Fifty years ago today, “that deaf, dumb and blind kid” who scored immortality in “Pinball Wizard” was born when “Tommy” — The Who’s game-changing rock opera — was released on May 23, 1969.
And the story of the boy who played “a mean pinball” still resonates a half-century later. In fact, The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey — who brought Tommy Walker to life on the double album and later in the star-studded 1975 movie — said it doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine the character as he would be in 2019.
“In today’s world, Tommy would have been very good at computer games,” Daltrey, 75, told The Post. “But life is looking up at people — it’s not looking down at a pinball machine or a computer.” (Or a smartphone, for that matter.)
Speaking and giving voice to a generation of youth in 1969, The Who never looked back after dropping their groundbreaking fourth LP, featuring such classic tracks as “I’m Free” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” While the story about a seemingly disabled boy who goes on to become a religious leader may have required a suspension of disbelief from the listener, it captured some real truths about the time.
“It obviously hit a nerve with the youth of America, that’s for sure, or the youth all over the world,” said Daltrey. “And I think that had a lot to do with the Cold War at the time. Obviously, in America, you had the Vietnam War. That was a generation fighting for its identification and fighting for its spiritual path.”
No doubt, “Tommy” represented the universal struggle of the young, disaffected and lost. “It was at a time when our country was questing, was searching,” said Mark Goodman, an original MTV VJ and longtime Who fan who now co-hosts “Debatable” on SiriusXM Volume. “In terms of our culture, the youth culture, that’s where we were.”
The Who captured the spirit of a generation that needed someone to see them and feel them.
“There were kids who were essentially deaf, dumb and blind, wanting to be heard by their parents, wanting to be heard by their government,” said Keith Levensen, co-producer of the upcoming “Tommy Orchestral” live album, out June 14, and music director of The Who’s current “Moving On!” tour. “And that was just explosive.”
After notching previous hits such as “My Generation,” “Happy Jack” and “I Can See for Miles,” The Who — Daltrey plus guitarist and principal songwriter Pete Townshend, drummer Keith Moon (who died in 1978) and bassist John Entwistle (who died in 2002) — was ready to rewrite the playbook as the ’60s came to a close.
“It was a very adventurous time in music, where the bands ruled the waves, rather than the record companies ruling the waves,” said Daltrey. “It was Kit Lambert, our manager [and ‘Tommy’ producer], who was encouraging us to do a rock opera. He realized that music could be so much more than the three-minute pop single. And, indeed, he was correct.”
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Meanwhile, Townshend had been following the teachings of Indian spiritual guru Meher Baba, which would factor into the “Tommy” narrative. Choosing the name “Tommy” because it was a nickname for World War I soldiers, Townshend wrote all but a few of the 24 tracks and also sang some lead vocals.
Townshend’s songs would tell the tale of a boy who is brainwashed by his mother into thinking he was a deaf and blind mute, and then going on to discover that he can feel vibrations well enough to become an expert pinball player. Ultimately, he recovers his senses and gains power.
Daltrey said that the story took shape throughout the recording process, which went from September 1968 to March 1969 at IBC Studios in London.
“The record was put together with no conception of the end product. It kind of built as it went along,” he said. “It was all a great adventure. For the first time in our lives, we had a longer time in the studio to experiment. Most of my memories are us sitting around the piano, working out the harmonies, layer upon layer of harmonies. We were forming four- or five-part harmonies. And, of course, Keith Moon’s joking around was always enjoyable.”
But whereas in the studio “it was the sum of individual songs,” said Daltrey, it became a greater whole when they practiced the album live before taking it on the road.
“It was only when we got it out into the rehearsal hall for the first time and started to play it together as one piece of music that I suddenly realized, as a singer, this has got to be more than it is on the record,” he said. “My singing, indeed, had to radically change to get the light and shade into it. It needed to be accented onstage more than what was on the record at the time.”
On the recording, though, “Tommy” took Daltrey to another level as a vocalist, according to Goodman. “One of the things that made this album as great as it was is that Daltrey really came into his own,” he said. “This is where he really found his voice, literally and figuratively . . . His style, I think, really sort of set the tone for a lot of other singers in rock and roll after that.”
Although “Tommy” was generally hailed as The Who’s breakthrough, some initial reviews were mixed. Still, the album was an instant hit, going gold in a few months — and eventually selling more than 20 million copies worldwide.
Goodman — who, as a 16-year-old, picked up “Tommy” the first week it was in stores — remembers the excitement that led up to the album’s release. “ ‘Pinball Wizard’ had been out for a few weeks, as I recall, and so everybody was freaked about that,” he said. “There was a lot of anticipation about it. We were all curious to see what this incredible piece of work was.”
At just 10, Levensen bought the album on its actual release day at Manhattan’s now-defunct King Karol record store at East 86th Street and Third Avenue. “I stood in line; that’s what we used to do for records,” he said. “You would stand in line and wait for the next Who album or the next [Rolling] Stones album or the next Pink Floyd album. It was a thing.”
While Goodman would see The Who perform “probably 30 or 40 minutes” from the 75-minute “Tommy” at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory later that year — “It was huge,” he said — the band’s 1969 Woodstock show in support of the album was memorable mostly for the wrong reasons.
“Everything by that time was falling apart,” recalls Daltrey of their second-day appearance. “It was 5 o’clock in the morning when we went onstage. The thing that saved it for me was the sun peeping over the horizon on ‘See Me, Feel Me’ at the end. It was extraordinary after the three days of rain.”
Daltrey performed near the original Woodstock site for last year’s Bethel, NY, show, captured on “Tommy Orchestral.”
“So there I was 49 years later, back at Woodstock playing ‘Tommy,’ ” he said. “Now that it’s orchestrated, I think it’s really brought out the musicality of it.”
Beyond its live performances, “Tommy” got another life when it was turned into the 1975 film with Daltrey playing the title role alongside an all-star cast that included Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson. Daltrey laughs now at the fact that Ann-Margret, who received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, played his mother when she was only three years older than him. “That was a bit of an acting job trying to pretend that she was my mother,” he said, “but I seemed to stick with it.”
You can still hear the impact of “Tommy” — inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as the godfather of all rock operas — 50 years later. “Before there was a ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ or a ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ . . . this was defining,” said Levensen of the “epic” work. “I think it allowed people to go beyond sort of bubble-gum rock to a piece that was really dealing with serious issues.”
Still, Goodman believes that “Tommy” “has diminished a bit in the way that people look at it” over the years.
“It’s a little pompous, a little ponderous,” he said, favoring a subsequent Who rock opera, from 1973, instead. “For me, I think ‘Quadrophenia’ is a far better work. But, you know, ‘Tommy’ is ‘Tommy.’ ”
As The Who tours and works on their first new studio album since 2006, which is due this fall, Daltrey said that “Tommy” has always been bigger than him and his band.
“For me, ‘Tommy’ has always been about all of us,” he said. “We are all Tommy. Tommy is the human condition. All those things within Tommy . . . it’s in all of us.”
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