Cinemusic: The Rock Opera, Scene One

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Chris Morley sure plays a mean pinball!


From Soho down to Brighton, they must've played them all & more besides. But what The Who also achieved with Tommy, their 1969 rock opera telling the tale of a deaf, dumb & blind boy with a talent for pinball, was the closest thing yet to what the Germans term a gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, at least in rock. In the philosopher K.F. E Trahndorff's original terms that simply means a piece which makes use of multiple forms to spread its gospel.



Around seven years after the release of the parent album it hit cinema screens, directed by the late Ken Russell.



Ken was a man with something of a penchant for classical music, having also documented the lives of Sir Edward Elgar, Tchaikovsky & Franz Liszt among others from that particular rarefied corner of the music world.



You might well recognise the man playing old Franz from somewhere - it's Roger Daltrey himself!

Tommy was born out of Pete Townshend's growing frustration with churning out simple three minute singles. The double album represented the pinnacle of his achievement in the expansion of that, most would agree! The windmilling guitarist had first experimented with the longer form in coming up with A Quick One While He's Away to fill in a gap on the A Quick One album of 1966.



As Townshend would tell Rolling Stone,
"You see, each song has to capsule an event in the boy's life, and also the feeling, what has ensued, and cover and knit-up all the possibilities in all the other fields of action that are suggested. All these things had to be tied up in advance and then referred back to. I can tell you it was quite difficult."
Pinball Wizard itself at least owes a debt to the little known Baroque period composer Henry Purcell, an influence later discussed by the man who riffed on his ideas.
“The chordal structure for the intro was inspired by Henry Purcell, who did this very short piece called ‘Symphony Upon One Note.’

It’s a very plaintive piece, almost like the Samuel Barber composition ‘Adagio for Strings’-- only the Purcell piece was written in 1600 or something.

A single bowed note runs throughout that whole piece. I found that a stunning thing to call upon while I was in the process of writing ‘Pinball Wizard.’ I analysed every single chord in the piece and found ways to play them on guitar.”



And in The Boy Who Heard Music he would offer an opinion that,
"There is a difference between the inspired composer and the skilled orchestrator. A good orchestrator can sit with sheets of manuscript and, as the arrangement develops, can read the notes and actually hear a phantom orchestra in his head.

But an inspired composer hears music in his mind so complex, so diverting, that any attempt to write it down seems facile. What this kind of visitation produces in the subject is a desire to rediscover what has been heard before."
Connections opened to him by band manager Kit Lambert proved vital.
"Kit Lambert had introduced me to the work of Purcell and William Walton, and his dad had a box at the Royal Opera House, which I could pop into at any time, and in so doing I saw a lot of operas that I loved."
During the 1930s Constant Lambert, the man with that Opera House box & Kit's father, had been a conductor with what would become the Royal Ballet.



In amidst this air of sophistication some may detect a stink, particularly coming from members of the Pretty Things whose SF Sorrow had been released a year before Tommy, laying claim to the title of first rock opera before the term was even properly coined! Alexis Petridis, writing for the Guardian, explained that this was just one sorry part of a story fated to end badly.
"Another calamitous chapter in the history of a band virtually born out of a capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: they had been formed following guitarist Dick Taylor's timely decision to leave the Rolling Stones months before the Rolling Stones became hugely successful.

Still, the Pretty Things had a better name and an image so feral even his former bandmates looked a little prim by comparison. There was an initial burst of public enthusiasm for fabulous, sneering, thuggish singles such as 1965's Rosalyn, but it didn't last."



"The conspiracy theorists might note the passing similarity between the intro of Old Man Going  and that of Pinball Wizard, while cynics might note that neither the plot of Tommy nor that of SF Sorrow makes any sense whatsoever. But in truth, the albums don't seem much alike.
Although it was released only five months after SF Sorrow, Tommy already sounds like a product of the 1970s, with its grand instrumental overtures and tone of portentous import.

Laden with sitars, backwards guitars and lyrics about resting your head on a rainbow and wiping a flower from your eye, SF Sorrow is very much of the pre-prog 60s, which probably accounts for the differing fortunes of the two albums."
Singer Phil May is unrepentant in his claim to the throne, mind.
"I could never understand why an album had to be five A-sides and five B-sides with no connection. Pieces of music had been written for at least a 40-minute listen, and I thought the best way to do that was to overlay a story line and create music for the various characters and instances. It was the oldest concept in the world, but at the time nobody had done it before."
Many would later try, including the Who again with Quadrophenia (also later adapted for film), Pink Floyd muscling in with The Wall as Roger Waters somewhat ironically turned his personal alienation at the hand of fame into one of the band's most iconic works, screen the focus of his ire as much as what went down on record.

It's these works we examine next over the coming two weeks as we explore the marriage of what some would deem low culture to its higher equivalent. Opera seria to devotees of either, depending on point of view........

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