Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461
[Seeing the Who live, one is] overpowered by the sheer musicianship and raw power of the group. The more I think of the Who as a group, the more I feel that they make their biggest impact as a visual experience…. Seeing Tommy performed knocked me out up front, but hearing Tommy, with the libretto in my lap, is another and vastly different matter.
Before I proceed further, one thing I must clarify. Tommy is NOT an opera. A real opera is acted as well as sung; it has well-defined parts and recitative and many other characteristics. Tommy is a rock cantata: in other words, a piece of music which is primarily vocal—a sung piece. Yeah, the St. Matthew Passion is also a cantata, but that's not copping Townshend's vibes, nor making any real comparisons, although Tommy could be easily called a "Passion" in the traditional sense. In many senses, Tommy's journey to realization is very like Christ's, and his eventual desensification (Tommy, at the end, is "crucified" by the angry crowd and returns to his deaf, dumb and blind state). One can go overboard, however, with such an analogy and it would be foolish indeed to do a step-by-step comparison. Tommy is far better treated as the unique entity it is.
There have been rock masses before …, and a rock cantata is only the logical next step. In brief, Tommy is the story, on many levels, of a boy who becomes deaf, dumb and blind after witnessing his parents commit murder, is turned on, homosexually assaulted by his uncle, becomes a pinball champion, is cured miraculously, founds a new religion of sensitivity, and is turned-off by his followers. The entire piece is evocative, supremely symbolic, and fraught with meaning….
Tommy can be nicely cleft between words and music: my congratulations to Peter Townshend for a masterful libretto. His words more than adequately convey the feelings of Tommy locked in his self-created sensual prison, and Tommy's release in I'm Free is joyful almost to the point of tears. In fact, Tommy is a near-perfect Who vehicle: perhaps containing all of Townshend's philosophical and religious beliefs. However, it does at times tend to get pretentious: as far as concerns being overly wordy, laden with myriad meanings; but ultimately, Tommy's genius lies in the positive success with which it communicates the message of freedom.
Musically, Tommy is powerful, resting primarily on the Who's incomparable hard rock instrumentation. Especially recommended are Amazing Journey and Underture for their structure, style and musicianship…. [Coupled] with the lyrics and Townshend's beautiful genius, Tommy becomes a real and thoroughly valuable piece of music.
David Walley, "Expansion & Excitement: Who," in Jazz & Pop (© 1969 by Jazz Press Inc.; reprinted by permission of the author), Vol. 8, No. 10, October, 1969, p. 44.