The success of the Who’s Tommy has always mystified me. Sure, it was instrumental in turning rock away from the pop-single work ethic — in favor of pretentious multi-album bloat. Sure, it made the Who famous back in 1969: no matter that their previous studio LP, The Who Sell Out, remains one of the funniest rock records of all time; no matter that they would go on to make the classic-rock monolith Who’s Next. Sure, Tommy has some great tunes. And a story that Who bassist John Entwistle admits even he couldn’t figure out.
Somehow, though, the saga of the deaf, dumb, and blind kid has become the Who’s major legacy, franchise, and albatross. There was Tommy the souped-up 1975 Ken Russell movie, of course. There was Tommy the ballet and Tommy the symphony and Tommy the 1989 star-studded live charity event. Most recently, there was Tommy the Broadway musical, a triumph of big-budget revisionism. And now there’s Tommy the CD-ROM, or, to be more precise, Pete Townshend Presents Tommy: The Interactive Adventure Then & Now.
It’s a lavish package. An accompanying 72-page booklet offers background history and an analysis of each of the original album’s 19 cuts (plus one song each written for the movie and the musical). The on-screen graphic design is thoughtfully psychedelic, extending the sensibility of the original album art into the MTV age. Yet for all the trimmings, there’s less here than meets the ear.
The one-disc CD-ROM slices up its sonic and visual wares into three sections: an ”Experiential Tommy” (shimmeringly surreal multimedia animations of 14 songs, with links to scenes from the movie and the musical, live concert clips, and new interviews with relevant parties); a ”Documentary” (more clips and text, arranged along chronological lines); and ”Pete’s Archives” (all the stuff from the other two sections, plus additional material, arranged by topic). If you’re a Tommy completist (I’m not) or a Pete Townshend fanatic (I am), you’ll find some of the obscurities wonderful: demos for many of the songs, early lyrics (”Pinball Wizard” originally began, ”Since I was 16, I been attracted by silver balls” — if you say so, Pete), the Who leader’s casting notes to director Russell (Tiny Tim as the Pinball Wizard? Lou Reed as the Acid Queen?).
Yet for all the text and video here, something fundamental is missing: Tommy in its entirety. The ”Experiential” section includes only the first half of each song — sometimes less — while the area in which you can compare the original album’s versions with the movie’s or the musical’s is inspired in theory but utterly frustrating in fact, since you can hear only the first verse of any song.
Perhaps the various rights holders balked at giving away the store to people with CD-ROM drives. Perhaps, for budgetary reasons, the disc’s producers opted to stay within the customary 30-second fair-use standard on songs from the movie and musical. (If they weren’t willing to pay, though, then why should we be?) Perhaps they felt there wasn’t enough room on the disc, in which case they should have jettisoned some of the more extraneous video clips, like the commentary from obscure New York rocker and apparent Who fan Binky Phillips. Whatever the reason, the lack of complete songs relegates the Tommy CD-ROM to the status of companion piece, when it could have been the final word. This disc is one reason why the medium is having trouble standing on its own two legs and reaching a larger audience; when all is said and done, it’s beholden to other, older media. If not deaf and blind, it’s just a little too dumb. B-