveal what he knew, or anything else, leaving him alone with his thoughts and feelings. The only contact he is able to have with the world is with a pinball machine.
Thereafter, Tommy is put through physical, sexual and psychological abuse by his family. (His uncle rapes him, his cousin tortures him, and his family take him to the Acid Queen in a failed attempt to break Tommy out of his sightless and soundless state.) Because he is cut off from sight, sound and communication, he is able to have some sort of spiritual contact with the universe which others are unable to experience. -- "Strange as it seems, his musical dreams ain't quite so bad. ... Simpleness will surely take the mind where minds can't usually go."
But, despite his lack of sight and hearing, he becomes a pinball wizzard and a celebrity. When his senses are returned, he is hailed as a messiah. As a result of his incredible "musical dreams" he became a rock-n-roll star, giving "spiritual" concerts. But, as with all messiahs, the masses eventually rejected him because his path to spiritual enlightenment is too difficult to follow. In the end, he was as alone as he had been without his sight, hearing and speech.
The work is on several levels, the first of which is described above. On a second level, Tommy is representative of the entire post World War II baby boomer generation, and how the "younger generation" (rightfully) felt it was being raped by the older generation. This was one of the great themes of the "younger generation" in the mid to late '60s, as they were being shipped off to an unpopular and nearly endless war in Viet Nam to protect the United States' oil interests. Those heros who served in the war came home physically and psychologically maimed, and in many instances addicted to heroin, alcohol and marijuana, marching to a differnt music than when they left, to a world where they were not given a hero's welcome, but, like Tommy, were rejected, mistreated and alone.
There may be a third psychological level where a child who is the victim of abuse can turn around and become an abuser. Tommy was abused. He then creates his "holiday camp" where, under the guise of helping others reach enlightenment, he mistreats the supplicants in the same way he was mistreated: their ears are plugged with wax, their eyes are covered, and their mouths are taped shut. The music playing at Tommy's Holiday Camp is sick carnival caliope music with Phil Collins (the wicked child molesting Uncle Ernie) almost snickering "when you come to Tommy's, the Holiday's for ever..")
The Music: Tommy was one of the first "rock operas." (OK, Pete Townsend will tell you that "Tommy" it is a song cycle, whatever that is! -- and Pretty Thing's operatic "S. F. Sorrow" was released a year earlier.) It is complete with an overture and an underture. The Who wanted to be able to perform it live, so an orchestra was not brought into the studio. The music includes all kinds of queues from classical music, such as the occasional use of a French Horn, trumpet and flugelhorn, and extended, insistent, complex instrumental passages. However, Tommy is not one of the middle of the road pop rock operas which were to follow such as Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita. This was the Who. At one time, they were the loudest rock band around with something like 125,000 watts of power. This is still the Who which performed Live at Leeds, The Who Sell Out, and Who's Next.
After not performing Tommy live for many years, The Who performed it live for the tube. They changed some of the music, freshening up the monster mamoth musical masterpiece. They also brought in some of the best known musicians to play/sing the different roles, including Elton John, Steve Winwood, Billy Idol, Phil Collins and Patti LaBelle. Personally, I think Patti LaBelle blew 'em all away as the Acid Queen. (Damn, that woman can belt out a tune!!) The performances are raw, usually good and occasionally brilliant.
I remember watching this live. It was a Prime Time event! I recorded it concert directly from the TV to VHS, cutting out the commercials. Like reviewer Brandon Smith, I played the tape so many times that I destroyed it. I had to splice it together with scotch tape to keep it playing. I finally lost it and thought I would never find a copy of the concert again. Luckily, they put out the concert on DVD.
However, I was very disappointed with this DVD because, as noted by reviewer Brandon Smith, they left out a big chunk of the concert. After Tommy was finished, The Who went and played some of their hits, which filled out and balanced the performance. Sorrowfully the last third of the concert is missing.
Note: The DVD lasts 65 minutes, not 165 minutes as suggested in the product description. If I may quote the comment below, "That footage is included on the third disc of the original "Tommy & Quadrophenia Live". This is just the first disc of that set. If you want the complete Tommy & Quad shows, you have to buy the 3 disc set."
Because of the missing music, lost to us without reason, I would love to rate this DVD 3 stars. However, the music and performances are good enough that I have to give it 4 stars.