Rock on Tommy

Tommy defined the term 'rock opera' when Cast's John Power was still in nappies. Tonight the musical opens in the West End. What does this mean to the Cast generation? By Jim White

You could tell what significance the Who have in the world of Cast - at present the most up of the coming young Brit bands - when they played an acoustic set at the headquarters of the Press Association in London last week. At the end of their performance, which was broadcast to local radio stations across the country, the door of the PA studio flew open and Liam "Skin" Tyson, the band's guitarist, emerged in a rush. Once outside, not quite making it to a waste-bin, he threw up all over the corridor. Reporting this rock and roll incident later to those who were not there to witness it, Dave, the band's manager, reached for the most appropriate simile he could find: "It was," he said, "like something from Quadrophenia."

Even as Tommy cranks up in the West End in all its embarrassing frippery, even as Townshend's words about dying before he grows old are used to mock him in a poster campaign advertising, of all things, a life insurance company, even as Roger Daltrey prepares to play Judas in a Radio 2 version of Jesus Christ Superstar, nothing can shake Cast's unwavering love.

"I've never met Townshend," says John Power, the band's leader and song- writer. "But I feel I know him. He's one of the few people on this earth who said something and said it with intent."

John Power was born in 1967 ("I'm a product of the summer of love, Haight Ashbury an' all that," he says in his broad Scouse. "Oh no, hang on, my birthday's in September. All right, the winter of love"). He was thus still in nappies when Townshend unleashed the rock opera on the world in the summer of 1969. And although he was aware of songs like "Pinball Wizard" floating around in the ether, he didn't get to hear it until the conceit was well into its second decade, and the rest of the country was dancing to Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and Wham!.

"My ma's record collection was crap," he says. "And my old fella liked Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry. He never liked the Who; he's Irish so he was suspicious of all that Union Jack nationalism stuff. He thought they were just Londoners, basically."

Power reckons it was the film of Quadrophenia that first opened his imagination. He and his mates from Quarry Bank School - the Penny Lane Gang they called themselves, because that's where they came from - took time off from wandering the very corridors John Lennon had walked to rent the film on video.

"I saw the film before I heard the album. What a film, man. Fighting, sex and great music: it's all a lad going through puberty wants. After that, this gang of us, there were about 15 lads, started listening to music - Hendrix, the Stones, psychedelic Beatles - and getting stoned. It was discovery about music, spliffs, self, everything. I remember exactly the first time I heard Tommy. Man, it kicked right in; when you're 16 you think you can put the whole world back on course when you're equipped with stuff like that."

The odd thing about the development of Tommy has been that it is the flaws that have come to symbolise the whole. At the time of writing the piece, Townshend was undergoing the most fundamental of spiritual journeys, moving towards the teaching of Baba Mehtu, the Indian mystic whose proselytising efforts were somewhat stymied by the manner in which he swore a vow of silence and didn't speak for the last 47 years of his life. Taking fragments of songs and ideas he had been working on for some time, Townshend came up with the deaf, dumb and blind kid as his unifying metaphor. It is pretty crude stuff - the way the Acid Queen fails to awaken the boy's potential symbolises the pointlessness of psychedelic drugs, for instance - often held together by dire moments of comedy ("Uncle Ernie" fiddling about). But the thread that permeates it and makes it a great piece is the creative tension of Townshend, as best realised in that first mad burst of "Pinball Wizard", up there at the top of rock's top 10 song openings.

"I don't think Townshend knew what he had or where he was heading," says Power. "I guess it's like us. It's ambiguous. When people ask me what a song's about, I'm not sure, but I know we're on the threshold of something." And yet, Power agrees, that force within Tommy has been diluted by the crass vaudeville first initiated by Ken Russell in his alarmingly bad movie.

"Oh aye, course, I'd rather sit down with the album," says Power. "I'm not arsed by the opera side of it. I'm very much arsed by the lyrics, the rhythms, the dynamics of the score. And that only kicks in when you listen to the original. What makes it is Townshend's guitar. I mean, anyone who seriously thinks they want to play guitar has to listen to Townshend, listen to the guy who carved out a path for you to follow. And Moonie's drums, that unbelievable rhythm. And Daltrey singing high with strength - that's hard, man. And the way Entwistle held the bass notes so it was like he was playing the rhythm guitar and when Townshend was playing chords, he'd fill in as lead. Christ, man, there's only three instruments in there. I mean none of that's in this chicken-and-chips cabaret show. But my ma would have a great night out there, so there's a place for it. I mean, she's not a one for listening to the album on the stereo at home, with the volume turned up to 10 and a spliff in her teeth."

But why does a young man of such creative energy bother with the output of a bunch of old has-beens.

"It's like a schoolkid's first crush," he says. "Some old bastard might say: 'We did that when we was kids, you're not doing anything new.' But the kid's head's spinning, his heart's flapping, he can't get his breath. It's new to him. It seems to me we're all working with the same thing, trying to make sense of what you're doing here, what you might call the Source. It wasn't just the Sixties, they were trying to do the same thing in the Forties. I mean Townshend, he drew inspiration from the R&B guys and the bluesmen. People have been trying to deal with this for 2,000 years, man. Way I see it, it's the same pack of cards, but each generation deals it in a different way. It's all about passing it on. The feeling Tommy evokes is unselfish. It's inspiring lads like us to know that someone like Townshend, he's just an ordinary geezer like me, but, man, he can do that."

So how would Power feel should Townshend, now a hard-of-hearing book editor with a grumpy manner and a large royalty cheque, contact him and say he really likes Cast's splendid new single "Walkaway"?

"It wouldn't change my opinion of us or our music," he says. "But course, if he liked it, it would be cool. Man, course it would."

n 'Tommy' is at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2 (0171-379 5399)

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test