As the Who began recording Tommy in late-’68, the story came together. A boy who witnessed a tragic death as a child goes catatonic and becomes deaf, dumb and blind. We hear about his trials and tribulations growing up, before Tommy becomes cured with the smashing of his image in a mirror. He turns into a messianic celebrity who is adored by hordes of followers until he starts to preach about simple living. They reject Tommy, who recedes back into his inner world.
Feeling that he had captured most of what was happening in his head, Townshend played a rough version of the album for critic Nik Cohn, who was not as impressed with the scope of Tommy as Pete was. The two discussed Cohn’s reaction and concluded that the serious tragedies of the story could be lightened by the presence of a breezier tune. Knowing that Cohn was a pinball buff, Pete suggested that Tommy could be a mystical master of pinball. Townshend hastily wrote “Pinball Wizard” and the Who recorded it in the winter of 1969. They slapped it in the middle of side three and Cohn now called Tommy “a masterpiece.”
Other critics were similarly taken with Tommy, lavishing praise on the double-LP as a breakthrough for the Who and as one of the most daring albums in rock and roll. With “Pinball Wizard” as a hit single and the Who hitting the road for marathon performances of (most of) Tommy along with other live staples, the album introduced the band to a new level of superstardom. As the lead vocalist, Roger Daltrey became Tommy for the audience – especially in the band’s widely seen, and heavily fringed, Woodstock appearance. The singer discovered a new, more powerful voice in the Tommy performances (listen to him on Live at the Isle of Wight or Live at Leeds). He stopped trying to sing like the high-voiced Townshend and found a lower, fuller sound that would be his calling card for the rest of his time as a frontman.
Of course, the Tommy story doesn’t end there. In 1972 there was an all-star orchestral recording and, in 1975, it became a surrealistic movie directed by Ken Russell and starring Daltrey, the rest of the Who, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Elton John. In 1989, all-star casts were assembled for Who reunion performances in New York and Los Angeles. And, in 1993, The Who’s Tommy became a full-blown, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
Tommy, the original album, remains a cornerstone of rock culture as music’s most famous rock opera. It’s one of the Who’s most commercially successful albums, having sold more than 20 million copies. If Tommy’s reputation has since been downgraded from “masterpiece” (because of Pete’s pretensions or some silly plot-connector songs), it’s partially because Townshend topped himself in 1973 with the Who’s more substantial Quadrophenia. One rock opera is never enough.