A documentary recently came out on Blu-Ray that does a great job of telling the story of the making of The Who’s landmark album Tommy. The documentary is called: Sensation: The Story of the Who’s Tommy. Highly recommended for any fan of The Who or classic rock in general (frankly, anyone who loves music).
What struck me most as I watched the film was how hard the band pushed themselves out of their comfort zones. Before Tommy, The Who’s music was very mainstream, jangley, pop. Tommy put them decidedly on the “rock” map and catapulted them easily into the top three rock bands (The Beatles and The Rolling Stones being the other two) in the world at the time.
Why Tommy is so special
There’s a lot to learn about creativity and art from Tommy. It’s not even my all-time favorite album from the band but it is brilliant, it’s bold, and it’s so important. Tommy was released in 1969, the same year we walked on the moon and frankly, it took rock music to the same grand heights of achievement.
The documentary spends a lot of time interviewing Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey (the only surviving members of the original band), getting their analysis of the recording and song writing process and a lot of interesting stories along the way. There were a couple of things in particular that really made Tommy special as both a creative project and musical art form:
- Bearing your soul: I think The Who were the original punk rockers but they were way more musically talented so they didn’t play punk, but I mean come on, these guys were the first ever to break their instruments on stage! That’s rock-n-roll 101. The amazing thing about Tommy is how vulnerable it is. The Who get into issues of child abuse and depression that rock had never even considered touching before. It’s powerful and from the heart. That’s a sign of great art.
- Go to scary places: The album deals with tough subject matter and is unafraid to go to deep scary places. Another sign of great art is the willingness of the creator to push themselves, to dig deep and find the terrifying things inside and pull them out and lay them open for others where they can even be mocked and trampled. That’s power.
- Taking risks: The Who was doing something no one had ever done before. A rock-n-roll album that was also an opera? That’s nuts, especially for the time. A double-album with songs that varied from heavy rock to jazzy piano numbers, it just wasn’t done. They had such a unique voice. Only The Who could have made this record the way it came out. Great art has a unique voice that tells a story only that artist could.
Take a Listen
Quite a bit of the album is played as well throughout the documentary which will make you want to go listen to the entire double-album afterwards. If you haven’t heard Tommy before, now you have some homework because it’s a masterpiece. If it’s been awhile, you’ll be dying to spin it again after watching this documentary. If you want some creative inspiration, this is definitely one to watch.