Rock History

Cover Story – “Tommy” by Mike McInnerney

By Michael Goldstein

tommy.jpgSubject: “Tommy” – an illustration produced by artist Mike McInnerney for the cover of The Who’s 1969 recording titled “Tommy”, released on Decca/MCA Records (U.S.).

One of the first (and, arguably, the finest) “rock operas”, Tommy was the first of two such musical works by The Who, followed in 1973 by Quadrophenia. Both were later made into feature films.

Written primarily by Pete Townshend, this now-classic story about the life and ultimate awakening of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy was both hailed as a breakthrough in modern rock composition and also banned for its subject matter in some less-than-free-thinking parts of the world. That this effort launched the band’s career as superstars is undeniable. Later adaptations of the story – in concert, theaters and film, met with varying degrees of critical and public acceptance, but it was Townshend’s ability to craft a complex narrative around some of rock’s best songs – “PinballWizard”, “I’m Free”, “Sensation” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” – that ultimately establishes this work as an all-time great (who can forget Daltry’s performance of “See Me, Feel Me” during the early-morning sunrise at Woodstock?).

The recording was ranked #96 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.

Tommy was originally released as a two-LP set with the cover artwork in a fold-out triptych. All three of the outer panels are spanned by Mike McInnerney’s painting, which is the subject of today’s Cover Story. Executives at The Who’s record label insisted on having the band members pictured on the cover, so another version featuring small images of their faces inserted into the gaps in the central sphere was created for this purpose. Recently released remastered CDs were packaged with Mr. McInnerney’s original artwork.

Mike McInnerney was the art editor for the International Times underground British newspaper when he met Pete Townshend in 1967 at a gathering organized by the paper. An active member of the UFO Club and an ardent follower of Meher Baba, McInnerney introduced Townshend to the teachings of M. Baba and these influences ultimately shaped (to a certain degree) Townshend’s budding rock opera. As their relationship grew and as the recording process advanced, Townshend finally commissioned McInnerney to do the cover. Pete Townshend adds – “As ever, Mike overflowed with visual ideas, many of them influencing the way some of the songs – at that time in raw demo form – were to turn out..” With this as the background, let’s now turn to the words of Mike McInnerney for the rest of this Cover Story…

In the words of artist Mike McInnerney –

“It was 1968 and the world was full of messages. Everyone was promoting some kind of message – feminism, expanded consciousness, meditation, revolution, God, drugs, love, the environment. Rock was doing its usual up-to-the-minute job of transmitting them – if rock could do it, I thought, so should illustration.

By the time Pete commissioned me, the recording was well advanced. He gave me some tape cassettes from the recording studio, filled me in on the libretto, and left me to it. Tommy was a lovely vehicle for the visual interests I had at the time. I had been exploring ways of creating images that could picture my pre-occupation with spiritual ideas. I particularly liked the patterns and rhythms of Op Art and its concerns with perception and illusion and the language of Surrealism – not for its subversive qualities but rather its transcendental possibilities – like finding poetry in the ordinary.

The project started off as a double album cover job and grew into a triptych with 12-page booklet. The Opera had a strong libretto which I used to develop the images…I chose to do images that acted as symbols for key moments in the story. I hoped the images would be viewed like painting and sculpture are viewed – that is, in a contemplative way, with a long look at images layered with references.

I liked the ‘idea’ of the Tommy character. Rather than trying to portray him, I wanted to picture his experience of being in a world without conventional senses. I thought it would be limitless and unbounded, yet trapped in an environment made for people who have all of their senses.

The outer and inner covers seemed to be the appropriate places for this statement. The outer cover has its globe (Earth/Self) hanging in an endless infinite space that can never be touched – only imagined. The inside cover has its wall and wall lights, a symbol of domestic space – the room we all live in. The light from these lamps, however, does not fix things as in our sighted world – it shifts and changes for Tommy.

The work took two to three months to complete (According to Pete T. – ‘Mike worked constantly under a single ordinary lightbulb. He entertained and pontificated from his drawing board at one side of the room, stopping only to eat…Behind him on the wall was a picture of the young, craggy-looking Meher Baba…As an illustrator, he was constantly up against impossible deadlines, and in the case of Tommy, he worked indefatigably to produce the cover art even though the actual album completion was continually delayed by technical and financial problems.’). During that time, I had the feeling that I was working on a special project. That’s why it kept expanding.

I have this memory snapshot, back in ’68, sitting in Pete T’s kitchen, showing him the finished artwork for the Tommy cover and trying to find a way of bringing God into the cover copy. The Indian word for God is ‘Avatar’ and, for us, his name was Meher Baba and the cover credit list was where we put him. Somehow, giving God a job description on the album, juxtaposing the ordinary with the extraordinary, seemed appropriate to the project. It was a contrast that wove its way throughout the Opera.”

As Townshend put it – “The poetic mysticism of his work, its simplicity and bleakness, mirrored the music precisely. As ever, Mike’s response was explosively positive.”

About Mike McInnerney – by Pete Townshend –

“Michael McInnerney was an important figure in my life in the late 1960s. His move to Richmond and later to East Twickenham near the River Thames attracted me to look at the area, and when we got married my wife and I bought a house near Mike and his wife Katie.

They were a gregarious couple. Their hippy wedding in Hyde Park made the national papers and their dilapidated-but-aristocratic flat was always full of life.”

McInnerney was art director for the underground paper International Times, which was part of the network of underground press in the UK at the time. After the release of Tommy (“I was in Morocco when it hit the shops”), his career “took a turn for the better”. He went on to produce well-regarded art – posters and more cover art, including images for Rod Stewart and The Faces.

Text adapted from 1990 essays by Mike McInnerney and Pete Townshend for the descriptive text to accompany the limited-edition prints published by Record Art, New York.

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About “Cover Stories” –

Our weekly series will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.

Every Friday, you’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.

We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.