When The Who released their landmark double album Tommy back in 1969, the idea of “concept albums” was hardly anything new in rock and roll. That barrier had already long been crossed, most significantly by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper in 1967.
Historically speaking (and contrary to popular belief), Tommy wasn’t even the first rock opera. The Who were beaten to the punch for that honor by their own “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” a nine minute “mini-opera” which came out in 1966, and by the Pretty Things much lesser-known SF Sorrow, released a year before Tommy in 1968.
Even so, Tommy proved to be a pivotal moment for The Who, transforming them from a largely hit and miss “singles band,” into the loftier status of being taken more seriously as credible album artists. The commercial and critical success of Tommy propelled The Who from performing in mid-sized theaters and auditoriums, to selling out arenas (and even prestigious opera houses) overnight. Tommy also significantly elevated Pete Townshend’s reputation as a songwriter, as he became regarded as a “serious composer” – a title only given to folks like Dylan or Lennon & McCartney, when afforded to pop musicians at all – for the first time.
To this day, Tommy is still regarded as a masterpiece.
Sensation – The Story of Tommy, a new documentary from Eagle Rock, re-examines the Tommy phenomenon, offering up some surprising new perspectives on the acknowledged classic. The film includes vintage interview and performance footage from the time period, as well as newly conducted interviews with surviving Who members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (who have each also given the project their official blessing). Music critics like Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis and other key players like the Who’s late co-manager Chris Stamp and album artwork designer Mike McInnerney are also interviewed.
Many of the live clips seen here will be familiar to Who fans, coming from sources like Woodstock and the amazing 1970 Live At The Isle Wight concert film. But there are also a number of nice surprises here, including rarely seen TV footage of The Who performing the early, pre-Tommy single “I Can See For Miles.” Hearing it again all these years later, it’s hard to disagree with Townshend’s cocky self-appraisal of the song as “brilliant,” and even harder not to second-guess why it hasn’t been more of a staple in The Who’s live shows ever since.
Although it does not overlook the contributions of the other members of the Who – in particular, the way that Roger Daltrey so uniquely inhabited the messianic rock star qualities of the Tommy character onstage – much of the focus of Sensation – The Story of Tommy is on Townshend, and wisely so.
While The Who collectively viewed Tommy as a critical, make-or-break turning point in the commercial fortunes of the band, Townshend’s own creative process was more deeply personal. He reveals how the songs drew from his own memories of child abuse, but were also inspired by his spiritual experiences as a new follower of Meher Baba. On a lighter note, Townshend claims to have written the song “Pinball Wizard” after spending time playing pinball with the rock critic Nik Cohn, and hoping to get Tommy a five-star review (which he did).
While Sensation – The Story of Tommy does cover a lot of familiar ground, fans will appreciate the new details (especially those offered up by Townshend), as well as some of the more rarely seen performance and TV footage. Speaking of which, the DVD and Blu-ray also includes a 33 minute bonus feature from the German TV show “Beat Club,” which includes a Pete Townshend interview and The Who performing (well, actually lip-synching) several songs from Tommy.