The Who – Tommy

Overall, Tommy on vinyl has rich definition, especially in the guitars and bass. You can hear it from the first wild acoustic strumming on the Overture. Sparks is a revelation, with thunderous drumming and deep melodic bass. Listen for the ragged harmonies on Go To The Mirror Boy, it comes through with intimate clarity. Tommy is a unique psychedelic trip, and the vinyl takes you all the way down the rabbit hole.

Side 1

I’ve been using Overture/It’s A Boy to demonstrate and test the limits of stereo systems for a long time. Tommy kicks off with mind blowing musical confidence wrapped in a dark and twisted package. Without even knowing what the album is about, you can hear – just from the Overture – that it’s angry music about having been hurt. The Who is at the peak of their powers, operating telepathically. The acoustic guitar during the last minute of the Overture is the sound of maniacal precision and careening insanity. Keith Moon’s thunderous rolls, acoustic guitar, bass, piano, horns, all blend into the fingers of a fist punching through all conventions and doing it with a knowing sense of majesty and tragedy.

It’s A Boy
The sounds of the cymbals shimmer like smoke clearing as the Overture transitions into It’s A Boy. This is copied from Glow Girl, and becomes an almost mystical opening lyric for Tommy.

In addition to everything else he was doing, Townshend had become a unique and compelling vocalist by this point. The wavering sadness and cracking bitterness in his voice and raw harmonies (“what about the boy, he saw it all”) – blueprinted with amazing clarity on The Tommy Demos – pull you completely into the narrative.

Amazing Journey
One of the key tracks on Tommy, and a window into its central theme – mind expansion borne of illness. Strength from injury. Divinity out of punishment. This is Daltrey’s entry into the album. Listen for the electric and acoustic guitars in synch, panned right and left, and the kick drum keeping tempo on the “sickness will surely take the mind…” sections.

The Who would bring this track to terrifying life on Live At Leeds and other recorded performances of the era. Listen for the ascending seagull-like guitar at the opening, and Entwistle’s “lead bass” parts winding around the staccato guitar. And the thundering attack of Moon’s drums in the final third.

Eyesight To The Blind
Double tracked Daltrey vocals propel this adaptation of the 1951 Sonny Boy Williamson record. Listen for harmonies out of the sky on the chorus. She has got the power to heal you, never fear.

Side 2

Townshend so effectively combined bitter cynicism with powerful moving rock themes, this had to blaze the way for Waters-era Pink Floyd and nihilistic 90s rock. A masterpiece of mixing, this track throws instruments into angular spaces in the soundstage like paint thrown into the corners of a canvas. Listen for angelic harmonies sweetening the track in between the “laughing” backup vocals and on the second and third chorus.

Cousin Kevin
Superb harmonies throughout, this underrated track has a crisp drum sound unlike any other. The dissonant descending chorus gives the impression of falling into a pit of torment.

The Acid Queen
Townshend again tearing the track apart vocally, this is another demo quality recording. You can hear the breaths between the lyric lines, the bounce and buzz of Entwistle’s bass, and the hammering of drums in the final half.

At over ten minutes in length, this could be considered filler if it wasn’t so spectacularly performed and recorded. Listen for the crazy urgency of the acoustic guitars, the pulsing bass, and the shimmering tambourine one-third of the way in.

Side 3

Do You Think It’s Alright
This less-than-30-second track sets up Fiddle About with three part harmony from Daltrey, Entwistle, and Townshend. Hear it waver at the very end!

Fiddle About
Entwistle’s second songwriting contribution to Tommy (the other being Cousin Kevin), the stomping drums and bass resemble the heavy footsteps of a monstrous giant. Probably no accident.

Pinball Wizard
For a song that was apparently almost an afterthought, this is one of the most well known from Tommy. It adds a playful dimension to the lyric and stands alone as the most “pop” song on the album. Hear the echoed acoustic guitar at the opening, the perfect synchronization between acoustic and electric, and muted guitar on the 2nd verse.

There’s A Doctor I’ve Found
Another short lead-in track, this maps to Townshend’s original demo, with the addition of piano and vocal harmony.

Go To The Mirror Boy
This one track, with its many changes, seems like the heart of Tommy. It got a blistering treatment on Live At Leeds, reflecting the anger in the lyric. The mid-verse change from major to minor is a sad and beautiful sharp turn. Hear the heartbeat of the bass drum on the “see me, feel me” part, and the perfect harmony as the “listening to you” theme is introduced.

Tommy Can You Hear Me
A showcase for three-part harmony and Entwistle’s melodic bass (you can the pure “tube” sound of the bass in all its glory here).

Smash The Mirror
When the mirror smashes at the end, it sounds like three different pieces of glass. That is followed by a discordant sound similar to the “Sea Of Holes” effect in Yellow Submarine.

Townshend sings this, and he sounds at ease in comparison to his emotional vocals earlier in the album. Probably intentional, as the song is about supreme confidence. The bottom end on this track is particularly rich, and the drum rolls are exceptionally clear. The acoustic guitar occupies its own space in the lower right. The track seems to fade out prematurely as the trumpet comes in.

Side 4

Miracle Cure
The shortest track on the album!

Sally Simpson
Was this really inspired by an incident at a show with the Doors? An exceptionally well recorded track, spacious and many-layered. Double (right-left) “strutting” acoustic guitar strums offset what sound like very light drums. The piano has a bright, natural acoustic sound.

I’m Free
Another mixing masterpiece, with everything in its own space in the soundstage. Keith Moon’s drumming here is so sideways, it almost sounds like he’s playing a different song. Listen for tambourine in the upper right, and piano sprinkled in the mid section. The acoustic guitar solo sounds a little like Love Ain’t For Keeping.

The sound quality keeps getting better through side 4, Roger’s vocal sounding particularly intimate and full of texture here. Listen for harmonica just before the middle, and very high harmony. The drums have an airy, echoey feel here. Maybe this track is meant to convey a sense of heaven.

Tommy’s Holiday Camp
Keith Moon’s “songwriting” contribution to the album. Nice bit of contrast just before the finale.

We’re Not Gonna Take It
A completely stellar mix, as you can hear as soon as the high harmony comes in after the first line. The trembling anger of the first half of Tommy is replaced by calm defiance, until the “see me, feel me” part. There the album feels full circle as the “seeking/realization” vibe returns fully in the form of the raw “listening to you” harmony.

A miraculous double album, with more acoustic guitars, more harmonies, more sonic innovation than any other Who record. Listen to it at full volume and be blown away.