1001 Albums: Tommy

#145

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Artist: The Who

Album: Tommy

Year: 1969

Length: 75:15

Genre: Hard Rock/ Rock/ Rock Opera

“See Me
Feel Me
Touch Me
Heal Me

See Me
Feel Me
Touch Me
Heal Me”

Here it is. THE Rock Opera. The rock opera of the ages. The Rock Opera to end all rock operas. The Rock Opera so big it completely overshadowed what was considered the first Rock Opera (S.F. Sorrow) and was often considered to be the first despite having been inspired by SF Sorrow. And by The Who no less. Who would have thunk that these crazy rockers with their penchant of smashing their equipment at the end of sets and generally giving no fucks would be the ones to create something as sophisticated as this? No one I’m sure and it definitely came as a shock when it first came out with people screaming to the heavens “THE WHO DID THIS?!?! LORD I NEED AN ANSWER!!!”

Only The Who can take the rather ridiculous story of a kid who goes deaf, blind and dumb and becomes a master of Pinball and turn it into a successful Rock Opera. Honestly, reread that, a kid who goes deaf, blind and dumb and is a master of pinball… what… the… fuck… How in the hell did an idea like that somehow become one of the most famous Rock Operas of all time? How did they make this freaking work??? I think in part the success of it comes from the fact that it’s such a ridiculous premise that you have no choice but to just go along with it. We really get a whole journey from start to finish, Tommy’s birth to his older age, where he eventually exploits people using his fame (fantastic isn’t it?). It’s no wonder a lot of people did make parallels with SF Sorrow, but other than the fact that both tell the story of a boy growing up and are structured similarly, the similarities end there between the two.

I can only speculate but I think in part why it made such a splash is because it was quite an ambitious project for a band that was known for it’s proto-punk attitude. They hadn’t really shown any interest in playing to that level of musicianship and although their cleverness and maturity does shine in previous efforts (The Who Sell Out in particular) they come across more as smart-asses there. Here there’s a level of sincerity and genuine feeling (despite the subject material) that The Who hadn’t really shown before and which would open the gates for their future endeavours shying away from their Hard Rocking young years into musicians growing and perfecting their craft. Here The Who finally showed what they really could do and created something that felt bigger than anything they had before. It was an ambitious project on their parts but they pulled it off with the utmost skill and craft. There really is a charm to the whole album and even though you’re hit with one ridiculous story after another in this poor boy’s life, it’s charming affect really shines through and instead of making you cringe or shut it off it has you playfully laughing along with it.

If there was one thing I could say I didn’t like about it was that it’s wayyyy too long. As I was listening I kept asking myself when is this going to end? It felt like it kept going on and on and on and when I finally saw the time length it all made sense to me. It’s 75 minutes long and fuck, it feels 75 minutes long. It’s quite bloated as an album and there’s probably a lot that could have been cut here that didn’t really serve any purpose to the whole story. I know what you might say… but it’s a Rock Opera, it’s a shows length hence why it’s so long! and to that I say, yeah, true. Also, as a listening experience I do find it kind of underwhelming especially since there’s no distinctions between the characters voices as it’s all sung by the same person essentially. I find, just like any Rock Opera I suppose, it’s meant to be seen LIVE as a show. I saw it once produced for stage and it was a really fun experience! Seeing all the characters come to life and having some blanks be filled that could have only been filled through visuals really helps with the whole presentation of this album. It is OK on record but should be seen visually I feel (which they did make a movie version, so Yeah!).

Pinball is such a weird arcade game. Never really understood the appeal to be honest. I enjoy a good game of pinball and I guess the flashy lights and fun little things that pop up are enough to keep any young person entertained for a solid minute and a half. Especially when you play themed pinball machines that have tidbits and fun “events” from your favourite movies and pop culture media. I guess there’s a joy to unlocking those and finding all the references… but… if you suck at pinball it’s not really fun at all. You get increasingly frustrated as he ball keeps dropping in between the paddles, especially when it falls directly between them and no matter what you did you could never hit the ball which isn’t fair and is just pure bad luck and has nothing to do with skill. For the more competitive types, I guess the appeal comes from trying to have the highest score and getting the prestige of being a high score ranker (what an achievement, really aiming for he stars). I don’t know, I enjoy a quick round but will never run for the pinball machine. But then again I guess I don’t enjoy many things in general… so there’s that. But if you ever meet a deaf, dumb and blind kid, bring him to the arcade and see if he plays a mean pinball.

He honestly probably won’t…

Favourite Tune: Pinball Wizard

-Bosco

 

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1001 Albums: S.F. Sorrow

#124

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Artist: The Pretty Things

Album: S.F. Sorrow

Year: 1968

Length: 40:59

Genre: Psychedelic Pop / Rock Opera

“For ten weeks now number three stood empty
Nobody thought there would be
Family laughter behind the windows
Or a Christmas tree.
Then a couple from up north
Sorrow and his wife arrived
Before the sun had left the streets
They were living inside.
Then before too long
The street it rang with the sound
From number three there came a cry
S. F. Sorrow is born.”

I’m frustrated. Very Frustrated. I would even say extremely frustrated. Ever have one of those situations where you have a lot to say but have no idea how to say it? The words for whatever reason just aren’t coming out, you’re sentences make no sense, you try to string together thoughts and ideas into a cohesive structure but only nonsense comes out. You want to sound smart but instead you sound dumb. You try your best to understand something but no matter how many times you try, you look, you listen, you just can’t grasp what’s happening.

I’m frustrated.

I’ve listened to this album 4 times. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every single time I’ve listened to it. Actually, every time I’ve listened to it it got better and better to my ears. Actually, I’m starting to love it so much I actually want to actively look for it and buy a copy for myself. It was definitely a pleasant surprise and I am willing to even call it a secret gem of the 60s (I’ll get into that a little later). But I had one issue. No matter how many times I listened to it I couldn’t remember the details of what I listened to. No matter how many times I heard each song, I couldn’t hold onto to any lyrics. It seems to be a problem I’ve been facing a lot these days and I’m not sure why. It’s frustrating to say the least. I love music, always have and always will and I love digging deep into what I’m listening to, understanding it and breaking down why it’s good. This is something I pursue to do and felt starting this blog would help me do that. But as each album goes by I find myself struggling more and more to say things in new ways. My vocabulary isn’t as rich as I’d hope it to be and my knowledge isn’t as vast as I wish it was. I found this album great in so many ways, but can’t seem to find the words to describe it.

Thankfully, google exists and I can do enough research on the album to talk a decent sized amount about it (Plus a reminder that I started this blog to chronicle my experience listening to the 1001 albums and wasn’t supposed to be reviews and analysis. But being who I am I couldn’t stop myself from doing that, maybe I should go back to how I started this blog). But until that happens, which will take me a lot to just separate myself from trying my hardest to break these albums down, let’s talk about S.F. Sorrow.

What makes this album so important is that it’s one of the first Rock Operas ever. The Sweet Things have even stated that this album was a huge influence on The Who’s Tommy, but The Who have gone on the record to say that is completely false and S.F. Sorrow played no role in influencing them at all. What’s the truth? Who knows, no one ever will at this point, but it’s clear to see they made their mark in history. Or did they?

If it was this important… why does no one talk about this band? I’ve never heard of it, no one I know has ever heard of it, this didn’t even appear in my famous rock n roll and psychedelic music class. So what gives? Why wasn’t this album more successful than it was? I mean, it’s fantastic from start to finish. I won’t go into details of the story of this rock opera (I’m not here to summarize), but it essentially tells the story of a boy named Sebastian F. Sorrow, born in a nameless town to normal parents, and the trials and tribulations of his life, from joyful adolescence to lonely old age. Side A has an upbeat and joyful feel as we hear Sebastian growing up and falling in love and getting married and going to war, but the album takes a sudden shift at Balloon Burning (an oddly macabre song that sounds super fun and happy but is about the protagonist’s wife dying in a Hindenburg type accident). Side B takes the listener on a completely different journey, going on an acid trip into Sebastian’s mind as he deals with depression and introspection, especially after he meets Baron Saturday who becomes the guide to this spirit quest. Where Side A takes on a Folk Rock approach with joyous undertones, the second half goes full on psychedelic, bringing you down with the protagonist. The shift is done so wonderfully and seamlessly and despite it being risky, the band managed to pull off a story that is incredibly engaging, that makes you feel what the protagonist is feeling and takes you on his journey with him. Unlike most Rock Operas though, the story wasn’t told through the lyrics of the song and instead was told through liner notes in between the songs lyrics on the vinyl and CD. In live performances they even had Arthur Brown perform the paragraphs in between songs.

This album had everything going for it, so why did it fall in the cracks? There seems to be many reasons. Firstly, it was released the same week as two monster albums, The Beatles’ White Album (which needs no introduction) and The Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society (which I have already talked about in a previous post). It was easily eclipsed by the incredibly large shadows these two albums created and there was no way it could overcome them unless for some miracle. Secondly, there was very little promotion done for the album causing it to go a little unnoticed until MoTown Records decided to pick it up to give it a boost, but Tommy had been out for months at that point and S.F Sorrow looked disappointing in comparison with critics giving it negative reviews for being pretentious and one critic even went as far as to say they “should be shot for what they’ve done to English rock lyrics”. A little harsh. It seems people also didn’t like the fact that the album told a story that was incredibly sad. They weren’t to thrilled about the fact that they left it feeling worse than when they started and that turned most listeners off to it.

I think in terms of storytelling it may have been a little ahead of it’s time. It may not have struck a chord when it first came out but I think in retrospect definitely can be hailed as a much more deserving piece of work than when it originally came out. Hopefully more and more people will discover this hidden gem and be as thoroughly entertained as I was listening to it every time.

Song of Choice: Balloon Burning

-Bosco