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A pinball wizard
by Thanos Kalamidas
Issue 9
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Ken Russell
While writing about Jesus Christ Superstar musical and film I used the phrase ‘rock opera’, so it is natural to remember the first person who composed anything to do with this type of music: Peter Townsend and the first ever rock opera Tommy.

Ironically, Tommy is about the messiah as well, albeit another type, a pinball messiah. I was about 15 the first time I saw it and I already had ‘My Generation’ and ‘The Who Sell Out’ as part of my record collection, but Tommy was something else. Coming from a house where classic music and opera had its place and my father was often visiting my room complaining about all these loud meaningless music.

Tommy was somehow my revenge and the come back for my meaningless music. Here was a concept that covered everything opera was supposed to be for my father, in theory at least. There was a story, there was action, there was a prelude, lyrics when it comes to rock music and there was even a symphonic orchestra. The best of all there was Oliver Reed, a well-known actor at the time and part of the Hollywood mainstream. I actually persuaded my father to join me the second time I went to watch it. I watched it seven times that very season.

Since then, I have watched the film many times and I have enjoyed it every single time. Ann-Margret is fantastic as the mother and Paul Nicholas is Cousin Kevin, but the highlight of the whole film was and still is the members of the band. Roger Daltrey is Tommy, the mute and deaf boy who becomes the messiah of a pinball cult. His major miracle is that he rediscovers his hearing and voice during one of his mother’s guilt emotional explosions. Then he follows the destiny of the real messiah from the glory to the cross.

Another member of the band, Keith Moon is magnificent playing the dirty Uncle Ernie and, if you thought that that was enough, more music stars follow. Eric Clapton is the priest of another cult that worships Marilyn Monroe, Elton John is the former champion of pinball with his gigantic glasses and bright red boots, plus Tina Turner as ‘The Acid Queen’ who leads young Tommy into the world of acid and sensation.

Wait, there are more stars coming, Jack Nicholson is the specialist and mother’s lover, Arthur Brown is the vicar with Victoria Russell as his daughter in one of the messiah’s parables. Ken Russell is the cripple and many, many more known-then but forgotten nows.

Ken Russell didn’t direct a film; he directed an opera that came straight out of Andy Warhol’s dreams. There is a scene where the television set explodes and first champagne then red beans come out filling the room. That was straight out of one of the pop art projects Andy Warhol has made. But I think that that’s it, Ken Russell has done a pop art film with rock music.

The music is totally The Who. They became Tommy and Tommy became The Who, so much so that there were times the music strangled them during their career because that’s what everybody wanted to hear. While watching the film you move occasionally, dancing with the music in this mystic way that only rock and roll knows how to lead you.

I love Tommy the film and the music probably because it was my initiation into a more musical adult me and partly because The Who were my generation and did all the things I wanted them to do exactly the way I wanted them to do, they were my generation.

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