The Who: Tommy
Album design and painting: Michael Mclnnery
In 1966 Pete Townsend made a tape of jokey music consisting of several voices chanting the words ‘gratis amatis’ over and over again. He played the tape back to his friends, including The Who’s manager Kit Lambert, son of classical composer, Constant Lambert. On hearing the tape everyone laughed - except for Lambert who said, “I have an idea!”
Kit’s brainwave was that Townshend should write a long piece of work and call it a ‘rock opera’. A very pompous idea, it’s true, but in 1966 not that usual. It also meant that Townshend, at the time a fledgling song writer, would be able to fill up quite a bit of space on an LP. This he duly did to great effect on the band’s second album A Quick One (renamed Happy Jack in the US). The last track on side two was a nine-and-a-half-minute opus called ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’. And it wasn’t exactly opera. Indeed, in one section, where they planned on featuring cellos, Kit got Pete and John Entwistle to chant the words “cello, cello, cello, cello” - it was far cheaper than renting the instruments!
Pete had another stab at ‘rock opera’ for The Who’s follow-up album, The Who Sell Out. A track called ‘Rael’ featured several sections that would later appear in 1969’s Tommy album, notably ‘Sparks’ and ‘Underture’. Another song called ‘Glow Girl’ ends with the group singing “It’s a girl, Mrs Walker, it’s a girl.” Through 1968 and early 1968 Pete worked on his new project, which went through several title changes - Amazing Journey, Journey Into Space and Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy.
In the workds of Pete’s friend Richard Barnes, writing in the sleeve notes for the 1996 reissue of Tommy: “Strictly speaking it isn’t an opera at all. It has no staging scenery, acting or recitative. It’s a cantata or song cycle.” Well whatever it is, it became a million-selling album and is still being trotted out forty years later in live performances both by The Who and by theater companies.
For the album-sleeve design, Pete Townshend enlisted the help of his friend, Michael Mclnnery, who had been art director at controversial hippy mag IT (International Times) for a few years until it was closed down. McInnery had also contributed several psychedelic poster designs for events such as the 14 hour Technicolour Dream staged at Alexandra Palace, London, in 1967.
The album package for Tommy was beyond lavish. The front cover unfolds to a three-panel illustration of giant blue, latticed sphere encircled by white doves. To the left is a hug fist smashing through the blackness and releasing more doves. Modest pink type at the top of the center panel names the group and the title. Inside are seven further paintings, all beautifully executed. On its release, Polydor insisted The Who’s faces appear in the diamond shapes of the sphere, but these were removed on subsequent reissues in keeping with McInnery’s original concept.