LONDON — The pupils at a school in Sunderland, up in the Northeast of England, have decided to do something different for their end-of-term concert. The school’s brass section, choral society, a handful of guitarists and a cast of youngsters are about to start rehearsals for the first amateur production of Tommy, the thematic rock work written by Pete Townshend. The show will run for four nights in July and music teacher George Robinson expects the audience to be “a bit shocked. I don’t think many of them are expecting what they will get.” Tommy will be played by a 14-year-old student but, according to Robinson, “he doesn’t grow old during the story. We haven’t got make-up facilities,”
One of the school’s English teachers has scripted the narrative into a dramatic mime which calls for about 70 actors and musicians in total. “Usually we have to twist the kids’ arms to get them interested,” he said, “but this time about 200 volunteered straight away.” One problem was getting hold of a score. The only one in existence was in the hands of Lou Reizner, who presented the London stage performances of Tommy. But a letter sent from the school to Townshend’s business address found its way to the composer, who passed on his best wishes and put them in touch with Reizner. “It’s quite a simple score,” said Robinson. “The effect may sound complex but there’s a lot of doubling up on parts. We’ll manage, even if we do have to use an organ instead of the strings.” The production is turning out costlier than first imagined. “In the end it’s going to cost at least £500.”
Meanwhile, some $2.5 million away on location on the south coast of England, Ken Russell has completed a month’s shooting on the celluloid version of Tommy. In the movie, which is scheduled to be in production for 12 weeks, are Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson, all of whom (with the possible exception of Nicholson) will be singing their own parts.
For Pete Townshend these are busy days. On May 18th the Who opened up the London festival season with the headline position at the “Summer of ’74” open-air show. Also appearing at the daylong event, which took place in the South London Charlton Athletic soccer stadium, were Lou Reed, Humble Pie, Lindisfarne, Bad Company and Maggie Bell, making her U.K. debut as a solo performer.
For the past few months Townshend has been occupied in re-recording Tommy for the soundtrack and consulting with director Russell. “Had I known how much time is involved in making a feature I think I would have stopped fantasizing about films altogether,” says Townshend. “Ken Russell started talking about it last July and it won’t be in the shops, as it were, until December. It’s full of manic involvement for the whole period. People talk to me – ‘How can you spend two years making an album like Quadrophenia?’ – but it’s nothing like this.
“I have said emphatically that I couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to raise the energy to do any more work on Tommy, but what’s interesting about this particular little round is the fact that Russell, a man I respect fantastically, seemed to get to the roots of Tommy, I dunno, without adding anything that was unnecessary. People think of him as an egomaniac, but he’s not. He saw what was good about Tommy, and left out the odd bits that were poor, and funnily enough I agreed with his choices. He added some material, and before I knew it I was involved again.
“You see, what has happened in the past is that an American director has come over and taken me to lunch, sat me down and said – Townshend puts on an American accent – ‘You know, Pete, we’re talking about a million-dollar movie here, and er, what we wanna know is your thoughts, we wanna know how you wanna make the movie, Pete.’ They were saying, ‘OK, you little English poof, you make the film and please make it gross six times as much as the album did.’ And I’d sit there and tell them how to make it. They’d go away and decide, ‘Well, maybe we were wrong about wanting to make it.’ A week later another mogul comes over, takes me out to lunch, and says, ‘Pete, we wanna know how you wanna make the movie . . .’
“The great thing about Russell was his idea to do it. He came up with the suggestions, and I realized I was in the presence of the ‘Guv’nor.’ So all I have to do is run off when he tells me he needs a new song and just do it. It’s great working under somebody rather than always having to do the pushing and leading.”
Russell, in fact, was always Townshend’s first choice, though when they first got together three years ago Russell told him that he was booked up for the next couple of years. Townshend was anxious to make the movie right away. A deal was even set up by Kit Lambert, the Who’s co-manager, the day the LP hit the charts, but Townshend says the company sat on the project for two years and then pulled out.
As the Who were about to go into the studio to cut the soundtrack, Keith Moon fell ill and couldn’t work. “In a way,” says Townshend, “it was a blessing in disguise. I mean we were terrified as to how it was going to work out without him, because we only had two months to do the whole thing. So I thought rather than try and replace him with a drummer, I’d choose an ideal bunch of musicians for each song. For instance, for ‘Amazing Journey’ I thought how incredible it’d be to have Ronnie Wood on slide doing a kind of ‘daarow, daarow, bowrow,’ and there’s a guy called Tony Newman, plays with a band called Three Man Army, who’s very fluid – just right because it’s all set with roller coasters and things like that. We’ve found some pretty good bass players but John Entwistle is pretty unbeatable as an all-round guy. Keith has his style, great as it is, but he can’t do much outside it. John, though, is good all round. He played on most tracks, and we’ve also had Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Kenny Jones, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Chris Stainton, who helped us out on ‘5:15’ that time. And Phil Clen, who’s a session bass player, Caleb Quaye, who does lots of stuff for Elton John, Mick Ralphs, who’s with Bad Company. All kinds of people – Mick Kelly, Spooky Tooth’s drummer. We’ve had a good crew flying round. Yes, most people were happy to come and work on the album. Apart from anything else they all get a piece when it comes out . . . but I mean, Tommy might be a bit of a cliched old hag but he commands respect.”
Townshend’s previous dabs at the non-musical side of productions haven’t always been too successful. His stage presence as an actor is minimal compared to when he’s in his more familiar role, at least judging by his part in last Christmas’s Rainbow presentation of Tommy. And his attempt at directing Life House, a complicated film project, ended in confusion. “It fell apart and I had the first nervous breakdown of my life. And I’m just not the sort to have nervous breakdowns. What’d happen is I’d spend a week explaining something to somebody and it’d be all very clear to me, then they’d go, ‘Right, that’s OK – now can you just explain it again.’ There were about 50 people involved and I didn’t have the stamina to see it through. A creative person has to work in isolation. Ken Russell, for example, is not telling us the half of what he’s got in his head. If he could explain, why bother making a film?”
This story is from the June 20th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.