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The Who, ‘Tommy: Super Deluxe Edition’ – Album Review

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As everyone was trying to one-up each other in the later part of the ’60s — hoping to keep up with ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘ and what it spawned — Pete Townshend looked forward by looking back. While his contemporaries had psychedelic visions spiraling within their heads, the main songwriter and guitarist for the Who had something else in mind for his band.

Rock concept albums were nothing new in 1969. Several, and many great ones, had been released by the time Townshend finished ‘Tommy.’ But his sprawling, double-album opus was different. For one thing, he called it a rock opera — itself a term of clashing styles and temperaments. For another, its story actually followed a narrative that most concept records typically strayed from, if it even bothered with one in the first place.

And as the new ‘Super Deluxe Edition’ of ‘Tommy’ proves, Townshend pretty much had that narrative fully formed as he pulled together the demos for the band’s landmark LP. The 25 songs that make up the second CD of this four-disc box (most of them Townshend’s previously unreleased original album demos plus a studio outtake from the era) are the most revealing elements of a set that aims to be the definitive word on the subject.

Stripped of the group’s ornamental settings, Townshend’s spare demos — often just him and his acoustic guitar — give ‘Tommy’ a less epic scope, bringing the story of the deaf, dumb and blind kid to a more human level and leaving its messianic implications to the full-band recordings found on the remastered album, its new hi-def remix and the live versions found elsewhere on the box.

The original album still sounds like a watershed moment in rock history — when ‘Sgt. Pepper”s challenge to give pop music some respectability was met with a truly operatic work that brought thousands of years of musical storytelling to a new realm. If parts of it come off showy and scattered, the Who’s performances rarely are. The album’s key songs — ‘Pinball Wizard,’ ‘Go to the Mirror!,’ ‘I’m Free’ and the climatic ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ — remain ’60s milestones.

The set’s concert disc gathers 21 previously unreleased live recordings from the band’s massive 1969 tour in support of ‘Tommy.’ They’re mostly supplemental, completing the arc started with the spare demos. The middle part of the story — the original album — is all you really need. But the before and after sections documented here dust off its roots and legacy.

Next: Top 10 Who Songs

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