The Who’s Tommy @ The Crucible Theatre

“This is moving theatre, powered by some the sort of music and intellectual vision that most jukebox musicals can’t even dream about.”

Aaron Jackson fell in love with music on the back of listening to his dad’s copy of The Who’s Tommy as a kid. 30-odd years later, he finds himself seeing it in the flesh for the first time…

You’ll have to bear with me, readers. This is going somewhere and it will end up in a glowing review of a fantastic production of Tommy at Sheffield’s Lyceum Crucible Theatre. But I need to fill in some back-story and provide some contexts.

Well, I don’t. But I’m going to anyway.

At the start of Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s bittersweet encomium to his own youthful idealism and belief in the power of rock n’ roll, Anita Miller runs away from home to escape her overbearing mother. Realising that this leaves her brother, William, to deal with Mom on his own, she throws him a lifeline: her record collection, left under the bed (which is the first place all little brothers look when searching for illegal contraband). As the movie is set in the early seventies period when the swinging sixties were hanging on, it’s a collection heavy with the foundation stones of what is now known as classic rock. On one album he finds a note: ‘Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.’

He puts it on, and … life is never the same again. An under-age William turns to rock journalism and hits the road.

The record? Tommy, The Who’s great 1969 leap forward; the move that took them from being one of the finest singles band of an era defined by great singles bands (The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces…) to a unit whose musical brilliance and muscle gave them the power and range to deal with Pete Townshend’s restless preoccupation with pushing the envelope of what pop could be.

The tune? Sparks, a soaring, snoring, propulsive mix of themes and motifs and weird backwards tracking entirely otherworldly.

For William Miller, read your scribe. My father was a teenager in the sixties and a young man in the seventies. His record collection was prodigious. It was also off-limits. These were the days when vinyl was treated as reverently as it is now even though it was far more readily available and far more reasonably priced. Small boys clumsily cueing up record players (look them up. Record players, not small boys, obvs.) were seen as a sure-fire way to damage them. That these magical objects were verboten made them fantastically attractive, of course, as did my father’s admission that he had seen The Who at Newcastle City Hall. He described them as a force of nature, and one that had detonated the monochrome world of the North-east in the late sixties into a billion shards of high-volume Technicolor excitement.

So, one day, I reached for my father’s original copy of Tommy, put it on the deck, dropped the needle, turned up the volume … and life was never the same again.

I didn’t understand it at all. I didn’t understand the songs, the story, or the lyrics. But the music blew the top of my head off. It was an epiphany. One that, amazingly, then got better. Imagine hearing Pinball Wizard for the first time. Imagine hearing it through good speakers driven by a high-end tube amp reproducing the fidelity created by an equally good record deck … for the first time. Imagine hearing it … for the first time. Not the way you hear it now, when it’s conceit is a throwaway line in popular culture, and its power as a song diminished by over-familiarity and decades of bad pub bands covering it badly … BUT FOR THE FIRST TIME. Others may nominate other candidates, of course, but the first 32 seconds remain my benchmark of how thrillingly explosive and kinetically moving rock n’ roll can be…and it’s played on an acoustic guitar. Two minutes thirty seconds of equally thrilling nonsense about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid playing a mean pinball followed. When was the last time you truly heard something for the first time? That was the tune that changed my life the first time a tune changed my life. There were others. Many others. But that was the first.

You never forget your first time.

And life was never the same again. The Who have been a favourite band ever since, even though they were already propping up the Dad-rock file by the time I got to them. Who’s Next remains a stunning album, one that introduced synthesizers to the mainstream a year before Stevie Wonder did and received plaudits for his innovations, in case you’re wondering. Quadrophenia remains a stellar piece of work. Even when the band was falling apart and the big concepts turned out to lead to nothing other than great music, they still had enough smarts, venom, and bite to return to producing singles that put younger bands to shame for their energy and aggression. Go and listen to You Better, You Bet or Who Are You? loud with fresh ears. They’re that good.

Before I’m accused of hagiography, let me also add the following. This is not a love-in. In his excellent memoir My Bass and Other Animals, bassist extraordinaire Guy Pratt notes a period between The Who’s rebirth with Kenny Jones after Keith Moon’s death and Townshend’s solo albums where one couldn’t move in London without bumping into the most famous nose in rock on the razzle. Well, I’ve felt like that. There have been times on the BBC iPlayer and in the press when you couldn’t bloody move for Pete Townshend explaining his ‘thesis’ of what he ‘meant’ by Tommy and Quadrophenia; what they are; and how they fit into post-war British culture. As one who has a day-job in academia, I’d like to tell him that if your thesis can’t explain itself, then it isn’t doing its job. If you have to go outside of a thesis for explanations then its argument and reasoning clearly aren’t evident in the work itself. Ditto any work of art. Yes, you are allowed a viva voce but generally they don’t allow you to carry on banging on about the same subject for fifty years. Most external examiners have trains to catch and lives to live, for a start.

Perhaps I heard it too young to ‘get’ it and thrilled to the music rather than getting the big picture, but I never really ‘got’ the storyline and meaning of Tommy or Quadrophenia as described by Townshend by listening to the albums: broad, nuanced, or otherwise. I knew who the characters were, and some of what was happening. I knew the auto-destructive theory of art, the post-war generation; absent fathers, etc – but that’s because Townshend wouldn’t shut up about them. I never picked these things up from the work itself.

Maybe I’m just very dumb.

Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps I’m unfairly unloading both barrels now because I think it’s arrogant to assume the right to assert authorial intent: ‘No. What Tommy meant was this.’ Make your piece; put it out there; let others decide what it means to them. Meaning, we teach undergraduates now, is formed of what we bring to a text; it’s a nexus of competing discourses, not something handed down from on high by an author-god. Many did just that with Tommy. I got my own meaning from it anyway, thanks. Besides, didn’t Tommy (and by extension, Townshend) himself warn us about listening to messianic explanations for our realities and perceptions?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Finally, I could never forgive Townshend’s dismissal of the contribution of his former bandmates. ‘Daltrey doesn’t understand the songs. He just sings them,’ Townshend once said. Maybe. But for me that’s up there with Roger Waters claim to be Pink Floyd. Let’s take away Gilmour’s guitars, Wright’s keys, and Mason’s drums, and see how we get on with a plodding bassline and some angsty lyrics, then, shall we? How many people would thrill to Dark Side of the Moon with just those elements? How many copies would it sell, do you reckon? There’s a reason why millions of people still listen to The Who while not many do to Townshend’s (admittedly excellent) solo albums. It’s not just that they captured moments in time where they defined the zeitgeist but the whole really was greater than the sum of its parts. The success of Townshend’s vision was entirely dependent on the contribution of those around him. To suggest otherwise is churlish and paltry.

So, (and I did say we’d get there, readers. Well done for sticking with it), there you have it. My love-hate relationship with The Who. So, when I headed off to Sheffield’s Crucible Lyceum Theatre to see Ramps on the Moon’s production of Tommy it was an equal mixture of excitement and wariness. Thankfully, my wariness was blown out of the water within moments of the lights dropping. Let’s fill in the banner headline before we get to the nitty-gritty. This was the first time that Tommy has ever really made sense to me. Perhaps dramatic performance was what Townshend had in mind – if so, I’m glad he didn’t get the chance in the sixties as the world would have lost one of its most important rock n’ roll bands and innumerable great songs. But the evolution of theatre lies in its ability to re-imagine its canon. Shakespeare, for example, hasn’t produced any new work for centuries on account of him being dead yet there he is, season in, season out. Tommy has been a ground-breaking concept album; a great set of songs; the set-list mainstay of one of the world’s most thrilling live bands in their pomp; a Ken Russell film; and a Broadway and West End hit. Its longevity is remarkable – a combination of it being an iconic totem of the 60’s generation and Pete Townshend’s determination to perennially retool and refine the work. Mainly, though, it’s lasted because of the quality of the work, rather than the discussions surrounding it. The New Wolsey Theatre/Ramps on the Moon production more than lives up to the storied history, but it taps into that essential truth. This is a truly special production.

It isn’t just that the concept, the music, and the show provide a platform to continue pushing the envelope today – although the Ramps ethos means that it does. It’s that it feels fresh and contemporary. This isn’t a period piece, rock’s Mikado wheeled out so we can all sing the choruses. The staging is bold and dynamic, doubling as factories, streets, houses, surgeries, youth clubs, and parks with simple shifts of perspective and the innovative use of projection. It’s stark, but we are invited to believe and that’s a more powerful tool in the theatrical armoury than any amount of technical wizardry.

The music is still powerful. One of the limitations Townshend chafed against was that his broad vision had to be painted in the primary colours that one voice, guitar, bass, and drums could offer. But those primary colours came from some of popular music’s most distinctive voices coming together in combustible fashion: Moon on drums; Entwhistle on bass; Townshend himself on guitar; and Daltrey’s vocals. The Who kicked like a mule. To make this work, the band have to commit and they do. It’s unfair to pick anyone out. The four-piece is ably assisted by members of the cast fleshing out with extra instrumentation – and everyone can clearly play. Nevertheless, Adam Langstaff deserves a mention for nailing Moon’s propulsive style without ever falling into parody.

It helps that they’re playing some of the most iconic material in pop music. The Who had nailed producing catchy, memorable three-minute wonders as a four-piece in a room long before a hit needed a credits list as long as a movie production to make the charts. These are songs that 99.9 % of today’s rash of jukebox musicals would love to have in their book. Now, though, with their delivery being passed on to the actual characters of the piece rather than being delivered by Daltrey (mainly) and Townshend (occasionally) the staging, the cast, the production, and the music all come together to finally deliver the story.

And boy, does it deliver. This is electric stuff. Townshend’s beloved arcs of post-war Britain, absent fathers, family issues, and generational change are suddenly cast into stark relief, the clash of cultures and cultural values played out in thrilling fashion. Again, it would be unfair to single any one performer out. They are uniformly excellent, contributing as an ensemble as much as a series of leads and back-ups. But Max Runham as Captain Walker is compelling; a strong mesmeric figure reaching out to Tommy through his darkness. Equally compelling is Garry Robson as the unsettling Uncle Ernie. Alim Jayda turns in a lovely performance as Frank – catching a spivvy cockiness whose frustrations with his step-son Tommy are undercut by a genuine concern for the boy. Also, as the voice of Nora Shekina McFarlane lays to waste the post-X-factor belief that to sing a song means to bounce off the top line of a tune as if tethered to it with knicker elastic. Strong, and soulful. William Grint is an equally powerful Tommy; and Lukus Alexander is a beautifully odious Cousin Kevin.

Minor quibbles are that the first half felt, to me, stronger. The arc to Tommy’s apotheosis is beautifully judged, building to the climactic smashing of the mirror and his rebirth from trauma. The second half, with its extended rant against messiah figures and capitalism loses this momentum. But the album was the same. This is Townshend as a young man, railing against being the voice of his generation at the same time as he accepted the role. Don’t follow any sort of gods; he was warning, not even rock gods. I’m waiting for you to follow me is an exhortation to be free in your own way. Freedom, after all, tastes of reality. It was not a command to follow his commands.

My only disappointment with this production, then, was that Sheffield was its last stop. Had it been travelling elsewhere, I would have exhorted you to go and see it.
The principals are uniformly excellent, the ensemble uniformly strong, and the staging, dynamics, execution and delivery compelling. From the musicians driving the engine room to the leads this is a show firing on all cylinders. This is moving theatre, powered by some the sort of music and intellectual vision that most jukebox musicals can’t even dream about.

A final thought: the next day I took my daughters up for a walk in the Peak District. As we pottered around between The Fox House and Burbage, I became aware that another group were coming up behind us on the path. Standing aside to let them pass, I saw Max Runham et al throwing themselves from rock to rock with gazelle-like abandon.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, astonished. ‘Are you the cast of Tommy?’
They agreed that they all were.
‘We came up here to escape,’ declared Max, theatrically.
But it was said with a smile and wink. We chatted for a while and I thanked them for a wonderful performance, wishing them all the best. They were perfectly charming in the flesh.
And they bounced off, romping through the landscape, full of energy.
Shortly afterwards, my daughters and I sat down to eat our picnic.
Mid-apple, my eldest suddenly said:
‘Daddy, I can see some deer.’
Turning, I looked where she was pointing and saw three red deer stags less than twenty feet away. They were magnificent, and totally unconcerned by our presence. After all, they are the largest land mammal in Britain, and they were carrying some serious antler firepower on their heads. They watched us, we watched them, they carried on moving and grazing.
So, there you have it. On an everyday walk around the Peaks we got to see one amazing species in their natural habitat; and another amazing species out of their natural habit.
A good day all ‘round then.

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