I first came across the "rock opera" Tommy in 1975 when my friend Ed called me up and said (conversation approximated due to slow memory fade),
"Dave, we have to go see the coolest movie ever!"
"What's it about?"
"It's about this guy who goes through all kinds of abuse and witnesses his father being murdered, and he gets traumatized so he can't hear, see or speak. Then he discovers pinball and becomes a spiritual guru. And the music really rocks."
"Sounds pretty weird. I'm not so sure..."
"Dave! Trust me on this! It's awesome. You're gonna love it."
"Okay, when's the next showing?"
Well, I saw the movie, starring Roger Daltrey as Tommy, Ann Margret as his mother, Oliver Reed as the evil stepfather, and a large cast of stars in musical cameos including Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, Elton John and a disturbing appearance by Keith Moon as the quite perverted Uncle Ernie. It was a memorable experience, so I bought the soundtrack double album and played it many times over.
In my youthful ignorance I thought it was an original composition just for the movie. Little did I know that The Who had released the classic studio album six years previously! Guess I was just a little too young for such grand rock statements in 1969, where instead I was happy with the Beatles "Yellow Submarine" and The Monkees "Daydream Believer," thank you very much.
I caught up with the original several years later in a record shop and thinking: "What's this? Another version of Tommy? I should check this out!"
I still remember being struck with how quiet it sounded, as it was played mostly on acoustic guitars. Everything was muted but played with real intensity. For several years, I actually preferred the movie soundtrack because it rocked so much harder. (Especially the Elton John track "Pinball Wizard" which was a huge radio hit at the time.) It grew on me over time, however, so that by the 80s I was able finally to
appreciate it for the landmark rock masterpiece that it was. And so it
went, with occasional playings of remastered versions (never sounding
quite as majestic as I thought they could in my head) until I stumbled
across this, just released in 2009:
"Why this?" I wondered. I was especially dubious since the Smithereens' last project was a Beatles covers album, which frankly wasn't all that inspiring. I mean, how many bands have covered the Beatles? Well, Bill Crowley, in the liner notes, explains it best:
"What if the Live at Leeds or Who's Next Who had recorded a proper,
all-out rock studio version of Tommy's best songs, of which there are over a dozen? That's the musical dream that inspired The Smithereens to make this 40th anniversary tribute to one of the bands and albums that inspired their rock dreams of becoming a band in the first place."
Valid enough, and the proof is in the recording. By track 4, "Sparks,"
I was literally shouting "Woohoo!" out loud and grinning while flying
down Highway 26. It, quite simply, kicks ass. Purism aside (they only
recorded 13 of the "best" tracks from Tommy, not the entire double
album), this recording truly accomplishes its goal, a studio rendition
of Tommy with full-on electric bass and guitar and all the mastering
power 2009 recording technology can offer.
Check out the Customer Reviews: The Smithereens play Tommy on Amazon. Not very often you see this kind of enthusiasm for a covers project! Toss in a little of my beloved mellotron on the final track, and I'm in classic rock heaven.
As Roger Daltrey might say: