The Who – Pinball Wizard

It wasn’t the highest-charting song (See Me, Feel Me peaked at #12) but probably the most well-known song off their concept album Tommy.

It was the last song written for Tommy. Townshend wrote it when he found out influential UK rock critic Nik Cohn was coming to review the project. Townshend knew Cohn was a pinball fanatic, so he put this together to ensure a good review. Cohn gave it a great review, and pinball became the main theme of the rock opera.

After writing this song for Nik Cohn, Townshend almost didn’t even mention it to the band because he hated it so much. They told him to play it and told him he had written a hit. Meanwhile, he thought it was a mindless, badly written song.

The song peaked at #19 in the Billboard 100, #4 in the UK, #6 in Canada, and #8 in New Zealand.

From Songfacts

This is part of Tommy, the first “rock opera.” Tommy is about a young man who is deaf, dumb, and blind, but becomes a pinball champion and gains hordes of adoring fans. It was made into a play and continues to run as an off-Broadway production.

Tommy was made into a movie in 1975 starring Jack Nicholson, Ann Margaret, Tina Turner, and Roger Daltrey (who played Tommy). Elton John made an appearance as The Pinball Wizard and performed this song. His version hit UK #7.

Pete Townshend wrote this. It existed mostly in his head while they were recording it, and the other members of The Who had no idea how most of the story would end until they finished it. Townshend was not credited as the only songwriter on the project – John Entwistle wrote “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About,” and Keith Moon got credit for “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.”

The character Tommy played pinball by feeling the vibrations of the machine. Townshend liked how that related to listeners picking up the vibrations of the music to feel the story.

The single version was sped up to make it more radio-friendly.

This was the most famous and enduring song from the Tommy project. Along with “See Me, Feel Me,” it is one of 2 songs from the album that The Who played throughout their career.

The Who performed this at Woodstock in 1969. The song was still fairly new, so many in the crowd did not recognize it. The Who were given the early morning slot, so they ended up playing this as the sun came up.

The Who performed the entire album from start to finish on their subsequent tour. Two of the dates were in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

The famous guitar riff was sampled by The Shocking Blue on their 1969 hit “Venus,” which was covered by Bananarama in 1986.

The album got The Who out of a financial mess. After a legal battle with their manager, Shel Talmy, and some bad business deals in England, they were facing bankruptcy if it didn’t sell.

According to the book The Duh Awards by Bob Fenster, Rod Stewart asked Elton John if he should accept an offer to sing in Tommy. Elton told him no way, “Don’t touch it with a barge pole.” A year later, The Who asked Elton John to sing the same song. Elton grabbed his barge pole and took the offer. “I don’t think Rod’s quite forgiven me for that,” he commented years later. 

The Dutch group The Shocking Blue used the guitar riff from this song for their 1969 hit “Venus.”

Townshend played a 1968 Gibson SG Special guitar on this song.

This features in a commercial for the Toyota Supra GR that debuted during the 2019 Super Bowl between the Rams and Patriots. In the spot, a driver navigates a life-size pinball game in the vehicle.

Pinball Wizard

Ever since I was a young boy
I’ve played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played them all
But I ain’t seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall

That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball!

He stands like a statue
Becomes part of the machine
Feeling all the bumpers
Always playing clean
Plays by intuition
The digit counters fall

That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball!

He’s a pinball wizard
There has to be a twist
A pinball wizard’s got such a supple wrist

‘How do you think he does it?
I don’t know
What makes him so good?’

Ain’t got no distractions
Can’t hear no buzzers and bells
Don’t see no lights a-flashin’
Plays by sense of smell
Always gets the replay
Never seen him fall

That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball!

I thought I was The Bally table king
But I just handed my pinball crown to him

Even on my favorite table
He can beat my best
His disciples lead him in
And he just does the rest
He’s got crazy flipper fingers
Never seen him fall

That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball!

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

23 thoughts on “The Who – Pinball Wizard”

  1. Interesting tidbits, one being how Townshend customized the song to a music reviewer and another how Elton John steered Rod Stewart away from singing in it. Tommy is the music of The Who I’m most familiar with. This song is a solid gold classic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I tend to treat the music from the original album and the music from the movie soundtrack as two completely different things. I love almost all the songs from the original album, but only a few from the soundtrack. This one – Pinball Wizard – I prefer from the original.

    Have you done a post on Quadrophenia yet?


  3. It’s funny how this song was written hastily at the end, but became sort of the lynchpin of the set. Pete’s story makes sense, as the lyrics are not as insightful and poetic as other songs that he seems to have anguished over. About the car commercial: He made a cute quip at Hyde Park about selling his songs for car commercials. It’s on the official CD, but I don’t see that version on Youtube. Here’s a fan video that catches the banter very well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That clip is classic. That is why they are great…Pete is honest and open with the audiences…for the most part he has been…good or bad. He has tried to keep a connection with their fans through the years.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree, Pete’s way of personalizing the shows is very nice. They included all of the banter on the Hyde Park CD set, and it’s all great. The DVD of the concert is excellent, and it’s been available to stream on Showtime or some other premium channel, but I think the CDs may have more of the banter between songs. The song performances are particularly well done, too. Needless to say, I recommend the Hyde Park 2015 set.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That one is on my list to watch. I listed it a while back… now to watch it. I trust your judgement completely because you like them as much as me.
        I’ve always looked for the older stuff but this one will be watched. I appreciate it.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. This concert is much like the older stuff, which is why I like it. They sound really good, and like they are having fun. It’s a well done product, imo.

        On new stuff, I listened to ‘WHO’ on my road trip to the Jayhawks’ game Monday night. I’m still loving how it sounds like their early years. And I keep picking up on references to the past. It’s fun.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I do love the new album also. They blended the past and now perfectly.
        I like it better than McCartney and the Stones most recent albums.

        I’m looking forward to seeing it… I’m gonna try to do it this week.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a WHO fan but, I just gotta say…I prefer Elton’s version. I know. I know. I’m weird. Elton’s version is just ‘tighter’…if you catch my drift.

    I just keep thinking to myself that I am glad I got to see them in concert before the death of my 2nd fave bass player.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s more commercial yes…more piano driven of course.

      When did you see them again? I saw them with John in 89


  5. I broke more high E strings on this one than on any other song except The Moody Blues’s “Question.” It wasn’t until much later that I figured out Pete Townshend wasn’t playing the high E….

    Liked by 1 person

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