Troubles and tribulations marked 1968 beginning with The Who’s tour of Australia and New Zealand in January. Accompanied by fellow Mod band The Small Faces, The Who became the objects of hatred for Australia’s right-wing press who derided them as drunken louts. The Who escaped with Pete vowing never to return (he finally did return, 36 years later)
The trip did mark one important milestone. Reading literature given him by Small Faces member Ronnie Lane, Pete became a disciple of the Indian avatar Meher Baba. His influence soon led to a new idea for a rock opera, an "amazing journey" for a young English boy who discovers a new spiritual level after being rendered "deaf, dumb and blind" by a childhood trauma.
By April Pete was writing the opera and its composition stretched into the next year as the necessity for more singles and further touring interrupted him. The new singles, "Call Me Lightning" in the U.S., "Dogs" in the U.K. and "Magic Bus" in both countries, flopped, adding more pressure to the writing and recording of the new opera. However, the live act became the band’s one dependable success as they toured North America, presenting exciting shows that left them by year’s end the U.S.’s fourth most-popular pop and rock act.
During the summer tour, Pete gave a long interview to the fledgling music magazine Rolling Stone, discussing in depth his plans for his new opera and the meaning of rock in general. Printed over two issues, the interview presented Pete as one of the only performers of rock music who could speak at length on the intellectual meaning of the medium. The many interviews that would follow over the next few years established his reputation as rock’s leading intellectual and the standard bearer for the hopes his generation placed in popular music.
Meanwhile, other bands were breathing down Pete’s neck, working on their own album-length rock operas (The Pretty Things released one, S.F. Sorrow, in December but it passed practically unnoticed at the time). As the release date passed from Christmas into sometime in the new year, time began to run out.
Tommy, as the rock opera was finally dubbed, first appeared as an advance single, "Pinball Wizard," released March 7 and became The Who’s first Top Ten single hit in a year and a half. The album followed on. May 17. Arriving in a three-section gatefold sleeve with an illustrated libretto, Tommy was hailed as a masterpiece by many rock critics and became The Who’s first giant-selling album. When the money began to roll in, The Who were within weeks of declaring bankruptcy.
Photo: Jim Marshall
Tommy turned out to be more than just a hit album; it was a triumph in live performance as well, a fact proven when The Who took the opera onstage at the Woodstock Festival August 17. Despite an interruption in the middle of the piece when Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman came on stage to make a political announcement and was knocked off by Pete, Tommy wowed the festival’s gigantic crowd in a performance captured on film and later featured in the hit movie Woodstock. Roger with his curly hair and open, fringed jacket and a boiler-suited Pete banging his guitar into the stage became iconic images for their generation. Now the whole world wanted to see them perform.
Manager Kit Lambert created strategies to make that happen. The first came in the form of a $2 million deal with Universal Pictures in America to make two movies, one of Tommy, the other a concert film. The second was for a grand tour of the world’s great opera houses, beginning with the Netherlands’ Concertgebouw September 29 and London’s Coliseum Theatre December 14.
The year began with a tragedy when Keith and his friends were trapped in their car outside a club by skinheads. Keith’s chauffeur got out to confront them and Keith, in a panic, slid behind the wheel and drove his friends to safety, only to discover he had run over his chauffeur, dragging his body under the car. The death was ultimately judged accidental but it haunted Keith for years afterwards.
The big project of 1970 was to find some way to buy time until Pete could devise a fitting follow-up to Tommy. Rejecting tapes from their American tour, The Who recorded two shows at the University of Leeds on February 14 and the University of Hull February 15. The former show, running almost two hours, was edited down to less than 40 minutes and released that May as Live At Leeds. This stopgap between projects became one of The Who’s biggest hits and is considered by many the best live rock album of all time.
For studio recordings, The Who presented a new single, "The Seeker," released March 20. An extended-play single recorded that spring was cancelled. This left The Who to play Tommy over and over around the world, most notably in two performances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera June 7.
Pete did not devise the next big project until that summer, coming from a combination of the 1969 movie deal, the arrival of a new musical instrument and a method of transportation. During the summer, Pete was presented with a musical synthesizer which he put in his home studio and began toying with, running guitar and organ through sequencers, creating loops of musical notes after the manner of the American minimalist composer Terry Riley. Meanwhile, in order to travel in comfort from one rock show to another, Pete bought a large American van. While driving along in air-conditioned comfort, he began imagining a future where the air was too polluted to breathe.
All this came together with the second part of the movie deal, the Who concert movie. Why not give the concert movie a plot? Something set in the future involving pollution, synthesizer loops and The Who saving the world?