DVD Review: “Sensation: The Story of The Who’s Tommy”

By Mike Finkelstein

As a coming-of-age 14 year old, I finally procured a small stereo system (with separate speakers!) in the Spring. This was a major development for me. I was ready to receive all the records I could handle! What could be better? One of the very first purchases I made was of a friend’s copy of Tommy. Though the album had been out a couple of years, and I knew of it through songs like “Pinball Wizard,” I also knew that there were two platters’ worth of music to discover just waiting for me. And it was the Who, so of course it was going to rock and be a blast to get into! That summer, it was all I really wanted to listen to, my go to album. I took a trip to South America and several points in between, and I heard pieces of Tommy in my head constantly. To this day when I hear music from the original album I’m simply transported, mesmerized.

The package of Tommy was so enveloping and artful, set in a different time but drawing me in elegantly. The music really did take me on an amazing journey with every listening. The artwork was cool, conceptual, and devoid of the usual posed band promos and sweaty live action shots. Though the Who were already legendary for their fantastic performances, this album didn’t even touch on that! What a chance to take! There were only a couple of small, shadowy, almost minor images of the actual guys in the band reaching to break through the black facets of a broken sky. Powerful stuff, this was. The rest was this impressionistic art that evoked profound sensual isolation and the urgency of breaking out of it with haunting beauty. Something different was definitely going on here and the music would explain it with further and deeper listening.

Now, nearly 45 years since the album’s release, Eagle Rock Entertainment has just released Sensation-The Story of Tommy, an entertaining examination of what went into the development of the Who’s defining studio album and how it kicked open the doors for so many bands to follow them in pursuing their music on their own terms. The entire process of conceiving, recording, presenting, and playing Tommy is covered in detail, as are the film and theatrical versions of it.

Going into 1968, the Who were a successful but challenged pop band. In those days bands were really only riding as high as the last single’s success left them. Albums were not yet looked upon as entire entities. The Who did have a parade of hit singles to their credit. And these songs were often interesting, somewhat oddball little ditties about everything from cross dressing, to masturbation, and hoping to “die before I get old.”

Their image was not of a trip clean, well-scrubbed, safe bunch of English pop stars. They were an odd looking bunch of dudes, who looked like they could and would kick your ass if that’s the way it had to be. And this toughness powered their development into a legendary live act in which it never actually seemed much of a stretch to watch them destroy their instruments onstage nightly. There is footage included of those days, filmed at very intimate camera angles, which catches the insane trance-like state Townsend could reach. We see it in his eyes, driven by the power in the music and the spectacle of it all. Just brilliant. Now, PT glibly recalls that the band were “rather profligate” in those days. Yes, a lot of classic equipment was sacrificed regularly. But the band would soon take a new turn.

In 1968, they had released “I can See For Miles,” a record that many consider one of the best singles ever by them or anyone else. It failed to get above #10. This left them frustrated and dumbfounded. What happened?

At the time the great wild card in young artists’ creativity was often LSD. While many used acid as a way to get an angle to an insight on life, its downside was that it could lead one straight out of their mind. As it happened, that year Pete Townshend had a life changing acid trip on a flight back to England from the US. He nearly did lose his mind. After an out of body acid experience he realized he was not necessarily connected to his body. He became strongly anti-psychedelic drugs and a man on a mission to find depth and meaning in his own life and that of his band. This led him, through his close friend/confidente and Tommy’s cover artist, Michael McInnery, to Meher Baba and onto a deep self-exploratory path.

As he learned more about himself, his creativity flourished. Townshend looked back at his life and wrote songs about all the sordid, dysfunctional facets of it. Brilliant, inspired, sophisticated music and incisive words flowed out of him. As the saying goes, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Of course, it is a treacherous path to take.  But Townsend was strong and determined, as well as hugely sensitive and creative. The fact that he actually pulled Tommy out of the process without losing his mind still looms as remarkable so many years later. Tommy put the Who into a different stratum of bands, into the realm of making real pop art.

The Who
The Who

Indirectly or directly, Tommy also changed Roger Daltrey’s life for the larger. He basically became the Tommy character in a totally non-contrived manner. He simply sang the parts with empathy for the Tommy character. There is a very telling clip where we hear an isolated vocal track of Daltrey singing “See Me, Feel Me.” It’s classic, angelic, and I’ve always thought it was right next door to perfect. Townsend explains that he was originally set to sing the track himself, but when he heard Daltrey’s take it was decided right there. It was a perfect fit and it changed RD’s life and career, putting it onto the next level. He also reveals that it was around this time that he stopped straightening his hair, letting it grow in naturally curly golden locks. And thus was a rock God born.

As beautiful a musical experience as Tommy is, the songs are about some of the sickest, most scrutinized, and now politically incorrect human dysfunctions around. The real story behind Tommy is the same dysfunction that Townsend experienced as a boy. Ugly truths of English youth are held up like dissected frogs. Nothing was off limits and everyone in and surrounding the band believed in getting it all out and recorded. They were on a fantastic creative roll. We get songs of bullying, murder, wickedness, cruelty, sexual abuse, and trauma. The plot is chock full of sick and twisted characters.

Townsend reveals the nasty truth that many English boys he knew endured a great deal of abuse during the evacuations of London during WW2. This was a much more common thing than most were willing to speak about until recently. Townsend was not even able to write about the wicked Uncle Ernie in “Fiddle About,” and gave it to John Entwistle who assured Pete it wouldn’t be a problem for him to write the song. This is why we hear Pete wonder confidently if Entwistle, too, hadn’t endured some of this abuse. And there are tales of the “weird shit” Townsend went through with his grandmother and mother. While it approaches too much at times, it’s also fascinating and revealing to hear PT talk about these issues so candidly. And, for any fan, it sets things straight.

Pinball is the ongoing visual theme of Sensation. We see old school pinball machines throughout in black and white…beautiful old bumper machines with stylized detailing. Not so surprisingly, Townsend had Tommy Walker set to be some sort of rock ‘n roller, but in this documentary the road to Tommy’s prowess at pinball is revealed. Many thanks go to Rick Cohn for that and it makes a very interesting story. Ah, what is the price of a top-notch review…a revision or two? Somebody who’s deaf, dumb, and blind could actually do something miraculous.

One of the things I always enjoyed about Tommy is how clear the vocals were and how trippy the music was. One was not sacrificed for the other. Sure enough, it’s revealed that the plan was indeed to mix the vocals prominently out in front of the mix so that the words wouldn’t be lost. But oh, how, those harmonically weezing guitars continue to haunt.

Tommy was recorded in 1969 on an eight-track machine. This was at a time in which eight tracks was a quantum leap up from four. Amazingly, it’s revealed that the band didn’t really have much use for all the tracks, and they ignored a few. Their focus was to be able to play Tommy live and so they meant to keep things simple and reproducible on stage. It’s agreed upon that the Who’s live shows in 1969 after the release of Tommy are/were on a level that no one in rock music has ever surpassed.

Sensation gives us a trove of information about the persona of the band going into their Tommy stage as well as the perspectives of many of the key players in the project. Many viewers will be keen to hear all of it as Tommy was a watershed album for the rock genre as much as it was for the Who. The story behind Tommy is involved and Sensation goes the distance to explain the whole thing. For anyone even remotely interested in the story this disc makes for very welcome viewing.  In fact it’s a must see.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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