Category Archives: Shakin’ All Over Top Ten

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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Ian Dury, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, original press release, 1981

Spasticus Autisticus press release 1981

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Shakin’ All Over, number 1. A dead heat! There are two no. 1s! Neil Young (with Joni Mitchell), ‘Helpless’ (1970), and Ian Dury & the Blockheads, ‘Hey, hey, take me away’ (1980)

SAO book covers hb & pbAstonishing. Two number 1s, who’d have thought it. So the Top Ten disability songs is actually 11. Has it ever happened before, in the history of the pop charts?  And at the very moment the book is actually published.

A pair of what we might call polio songs, surely a compelling challenge to what Marc Shell, in his terrific 2005 book Polio and its Aftermath, has termed the ‘the paralysis of culture’ that surrounds polio survivors, making instead a culture from paralysis. Each draws on childhood memories of disability experience, one very movingly, the other very angrily. Young and Dury have many, many songs of disability between them.

‘Helpless’

Polio fucked up my body a little bit. The left-hand side got a little screwed. Feels different from the right. If I close my eyes, my left side, I really don’t know where it is—but over the years I’ve discovered that almost one hundred per cent for sure it’s gonna be very close to my right side … probably to the left. Neil Young

In Canada in 1951, really quite extraordinarily given their musical futures, both Joni Mitchell (aged nine years) and Neil Young (aged five) contracted poliomyelitis; Mitchell has said that ‘Neil and I have a lot in common: Canadian; Scorpios; polio in the same epidemic, struck the same parts of our body’.

In Christopher J. Rutty’s view, the 1970 Young song ‘Helpless’ contains his childhood memories of the experience of the disease. The song focuses on the moment, location and aftermath—both immediate and long-term—of the boy’s contraction of the virus—and also of the girl’s, when we bear in mind a famous performance of ‘Helpless’ such as Young’s in The Last Waltz film of the star-studded 1976 concert organised by The Band. Here, Joni Mitchell features on backing vocals, the two Canadian polios on the same stage singing the same song about a shared past. (Mitchell’s intriguing reference of disability culture is occasionally seen elsewhere, in, for example, the framed self-portrait she used as the cover for her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo, where she presents herself as Vincent van Gogh, complete with bandaged ear.)

We are in a very specific geographical and temporal place: ‘a town in north Ontario’, remembering the singer’s own childhood: ‘All my changes were there’ (Young 1970). The song title is also a kind of single word chorus, and is repeated in groups of four by backing singers, including the fade-out at the song’s end. Such a repeated state of helplessness captures the family moment, which is one of disease, uncertainty, dread, as well as perhaps some social shame, since, as Young sings, ‘The chains are locked and tied across the door’. Standard procedure by medical authorities to polio outbreaks in Canada and elsewhere meant that Young would be isolated in hospital, while his family were subject to quarantine at home, his father remembering: ‘I was the only one … allowed out…, and only to buy groceries. The white quarantine sign greeted me every time I returned to the house … the words on the sign “Poliomyelitis. Infantile Paralysis”’.

‘Hey, hey, take me away’

Being in that place [Chailey residential school for disabled children] is one of the reasons I talk the way I talk. Before that I talked not quite BBC. A third of the kids there were funny in the head as well as being disabled.… The situation was that from within you got very strong, but also you got coarsened.… There was a lot of behaviour that just don’t happen in the outside world. Later you pretend to be arty about it but when I was there, I was just there, it was real. Thinkin’ about it now, I realise it was fuckin’ heavy. It was like a hospital in one way, like a school in another way, and like a prison in another way. Ian Dury

Dury got it two years earlier, in a 1949 epidemic in England, aged seven. It is highly likely that his most compelling and harrowing song about the institutionalisation of disabled people, ‘Hey, hey, take me away’, from the 1980 album ironically entitled Laughter, draws on his experiences of life at Chailey. I think the song title and repeated phrase in Dury’s song—a one-line chorus, a plea—is a jokey reference to the 1966 summer novelty hit by Napoleon XIV about mental breakdown and the lunatic asylum, ‘They’re coming to take me away, ha-haaa!’, which is also echoed in each song’s lyrics’s dactylic rhythm. But Dury’s ‘take me away’ is an act of liberation rather than confinement: he wants to be taken away from the place rather than being taken to it.

Hey, hey, take me away / I hate waking up in this place / There’s nutters in here who whistle and cheer / When they’re watching a one-legged race / And a one-legged prefect gets me in bed / Makes me play with his dick / One-legged horn and he’s shouting the odds / Driving me bloody well sick.

On the record Dury’s opening vocal scream and Davey Payne’s saxophone harmonics are reprised from earlier songs like ‘Dance of the screamers’ for the supply of emotional intensity and disturbance, but there is so much more in this one short (under two-and-a-half minutes) song—as well as a clear distantiation from other disabled people (‘I hate the untouchable caste’). Lyrically, co-writer Mickey Gallagher remembers it from the recording sessions as ‘the song that shocked everybody’. It covers masturbation, adventures of escape, sexual abuse, physical violence by carers, physical violence between children, the fear of and disgust at the disabled body or mind, self-loathing, suicide, the yearning to be ‘normal’.… Dury’s delivery moves between spoken word, angry and rushed shouting and swearing, and a pathetic sobbing that is sometimes a whisper. Gallagher heard in this crying Dury’s familiar ‘best acting voice, which he probably developed as a boy in those institutions, to get people on his side’.


The editing of the voice tracks is extraordinary and sometimes brutal, and contributes powerfully to the song’s confusion, discomfort and fright: one can hear the joins, sense the edifice, feel the effort needed to hold it together. Some of Dury’s words are spliced out half-way through, odd sentences make no sense, he runs out of time towards the end as the pre-recorded music runs away from him, he misses a cue and speeds his words both to catch up and to fit the remaining bars. In its reflexivity the recording process is laid bare, of course, but more importantly the listener is disrupted and disturbed. Such ‘formal deviation’ within the finished product of a pop song is noteworthy, not least as, as Joseph Straus puts it,  ‘[f]ormal deviations, which are dealt with harshly in real life when manifested as bodily deformities, may be prized within art;… in musical forms, the “deformations” are often the most highly valued’.

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