Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32. No. 25. October 9, 1969
... Phoney Tommy
... Phoney Tommy
Eighty minutes on one theme is a development of Wagnerian proportions for Rock Music. At this point on the evolutionary cycle I am not convinced rock is ready for it. If the best the Beatles can do is a medley of songs or the contrived coherence of Sgt. Pepper, one would be wary of offering the task to lesser songwriters. Perhaps a "rock opera" is a contradiction in terms. But this is what Pete Townshend and the Who have attempted in their double album Tommy (Polydor G13013). It can be called a qualified success. Can't decide yet whether it was boring or not. which is maybe a bad sign. But it does give one a certain aesthetic buzz on a various level, emotional and cerebral. There is some fine rock music in a variety of styles among the album's twenty-three cuts and the structural concept is excellent. Comments by Pete Townshend are courtesy of San Francisco's Rolling Stone paper.
The "opera" is built round the tale of Tommy, a strange young man.
"Doaf, dumb and blind boy
He's in a quiet vibration land
Strange as it seems his musical dreams
Ain't quite so bad." ("Amazing Journey".)
Tommy has seen his parents in a mirror murder his mother's lover. They tell him he doesn't know a thing. "The boy", Townshend explains "has closed himself up completely as a result of the murder and his parents' pressures, and the only thing he can see is his reflection in the mirror. This reflection—his illusory self—turns out to be his eventual salvation. Tommy's real self represents the aim— God—and the illusory self is the teacher; life, the way, the path and all this. The boy's life starts to represent the whole nature of man— we all have this self-imposed deaf, dumb and blindness—but this isnt something I'm over heavy on. I'm more concerned about what actually happens in his life".
What actually happens, according to the synopsis, is that Tommy is maltreated by some of his relatives, cared for by others, becomes a pinball champion, reaches a state of grace, regains his senses and starts his own religion, is eventually discarded by his disciples, and finds himself as isolated as he was in the beginning. The somewhat melodramatic storyline eschews sensationalism in the lyric treatment. In fact the words are subtly allusive. "You can circumscribe an emotion with a lyric —by telling of an event and leaving out one important chunk—and that can contain the emotion and put it across." Throughout the opera the recurring motif is Tommy's plaintive cry, "See me, feel me, Touch me, heal me".
Townshend adds: "This one fails because it actually comes out and says it. It's meant to be extremely serious and plaintive; but words fail so miserably to represent emotions unless you skirt around the outside. But there's so much circumscribing in Tommy that I wanted to get to the crunch a number of times".
There are several narrative highlights. Tommy is raped by his uncle in "Fiddle About". This song and "Cousin Kevin" were written by John Entwhistle. "I didn't want to do them", said Townshend. "I didn't think I could be cruel enough. Theyre ruthlessly brilliant songs because they are just as cruel as people can be. I would have avoided a line like "There's a lot I can do with a freak", but it's nice to have it in." "The Acid Queen" explores a possible route to Tommy's salvation. She is the personification of material highs. "The song's not just about acid; it's the whole drug thing, the drink thing, the sex thing wrapped into one big ball. It's about how you get it laid on you that you haven't lived if you haven't fucked forty birds, taken sixty trips, drunk fourteen pints of beer—or whatever. Society—people—force you. She represents this force. On a number of occasions I've got this sinister, feline, sexual thing about acid, that it's inherently female. I don't know if I'm right . . . it's fickle enough."
Of "Pinball Wizard", when things start happening for Tommy. Townshend says: "I don't happen to be divine at the moment. I can't express the magnificence of divinity in music, but I can express the grooviness of being a pinball champ because I'm a pop star which is very close. The absurdity of being a pinball champion!"
The doctors diagnosis in "Go To The Mirror!" is that "All hope lies with him and none with me". The repentant mother cries "Tommy Can You Hear Me" over and over. Then in "Smash the Mirror", with a startling chord from 2001, Tommy achieves liberation. His distant voice backed by a frugal brass riff in "Sensation" sings "You'll feel me coming/a new vibration . . . Love As One I Am The Light". The news spreads, "Extra! Extra! read all about it, the Pinball Wizard in a miracle cure!" and the people come. The ballad of "Sally Simpson" relates how Tommy is transformed into a rocking Billy Graham figure. But in "I'm Free" he tells his disciples:
"If I told you what it takes
to reach the highest high
You'd laugh and say 'nothing's that simple'
But you've been told many times before
Messiahs pointed to the door
And no-one had the guts to leave the temple!"
And they do laugh. Townshend explains. "Rama Krishna. Buddha. Zarathustra. Jesus and Meher Baba are all divine figures on earth. They all said the same thing; yet still we trundle on. This is basically what Tommy is saying. But his followers ask how to follow him. and disregard his teaching. They want rules and regulations; going to church on Sundays—but he just says 'Live Life'. Later on he smashes rules to them".
Actually, the whole interview with Pete Townshend (in Rolling Stone, July 12. 1969 pp. 16-18) is worth reading for perceptive comments on other groups, on broadcasting, on the commercial pop machine (which Pete loves), on musical snobs inside the rock scene and out, and on life in general. If you can get your milts on it it should prove conclusively that there is at least one rock star who is not a gibbering idiot—then again, perhaps it shouldn't.
The final cut is "We're Not Gonna Take It". Tommy yells:
"Hey you gettin' drunk/So sorry. I've got you sussed
Hey you smokin' mother nature/This is a bust
Hey hung up old mister normal/Don't try to gain my trust
Cos you ain't gonna follow me/Any of those ways
Although you think you must."
They retort "We're not gonna take it. we're not gonna take it" raising their voices in an ominous crescendo. Tommy loses his grip. He slips from "My name is Tom and I became aware this year" back to the old cry "Sec me, me feel me, Touch me, heal me". The album fades out on the chant of "Listening to you, I hear music" . . .
The opera has its "Overture" where the main themes are stated effectively on horns, and one cannot help thinking but that a little brass in the arrangements of some of the other numbers would have given them more bits. In this work there is even an "Underture", a rather dull nine-minutes instrumental which doubtless represents the passing years of Tommy's life. Overall, the texture of sound on this album is not as compelling as in other work the Who have done. Perhaps a little too much thought (and not enough feeling) went into this work. It's a change for the rock scene, but the other is the first essential. "You see," says Peter, "each song has to capsule an event in the boy's life, and also the feeling, what has ensued, and cover and knit up all the possibilities in all the other fields of action that are suggested. All these things had to be tied up in advance and referred back to. I can tell you it was quite difficult". They faced up to this difficulty at least; but the more profound problem was to give emotional and musical expression to the ideas structuring the work. "It was approached in exactly the way anti-intellectual rock people would hate" says Townshend. "We went into it in depth before we worked out the plot; we worked out the sociological implications, the religious implications, the rock implications. We made sure every bit was . . . solid. When we'd done that we went into the studio, got smashed out of our brains and made it." They should have got just a little more smashed, and they might have brought it off. The words of an English reviewer. Charlie Gillett in The Record Mirror, are worth a ponder—"The 'artistic' quality of rock and roll is in its ability to move us. emotionally and physically, by engaging our surface feelings. If the singer becomes self-conscious about his effect, and the audience worries about its reaction, most of what rock and roll should be is gone. Which should be enough reason for rock and roll composers to leave opera to a different kind of musical culture."
With its highly intellectualised schema, the rock opera was, however, just right for America where it enjoyed fantastic sales. The critics seized it, just as the academic industry fastened its teeth into James Joyce's "Ulysses" in an earlier decade (is that an appropriate comparison?—probably not.) Yet these are merely different facets of widespread cultural exploitation. Publishers even produce self-conciously learned explications of Beatle Music nowadays. But none of this is too bad when there is work of some substance at the bottom. There is a much worse form of exploitation, a degradation of the youth sensibility, in the successful promotion of a show like Hair. This seems to be a blatantly stupid rock musical—sorry, "American-tribal-love-rock-musical" (with special secret ingredient DDT). I hope its cast of thousands never reaches these shores. Even Time magazine is lately revulsed at the way the hippie ethos has been grabbed by show-biz and bastardised Hair has a few good Broadway tunes mixed in with a load of appallingly obvious lyrics about sodomy, pot. Vietnam and the rest (always excepting the title tune, of course—I really grooved to the Cowsill's contrapuntal harmony arrangement of this dear little lyric). Now we are to be page 23confronted with Hair's misbegotten godchild, Salvation, another fully integrated loving musical with its very own selection of four-letter words And it hasn't even a few good Broad-way tunes The most obvious context for the healthy development of rock music into longer coherent works is in the scoring of films. Since the success of The Graduate, films of merit have been enhanced by using rock musicians and rock songs. Such, from reports, are Easy Rider, Goodbye Columbus and Medium Cool. Will anybody bid for the screen-rights to the tale of Tommy, though? Not a badly looking scenario for a film, is it? This other form of electromedia would probably provide the best visual set for the rock score. In Tommy's mind everything is incredible meaningless beauty".
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Procol Harum has a recent release on Festival. A Salty Dog (SFL-933, 33). This album is full of incredible meaningless beauty. The title track is the biggest mind-blower since "A Whiter Shade of Pale", and is perhaps the greatest single recording ever released (even if Debbie "Krishna" does think it a drag). The Procols demonstrate exquisite taste in orchestration and arrangement—contrast their songs with the flaccid orchestral bubblegum music of the Bee Gees. None of the other cuts on the Salty Dog album match that first track—but they are excellent all the same. The rolling, flowing organ and keyboard work of Matthew Fisher and Gary Brooker are still the group's most distinctive feature. How much has been lifted from the classics I don't know. but all the composing credits are to the group —I prefer to think that they write with merely the feeling of the other in their veins. Anyway, they add their own poetic lyrics with evocative images such as "Where ships come home to die". There is a vague nautical theme, sprung from "Good Captain Clack" of times past, running right through the album. Songs like "Juicy John Pink", and odd low-down blues, and "The Wreck of the Hesperus", ideally matched with trickling piano backing. Every track is a joy.
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Ugly! Ugly! Ugly! Ugly face Of Joe Cocker, ugly synthetic soul music on With a Little Help From My Friends (SFL-933382)-and I love it. A year in the making, the production is perfect, not a drumbeat out of place and what a selection of songs. The only ones I was not familiar with were "Change In Louise". "Sandpaper Cadillac" and "Majorine", all good, penned by Joe himself with bassist Chris Stainton. The other songs, "Feeling Alright". "Bye Bye Blackbird", "Just Like A Woman". "Do I Still Figure In Your Life?". "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". "With a Little Help", and "I Shall Be Released", all come out sounding new and better for it with Cocker's soul-type arrangements. Joe's of "Just Like a Woman" does owe something to Richie Havens. But his treatment of "I Shall Be Released" makes the most of a more mediocre Dylan song. Even "Bye Bye Blackbird" turns out slow and gritty. Behind Joes vocals there are a number of friends—playing concisely and well—including Jimmy Page, Stevie Win-wood and B. J. Wilson. The personnel are wisely listed for each track. Only complaint is the mix-up in numbers on the album cover and on the record label. There is also some distortion on the record which may be due to a local pressing fault.
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Jackie Lomax on Is This What You Want? (Sapcor 6) is not a rock singer who jumps out and hits you as does Joe Cocker. He has a carping voice, like an inhibited Stevie Win-wood. The material, self-penned except for producer George Harrison's "Sour Milk Sea", is not startling either. But there are lots of nice things going on in the subtle, tight backings, provided by Harrison, McCartney, Starr. Manfred Mann. Klaus Voorman and Clapton. Favourite track is "Fall Inside Your Eyes", gentle melody, sweet text.
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Intent on casting a vote at that fee-freaky SGM the other Thursday. I sat in the Common Room and watched all these hairies go past. Wheye they all came from I'll never know, where they were all going I endeavoured to find out. Hard Concert? Memorial Theatre? Agonising decision—politics or art. Well, would've been outvoted anyway. I chose "art!" See Pat's review elsewhere. But most of all. we did enjoy watching Simon Morris skipping about the stage like an incipient Mick Jagger. The less said about a certain unfortunate bass player the better.
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Anyone interested in a Rock Expo we hope to arrange in conjunction with next years Arts Festival can contact me through the Salient office.
All the records herein reviewed are available from your switched-on disc store:
World Record Club.
71 Manners Street,