Tommy Comes to SACD in 5.1 channels REVISED REVIEW

Who producer Kit Lambert flew to New York Spring of 1969 to supervise the mastering of Tommy for American Decca’s 2 LP release (Decca 7205). With the lacquers cut, Lambert declared the results a “masterpiece” and celebrated by incinerating the tapes. So the oft-repeated story goes. Fortunately, it’s not a true story, for during the tape research for this special edition, the original 2 track master tape was discovered in a storage vault. That leads one to wonder what Mobile Fidelity used a few years ago for its “Original Master Recording” gold CD issue, but why cry over spilt polycarbonate and gold sputtering when this superb edition is now available?

Disc one features the original 2 track mix on a standard CD layer, and both 2 track and new 5.1 channel remix on a DSD layer. The second hybrid disc contains demos, as well as alternative and out-takes. This is the first digital issue of Tommy that remotely approaches the sonic drama of the original British Track issue (613 013/4) of May 23rd, 1969. If you’ve ever heard the original, you know that none of the subsequent reissues, nor the American Decca original, good though it was, deliver the snap and pop of Keith Moon’s drum kit or the spacious overall picture. Even the CD layer here gives it to you, though not as effectively as the SACD layer, which is more supple and texturally rich. However, both layers are, for some reason, somewhat brighter and more brittle than both the original and Townshend’s brilliant 5.1 channel re-mix. Because the tonal balance of the original LP and the 5.1 channel remix are so close, you have to wonder if the top end was purposely tipped up (slightly, but noticeably) in the mastering process. Whatever, until someone licenses the master tape for an audiophile quality 2 LP AAA reissue, this carefully produced edition deserves a place on your CD shelf.

Even if you’re a two channel purist, you ought to give the 5.1 channel re-mix a spin. Townshend’s 5.1 channel remix from the original 8 track masters shows obvious respect for the original, while subtly changing the emphasis in particular areas—particularly in the way in which Moon’s tympani swats are highlighted. While Townshend takes advantage of the extra channels to add spaciousness and occasionally to move elements around the soundstage in three dimensions, he wisely avoids turning the proceedings into the usual disorienting 5.1 channel carnival.

Don’t kill me for saying this, but once you’ve heard the 5.1 channel mix, you may no longer be content listening to the 2 channel original. I don’t make such statements lightly! My conclusion wasn’t hindered by the system on which I listened, which included a pair of muscular Aerial Acoustics LR5s, a pair of Aerial LR3s in the rear, an enormous CC5 center channel and a pair of Aerial SW-12 subwoofers, which go down to 3Hz! Driving the front were three Theta Citadel monoblocks. Let me tell you: on a system like that, when the “Overture” fires up with Townshend’s gargantuan guitar strums, and Moon’s seismic drum thwacks and then Entwhistle’s French Horn kicks in you feel as if you’re being run over by a freight train—and loving every minute of it.

The SACD layer delivers the airy transparency and creamy smoothness of the original Track pressing as no digital edition has before. Finally, a digital edition in which the drums sound like drums. Without Moon’s drum kit sounding like drums the recording doesn’t really produce the visceral chills it’s capable of. If you know the original, when Townshend sings “Captain Walker didn’t come home…” and you hear how big, full and transparent that sounds, you’ll know immediately you’re in for a good ride, and you won’t be disappointed.

The key to Tommy’s success, was the band’s decision to produce it in the studio in a way that could be reproduced faithfully on stage by just 4 musicians (three actually, since Daltry only sang) and even though the recording contains numerous overdubs, the original live performance during the band’s Fall/Winter 1969 American tour was even more dramatic, muscular and overwhelming than the studio edition. Anyone who was fortunate enough to have heard the band back then would have to agree.

I got to see the band twice on that tour. The first time was at The Boston Tea Party, an industrial space turned into a seatless psychedelic club on Lansdowne street in the shadow of Fenway Park. The club was out of the way, The Who were not all that popular (Decca was a classical/Broadway soundtrack oriented label that had no idea what to do with a rock band like The Who), and so, incredibly, only a few hundred people showed up (as I remember it), and I was able to sit a few yards from what was a small, just above floor level stage. When Roger Daltry (whose bulging physique and washboard stomach made him look positively chiseled from granite behind that famous fringed vest) swung the microphone over his head, I had to look behind me to follow it—that’s how close I was able to sit cross-legged on the uncrowded floor.

That four people could produce such a dense, rich, complex sound was astonishing. One could spend the entire set just watching Keith Moon’s whirling blur, or following Entwhistle’s crawling fingers, or, of course, Townshend’s windmill slashes and gravity defying leaps, or Daltry’s Christ-like visage. Watching them all together, and hearing what they were able to produce, was an overwhelming experience that will never leave me. I’d seen plenty of live rock by then, but never had a four man band in my experience produced music with the dynamic, textural and spatial qualities of a full symphony orchestra. That early live performance of Tommy may not have had the note-perfect quality of the studio recording, but its energy and exuberance easily overwhelmed it, propelled by Keith Moon, who was absolutely scary.

A few months later, the band returned to town to play a Boston University sponsored concert at the Boston Armory. Conveniently, I was dating a member of the social committee and we had first row center seats! I celebrated with a tab of acid. (Hey, it beats 2000 Oxycontin pills!) Airplay on WBCN had given Tommy and The Who sufficient exposure to fill the hall. The performance was equally effective, though very different, both because of the more formal venue and the band’s experience playing the music live. What the second performance lacked in energy and abandon, it made up for with precision and control.

The second disc contains some fascinating and even instructive tracks, with the Townshend home-produced stereo demos being the most interesting, and if you’re into karaoke, you can sing along to instrumentals of “Christmas,” and “Tommy Can You Hear Me,” among others, but you’ll be buying this for the disc one. One curious omission: when the double album was originally issued, Track issued each album separately to make it easier for kids to buy, and disc one contains an alternate, less frantic take of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “The Hawker” (“You talk about your woman…”) that has Daltry singing in a much lower key. An indie publicist for the album (Josh Mills of It’s Alive! Media, who coincidentally wrote for The Tracking Angle), contacted mastering engineer Jon Astley on’s behalf about this alternate take, but the only light he could shed on this was that Pete himself chose what to include.

I’ve avoided writing about the music because everything that needs to be written has been, and you’ve probably read it. I’ll just say that thirty five years later, Tommy retains its greatness. It was audacious, inspired, adventurous, tuneful and dramatic, and it still is. Chord progressions come and go, and their primal effect tends to wear off, but somehow the one Townshend struck for “Listening to You,” continues to transcend its earthly shackles and inspire. Like great classical music Tommy will live on to move new generations of music lovers, of this I’m sure.

One final note: a DVD-A edition of this release is probably in the works as the label hedges its bets in the format wars. It will interesting to compare the two editions because I have a feeling Townshend’s re-mix and the original transfer of the two track master were done PCM to either 192/24 or 96/24 and that that master was used as the source for the DSD master. That question has also been put to Astley and this review will be updated when we have the answer.

UPDATE: This from mastering engineer Jon Astley on the transfer:

"The existing 2 track master (found at last ) was transferred twice.The first time to 24/96 and mastered in 24/96 for the DVD-A using DCS converters and then again transferred to DSD using a Prism converter and mastered in DSD using the new Sony Oxford DSD processing in the Sadie DSD8 machine.

The 5.1 was remixed at 192k and they too were transferred twice, (first) using the Prism at 24/96 and then again with DSD. Both were recorded onto a Genex hard drive. I also used a Sony DSD Sonoma mix page in line for additional processing for the SACD. Interestingly Disc One SACD had to be DST encoded by Phillips in Holland as it was too long then for my encoder to work ( over 75 minutes ) and disc 2 was DST encoded by myself on the Sadie. They did say they had to reduce the Disc 1bandwidth to fit - I couldn't hear it and when questioned (they said) the roll off started around 75K !! Hope this answers your questions."

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