Tag Archives: Pete Townshend

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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Chris Martin, Coldplay, tinnitus: rock music-induced hearing loss

Having spent much of the past 4-5 years writing Shakin’ All Over,  a book about popular music and disability, that includes a chapter on hearing impairment and rock’s culture of damage, I was struck by today’s front page story in the Daily Mirror, which tells of rock star Chris Martin’s experience of tinnitus. As the paper puts it, ‘The seven-time Grammy winner was warned by doctors that the debilitating ringing in his ears – coupled with splitting headaches – could end his stellar music career.’

We should remember here the plaintive and ironic comment by Who guitarist Pete Townshend, from 2006, talking about his own hearing impairment: ‘I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf’. The Who were once (in 1976) named ‘The Loudest Band In the World’, of course.

Extreme volume is part of the rock aesthetic. From a quick scan among my old albums and singles, I was reminded that the back cover of David Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars contains the instruction TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME, for example. The contemporary English experimental rock band My Bloody Valentine were notorious for employing loud volumes in live performances; their reunion concerts in 2008 and 2009 were noteworthy for the controversy around the extreme loudness, with earplugs on offer at the doors and some audience members leaving because they felt ‘physically distressed’ by the noise. Bandleader Kevin Shields (who himself has tinnitus) has defended the band’s sonic aesthetic—which include trying to induce a state of physical unbalance or disorientation via the volume and frequency of the sounds produced—but also acknowledged the difficulty.

We play with low frequencies that are nothing like anyone has ever heard before—it’s a chaos that sets off a kind of inbuilt alarm system…. We’d like to say that it is cool to wear earplugs; it’s not cool to get your hearing damaged. And anyway, feeling the music is a great experience.

Over the past few years there has been a slew of journalistic and academic articles about, as one put it, ‘music making fans deaf’, and musicians. These writings have been prompted by the hearing loss experiences of the ageing rock generation combined with new concerns about young people’s encounters with loudness via personal stereos. Writing in Rolling Stone in 2005, Jonathan Ringen mapped out the affected male generation: ‘[i]n 1989, Pete Townshend admitted that he had sustained “very severe hearing damage”. Since then, Neil Young, Beatles producer George Martin, Sting, Ted Nugent, [Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood] and Jeff Beck have all discussed their hearing problems’. An advice booklet produced by a campaign group called Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (yes, that’s HEAR) quotes the following statistic: ‘60% of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are hearing impaired’.

In rock, then, loudness is part of the package: this is seen clearly in album titles like Nazareth’s Loud ‘N’ Proud (2010) and Ozzy Osbourne’s Live & Loud (1993), or song titles such as Kiss’s ‘I love it loud’ and ‘Shout it out loud’ (available on the album Sonic Boom). The career of British glam rocker chart-toppers Slade exemplifies the aesthetic: their 1970 album, their first with the name Slade, is called Play It Loud, their final album in 1987 You Boyz Make Big Noize. The first of their three singles to enter the British charts at no. 1 was ‘Cum on feel the noize’ (1973), later covered by Quiet Riot and by Oasis; intriguingly the effect of the group’s characteristic mis-spelling of song titles works only in, in Lennard J. Davis’s term, deafened mode. But it is Slade’s 1981 album Till Deaf Do Us Part, their most heavy rock- rather than pop-oriented record, which is particularly notable. Guitarist Dave Hill claimed responsibility for the album title, explaining the perverse thought behind the ‘twist on words’: ‘What would separate you from your fans, what would it be if they went deaf?’ Hmm…

Postscript. Other recent stories have featured musicians’ and music workers’ experiences of music-induced hearing impairment, including:

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