The Who's 'Tommy': 50 Years Ago, Pete Townshend Turned Childhood Trauma Into a Classic

Ivan Keeman/Redferns
The Who photographed in 1969.

The Who's Pete Townshend has long been open about the physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child, which he'd later process with the help of ambitious, personal rock n' roll. In his 2012 memoir, Who I Am, he wrote that his maternal grandmother, Emma Dennis, denied him food and held his head underwater in a tub at the age of six, and that five years later, he was sexually abused by two leaders on a Sea Scouts trip.

Townshend’s upbringing wasn’t always so tormented; when he was around the age of eight, he made a visit to his Aunt Trilby, a spiritual type who encouraged him to express himself through art and music. Tinkering with her out-of-tune piano, his emotions began to manifest into a symphony only he could hear. “I found some chords that made me lightheaded,” he wrote. “My head filled with the most complex, disturbing orchestral music.”

Eventually, that storm of sound would reach the wider world. Today (May 23) marks the 50th anniversary of the Who’s Tommy, in which Townshend expressed his spiritual and personal aches like never before. Through characters like the druggy Acid Queen, abusive Uncle Ernie and cruel Cousin Kevin, Townshend let his pain play out on an imaginary, conceptual plane for the first time.

The seeds for Tommy were planted in 1967, when Townshend’s art school friend Mike McInnerney slipped him a copy of a book about Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who claimed to be God in human form. That year, the Who toured America for the first time; on a vibrating bed in a Holiday Inn near Chicago, Townshend claimed to hear the voice of God.

“I yearned for some connection with a higher power,” he remembered. “It became clear that I longed for a transcendent connection with the universe itself, and with its maker.”

Suddenly, Townshend’s songs changed, trading in the adolescent catharsis of early hits “My Generation” and “I Can’t Explain” for spiritually minded material like “Faith in Something Bigger.” Amid the cultural sea change of the Summer of Love, he was worried about the Who staying afloat. “If I was ever going to be a husband and father, not just play at it, I needed to ensure that the Who survived the changes,” he wrote.

The Who had already written in a conceptual, suite-driven style, from the six-parter “A Quick One, While He’s Away” to The Who Sell Out, a spoof of pirate radio complete with goofy, made-up jingles. Kit Lambert, a posh conductor’s son who was one of their two managers at the time, suggested an even grander concept.

“He felt opera was there for the taking,” Townshend told The Star. “It had been a snob fest, he said, that needed to be shaken up. He told me I should write a rock opera.”

On their second American tour in 1968, Townshend began sketching out an early Tommy concept via a convoluted diagram involving rebirth, reincarnation and spiritual perfection. He then zeroed in on the title character, a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” targeted by family, friends and drug pushers before founding a Meher Baba-like religious movement.

When the band hit the studio, Townshend began to include singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon in the story’s execution. He asked Entwistle to compose a song about a child abuser nicknamed Uncle Ernie. For Townshend, this possibly called back to his traumatic experiences while living with his grandmother.

“She had one guy that looked like Adolf Hitler, with a little moustache, his hair brushed to the side and a withered arm,” he later told CTV News. “He would sit me on his lap and I had to call him ‘uncle’… something very creepy was going on.” Entwistle obliged with the sinister “Fiddle About,” written from Ernie’s perspective.

Moon chipped into the story, too. While Townshend worked on the song “Welcome,” he fretted over the subject of “home” in the song; it felt too vague and general. To fill in the blank, Moon wrote a goofy interlude that connected to Townshend’s more contented memories: “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” “I had spent many happy years in [those] as a small child,” Townshend wrote.

Despite being the singer, Daltrey was slightly relegated to the sidelines. “He was often waiting for long periods for us to complete tracks on which he could sing,” Townshend wrote. But as the band’s sound evolved, so did his stage and studio bravado -- he was developing a new approach as Townshend’s stadium-honed voice to the world. “His whirling microphone and mythical poses suggested frustration and pain,” Townshend said of Daltrey’s performance at Woodstock later in 1969.

As Townshend kept chipping away at Tommy at his home studio, he got a disconcerting call: Meher Baba had passed away. Townshend had to cancel a planned trip to India; the clock was ticking on the album’s completion. During the sessions, Townshend had been blowing off steam with a record critic for The Guardian named Nik Cohn.

“We would play pinball furiously and competitively,” Townshend wrote. Inspired by the clatter of balls and bumpers, Cohn suggested a new element to Townshend’s now-guru protagonist: “What if Tommy was a pinball champion, and that’s the reason he gathers so many disciples?”

For Townshend, this resonated with something the late Baba had said: “Playing marbles [are] included in the affairs of the universe.” In the resultant Billboard Hot 100 No. 19 single, “Pinball Wizard,” he flipped this cosmic image into quirky, dynamic rock, a quick-strumming sound that would define the second era of the Who.

When Tommy was finished, Townshend realized he had a true accomplishment on his hands -- all the traumatic and far-out themes had resulted in an authentic rock opera. Nobody could have known Tommy would wind up a classic; for all its diversity and audacity, the album could have wound up a pretentious mess.

After the last rehearsal for its accompanying tour, Moon gave his honest opinion of the final product. He took Townshend out for a drink and stared him straight in the eye. “Pete, you’ve done it,” he said. “This is gonna work.”