The Who's Opera: A Loud Deafmute

Pete Townshend and the Who finally complete their long-awaited rock opera 'Tommy'

June 14, 1969
Pete Townshend onstage
Pete Townshend onstage
Monitor Picture Library/Getty

LONDON — After almost two years of planning, talking about, and toying with the idea, Pete Townshend and the Who have completed Tommy, their rock and roll opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy.

And in an hour-long, cripplingly loud preview show for the press and pop industry at London's Ronnie Scott Club, the Who gained an excited reaction from critics.

The Who Finish Rock Opera

Townshend gave the press this plot outline:

"It's about a boy who is born normal, just like you and me. Then he witnesses a murder and becomes deaf, dumb and blind.

"He is later raped by his uncle and gets turned on to LSD."

Tommy develops a talent for playing pinball, is miraculously healed, and goes on to become the hero of the younger generation.

A lot of the exact story line got lost during and after the show, owing to the Who's partially-successful attempt at audience participation: That is, they tried to make the listeners go deaf, dumb and blind. In the confined space of Ronnie's, a bandbox-sized jazz club, the overwhelming intensity of the Who's playing left scores of people literally deaf.

As Melody Maker writer Chris Welch recounted: "Some 20 hours after the event, my ears were still singing, and I was barely able to sleep without a vision of Keith Moon thrashing like a demon swimming before me."

Tommy, he said, underlines Townshend's flair for "inventive lyrics and original composition, not forgetting the sense of humor and drama always evident in his work."

The Who Does Full-Length Rock Opera

After the show, Roger Daltrey shook his head and commented: "Peter's lyrics are really getting ridiculous. Some of the things he's doing are unbelievable."

Besides an excellent two-LP set, Tommy has produced one of the Who's best-selling singles ever, a commercial-sounding rock number called "Pinball Wizard."

This story is from the June 14th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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