May 17: The Who Released Tommy, Their First Rock Opera Album

The First Commercially Successful Rock Opera

On May 17, 1969, rock music witnessed a groundbreaking moment when British rock band The Who released their double album, Tommy. This rock opera marked a pivotal moment in the band’s career and had a lasting impact on the world of music. 

The Creation of Tommy

Conceived by Pete Townsend, Tommy was a concept album that told the story of a boy who falls into a deep dissociative state after experiencing multiple traumas. He eventually goes on to become a pinball champion before finding his place as a spiritual leader. 

The album’s narrative explores themes of individuality, false idolatry, child abuse, and the struggles of the human condition. The Who took an ambitious leap with the album, blending elements of rock, pop, opera, and orchestration.

Was Tommy The First Rock Opera? 

Many claim that Tommy was the first-ever rock opera album. But by the time Tommy was released,  lesser-known bands, like Nirvana (a British group, not the Seattle-based grunge band) and The Pretty Things, had already experimented with the style. 

But even if it wasn’t the true first … Tommy was the first commercially successful rock opera, inspiring rock artists for years to come. 

Critical Reception and Cultural Impact

Upon the release of the album, Tommy received mixed reviews from critics, who were initially perplexed by its unconventional nature. However, the album struck a chord with fans, leading to its commercial success and eventually earning critical acclaim. Tommy peaked at number two on the UK Albums Chart and reached the top ten on the US Billboard 200. In the US alone, the album sold 200,000 copies in the first week and before year-end, it was certified gold. 

Beyond its chart success, Tommy left an indelible mark on the music industry. It expanded the boundaries of rock music and encouraged other artists to experiment with longer-form compositions and thematic storytelling. The album’s success also solidified The Who’s position as one of the most influential bands of their time.

Tommy’s Enduring Legacy

Over five decades since its release, Tommy continues to resonate with audiences worldwide. Its enduring themes of resilience, personal liberation, and self-discovery have made it a timeless masterpiece. 

Today, the album’s influence can be heard echoing through the works of artists, spanning from legendary bands like Pink Floyd to modern acts such as Green Day. This enduring impact showcases the lasting impact Tommy had on the evolution of rock music.

Other Notable Rock Events From May 17

1958 – Jerry Lee Lewis Day was held in Farriday, Louisiana 

1965 – The FBI ended its investigation into the Kingsmen song “Louie Louie.” An Indiana Governor thought the indiscernible lyrics were “pornographic” and made a federal case out of it. 

1967 – Don’t Look Back premiered in San Fransisco. The film was a documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1967 British Tour. 

1969 – Joni Mitchell graced the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. At the time, the magazine only cost $0.35.

1971 – Paul and Linda McCartney released “Ram” in the UK. 

1973 – Bachman-Turner Overdrive released their debut album. 

1975 – Mick Jagger put his hand through the window of Gorman’s restaurant on Long Island when he tripped and fell. The rock icon had to get 20 stitches. 

1975 – Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” album earned him a Platinum record. The album was the first to sell one million copies on the day of its release. 

1975 – Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” reached #1 on the charts. 

1976 – The US release of Jethro Tull’s 9th studio album Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die! 

1977 – Thrillington by Percey “Thrills” Thrillington (pseudonym for Paul McCartney) was released. 

1978 – Lou Reed started his residency at New York’s Bottom Line Club. 

1979 – Bill Joel sang the national anthem for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals where New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens take the ice. 

1980 – Peter Criss left KISS. Rumor has it that Diana Ross, who was dating Gene Simmons at the time, told him he was too talented for them. He was replaced by Eric Carr. 

1980 – Joan Jett released her self-titled debut solo album, which was later re-released as Bad Reputation. 

1981 – Smokey Robinson’s “Begin With You” reached #2 on the charts, becoming his highest charting Top 40 solo hit. 

1987 – An arsonist lit up Tom Petty’s home in Enico, California. The fire caused $800,000 worth of damage. 

1989 – The Doobie Brothers released “Cycles,” their 10th studio album. 

1989 – Bill Wyman, bassist for the Stones, opened Sticky Fingers in West London. 

1990 – Chad Channing played his last live show with Nirvana during their North American tour stop in Boise, Idaho. Dave Grohl replaced him later that year. 

1994 – America released their 13th studio album – Hourglass

1995 – Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard played live together for the first time. 

2000 – The Eagles sued Hotel California Restaurant in Dallas, Texas.

2003 – Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots was pulled over for driving without his headlights. While stopped, cops found cocaine and heroin in his vehicle. He was arrested and later let out on a $10,000 bail.

2005 – Van Morrison released Magic Time.  

2006 – Paul McCartney announced his separation from Heather Mills. 

2013 – Alan O’Day died of brain cancer at 72. 

2014 – A 1963 Rickenbacker 425 guitar that was owned by George Harrison sold at auction for $675,000. 

2015 – A Maton Mastersound guitar that was played by Harrison at a live show in 1963 auctioned for $485,000. The auction sale also included Michael Jackson’s sequin glove and Elvis’ tour bus and marriage certificate. 

2015 – Twenty One Pilots released “Blurryface,” which became their first US chart-topper. 

Rock Birthdays

1965 – Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (Vocals)

1960 – Dave Abbruzzese of Pearl Jam (Drums)

1960 – Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age (Vocals)

On This Day In History – May 

The Who’s release of Tommy was just one of the pivotal moments that redefined the boundaries of rock music. May 17 is full of historical rock events that shaped the genre from the birth of founding members to the release of top-performing songs and albums.