The Who’s Pete Townshend is a creative mastermind, the brains behind the operation of one of the most loved bands in British history. However, his most genius idea was bizarrely influenced by ‘the voice of God’, which provided him with a spark to create the project and begin one of the most artistically driven moments of his career.
The album in question is 1969’s rock opera Tommy which tells the story of Tommy Walker who is a “deaf, dumb and blind” child. The album follows Walker’s experiences in life as well as his relationship with his family and shows Townshend’s innate ability for storytelling in whatever form he chooses. Tommy was immediately acclaimed upon its release by critics, many hailing it as The Who’s breakthrough moment and how the album.
Following the release of The Who Sell’s Out in 1967, Townshend found himself in the middle of somewhat of a creative lull. He wanted to get his creative juices in full flow and, in doing so, wanted to create something unique to pull him out of the slumber and redefine rock and roll. The guitarist had been looking at ways of progressing beyond the standard three-minute pop single format since 1966, a format which he felt was holding him back from achieving his goals. However, the idea of Tommy wouldn’t come to him for another couple of years.
This frustration increased as it got to 1968, and Townshend remained unsure about how the Who should progress musically. He believed that the group were at a crossroads of sorts, but he wanted their music to remain relevant, and, in his own mind, he thought the best way of doing this would be to think outside of the box rather than copying the mould he had created so well. His friend, International Times art director Mike McInnerney, told him about the Indian spiritual mentor Meher Baba which led to an obsession as Townshend became fascinated with Baba, a factor which made him more introspective as ever and unlocked a level of compassion within which bled into Tommy without even realising.
The album would end up being one that Townshend would later describe as the one record that he is most proud of: “Tommy because it is so successful and so far-reaching and is probably deeper in meaning than most critics allow,” he later told JamBase in 2007. This artistic fulfilment that Tommy gave him was something that he had longed for and made him truly proud of his work. “I felt like the messenger from Mars in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land,” Townshend wrote in his autobiography Who I Am, “who promises that the secret of all existence is simply to learn to wait.”
The epiphany came to Townshend in what he described as being “in a most unlikely place”—and he wasn’t wrong, later referencing a Holiday Inn in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, as the birthplace of Tommy. He describes the scene in vivid detail, recalling the “vibrating bed far too big, a TV with a fuzzy screen, sheets and towels that smelled slightly of something warm, but not quite alive… I heard the voice of God,” he writes.
Townshend strangely decided not to elaborate further on what God told him, but the guitarist is thankful for this “singular, momentous epiphany,” which he labelled as a “call to the heart” which made him create the iconic rock opera, Tommy. The record would go on to change the course of Townshend’s career and put The Who on the trajectory to become a stadium filling outfit all across the globe.