(Credit: Alamy)

The Story Behind the Song: The Who's anarchic 'Pinball Wizard'

‘Pinball Wizard’ is one of those songs that has such a disparate seeming story, devoid of the usual rock ‘n’ roll tropes and trappings, that many assume it simply must be allegorical. This is an understandable notion based upon the fact that surely a band couldn’t just write a song about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball kingpin without it having some underlying ties to society at large.

In truth, the message behind The Who’s rock opera Tommy was heavily based on the teachings of Indian spiritualist Meher Baba (1894-1969). The concept of Tommy, therefore, closely mirrors Meher Baba’s idea of awakening to a higher realm.

Meher Baba’s message was that the goal of life was to realise the absolute oneness of God, a presence from whom the universe emanates as an unconscious whim, materialised into conscious divinity. In turn, to reflect his own teachings, Meher Baba lived in silence for the final 44 years of his life. The muteness of Tommy as a character reflects this.

As Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone back in 1969 upon its release, “Tommy’s real self represents the aim – God – and the illusory self is the teacher; life, the way, the path and all this. The coming together of these are what make him aware. They make him see and hear and speak so he becomes a saint who everybody flocks to.” The offshoot of this was that Tommy as, a character, experienced the world through the vibrations of a pinball machine, which would figuratively be reflected in the vibrations of music. 

As far as a creative impetus for rock music goes, that is about as nebulous as it gets. However, what singled Pete Townshend out as a unique creative force is that such a spiritual and deep synopsis could be transmuted into something so fun and palatable. As a songwriter, Townshend may well have had both feet planted firmly in the realm of spiritualism, but he was still peaking over into the mainstream and never lost sight of what makes a hit. ‘Pinball Wizard’ is the perfect example of his dichotomous, head in the clouds yet finger to pulse approach.

The story goes that in late 1968 – or early 1969 – when The Who played a preview of their new album in the presence of legendary critic Nik Cohn, and his reaction to the performance was middling. Afterwards, Townshend discussed the record with Cohn and took his remarks regarding the overbearing fidelity to subtext onboard. Townshend decided that the deaf, dumb and blind protagonist should also excel in a certain area and with Cohn being a pinball fanatic, that area of expertise presented itself quite readily. 

Almost immediately after this conversation with Cohn, ‘Pinball Wizard’ was written and written. The track microwaved Cohn’s lukewarm first thoughts and resulted in a glowing hot review. 

The track itself is built around an old Symphonic piece that Townshend discover around the time of recording, as he told Guitar World back in 2005: “The chordal structure for the intro was inspired by [English Baroque composer] Henry Purcell, who did this very short piece called ‘Symphony Upon One Note.'”

“It’s a very plaintive piece, almost like the [20th-century U.S. composer] Samuel Barber composition ‘Adagio for Strings’,” Townshend explained, adding: “Only the Purcell piece was written in 1600 or something. A single bowed note runs throughout that whole piece.

“I found that a stunning thing to call upon while I was in the process of writing ‘Pinball Wizard.’ I analysed every single chord,” Townshend concludes, “and found ways to play them on guitar.”

The track itself would go on to be a hit, which played a pivotal part in the 1975 movie based on the album, Tommy, starring Jack Nicholson, Ann Margaret, Tina Turner, and Roger Daltrey himself (who played Tommy). In the movie, Elton John makes an appearance as The Pinball Wizard and performed this song with his hit version peaking at number seven in the UK charts.

However, in a fated sort of way, the song seemed to reach its spiritual home as the band played it at Woodstock in 1969, just as the sun was peaking over the horizon, leaving the crowd mute in awestruck wonder.