Who faithful in the last few years have seen several reissue packages for their classic albums (The Who Sing My Generation, The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Live at Leeds, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia), many of them most welcome to a fan base that suffered through initial CD 1980′s pressings with bad mastering, no liner notes and other little disappointments. Take for example an album like Live at Leeds which, though a hit album for the band and a scorching performance, was originally a six-song LP snapshot of a much longer performance that included a complete, blistering run-through of Tommy and a unbeatable performance of the mini-opera A Quick One While He’s Away. This reissue was followed by another reissue that included the following night’s identical performance at Hull.
Tommy‘s reissue history is a little different. You’ve always been able to get the complete album, though initial CD pressings were broken up into 2 CD’s, followed by a single-CD reissue and then a Deluxe Edition that included some outtakes and demos. A bootleg of all of chief songwriter Pete Townshend’s Tommy demos has been out there for some time, all of which are really interesting (like the demos you hear on the Scoop issues) but lacking the Who horsepower–a major creative force in their own right. In these demos, recorded in his home studio, Townshend wrote with each of the other musicians in mind, how each piece would be blown out by John Entwistle’s bass, Keith Moon’s drums and Roger Daltrey’s voice. The final results (especially in Tommy, which we learn from books like Ritchie Unterberger’s Won’t Get Fooled Again: From Lifehouse to Quadrophenia, was a highly collaborative effort whether in songwriting–Entwistle, Moon–or creative direction). Who producer Kit Lambert, like the Beatles’ George Martin, also played a major role in getting the whole thing wrapped up and pushed through.
Now we hear that the Who is releasing a Super Deluxe issue of Tommy, the first true rock opera. For those who don’t know, Tommy was a major step forward for a band at once trying to make a living through live shows and still be ambitious in the studio. The mystique of the Who is founded on this conflict, which came from the fact that the band’s singer and rhythm section were an incredible live spectacle and its lead guitarist a visionary songwriter who needed time to generate the songs that kept their audience coming back for more shows. Combine that with the conflict that Townshend (the songwriter) could live off of the songwriting royalties and the other three couldn’t (needing to tour to make money) and you see how, in 1968, the Who needed something that could do both: create a hit album and a spectacular live show.
Unlike the sketchy story lines of previous classic concept albums like Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me, which simply compiled travel songs, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and even The Who’s The Who Sell Out, which many people credit as the first concept album, which presents itself as a pirate radio show, Tommy introduced a true opera with an overture, story, characters, arias, and the whole bit. They sold a lot of albums, paid off the bills accrued from smashing their instruments, toured the U.S. and even performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center, after which Leonard Bernstein told Pete Townshend he had bridged a major culture gap. Tommy in some ways became bigger than the Who, and there are some who know the former and not the latter.
Therefore, it’s not a terrible idea to release a Super Deluxe issue of this album, but it is worth the time to break down what exactly is being offered here and, if you’re on the fence about purchasing it, whether or not you need it if you have the last reissue, which still sounds great. So, here’s what’s in the Super Deluxe set and why you might or might not need it:
1. Original Album In HD: Tommy, recorded in 1968 and released in 1969 still sounds fantastic. In fact, the opening chords are a perennial speaker test for lows and highs. If you’re a true audiophile, this is a probably a must, but if not you’re okay with the last reissue.
2. Demos and Outtakes: Big-time Townshend fans are going to want this disc to hear his original demos for Tommy, in addition to songs that were removed from the final cut. Some of these (I believe) have been available on other issues but not the whole thing.
3. Tommy Live 1969: Apparently, Who sound engineer Bob Pridden was told to destroy all soundboards from this tour to prevent them from being circulated as bootlegs, but Bob saved one concert. I’m sure it’s a gem, but could it be any better than the Tommy run-through available on the Live at Leeds reissue? Hard to fathom, but true fans will want this.
4. Original Album in 5.1: Here you’re getting into obsessive territory, with another version of the studio album to play in 5.1 on your DVD/Blu-Ray system. Many people griped about the Quadrophenia reissue only including a handful of songs in 5.1, but no one will be able to complain here.
5. Poster: You can see a little bit of it in the above graphic. It’s black and white, poorly composed, and dull. Considering that the Tommy cover art is so breathtaking and other concert posters more colorful and interesting, the poster can’t really be considered a major selling point.
6. Book: This hardback 80-page book features rare period photos, memorabilia, a 20,000-word essay by Pete Townshend’s college roommate Richard Barnes. I would say this is probably going to have some great insights into what the band was going through at the time and how the album came together. Honestly, this sort of thing could go for $30 to $60 on its own as a coffee table book, so factor that in when looking at the overall price (which at the moment is $127).
*2013 Deluxe Reissue: If you decide you don’t need all of the above (or are just interested in the live show and the new remaster, you order those both here for $25.
As for the “why” Tommy is being reissued, that’s simple: money. Back in the 1980′s when the Who called it quits, a period of several years went by where everyone wondered when they would get back together for a tour. Townshend resisted, but Entwistle and Daltrey needed the money, since neither earned much from songwriting royalties like Townshend. When demand reached a fever pitch (following a pretty amazing benefit performance of ‘Substitute’ at the Royal Albert Hall with Kenney Jones playing drums, concert promoters showed the band what they could earn for a tour, especially considering that fact that Budweiser was going to be underwriting the whole thing with a sponsorship, and they couldn’t refuse. The same thing is happening today and, hence, this Tommy reissue. The Who is still band, they still put on an amazing live show, but they are also (like U2, the Stones and the Grateful Dead) a corporation with sub-businesses, managers, assistants, offices and employees with families. Tommy, in addition to being a great album, is one of this corporation’s major assets. And with the holidays coming around, they need something on the shelves which will sell. Luckily, their audience (baby boomers, etc.) have the money to buy yet another reissue of an album they love from a band that never phones it in for them.