Herewith, a very odd recording, the soundtrack to Ken Russell’s Tommy movie. Included are five new Pete Townshend songs (mostly plot-connectors). Roger Daltrey plays/sings the role of Tommy, more or less as he did before, and comes off better, since he doesn’t have to be everyone else to boot. Eric Clapton contributes a smooth, knowing vocal to Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind,” without equalling the Who’s rough treatment; Elton John plays/sings “Pinball Wizard,” but not well; Tina Turner plays/sings “The Acid Queen,” but Daltrey was scarier six years ago (come to think of it, he sang all those parts quite nicely).
However, that’s mere quibbling. For, as this new version of Tommy lumbers its way across four sides, one is struck by how bizarre it is—and bizarre is just what the Who’s best songs have always been, and what their Tommy most certainly was not. The first Tommy was an extremely competent (and at times inspired) rendering of a not-very-interesting story, spotted with small Who classics (“Pinball Wizard,” “Eyesight to the Blind”) and overflowing with remarkably bad songs (“We’re Not Gonna Take It” being, I suppose, the worst). In other words, the very best of the “opera” could have been crammed into a 45. World-classic single maker Townshend probably knew that from the beginning, but he wanted to make an opera and all of the Who got rich in the bargain, not the least by selling their package to Russell. Well, it’s Russell’s touch, or perhaps one should say stranglehold, that makes this album so weird. He gets to direct (produce) the non-musicians on the album, which is all he needs to control the tone of the whole extravaganza.
As I listened, I couldn’t stop thinking of The Boy Friend, Russell’s rape-job on old-time musicals in general and Busby Berkeley in particular—and one has only to hear Ann Margret’s demented Shirley Bassey-isms (she sounds like Madeline Kahn looked in Young Frankenstein) or Oliver Reed’s wild-eyed scowl to catch Russell’s peculiar destructo-homage. Fiddling about with his characters, and making fools of them, Russell manages to deflate every pretension in Tommy, and “triumph” over it (another cultural monument on the slag-heap). In this case, such Attila-aesthetics are very salutary; Tommy becomes, of all things, funny. You cannot take it seriously (not even “See Me Feel Me,” not after you’ve heard Oliver Reed). You can, listening to this album (I won’t guarantee how many times you’ll want to listen to it), have a good time.
As with all Russell comedies, you laugh at, not with it. Russell’s sense of humor, if that’s what it is, does not engage one’s human sympathy. Russell has so much contempt for human beings one imagines that his greatest regret is that he is one himself. Tommy, however, has become a great beast—a monster that once threatened to devour the Who, and which, failing that, seemed destined to stalk the land forever, preying on virgin audiences—and it may be to the world’s benefit that St. Russell has arisen from his chambers to slay the dragon once and for all. For that, surely, is what he has done, and in the classic mold: Tommy first appeared as “tragedy,” but it exits as farce.