The Who's 'Tommy' Is 50, So Here Are Nine More Essential Rock Operas
Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and Co. may have introduced the world to the form, but they were far from the first—or last—to tell stories with bombast.
When The Who released Tommy 50 years ago today, they introduced fans to a new form: the rock opera. They weren't the first to establish a narrative on a record—but they popularized the idea of blending the "high art" of the classical form with the "low art" of rock 'n' roll using the bombast and intensity of the music itself to tell an ambitious story. As Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone in 1968 while teasing Tommy, "so much depends on the music, so much." ("I’m hoping that we can do it," he said. "The lyrics are going to be okay, but every pitfall of what we’re trying to say lies in the music, lies in the way we play the music, the way we interpret, the way things are going during the opera.")
Tommy itself tells the story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who suffers neglect and abuse and struggles to recover his senses. The Who had already enjoyed success with their "mini-opera" "A Quick One, While He's Away" in 1966 by the time Pete Townshend started writing Tommy, and on 1970's Live At Leeds album he introduces the song as "Tommy's parents." But while "A Quick One, While He's Away" is confined to nine minutes, Tommy is a sprawling double-LP with a complicated narrative. Instrumentals like "Sparks" and "Underture" sit comfortably among favorites like "I'm Free" and "Pinball Wizard," and in 1975 it was adapted into a star-studded, trippy movie that featured Tina Turner killing it as The Acid Queen, Elton John performing on stilts and, perhaps most famously, Ann-Margaret writhing around in baked beans.
With that in mind it's easy to see why records like this could be deemed pretentious or overblown, but Tommy's success established a format that's endured over half a century. Groups spanning a number of subgenres like Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Fucked Up, and even more recently, Long Island glam duo The Lemon Twigs have all put their twist on it in the ensuing decades.
Unlike a rock musical—apologies to Hair and RENT—rock operas stand on their own, serving as first and foremost an album and telling their stories exclusively through the music. (Though many have been adapted for the stage or screen over the years.) While what exactly separates a concept album from a rock opera remains up for debate—we're going with self-identification for the purposes of this list; if the artist calls it a rock opera, it's a rock opera— some of the best examples of the style are the ones that embrace the pomp and theatrics the format calls for. Whether it's the tale of a deaf, dumb, and blind kid or the bombing of a lightbulb factory, rock operas are ambitious, which you almost have to commend an artist for simply attempting. So to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tommy, here are nine more highlights from the genre.
The Pretty Things, S.F. Sorrow (1968)
Released roughly six months before Tommy, The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow is generally recognized as one of the first rock operas. Though it never quite soared to the same critical and commercial heights as The Who's album, it is absolutely worth a listen. The story follows main character Sebastian F. Sorrow through birth, love, war, tireless work in the "Misery Factory" and ultimately, old age and loneliness. The psychedelic album's liner notes featured short chapters to accompany the songs' narrative, which were read out loud in between tracks by Arthur Brown during early performances of S.F. Sorrow. EMI didn't release the record in the US, and it was eventually picked up by Motown's Rare Earth label in 1969, but by then Tommy was out, and it was too late— S.F. Sorrow was overshadowed by the Pinball Wizard. "The album has never really had a proper release," singer Phil May told the New York Times. "To some extent, it died at birth." May also insisted that The Who lifted ideas from S.F. Sorrow: "You've got the opening of 'Pinball Wizard' completely there, in 'Old Man Going," he said.
The Who, Quadrophenia (1973)
Tommy has more notoriety, but The Who's best rock opera is their second attempt. The only Who album composed entirely by Pete Townshend, Quadrophenia is a much more focused story, one that feels more relevant to British youth culture at the time as it follows Jimmy, a mod who struggles with his self-worth. It also features some of the band's best work, from "The Real Me," "I'm One" and "5:15" to the epic "Love, Reign O'er Me." Like Tommy, it was adapted into a movie, and it features Sting making his film debut as Ace Face, King of the Mods. But if you're looking for an onscreen story that gets to the heart of Quadrophenia, look no further than Freaks and Geeks' "Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers" episode and its perfect use of "I'm One."
Lou Reed, Berlin (1973)
Berlin is bleak, to say the least; Lou Reed's third solo album tells the story of Jim and Caroline, a couple plagued by drug addiction, domestic violence, depression and ultimately, suicide. Perhaps that's why it took critics and fans a while to warm up to it after it was initially released in 1973. Reed and producer Bob Ezrin originally planned for the album to be performed as a rock opera onstage, but that idea was scrapped after poor sales and mediocre reviews. Eventually people came around on Berlin's understated, tragic beauty, and in 2006, Reed finally got to perform the album in its entirety the way he had planned—backed by a 30-piece band and 12 choir members. The performance was recorded by Julian Schnabel and released as Berlin: Live At St. Ann's Warehouse the following year.
Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell (1977)
A rock opera is theatrical by definition, and the best ones tend to be those that fully embrace that aspect and just go for it. There's perhaps no better example of this than Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, a truly ridiculous tale of young love and teenage rebellion loosely based on songwriter Jim Steinman's Peter Pan-inspired musical, Neverland. The album, which Todd Rundgren agreed to produce because he thought it was a funny spoof of Bruce Springsteen, keeps the plot points to a minimum, focusing instead on the emotions of over-the-top favorites like "Bat Out of Hell," "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" and "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad." Throughout it all, Meat Loaf and Steinman are fully committed to the album's campiness, and the result is one of the best-selling albums of all time, a 14 times platinum collection of songs that was finally adapted for the stage in 2017. Bat Out of Hell The Musical, set in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan, sticks to the loose Peter Pan concept of the original album, adding in songs and plot points from Meat Loaf's two sequel albums, Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell and Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose.
Pink Floyd, The Wall (1979)
Released a decade after Tommy, Pink Floyd's The Wall is also an exploration of trauma, with each one adding another brick to the symbolic wall that is closing off and isolating its main character, Pink, from society. The death of his father, abusive teachers, infidelity, drug use—all of it adds up, causing him to retreat behind his wall before he ultimately realizes he needs to tear it down ("The Trial") and rejoin the outside world ('Outside the Wall.") It's an important concept that also resulted in some of the band's most beloved songs, including "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2," and "Comfortably Numb." In 1980 and 1981, the band set out on an elaborately staged tour of the album, featuring a 40-foot wall, animated projections and the now-iconic giant inflatable pig, and in 2016 Roger Waters adapted the rock opera into a literal opera with classical composer Julien Bilodeau. "You can hear the attachment to the original work, but barely in some places," Waters told Rolling Stone. "It's very much his work, and I just had to throw my hands up and go, 'You know what? You convinced me. Go for it.'"
Frank Zappa, Joe's Garage (1979)
Narrated by the "Central Scrutinizer," this three-part opera by Frank Zappa follows main character Joe as he forms a garage band, experiments with religion and sexuality and gets imprisoned before being released back into a dystopian society where music is illegal. Zappa satirizes everything from Scientology ("A Token of My Extreme") and Catholicism ("Catholic Girls") to the sexual revolution ("Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?" and relies heavily on xenochrony for the record, overdubbing most of his guitar solos from earlier live recordings.
Green Day, American Idiot (2004)
Released 15 years ago this September, Green Day's Bush-era "punk rock opera" completely revitalized their career, providing a comeback after 2000's disappointing Warning and reintroducing the band to a younger generation of fans. Though it's political—the title track and "Holiday" most overtly critical of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq—most of American Idiot uses those issues as more of a backdrop for a coming-of-age story. The story follows Jesus of Suburbia, an American teen who ditches his hometown, meeting St. Jimmy and Whatsername along the way and learning to choose revolution over self-destruction. The album was an enormous success, giving Green Day their first No. 1 record in the US; it birthed five singles—"American Idiot," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "Holiday," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Jesus of Suburbia"—and earned the band a Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005. In 2010, a stage musical based on the album opened on Broadway.
My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade (2006)
The Black Parade, which tells the story of "The Patient" dying of cancer, journeying to the afterlife and reflecting on his life, allowed My Chemical Romance to stretch their wings, incorporating a heavy '70s classic rock influence into the album while staying true to their emo roots. The record was a huge success, spawning four singles—"Welcome to the Black Parade," "Famous Last Words," "I Don't Love You" and "Teenagers"—and selling three million copies. Come for the nuanced exploration of death, stay for Liza Minnelli's unexpected guest vocals on "Mama."
“The Black Parade is an epic, theatrical, orchestral, big record that is also a concept album that has a very set story in it," frontman Gerard Way told MTV in 2006. "But also, as you listen to the album, the layers of that story peel away, and what you're left with in the end is a story about mortality."
Fucked Up, David Comes to Life (2011)
This ambitious project from Canadian hardcore band Fucked Up features a meta-narrative in which main character David Eliade comes to realize he is a character in a story after a factory bombing gone wrong leads to the death of his girlfriend Veronica; he eventually fights narrator Octavio St. Laurent over control of his plot. It's a deeply complicated concept, but it's extremely well-executed, with frontman Damian Abraham's raw shouts juxtaposed nicely with more melodic guest vocals from Jennifer Castle, Madeline Follin and Kurt Vile. It's a big swing, for sure, and it's one that paid off for Fucked Up, earning the band a Polaris Prize nomination and giving them their first charting album in the US.
"I'm pretty open with calling [David Comes To Life] a rock opera," Abraham told Consequence of Sound in 2011. "I think there’s less pretension to rock opera than a concept record—and I think the term 'concept record' is almost a cop-out. You can say any record is a 'concept record,' you can find a concept with any record, where if you call it rock opera you are definitely making a commitment to the form."