I was first introduced to the legendary rock opera, Tommy, through my mom and older brother. My mom grew up with The Who and my brother was much more into classic rock music (while I was bouncing around the house to ’80s nonstop). The experience of hearing Tommy from beginning to end for the first time was like nothing I ever had before. It was a whole life, a full world told through music in a way I didn’t know was possible. Now that magic is back, with a great new way to hear it for the new fans, and unheard and rediscovered tracks to introduce to the old ones.
The Super Deluxe Edition of Tommy comes with four discs. The first one is the original record digitally remastered in high-definition sound. The second disc is a collection of rare demos and outtakes from guitarist Pete Townshend’s personal archive. The third disc is the complete Tommy album remixed in 5.1 Hi-Fidelity Pure Audio on Blu-ray. Completing the package is the fourth disc, a collection of live bootleg tracks built from the 1969 tour and thought to be lost forever, but in actuality saved and hidden away by one of The Who’s sound men.
It’s a monstrous collection for any fan of the band and of this particular piece of rock history. In addition to the music, the Super Deluxe box set comes with an 80-page hardcover book full of photos and memorabilia, an essay from Who superfan Richard Barnes, and a facsimile poster from one of their tours.
I wasn’t able to review the book and other collectible pieces, but I did get to listen to the different discs, and for the real Tommy fanatics, the real gold in the treasure chest are the live bootleg and the demos/outtakes compilations.
Hearing Townshend in the studio fleshing out the early versions on the demo disc is not only illuminating musically, but you get a real sense of the emotional vulnerability lying underneath the songs. It’s stripped down, unproduced and leads to a stronger emotional reaction on tracks like “1921.” Many other tracks differ from their final versions, giving a completely new feel and tone. “Sparks” is almost tribal in its rhythm, while “Amazing Journey” is a much more experimental acid-trip style, closer to something you would hear from Frank Zappa instead of The Who. Throughout the album there is a sense of Townshend stretching the songs out, letting them breathe and show what they could be. It’s like hearing the album’s birth before it grows into musical adulthood. There are a few extra tracks as well which didn’t make the final record, like “Success,” “Trying to Get Through” and “Young Man’s Blues.”
The live bootleg disc is a 180-degree turn in audio style and power. The drumming of Keith Moon at full force once again proves he was the key to what gave The Who their power. Moon’s drum fills and relentless percussion sound are inhuman in their pace, tempo and sheer aggression. Each track sounds like it’s going at warp speed. The entire album is heavier than the studio version, closer to Zeppelin in its tone and sheer volume. Townshend lets it rip on a number of occasions and cements himself once again as a legend in the guitar world, for those who didn’t already believe it. He pulls off some riffs that would make Jimi Hendrix jump out of his seat.
John Entwistle is not lost in the mix either, bringing his bass lines into play on each and every track. Actually it’s lead singer Roger Daltrey that sounds rough and possibly not fully settled in the live version. I saw a documentary a while back about the band called An Amazing Journey which detailed how Daltrey wasn’t fully engaged with the Tommy experiment until midway through their run, so it’s possible these performances were pre-engagement for him. I’ve also seen Daltrey perform the whole album just last year since he’s had an operation on his throat and he not only sounds fully involved with the character and the meaning, but his range is better than it has ever been.
For fans of Tommy, this is a masterpiece collection of new and old material that will add to your enjoyment of this essential piece of rock history.