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Pop focus: The Who's Tommy

Released by the Who in 1969, Tommy often gets billed as the first "rock opera." Sounds impressive, or pretentious, depending on your point of view.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, the album was the topic of heated debate: Is it an opera? Is it the equal of a traditional opera in terms of musical and conceptual sophistication? Can rock be art?

But now that all the Baby Boomers are grownup and no longer need validation from their parents that rock music is "ok," such questions seem outdated and silly.

Everyone listens to rock, now. Or whatever you want to call popular music these days. There's no need to qualify it as the equal to classical or opera or jazz. It doesn't matter. These days, people can listen to nearly anything they like with a clear conscience, though you'll get some pitying glances if you're a 40-year-old Justin Bieber fan.

Yet, Tommy still carries the "rock opera" tag. And that prevents a lot of peope from approaching it with an open mind. Or even enjoying it. And it's a reason why the album hasn't held up as well as most of the Who's other works.

Many Who fans rate Who's Next or even their second "rock opera," Quadrophenia, as the band's crowning achievement. 

Lord knows, if I focus on Tommy as an artistic statement, or try to figure out what it "means," I tend to enjoy the music less. It's probably why I'd much rather put on The Who Sell Out or A Quick One.

As a story, it's a bit of a mess. It's about a blind, deaf and dumb kid who becomes a messiah. By playing pinball. Because he's been abused by pretty much everyone in his life: Parents, teachers, preachers, healers. But then, even his followers turn on him.

But, out of context, I love many of Tommy's songs. Maybe that's why I'd just as soon hear them on Live at Leeds, where just the best bits are featured, rather than the full studio album.

Still, the story of Tommy has had remarkable perserverence, having appeared in several different incarnations, including the original 1969 album, a 1972 "orchestral" recording featuring the Who backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, a 1975 hit film featuring a singing Jack Nicholson and Ann Margaret as Roger Daltrey's mother, and a 1993 stage show.

Most recently, the original LP has been repackaged in a lavish box set featuring a book, Pete Townshend's original demos and a lost live recording.

Here's a look back at various Tommy memorabilia and images, plus clips from Ken Russell's over-the-top film version and live performances by the Who.

Original album
1972 "orchestral" recording
1975 film soundtrack
1993 stage show recording

The Who perform the Overture from "Tommy" 1969:

Original film trailer:

Jack Nicholson sings  "Go to the Mirror"

Eric Clapton "Eyesight to the Blind"

Elton John as the Pinball Wizard:

Tina Turner as the Acid Queen:

The Who at Woodstock: "We're Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You"

Thw Who: full concert Tanglewood, 1970: