Roger Daltry: Re-Creating Tommy

Image[originally ran in Fast Forward Weekly, October 27, 2011]

The Who weren’t just the loudest of the original British Invasion bands, they were also the most ambitious and the goofiest — look no further than Tommy for proof. While it wasn’t the band’s first concept album (that would be 1967’s brilliant The Who Sell Out), it was the first album to bill itself as a rock opera, borrowing heavily from classical structure and taking full advantage of the studio to compose some startlingly complex arrangements while exploring such heady topics as faith, child abuse, psychology and personal growth.

Then again, it raises those issues through the story of a sensory-deprived kid who achieves fame thanks to his preternatural pinball abilities, eventually curing himself and becoming a messiah figure in the process. Even by the acid-soaked standards of 1969, that’s the kind of plot that’ll raise a few eyebrows. Yet it’s exactly that blend of silliness, sophistication and balls-out rock that has made The Who a band worth revisiting to this day — which longtime fans and newcomers alike will have the chance to do when founding frontman Roger Daltrey brings Tommy to the Saddledome this weekend.

Granted, it’s not exactly The Who that’ll be performing. Guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, the only other surviving member of the original lineup, is battling severe tinnitus that makes it impossible for him to tour, which means that Daltrey had to assemble a crack band (including Townshend’s brother, Simon) to back him. But while purists will claim that only the original lineup could do justice to “Pinball Wizard,” as Daltrey recalls, even The Who couldn’t quite pull it off live.

“The Who, once we got onto the stage with it, we were limited with the instruments,” he explains. “We just had bass, guitar, drums. On the record, there’s plenty of overdubs. There’s overlays of vocals, harmonies that The Who couldn’t do at the time. There were songs that The Who never played. But to make up for that, we were young, we were over-testosteroned and we made it into much more of a physical, rock-and-roll-circus type event.”

That’s not to discount the sweat-soaked spectacle of the original lineup, and if you’ve never listened to the complete Tommy performance on disc two of the Live at Leeds deluxe CD, your priorities are way out of whack. This time around, though, Daltrey’s main goal is fidelity to the album. Aside from cutting out the “Underture” that closes the album’s second side, which Daltrey describes as a “superfluous” jam included only to fill 10 minutes on the album, Daltrey and co. are attempting to re-create the album as faithfully as possible.

“We play [the notes] as though one composer had written them, as a piece,” he says. “Pete really just wrote the top lines of the songs, the roots of the songs. Everything else was layered on by the band. If you imagine that band as one person, and let’s just call him Mozart for the sake of a name, and then Mozart had written all those notes down and called it Tommy, that’s how we play it.”

Daltrey is clearly dead serious about the classical comparison, but then, that’s hardly a recent development. The Who might’ve been half-joking when it asked its audience to shut up during its original live run-throughs of Tommy (because “it’s an opera, innit?”), but the band was very conscious about how the album would be presented from the very beginning.

“The whole idea for it came from our manager, Kit Lambert,” Daltrey recalls. “He loved pop music, he loved the three-minute single, but he was always drumming into us that music can mean so much more than the three-minute single. So, it was him that drove that side of it. When we first released Tommy, he was determined to get it played where it deserved to be played, in opera houses. And in that sense, it did break a lot of boundaries. We were the first rock band ever to play the New York Met. And we played it in opera houses all over Europe.”

While the Saddledome is hardly as austere as the Met, Daltrey is still hoping fans will maintain a sense of decorum — at least until the “fucking-about part of the show” where the band digs into the rest of The Who’s catalogue. One particular request might sting for longtime fans hoping to re-create the atmosphere of the original Tommy tours: Due to recent rounds of throat surgery, Daltrey has become ultra-allergic to all kinds of cigarettes, and has called out audience members for lighting up during his performances. He does have another suggestion, though.

“Please,” he says, “bring a brownie.”

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