Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Smithereens Who?

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:



  1. The Smithereens "Behind the Wall of Sleep" is still one of my favorite rock songs... I will have to check out this new release.

  2. Hello,
    I was pleasantly surprised that you read my blog so I thought I'd return the favor. And aren't you cute...an artist. I have a daughter who is an artist and a Scorpio. So FYI, I've written a screenplay "How I Survived the Sixties" and some of it touches on the 60's music scene. I loved The Who way back when and Tommy rocked my world. Love reading about it. Looking forward to reading more. You should read my other blogs when you have time.

  3. @hairpinracing: "Behind The Wall of Sleep" - great song! Not to be confused with the latter-day Black Sabbath tune. Jim Babjack can sure jam on that Rickenbacker!

    @Pilarsings: My 8-year-old daughter is an aspiring artist too, but she's not a Scorpio. Her birthday is 6 months to the day ahead (or behind) mine. What I love most about her art is her focus on peace and love. The 60's are alive in the children!

    p.s. I've added you to my Google Reader, so I won't miss any posts from here on out.

  4. This was the first full sensory rock experience I ever had at loud volume: Tommy at the Irvington Theater. Rocked my world and blew my mind. I learned the songs from the ST album, before ever hearing the original Who record.

  5. I guess that's how it goes with the younger generations. They see something second hand and then backtrack and find (and appreciate) the original material later. Same thing happened with Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition." I thought E,L&P wrote it until I found out later. I still appreciate both of those too, though.