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 1969: Tommy’s Amazing Journey

by David Soulsby, author of "Somewhere in the Distance"


YES, I can hear you, Tommy, loud and clear. It was resoundingly so in 1969 and still rings true today. The years may have flashed by like a speeding pinball, but the impact remains — and now, more than 40 years on, we have a resurgent Roger Daltrey triumphant after touring England with a refreshed rendition of the iconic rock opera, breathing new life into the deaf, dumb and blind kid’s rocky rite of passage.

As an enthusiastic fan at the Southend, Essex, leg of the tour in July, I witnessed Daltrey at his best. Singing ALL the Tommy songs for the first time ever, he was on stage for three hours non-stop, rolling back the years and showing why he’s one of the true legends of rock music. His backing band, including Pete Townshend’s brother Simon, were outstanding. Daltrey, who had a great rapport with the audience, was not totally happy with the sound system but that was just a minor hitch on an otherwise exhilarating night that connected the past with the present.

All set and ready to create some serious noise, the Tommy tour of America kicks off in September at the aptly-named Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Florida.

WHEN the Tommy double album was first released in May 1969, it split critics into two distinct camps — those who instantly saw it for what it was, a masterpiece, and those who thought it exploitative and shallow and not worthy of serious consideration. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground — you either loved it or hated it. It even gained notoriety by being banned by the BBC in Britain and some radio stations in America, decisions I found hard to understand.

The ‘we like it’ critics were spot on — the album was indeed exceptional. Perversely, the anti-brigade were, like poor Tommy, somewhat deaf and blind to the quality of the work, and in some cases, dumb in rejecting it out of hand. Personally, I loved it, its quirkiness, its sly social and cultural observations, its drive and attack, and, perhaps, above all, its risk-taking.

Among its standout songs were Pinball Wizard, Amazing Journey, I’m Free, We’re Not Going To Take It, Tommy Can You Hear Me, and The Acid Queen, and it was always Daltrey’s emotive vocal interpretations that added an extra dramatic dimension to the bombastic powerhouse trio of Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon.

Tommy was, I would argue, one of the top three albums of the year, unleashed between Led Zeppelin’s rousing debut in January and The Beatles’ penultimate offering, Abbey Road, in September.

Within a few months of Tommy’s release the Who were on a roll and aired a large chunk of the rock opera at Woodstock, wowing the masses, which was no mean feat considering the vast array of talent assembled over the three-days extravaganza. It was here that Tommy’s reputation really took off — and the rest, as they say, is history.

TURNING on the radio, I hear this tune for what seems like the one-thousandth time … Sugar Sugar by The Archies. It’s pure, uncomplicated pop, catchy to the point of distraction. The lyrics and sweet sound don’t have much, if anything, to do with the harsh realities of 1969. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the song and its wistfulness. I have to confess a sneaking affection for it, it’s so infectious, so innocent and safe and, in an odd way, comforting. Perhaps that’s why it’s selling like crazy and threatening to swamp much, if not all, of the year’s more progressive and meaningful music. Still, when people are worried and uncertain, it’s often the simple things that lift the spirits.

Who could not appreciate the fun this year of listening to such acts as Tommy James and the Shondells, the Friends Of Distinction, Three Dog Night, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and Crazy Elephant? Or singing along to such joyous songs as Aquarius by the Fifth Dimension, Hot Fun In The Summertime by Sly and The Family Stone, Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Time Of The Season by The Zombies, to name but a few?

IS IT really close to the end of the Sixties? As the dying embers of the decade cool and dissipate, it’s hard to believe that 10 years have elapsed, a rollercoaster ride between youth and manhood. Every year was memorable, for both good and bad reasons, and 1969 was no exception.

Images of the year:

The Beatles’ rooftop gig in January, their final public performance as a group, and the Fab Four again, this time in August, photographed on the zebra crossing near the recording studios in Abbey Road, north London. Iconic images of a band that in six short years rewrote the rules … and rock ‘n’ roll was changed forever.

Bob Dylan at the Isle of Wight Festival in late August, bearded and dressed in white, back from his motorcycle accident and back on form, but with a new voice. He may have been late on stage and only did an hour but he was mesmerising, as witnessed by 100,000 avid music fans.

Shocks of the year:

The death of Brian Jones in July, found drowned in his swimming pool, just days after being ditched by the Rolling Stones. It was such a sad loss.

The horror of Altamont: The killing in December of an audience member by Hell’s Angels during a performance by the Stones. It was an evil act, and a dark memory on which to close the Sixties.

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.




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