Saturday, 29 July 2017

Tommy "The Who"

Apparently, confused by the album's artwork, some parties in America thought the album was called "The Who" by Tommy. This indicates the extent to which this lp elevated The Who into the major league of performers when before they had been just a quirky singles band with a limited profile. I do not want to get into the wider resonances of this piece and interpretation of its meaning as I want to focus on the actual sound and initial impression of the records. Suffice to say that The Who managed to, seemingly on the fly, draw together a number of themes and ideas contemporary to their times and parcel them up within a digestible story. Issues such as autism, hero worship, belief in gurus, sexual assault, drug abuse, the mind-body problem and, of course, pinball are given an airing. That the story has legs is shown by its later adaptations and interpretations into orchestral versions, celebrity concerts, a film and stage show.

"Tommy"'s longevity is in major part due to its successful focus on the story and the fact that this story has sufficient characters and incidents to remain interesting while retaining a clear narrative thrust focusing on a few relatively simple elements. Other narrative pieces from the same period such as "SF Sorrow" by The Pretty Things and "Arthur" by The Kinks, do not achieve this and have become footnotes in these bands' careers rather than a cornerstone of their escalation into the top ranks of performers.

A key element of the album "Tommy"'s success lies with its production and the restraint exhibited by The Who, whether intentional or forced on them. The production does not emphasise The Who's power as performers but does offer them the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess as instrumentalists. Acoustic guitars, piano, organ and horn parts litter the musical score delivering a soundscape miles away from the band's earlier feedback drenched electric sound. The main musical themes are delivered, at least initially, by Townshend on acoustic guitar and keyboards. It is a striking moment when the more electric-oriented "Amazing Journey" bursts forth. Pieces like "Christmas", "Pinball Wizard" and "I'm Free" have greater emphasis and impact in the context of the overall piece by their deployment of the electric Who sound. The chief victim of this gentler sound is Keith Moon's drum parts. The full whack and thud of his playing is lost and this is a shame because the album features some of his very best playing (these cannot have been easy songs to accompany). The live recordings from this period capture Moon's full impact and show what a bravura performance it was to accompany these songs.

The softer sound of "Tommy" allows the listener to focus on the lyrics which are crucial in carrying the story. They do this with enormous economy. All of the lyrics are put into the mouths of characters with the exception of "Sally Simpson" (probably the one song which sits least easily in the overall narrative). The song sheet accompanying the original record is very short for such a lengthy work. Because the lyrics consist of the thoughts and words of characters there is no text wasted on exposition. A lack of description also frees the listener to form relevant pictures in his or her own mind. The story is open to interpretation and the action is not necessarily determined. The order of the songs can be changed (as The Who did in live performance) while still making sense.

Musical themes recur throughout the piece, repeated and developed and tying the action together and making links with earlier experiences of the main character. This is Townshend's innovation as a pop composer and one he learnt from exposure to classical composers. Other narrative pieces from around this time present a sequential series of songs that are separate from each other and only linked through their subject matter. Townshend made much of his work indivisible from the other elements through the use of recurring themes and musical motifs. Best of all, the ending of the piece is open and optimistic but not fixed to any one meaning. The essay accompanying the boxed set version of "Tommy" reveals that the "listening to you" climax did not feature as part of Townshend's original plan and the accompanying demo versions of the album show that it was not part of the original "We're Not Gonna Take It" song. Rather it was always just another part of the "Go to the Mirror" song that Townshend at a late stage decided to make the finale of the piece.

As stated, there are recurrent musical themes within the compositions. The reprise of "Pinball Wizard " at the end of "I'm Free", the frequent deployment of the "See Me Feel Me" theme in songs like "Christmas", "Go to the Mirror" and at the end of "We're Not Gonna Take It", the way the end of "1921" prefigures one of the main themes of "Sparks". In fact, the piece "Sparks" pulls together many of these themes, to the extent that if you can "Sparks", you can play the whole of the album. The use of suspended chords is widespread to the point almost of parody but does generate momentum, delay and release to the music and hence the narrative. The fact that Townshend limits his musical endeavors to a few simple themes makes the music easy to grasp and the crescendos easy for the audience to anticipate and enjoy. This makes the album an easier listen and also explains how there was an instant appreciation and audience response to "Tommy" when played in concert to fans who may not have been familiar with the record.

Vocal performances on the album are shared amongst the group with Townshend in particular acting almost as a second lead vocalist. Daltrey often sings in a higher pitch than he normally would, offering restraint and melody to a even a triumphal song like "I'm Free" when he might have been expected to belt it out. This gives a sweeter vocal sound to the group previously responsible for pieces like "My Generation". There is a good balance and ratio between the uptempo numbers and the more sensitive, spiritual songs and Townshend more often than not successfully blends aggression with sensitivity in the midst of the same song.

Finally, unlike many of the double albums discussed already, Townshend exercised considerable discipline in limiting the pieces on the finished album. Other material was recorded but not used including elements that had been part of Townshend's initial conception of the piece. If a piece did not directly service the story then it was discarded. Even though the album was written and recorded under considerable pressure (The Who desperately needed a success to keep them in the public eye and to generate sufficient funds to keep them functioning) the group did not feel compelled to throw everything they had at the piece. Further, the group made an important decision that all instruments on the recorded had to be played by members of the group and that the piece had to be capable of being reproduced on stage by only the four performers. They thus avoided the issue experienced by many other groups of this period of creating a studio masterpiece that could not be played live. Rather, the album is the initial studio version of a live masterpiece.

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