Tommy is one of the earliest and most important rock operas. The iconic rock opera had many incarnations, including an album, movie, soundtrack, a Broadway play, an orchestral version and a ballet interpretation. Conceived and primarily written by Pete Townshend, the Who’s critically revered concept album, Tommy, was released in 1969.
When the album Tommy was released over 35 years ago, the media divided into two distinctive groups. On one side, critics labeled it “shattering” and “remarkable.” On the other side, some media viewed the work as exploitative. The story of Tommy is one of a handicapped child who is abused by family members and others and goes on to become a spiritual leader. This is an area that no pop album had dared to tread before Tommy. The controversy of Tommy led to the album being banned by the BBC and various radio stations, an act that did little to hurt its sales. Richard Barnes wrote in the liner notes of the 1993 Tommy reissue, “Its story covers murder, trauma, bullying, child molestation, sex, drugs, illusion, delusion, altered consciousness, spiritual awakening, religion, charlatanism, success, superstardom, faith, betrayal, rejection and pinball.”
The album chronicles the story of a boy who becomes deaf, dumb and blind after witnessing the murder of his father. Through his mastery of pinball, he is cured, elevated to prophet status and then turned on by his followers. Without his major senses, Tommy is left to feel everything through rhythms and vibrations. This examination of spirituality and self was a massive success and hit Number 4 on the U.S. album charts. The Who’s subsequent tour included a full performance of Tommy at each show. Ultimately, the barrier-shattering piece was performed at several major opera houses, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. In 1975, director Ken Russell released his film version of Tommy, starring the Who, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, and Jack Nicholson. The film also featured appearances by Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and Elton John. A Broadway musical version debuted in 1992.
“The Who are one of the great bands in rock and roll history, and Tommy is one of their greatest works,” said Jim Henke, the Museum’s Chief Curator. “We have worked closely with Pete Townshend, who created Tommy, and the result is a comprehensive look at the first rock opera.” The exhibition featured Townshend’s handwritten manuscripts and production notes as well as costumes, instruments, posters and other artifacts from the numerous incarnations of Tommy.
Artifacts in the exhibit included: