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Holiday Gift Guide Review: The Who, “Tommy: Super Deluxe Edition”

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Tommy SDE

The opening chords of The Who’s Tommy may be among the most famous in all of rock.  By the time the horns kicked in, around the forty-second mark, it was already clear that this double-album wasn’t business as usual for the heavy mod-rockers.  In fact, the melodic, thunderous, commanding piece of music that opened the 1969 album sounded a bit like the overture to a Broadway musical, weaving together themes that would follow.  Thirty-four years later, it would become one.  By the time The Who’s Tommy opened at New York’s St. James Theatre, the deaf, dumb and blind boy created by Pete Townshend had already been reborn in various stage productions, a controversial film, all-star record albums, and of course, on the concert stage as embodied by Roger Daltrey.  What’s left to discover, then, about Tommy?

Following the 2011 Super Deluxe box set dedicated to The Who’s Quadrophenia, the band has turned its attention to the album that put “rock opera” squarely in the lexicon, remastering the original work and adding 20 demos (most previously unissued), a new 5.1 album mix on Blu-ray and a 21-track live disc primarily culled The Who’s 1969 performances.  Just as essential to the package is an 80-page hardcover book that explores the phenomenon of Tommy.  This is the most immersive edition of Tommy yet, inviting listeners to revisit The Who’s amazing journey.  It’s also a more daunting project than even Quadrophenia.  That album has always existed in the shadow of big brother Tommy, and the Super Deluxe Edition revealed – particularly with Townshend’s demos – a fascinating world of might-have-beens and alternate roads not taken.  The material on Tommy is so much more familiar, and the revelations aren’t nearly as plentiful.  But that’s not to say that it’s not a journey worth taking.

Read on after the jump!

Tommy sounds startlingly fresh in this crisp remastering of the original 1969 mix.  For all of the ambitions of Tommy, the remaster here makes clear that this was still a band record with Townshend, Entwistle and Moon on top of their instrumental games.  Even fans familiar with the album might hear something new in the individual parts – acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass and percussion, especially – thanks to the clear separation here.  This is a record designed to be played loud, and it pays off here in the crunchy riffs and subtler textures alike.  Try the instrumental “Sparks” and the cheekily-titled “Underture” for starters.  The Who, with producer Kit Lambert, accomplished a large sound without the sweetening of strings or an orchestra (as Lambert had once considered, to Townshend’s chagrin) ; The Ox particularly came through with not just bass but French horn, trumpet and flugelhorn.  Moon’s drumming was typically flamboyant but woven intricately into the overall sound.

Tommy leaves much of its story to the imagination, though it’s difficult today to listen without filling in the blanks of the story as fleshed out by the film and the stage adaptation.  Yet it’s nonetheless remarkable how the original Tommy – just The Who’s fourth studio album – could be both full-bodied rock and sublimely theatrical.  (Clearly, the guitar-smashing, drum-igniting band knew a thing or two about theatricality!)  Townshend by his own admission drew on his own experiences to create Tommy, so its story is intensely personal.  But he had matured enough as a songwriter and a storyteller to make his story of a traumatized young child into an accessible, universal and ultimately triumphant one.  His music for Tommy is frequently, memorably anthemic, but its arrangements as built off Townshend’s acoustic guitar work lend it a rooted, earthy sound, too.  For all the brass and layered overdubs, Tommy also has a sparseness that made it identifiable as the work of the same band as “Magic Bus” or Townshend’s three-minute masterwork, “I Can See for Miles.”

Roger Daltrey’s presence has loomed large over Tommy in every subsequent incarnation, as his vocals on the album are so rich and filled with character – as Tommy on “I’m Free” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” as The Hawker on Sonny Boy Williamson’s song of the same name, or as Tommy’s Mother on “Smash the Mirror.”  When he “became” Tommy in The Who’s electrifying onstage performances, it was the perfect marriage of performer and character, with pathos and swagger occurring in equal measure.  Daltrey discovered new textures in his voice during recording for Tommy; originally it was planned that he wouldn’t sing a lead until “I’m Free.”  When Daltrey found the right voice for Tommy’s inner refrain of “See me, feel me,” it unlocked the rest of the character to him.  Daltrey and Townshend, most persuasive as The Acid Queen but singing various other parts on the album, complemented one another with precision on “Go to the Mirror,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and of course, “Pinball Wizard.”  .  Largely unsung hero Entwistle also ran with Townshend’s assignment to write the songs for the abusive Cousin Kevin and Uncle Ernie, bringing them to life with his disturbing vocal cameos.  (Townshend sang Uncle Ernie on “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” however, as his original demo was used on the final recording.)

Townshend began, as usual, with big ideas.  Richard Barnes’ exhaustive essay accompanies the Super Deluxe Edition, some 60 pages in length (including illustrations, some of which take up entire pages).  In this chronicle, The Who’s composer-lyricist reveals that The Amazing Journey (an early title for Tommy) was “sort of the story of a seeker, and you saw his life in reality and in a dream, that sort of thing.  You’ve got a double-barreled plot.  One minute you’d see him from one angle objectively, and the other minute, you’d see him from the other angle subjectively…”  At this early stage, Tommy wasn’t even “deaf, dumb and blind.”  Townshend, a disciple of guru Meher Baba, explored this spiritual quest first in a lengthy, 200+-line poem that he later distilled to write the first song for what would become Tommy: “Amazing Journey.”  This work dovetailed with Townshend’s researching autism and developing his title character (and most famous musical creation).  More and more, Townshend’s own history and beliefs, as well as current experiences, found their way into Tommy.  An encounter with Jim Morrison at a co-headlining show with The Who and The Doors, led to “Sally Simpson.”  A Rolling Stone interview at the time confirmed the opera Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy once all of these details fell into place.

Townshend’s creative process is on display on the second disc of the Super Deluxe Edition, dedicated to 25 of his demo recordings and outtakes.  The 2003 Deluxe Edition of Tommy included five of Townshend’s demos (“It’s a Boy,” “Amazing Journey,” “Christmas,” “Do You Think It’s Alright” and “Pinball Wizard”) along with more outtakes and alternates, for its 17-track bonus disc.  “It’s a Boy,” “Do You Think It’s Alright” and “Pinball Wizard” are repeated here.  “Amazing Journey” is presented in an earlier demo sans overdubs and “Christmas” in a later one.  Without the balance of the previously issued extras, however, the SDE can’t be considered truly definitive.  The “new” demos premiering here, though, are illuminating.  Much of Tommy was shaped and sequenced by the time of these demos, rather fully-produced in Townshend’s tradition with the singer expressively taking on each role, overdubbing harmony and duet vocals, and playing a multitude of instruments.  (Alas, no specific recording dates are provided.)

There are lyric variations (“Got a feeling ‘29 is going be to a good year…” in the future “1921,” “Playing with himself” instead of “Playing poxy pinball” in “Christmas” and a harsher set of lyrics for The Doctor in “Go to the Mirror”) and musical experimentation.  A roaring “Sparks” runs nearly eight minutes’ in length, although the tighter final version packs more punch.  Townshend also tinkers with sound and tape effects on “Amazing Journey” and “Dream One.”  “Dream Two” would become the Underture.  These windows into his creative process are never less than intriguing, as he stripped down all of the excess to get his rock opera into lean, mean shape for release.  His lead on “Pinball Wizard” became much more aggressive in its final form than in the demo, perhaps spurred on by his bandmates’ musical contributions.  Interestingly, Townshend even demoed a hypnotic version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “The Hawker,” making a case for its central role in the development of Tommy.   The Who appear on two tracks on this disc: Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” as included on The House That Track Built vinyl sampler in 1969, and the studio outtake of “Trying to Get Through.”

Good as the CD remaster of the original album is, those equipped with a Blu-ray player and a 5.1 surround system will find even more to enjoy in the Hi-Fidelity Pure Audio BD (also available as a standalone release).  The BD contains hi-res stereo and 5.1 versions of the album in 24/96 PCM and 24/96 DTS-HD Master Audio formats, respectively.  The surround mix by Bob Pridden and Richard Whittaker is a distinct one from the 2003 DVD-Audio version, and actually a bit more discrete.  Instrumental separation is distinct, with good, interesting and occasionally surprising use of all of the speakers including the rear channels.  It’s a different, but equally valid, listening experience from the DVD-A version.

The third CD is dedicated to The Live Bootleg Album, also available as the second disc of the 2-CD Deluxe Edition.  Most of these furious, fiery live tracks were recorded on The Who’s fall 1969 tour (although a few tracks appear to have been taken from a much later 1976 concert.)  Townshend introduces the bootleg with a speech from the stage: “We’re gonna play Tommy for you now…on this particular tour, we’re carrying a fairly inexpensive recording system with us, and we’re recording all our shows…and we’ve recorded them all up to now, and we’re recording tonight…and we’re hoping that maybe by the end of the tour that we’ll have enough music on the tape…”  He then promises a live Who album due the following January.  With this release, he’s finally made good on his words to the audience about possibly releasing music from “this very garbage can!”  A studio could never totally contain The Who, and these tracks – rough and tumble, and of the moment – are no exception.

Pete Townshend likely considers the Super Deluxe Edition to be the final word on Tommy.  As such, it’s packed with text and artwork to best be savored while listening.  The coffee table-worthy tome, housed in a slipcase reproducing Mike McInnerney’s iconic album artwork and paintings, includes not just Barnes’ essay but full lyrics to the original album and numerous illustrations and photography.  The four discs are stored in slots affixed to the interior of the book’s back cover.  This 4-disc Tommy is a worthy follow-up to the box set editions of Quadrophenia and Live at Leeds although it would have approached perfection had it made room for all of the material (including the previously issued outtakes from 2003) related to the album.  A large foldout poster promoting the band’s London Coliseum gig of December 14, 1969 is the only swag in this mercifully-lean package.

Tommy freed rock and roll to explore new long-form possibilities; it wasn’t the first “rock opera” (and wouldn’t be the last!) but remains epochal to the genre and one of the grandest statements of Pete Townshend’s desire to merge primal, blues-influenced hard rock with high art.  The proof of Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon’s success can be explored more fully and in greater detail than before on this new Tommy.  The creation of this landmark record is still an amazing journey.

You can order Tommy: Super Deluxe Edition at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K. !

Written by Joe Marchese

December 20, 2013 at 14:13

5 Responses

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  1. My only quibble with the set is that it lacked what made the “Quadrophenia” deluxe box so special–the personal involvement of Pete Townshend. While the Richard Barnes essay is fine, in light of the Quadrophenia book (in which Pete wrote every word, right down to the photo captions) it seems somewhat clinical. There is also certain previously released items that could have been incorporated–“Cousin Kevin Model Child” and also the alternate vocal version of “Eyesight To The Blind”, but also back in 1996, Pete contributed quite a bit to a “Tommy” CD-ROM which, through a now-primitive interface, included images such as handwritten lyrics, etc.


    December 22, 2013 at 00:37

    • Yeah, I have never understood how a “Super Deluxe Edition” would not include all previously-released related material. These sets should be as comprehensive as possible, but there are always items missing. It’s almost enough to make me cynical. 🙂

      Jason Michael

      December 22, 2013 at 05:32

  2. I think Sonny Boy’s song is variously called “Eyesight to the Blind” or “Born Blind,” not “The Hawker,” which was the Who’s own fancy. It seems to me that the Who’s alternate title gave the song a twist wanted for the rock opera: Instead of a man bragging about his girlfirend as in Sonny Boy’s song, the Who turned the man into a pimp bragging about one of his girls.


    December 23, 2013 at 10:44

    • Indeed, the original 1951 recording by Sonny Boy was titled “Eyesight to the Blind” while Pete retitled the song “The Hawker” for the TOMMY LP.

      Joe Marchese

      December 23, 2013 at 11:19

      • There have been multiple song title discrepancies in the Who catalog over the years, usually arising when comparing a UK title to its US counterpart–is it “Can’t Reach You” or “I Can’t Reach You”? “I Don’t Even Know Myself” or “Don’t Know Myself”? “Mary-Anne With The Shaky Hand” or “Mary Anne With The shaky Hands”? “Relay” or “The Relay”? “Wasp Man” or “Waspman”? The US version of the “Tommy” album retitled “1921” as “You Didn’t Hear It”.

        As for “Eyesight To The Blind”, that was Sonny Boy WIlliamson’s title, but I believe the “Tommy” album usually refers to it as “Eyesight To The Blind (The Hawker)”–which clarifies nothing, of course. In the movie and the Broadway musical, the song is sung by a character called “The Hawker” (Eric Clapton sings it in the movie; Richie Havens also sings it on the 1972 orchestral adaptation). I seem to recall the Richard Barnes essay mentioning that Pete was concerned about the song’s original context–the song is ostensibly sung by a pimp–caused him to add the alternate title in order to suggest otherwise.

        (A huge problem I had with the Barnes essay–it contained a lot of great info, but contained absolutely no index, so referring back to it is a pain in the neck.)

        Pete also performs ETTB live on several of the solo shows available from his Eel Pie label, and I don’t believe that they include “The Hawker” in the tracklisting, although I would want to go home and double-check this.


        December 23, 2013 at 12:37

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