Tommy, Trauma, and Postwar Youth Culture

By Dewar MacLeod

Subjects: Music, General Interest, Popular Culture
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438491745, 116 pages, January 2023

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Table of contents

Introduction: "I want nothing to do with it"

1. The Plot

2. "California, Here I Come"

3. Historical Background: "It's a boy, Mr. Townshend"

4. 1967: Toward the Rock Opera

5. 1967: Finding Baba

6. Making Tommy

7. The Album: Childhood, Cure, Fame

8. Tommy Lives

9. Tommy Reborn

Conclusion: To the Lifehouse
Postscript: What Happened to Pete

The cultural history of one of rock's greatest masterpieces told through the eyes of its creator.


Tommy, Trauma, and Postwar Youth Culture traces the development of one of rock music's central masterpieces and its relation to the social-cultural history of the era. Composer and guitarist Pete Townshend was the creative force behind the Who, one of Britain's greatest rock bands. Townshend grew up in an England decimated by the loss of life and hope that was the initial legacy of World War II. The product of a troubled childhood, Townshend faced ongoing struggles with sexual and personal trauma that colored his later work as a performer. An ambitious composer who wanted to create both pop hits and lasting personal works, Townshend achieved his greatest success with the Who through their 1969 rock opera, Tommy. Townshend gave many accounts of the work's evolution and its significance to him and he participated in and encouraged its continued legacy. Dewar MacLeod recounts his own interactions with Townshend and Tommy to draw out the work's impact, its critical reception, its place both in postwar history and the rock era, and its continuing relevance. This book will appeal to all interested in the history of rock, the creative process, and the long shadow of the 1960s.

Dewar MacLeod is Professor of History at the William Paterson University of New Jersey. He is the author of Making the Scene in the Garden State: Popular Music in New Jersey from Edison to Springsteen and Beyond and Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California.


"MacLeod seems to be showing a balancing act between ideal and reality, art and product, with the sense of bringing the reader along for a journey, like in a song. The roles of artist/musician, historian and fan, observer and subject don't really shift in this book but come together in an ensemble. It was a unique and inspiring experience for this budding historian." — Lindsay Ropiak, H-Net Reviews (H-War)

"Few albums have undergone the intense scrutiny of the Who's Tommy, which may prompt skeptics to argue against the need for another analysis of this complex, seminal rock opera. Such an attitude, however, would mean overlooking Dewar MacLeod's fascinating study. In his nuanced, compelling, and comprehensive examination of a work that remains both profound and obscure, MacLeod artfully charts Pete Townshend's artistic progression as he single-handedly brings the Who from Mod-era pop stardom into a rapidly expanding creative universe that, in Tommy, articulates his desire for transcendence and deep, eternal peace. MacLeod situates the pre-history of Tommy in the youth culture of post-War England and examines the profound effect of trauma on Tommy and how his attendant disabilities form a shield offering protection from a forcefully intruding, violent, and abusive external environment. What MacLeod is asking of us is to reconsider Tommy as victim and, latterly, messiah, and the record in its entirety as a more arcane and multilayered consideration of search for spiritual tranquility during a tumultuous time in cultural history. And, in doing so, provides us with a fresh perspective on an enduring and significant moment in rock history." — John Dougan, Professor of Popular Music Studies, Middle Tennessee State University, and author of The Who Sell Out

"Passionately written, this book expertly and perceptively connects the first rock opera to Pete Townshend's quest to understand his troubling childhood abuse." — David Szatmary, author of Rockin' in Time, 6th edition

"Dewar MacLeod's reflection on the Who's classic album Tommy offers a masterclass in bringing historical meaning to popular music. His examination takes Townshend's work, embedding it in time and space, while drawing out greater historical and cultural meaning for the reader. MacLeod also reveals the uncomfortable locale of rock music—a mass produced product infused with deeper artistic depth, straddling the supposedly firm divide between art and product. While never settling the question, he gives us a deeper understanding of the production of culture in the age of its mass reproduction. This book is a timely reminder that culture is most productively understood when placed with its larger historical context." — Mindy Clegg, author of Punk Rock: Music Is the Currency of Life