THE HISTORY OF THE WHO’S ‘TOMMY’
(Ultimate Classic Rock) - Pete Townshend has always been obsessed with stories, not just songs. In the mid-’60s, there were few songwriters (the Kinks’ Ray Davies comes to mind) who were more interested than the Who guitarist in crafting songs that related a short tale or painted a character portrait. Listen to those early Who singles and album cuts; many of them are simple, two-and-half-minute stories – ‘A Legal Matter,’ ‘Pictures of Lilly,’ ‘Tattoo’ and (most of all) ‘I’m a Boy.’
When the idea of a “rock opera” was just a glimmer in Pete’s eye, he had the idea of a larger musical piece called ‘Quads’ that was set in a future when parents could select the genders of their children. The main conflict of the story (and the one at the heart of ‘I’m a Boy’) is that one couple gets a boy instead of the girl they ordered, but make do the best they can with the unwelcome child. The bigger project was never completed – and may not have been really attempted – but it did result in a great slice of power pop for the Who and a No. 2 U.K. hit in 1966.
He continued to think about musical stories that could expand beyond a quick-hit radio single. When extra material was needed for his band’s sophomore LP in ’66, he wrote the six-part, nine-minute ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’ – the most significant precursor to the album-length story of ‘Tommy.’ A year later, the Who released arguably the decade’s best concept album. ‘The Who Sell Out’ didn’t link songs by subject matter, but by the idea of a pirate radio broadcast complete with goofy fake ads.
Read More: The History of the Who’s ‘Tommy’