The Who – Tommy: #398 of best 1,000 albums ever!

The Who - Tommy

So why is The Who’s Tommy on this best 1,000 albums ever thing?

Even those casual fans who don’t realize that Tommy is a “concept album” will quickly recognize that this isn’t a typical rock ‘n roll album, and (mostly) not even a typical Who album.

The first of 24 tracks for an album that runs close to 75 minutes, “Overture” sounds like the opening stanza of a grand rock opera. It’s regal, it’s big, it’s opulent, it’s gorgeous. 

And it even rocks.

But taking a step back, my first experience with Tommy when I was a kid was the song “Pinball Wizard,” which is easily a Top 5 song in terms of The Who’s most famous and well known.

I had no idea what Tommy was at the time – in fact “Pinball Wizard” might have been included on a mix tape* of classic rock songs that a friend put together for me.

* Yes, this was back in the mix tape era, during which one would painstakingly record songs from one cassette tape to another in a specified and carefully/artfully curated order!

“Pinball Wizard is a great hard rock song with an iconic hook and a gorgeous, soaring chorus. And it’s also kind of strange, right? A “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who is a savant-meets-prodigy at the old school game of pinball*?

* Okay, I feel the need to point out here that circa 1969, pinball games and arcades were very much “analog,” meaning that a physical ball would be played on a “stand up” arcade game, with “buzzers and bells,” as the song goes, activated by the action of the player working the paddles. So no video graphics, no virtual reality or anything. It was a whole thing.

By the time I got my hands on Tommy the album, it was one of the earlier compact discs that I had the opportunity to purchase. And the thing that I discovered about Tommy the album is that it’s jam packed with grandiose, Broadway show-ish songs along the lines of “Overture,” and other great hard rock songs along the lines of “Pinball Wizard,” even if not all of them are quite as effective.

And overall, it turns out that Tommy as an album, as a concept album, is deeply weird.

That’s not even getting to “Fiddle About.”

One of the fun things about concept albums is that you can listen to them in different ways. For me, I’ve gone through my paces in trying to figure out Tommy the character’s very odd and even confusing journey, and I landed on simply enjoying the music as music.

“Christmas” is one of my favorite songs on Tommy. It’s buoyant and exciting, with fantastic backing vocals to Roger Daltrey’s lead pipes, which have never sounded better.

Outside of the story of Tommy, “I’m Free” is a great 1969 rock song, brimming with both counterculture energy while also bringing a hint of a darkly mysterious vibe. And much the same could be said for Tommy’s closing track, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Pop culture stuff that’s somehow related to The Who’s Tommy

If you’re interested in learning more about Tommy as concept album, you can head on over to Wikipedia to do so. The “Synopsis” section will sort of take you through the story as presented on the album, though even in reading though it, I find it still doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense to Your Humble Narrator, honestly.

Personal stuff that’s somehow related to The Who’s Tommy

Many of the songs on Tommy, with “1921” as a great example, seem as though they could have been written directly for a Broadway stage production.

So it’s not surprising that Tommy was eventually adapted into a Broadway production. It premiered in 1993, and it was somewhere shortly thereafter that my mother took me to see it. She loves a good musical, but I’m not sure if this one was totally for her*.

* I’d venture to state that she’d vibe more with early Who hits like “My Generation” and “I Can’t Explain.”

And likewise I enjoyed the experience but didn’t find the stage production to be all that enthralling, to be perfectly honest. But to be fair I was pretty young, college age, so I might have a far different experience with it now.

As aside, when I was even younger, my mother took me to see The King and I on Broadway. I clearly recall her telling me that it was getting close to the end of Yul Brenner’s famous run, playing the titular king, and she felt it was an opportunity not to be missed.

Brenner passed away in 1985, so I was quite young indeed. I vaguely remember the experience now, and mostly feel appreciative of the pop cultural history that I was provided with. Living about an hour and twenty minutes by train outside of Manhattan afforded these kinds of trips and adventures every now and again growing up – for which I also feel fortunate.

Some stats & info about The Who – Tommy

  • What kind of musical stylings does this album represent? Rock Music, Hard Rock, Album Rock, British Bands
  • Rolling Stone’s greatest 500 albums ranking – #190
  • All Music’s rating – 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • When was Tommy released? 1969
  • My ranking, the one you’re reading right now – #398 out of 1,000

The Who’s Tommy on Spotify

A lyrical snippet from The Who’s Tommy that’s evocative of the album in some way, maybe

He’s a pinball wizard, there has got to be a twist a pinball wizard’s got such a supple wrist.

What does the “best 1,000 albums ever” mean and why are you doing this?

Yeah, I know it’s audacious, a little crazy (okay, maybe a lot cray cray), bordering on criminal nerdery. But here’s what it’s NOT: a definitive list of the Greatest Albums of All-Time. This is 100% my own personal super biased, incredibly subjective review of what my top 1,000 albums are, ranked in painstaking order over the course of doing research for nearly a year, Rob from High Fidelity style. Find out more about why I embarked on a best 1,000 albums ever project.