If being first counts for anything, this record deserves more attention than it has received (in North America, anyway). Tommy is viewed by so many people as the first ever rock opera but it wasn’t first (this came out five months earlier in the UK), however a delayed release of this record in the US made Americans think Tommy was first (with some critics calling this a pale imitation, which is pretty incredible). At this point it feels sort of hard to talk about them apart from each other, which is unfair to the Pretty Things. (The Who did beat the Pretty Things to the narrative concept thing, as far as I know, but given that the first two attempts by Townshend were shorter than 10 minutes, it’s hard to really think that Townshend invented the whole thing.) Anyway…
The Pretty Things are a bit closer in approach to Opera than the Who, with the songs not always focusing on the plot. The Who, on the other hand, wrote plot song fragments which is a definite issue with Tommy. (Another issue with Tommy, avoided here, is the super long instrumental passages which bore me.)
But it’s hard to ignore that Townshend is a better songwriter both in terms of melody and lyrics. This record may have been first, and it may be more musically risky in some ways, but these songs are not as catchy as anything on Tommy.
Also, The Who are just a better band and a band unencumbered by the tendencies of the time; they are very much their own thing whereas psychedelia has found its way into this record to an extent which dates it more than Tommy.
It’s not just the instruments; Tommy just sounds better. I’m not sure if I’m listening to an old master but my copy of Tommy just sounds so much more modern and dynamic than this record.
Which is better? This was first, but I think Tommy is mostly superior. If you cut 10-15 minutes of Tommy I think it might be a masterpiece and I’m not sure I could say the same for this record. Still, this was the first rock opera ever and there’s no telling how different our musical world would be without it (not matter what The Who tell you about how they didn’t pay attention to it).
9/10 because I give points for being first, as the arrow of time only points forward.