The pressure was on and Pete Townshend, like a dog with his first taste of blood, began trying to expand on his nascent steps of writing a single thematic for an entire album. The result was 1969's hugely ambitious, Tommy, the so-called rock opera. This was not about flowers in your hair, love, and peace. This was about murder, pedophilia, false messiahs and the life affirming power of music. This self-produced album, with french horns and copious amounts of acoustic guitars was quiet, dark and brooding. This album effectively ripped the band-aid off of Pete Townshend's fragile psyche and exposed performances that are as gentle and complex as the subject matter is troubling and complex.
On the first side of the four sided album is a humble little song that introduces us to the central plot of Tommy. The song is called 1921 and it is our Song of the Week. Even certified Who fans might have to pause to recall this song...and it certainly won't ever make any greatest hits double disc. The Who often dropped it from their live performances of Tommy. But that is part of the beauty of this song. 1921 is one of those many intricate Pete Townshend songs in which he lays his soul out for all to see. But as he had done before with deeply personal songs (think Sell Out's Sunrise), the song is obscured from the listener with its shy demeanor and elliptical lyrics.
Let's linger over those elliptical lyrics for a second. As mentioned earlier, they tell our central story through which the rest of the album must be understood. But in typical Townshend fashion, he forces the listener to work for it with a constant sleight of hand. His central tool in this musical prestidigitation is the constant switching of narrator.
(Allow me to pause and give a Cliff's Notes version of the scant few lines contained in the six minutes of sublime music which precede 1921 on the album). Mr. and Mrs. Walker are a newly married British couple in love. Captain Walker soon heads off to do his duty for the Empire at the outbreak of World War I. In the father's absence, his son, Tommy, is born. Around this time Mrs. Walker is told that Mr. Walker has gone missing with a number of men, and that he is presumed dead.
It is at this point that we pick up our song sung from many different perspectives, all of which, except one, are sung by Townshend at his most vulnerable. It's New Year's eve and Mrs. Walker has found a potential new father for her young child. Mrs. Walker's unnamed lover opens the song (verse 1; PT) as he whispers words of proposal in the mother's ear while making love. Presently Captain Walker miraculously (and mysteriously) returns home to find his wife entwined with the lover. An enraged Captain Walker confronts the lovers (verse 2, PT) and, in one of Townshend's most susceptible vocal performances, turns to the wife and says "I had no reason to be over-optimistic, but somehow when you smiled I could brave bad weather." And with that the Captain violently kills the lover. Unbeknownst to him, his son (at least we think it is the Captain's son), witnesses the murder while looking through a mirror in the next room (we learn the particulars of this part later). And in verse 3, PT still singing, takes on the roll of the mother as she pleads "What about the boy, he saw it all"? Here is where things get interesting, both narratively and musically. Pete Townshend now plays the part of both mother and father as they turn to the juvenile Tommy and insist to him that he "didn't hear it, didn't see it, won't say nothing to no one ever in his life." Roger Daltrey, makes his debut as Tommy as he rebuts his parents and futilely argues against the orders ("I heard it", "I saw it"). Browbeaten, the young Tommy succumbs to his parents' wishes and resigns: "I won't say nothing to know one...never in my life." And so it is, in this one verse with three narrators singing over each other, Tommy is psychologically programmed to be deaf, dumb and blind.
Mission accomplished, the Walker's turn their attention back to each other as the father now apes the words of the dead lover. Mrs. Walker, in turn, looks for forgiveness as her unsteady voice betrays the limits of her optimism. Townshend's bittersweet voice hits that perfect balance of sad and happy as the mother struggles to make sense of what is. A coda of distinctive chords (Eb - Absus4/Eb - Abm/Eb) rings out before we are represented with the central question of the album. A largely auto-biographical question, "what about the boy?" That is a question best answered by the rest of the album.
Pete Townshend was only 24 years old when he wrote the groundbreaking 4th Who album that would shoot to the higher echelons of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The Who took their album on the road for nearly two years where it would transform from a soft, sensitive, introspective confession into a brash, bold, powerful statement of the healing powers of music. It was the end of one turbulent decade, and the beginning of another. It was the end of an innocently self-conscious mod band and the beginning of the most articulate pilgrims of rock. And it was the end of a commercially tenuous band, and the beginning of one of the most successful in history. It was The Who. Enjoy! Until next time, we'll see you on the Flip-Side.