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Tommy, a musical, cripped. New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, 3 April

As a part of the publicity for Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability 3-4 years ago I produced a Top Ten songs of disability. No. 10 was the Who’s ‘Tommy’. I received some cross correspondence from another popular music scholar with family experience of disability (a disabled child, as I remember), who criticised the inclusion of such an, in his view, mocking piece, a song which was a(nother) high-profile travesty of disability culture and expression. I have been hugely intrigued to see this production of Tommy, by Ramps on the Moon in collaboration with Graeae Theatre Company, the leading UK theatre group for deaf and disabled artists.

In Shakin all Over I wrote about ways in which bands like the Who could ‘explore and return to tropes of disability over lengthy pop careers.’

 [They] stuttered the attitudinal voice of English youth in 1964’s ‘My generation’ (‘People try to put us d-d-down’), sang and acted ‘That deaf dumb and blind kid [who] sure plays a mean pinball’ in [Tommy], while guitarist Pete Townsend was widely reported when he spoke out recently about the experience and the dangers of rock music-induced hearing loss: ‘I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf.’

From youthful stutter to a hearing impairment more readily associated with older people, from the band that first sang, when they were young, ‘I hope I die before I grow old’ (it didn’t happen, not to the songwriter or the singer, anyway): cripping the Who offers us a different set of insights into the band’s body of work across the decades, which is also to do with refiguring the generational pull of youthful pop and rock. As singer Roger Daltrey said in 2006: ‘Can you see us onstage in wheelchairs?… It will still be us, still be the same music.’

Tommy was first a rock opera in 1969, then a musical film in 1975 (directed by Ken Russell), then a stage musical in 1993. Director Kerry Michael tells us in the programme that the aim with this new production has been to integrate ‘an exciting and inclusive disability aesthetic.’ The photomontage of disability activism shots at the start was I thought a bit clunking, nor did it really fit with the narrative to follow; perhaps it’s intended as a corrective to the musical’s own skewed representation of disability.

This version is mostly the 1993 stage musical one, with an additional song and some extra lyrics especially produced by Who guitarist and original writer Pete Townshend. (The additional song, a bluesy lament for lost youth and spark from an old performer—so surely it’s about Townshend himself, or Daltrey…—is for the Acid Queen to give her (here, him) a presence in Act II.) This matters because the original ending was changed: from Tommy urging his followers to become ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ like him as a route to enlightenment, to a cosier one in which we are urged not to be like Tommy, but to look for our own inner strengths. I should say that the end felt uplifting and moving for us last night, as, with house lights up, the entire cast sang and signed to us a message of inclusion and understanding. If that sounds corny, it really wasn’t.

The infrastructure of inclusion around the performance may be kind of standard for Graeae-style productions—a stage model and costumes props in the foyer for visually impaired theatre-goers (right), hearing loops, surtitles, signing, and more—but it does also regularly challenge much everyday theatre practice or rhetoric of inclusion.

Notwithstanding the massive flaws in the original story—psychical crisis makes boy multiply disabled, then it becomes a satire on religion and the counterculture? Plus, today for younger audience members (there weren’t that many tbh last night): what is a ‘pinball’?—this Tommy is terrific. It’s full of energy and movement, and only a couple of the large deaf and disabled cast seem to perform as though they are auditioning for Glee or Hairspray. The live band, centre stage at the back, is tight and loud.  

Especially in Act I, exploring the musical via a disability aesthetic shines through. What really strikes convincingly are some of the experiences of youthful disability: the medicalisation of the disabled body (tests, tests, and anxiety about tests), the bullying and abuse of the vulnerable. The sexual abuse of Tommy by Uncle Ernie as he sings ‘Fiddle about’, played by two hands spot-lit on an otherwise darkened stage, is powerful. Here the disability aesthetic makes full sense. Also there are some great hi-energy ensemble numbers (‘Pinball wizard’ overwhelms the stage) and other, well, weird ones (‘The Acid Queen’ as a coked-up Labelle in drag, feat. star turn Peter Straker, who appeared as the Narrator in Tommy in the 1970s).

The New Wolsey Theatre has a fruitful collaborative partnership with Graeae Theatre Company. (I wish my own city, regional rival Norwich, had such a dynamic small theatre, really.) I saw Graeae’s brilliant Ian Dury jukebox musical Reasons to be Cheerful here a few years ago, drove down from Lancaster for that. Was thrilled to then see on tv the band reprise ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ live at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics. Graeae are a company to be cherished.

In Tommy, several lead parts are played by deaf actors—Tommy, his mother Nora. Nora has a singing double, Tommy has two singing doubles. In the performing world of what Ian Dury called Normal Land disabled actors and musicians often still don’t get a look in (even when the character is meant to be disabled, for Goodness’ sake), half a part, no part at all, crip part given to TAB actor. On Stage Graeae, a disabled actor can require two or even three human presences. There is I feel a powerful statement of cultural value in that prosthetic gesture, which speaks of solidarity and love. Bravo, brava.

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Spasticus Autisticus at the Paralympics opening ceremony

My awareness within the record of ‘Spasticus’ wasn’t a shared awareness amongst ‘walkie-talkies’, so I obviously knew there was a risk that I was going to alienate a lot of people and they were going to get the hump with me, [saying] ‘What’s this fucking spazzer doing moaning?’ Well I wasn’t moaning, I was actually doing the opposite of moaning. I was yelling. – Ian Dury

As Ian Dury’s first single since leaving the independent Stiff Records for the major label Polydor, 1981’s ‘Spasticus Autisiticus’ was a provocative, or even perversely self-destructive, choice. The timing was clear enough: it was a considered public response by a disabled pop star to the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons. But in fact we can and should go further—to release it as a single (let alone that it was on a new label, and with a new band) was an extraordinary, and brave, if also frankly career-shattering move on Dury’s part. A Sly and Robbie-backed Jamaican dance-rhythm pop song about spastics, released as a single, with a political message and a powerful and discomforting accusation?

In my new book, Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability (2013, folks), we see that Dury was happy to use language and even to produce music that could make people ‘wince’, not least (though not only) when he wrote songs about disability. Having said that, the lyrics of ‘Spasticus’ are not sprinkled with the swear words so common elsewhere in Dury’s oeuvre; much of their power comes from their startling simplicity, as here describing bodily imperfection and malfunction or mobility difficulties.

I widdle / when I piddle / ‘cos my middle / is a riddle…. / I’m knobbled / on the cobbles / ‘cos I hobble / when I wobble.

Yet the BBC did indeed ban the song (in fact the corporation had previously banned the 1977 Dury single ‘Sex & drugs & rock & roll’, so he did have a track record of controversy), though only until a 6 p.m. watershed, a decision which itself irked Dury. His record label subsequently sought to strike a defiant as well as sophisticated note regarding the record’s failure to chart, releasing a statement which said: ‘Just as nobody bans handicapped people—just makes it difficult for them to function as normal people—so “Spasticus Autisticus” was not banned, it was just made impossible to function’.

There were also protests about the song from the primary British charitable organisation responsible for the support and care of people with cerebral palsy, then known as the Spastics Society. Rather than a musical act of self-empowerment and the reclamation of abject terminology by a high profile disabled artist, the Spastics Society heard a controversial singer confirming by aggressive repetition in the song’s chorus the common playground insult. (It is interesting that the Spastics Society was no more successful than Dury at the time in overcoming the stigmatised meaning of the word ‘spastic’ in everyday parlance; today the organisation has rebranded itself as Scope.)

Further, on an Australian tour in 1982 the authorities in Brisbane threatened to have Dury arrested if he played ‘Spasticus’ live; of course he did it anyway. So a major part of the afterlife of ‘Spasticus’ has been in the context of its (partial) censorship: in the 1990s it appeared variously on a CD included with an Index on Censorship special edition entitled ‘The Book of Banned Music’ (1998), and on a Channel 4 television documentary on the top ten banned records in popular music history.

We might think that the removal of ‘Spasticus’ from what Dury called ‘the polio folio’ to be stored in the censorship file was one more act of making it ‘impossible to function’. Yet its drama can be replayed, and without loss of power. A 2012 musical play based around Dury’s songs, entitled Reasons to be Cheerful, was produced by Graeae, Britain’s leading theatre company for people with disabilities. There is a wonderful frame-breaking moment where one actor explains to the audience that, when he was a youth, John Kelly, one of the lead singers in the play, had been so outraged by the BBC’s response to ‘Spasticus’ that he wrote to the head of the organisation. Prompted, Kelly tells us the contents of the letter: ‘Dear Director-General of the BBC, you’re a cunt’. Following the laughter Kelly continues, with feigned surprise, ‘And I never even got a reply’.

And now, at the Paralympics opening ceremony in east London (where Ian ‘Oi! Oi!’ Dury would have felt at home, though he was actually a sort of middle-class grammar school boy) last night—co-directed by Graeae’s Jenny Sealey—we see in a quite fabulous scene a segue from one wheelchair user with a unique voice, Professor Stephen Hawking, to another, John Kelly, while disability rights activists wave banners around. And Kelly is singing—yes, he really is!—live for the television millions ‘Spasticus’, with its lyrics captioned on screens round the stadium.  So very, very moving and a tremendously powerful musical moment. (Of course, we’d had musical crips at the Olympics opening ceremony too: the deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie playing live, and punk sneerer Johnny Rotten on record.) Hallo to you out there in Normal Land: possible to function.

We must too remember the important poem, a speech by the character Spasticus, on the back cover of the picture sleeve for Dury’s original single:

SPASTICVS SAYS: / MY TRIBE KNOWS NO NATIONAL BOVNDARIES / AND PAYS NO HEED / TO RACE OR CREED / I COME AMONG YOV AS AN EXAMPLE / SENT BY MY TRIBE TO PORTRAY THEM / AS THEY ARE, AS BEAVTIFVLLY AS I AM, IN ALL MY GLORY / MY TRIBE CAN GENERATE WARMTH AND FEAR IN PEOPLE / FROM OTHER TRIBES: / SOME PEOPLE WOVLD STONE MY TRIBE AND CAST THEM OVT / OTHERS FOSTER AND NVRTVRE WE OF MY TRIBE / THE EXTREME MEMBERS OF MY TRIBE ARE KILLED AT BIRTH / WITHOVT THE AID OF OTHERS MY TRIBE CAN ONLY CRAWL /        S            L            O            W            L            Y        / HALLO TO YOV OVT THERE IN NORMAL LAND / WE TOO ARE DETERMINED TO BE FREE

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