Deaf dumb and blind boy
He's in a quiet vibration land.
Strange as it seems his musical dreams
Ain't quite so bad.
Ten years old
With thoughts as bold as thought can be.
Loving life and becoming wise
Sickness will surely take your mind
Where minds can't usually go.
Come on the amazing journey
And learn all you should know.
A vague haze of delirium creeps upon me.
All at once a tall stranger I suddenly see.
He's dressed in a silver sparked glittering gown
And his golden beard flows nearly down to the ground.
Nothing to say and nothing to hear
And nothing to see.
Each sensation makes a note
In my symphony.
His eyes are the eyes that transmit all they know.
Sparkle warm crystalline glances to show
That he is your leader, he is your guide.
On the amazing journey together you'll ride.
Looking back over the decades we may disagree, but at the time of its release Tommy was the biggest pop music recording event since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (These days I believe most psychedelic music enthusiasts would at least include Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland as equally important, but the Jimi Hendrix Experience didn’t have the respect among music critics then that the group has now.) It was the release of Tommy that put The Who in the company of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the American audience’s esteem. And with their constant touring of the “rock opera” in the following months, The Who did much to form the new aesthetic and spectacle of stadium rock that would develop in the late 1960s.
Psychedelia was the nursery for the first pop “concept albums”: Sgt. Pepper started it; The Who Sell Out, the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In It For the Money, Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, and the Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow each pressed the concept of “wholeness” of an album further. With Tommy, pop music had finally arrived at telling a lengthy story throughout the [double] album that was located in the lyrics of the included songs. Whether it is really a “rock opera” has frequently been debated, but I agree with Albert Goldman’s assessment (published in Life way back on October 17, 1969) that it is more like an oratorio (such as Handel’s Messiah). Nevertheless, Tommy exhibits an impressive architecture of sound, with appropriate leitmotifs, almost completely through the use of instruments available for the group members to play. There’s a little electronic wizardry (especially in Amazing Journey and the instrumental Sparks which follows), but there is no orchestra. The only traditional orchestra instrument heard is from occasional accents on John Entwistle’s French horn, which he had been using in Who songs here & there all along. Tommy is not overall a psychedelic album. Rather, it represents the early days of the Top Ten album popularity of progressive music, which with few exceptions (the Zombies’ song Time of the Season reissued in the Spring of 1969 for instance) had been simmering below the top level on the charts until that time.
There were no actors, no set changes, during The Who’s earliest performances after the release of the album Tommy. The Who gave a straight-out rock performance. The only real discrepancy between live performance and the album was in the songs Amazing Journey and Sparks. Here, Pete Townshend’s studio interest in electronic music gives the songs a psychedelic feel. In order to convey flying through space, reverse tapes were used at varying speeds. A chirping, whistling sound was accomplished by playing backwards the sound of claves striking. On Tommy, Townshend’s approach to electronic music is much like that of his predecessors in psychedelia. He would later learn to program keyboard sequences of musical patterns by which he would make his famous electronic work (Baba O’Reily, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Who are You?, etc.) - in the progressive music era.
Amazing Journey is found early in the story of Tommy. Its lyrics are indicative of a time when many musicians (most famously, Pete Townshend, Donovan and George Harrison) turned from the revelations of hallucinogens to seeking spiritual truths, replacing different forms of meditation for drugs. It is the contention of the song that by shutting off the senses from reality around (i.e. acting blind deaf and dumb) one can experience the greater reality within oneself that hallucinogens had revealed. In this case, since the character Tommy is a boy in the song, he suffers from a sort of enforced meditation, a “sickness”. Through sensory deprivation, the boy is able to comprehend mysteries of religion in a manner that reminds me of the characters in decadent Romantic Thomas Mann’s novels. Tommy will also take LSD in the story, but the drug, once esteemed by hippies, is introduced darkly through a sort of witch, the Acid Queen, and the trip promises to be more harrowing than enlightening, with the song’s constant refrain of “pay before we start” and “I’ll tear your soul apart”.