Tommy, The Who's landmark rock opera, turns 40 years old. The double album released in 1969 was quite a departure from the maximum R&B sound of the early Who. Gone were the rumblings of My Generation or the early British garage pop sound of The Kids Are Alright. Maybe we could have seen it coming after listening to 1967's fake pirate radio themed The Who Sell Out (the song Rael from Sell Out even featured music that would show up in Tommy). However, Tommy was altogether different. It marked an artistic and commercial change for the band. Tommy was more acoustic based, layered with acoustic guitar, piano, keyboards and even a french horn; through Tommy Pete Townshend's gift really emerged. The accoustic sounds really showed Townshend's virtuoso as a player. Also Pete's song writing had also matured; Tommy was a complete story and the music matched with haunting musical themes turning up in different songs (Townshend would use this again in Quadrophenia).
Tommy really took on a life of it's own on stage. The Who's stage show really developed into the worlds greatest rock show; lead singer Roger Daltrey became Tommy on stage, singing confidently while twirling his microphone and catching it at the last moment; Pete Townshend windmilling and slashing the guitar, Keith Moon playing madly on the drums as though his life depended on it, while John Entwistle achored the band with his melodic bass lines all the while standing like a statue. Tommy made the band international stars. They played parts of Tommy at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.
In 1975 the Ken Russell directed Tommy the movie was released. The film contained no dialogue, but was years ahead of MTV with a series of music videos. The cast was star studded with a mix of rockers: The Who, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Tina Turner; and non-rockers: Ann Margret, Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed. The movie was a mixed bag, but the real star of the movie was Roger Daltrey who after years of playing Tommy on stage was a natural for the movie.
Tommy reappeared in the early 90's as a broadway musical. I was in New York City right after the musical's run was ended and just missed this version. However Tommy the broadway musical did win a Tony for best musical score in 1993.
Tommy is making another comeback. The Smithereens have done it again. After doing a couple of Beatles cover ablums, we now get the new release The Smithereens Play Tommy. On this disc The Smithereens play nearly all of the original Tommy album, curiously only a few songs have been omitted. With that said this is a loving tribute from a band deeply rooted in British rock having played these songs as teens. The Smithereens goal here (as the liner notes indicate) was to imagine Tommy having been recorded as an all-out rock studio version with the Who's Next or Live at Leeds sound. It is a fine tribute, but as I said previously, these kinds of tributes are a double edged sword; you tend to love covers instantly because of the familiarity, but after a while you go back to the original.