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Music

The Who classic that Pete Townshend called “awful”

@josephtaysom

The Who’s Pete Townshend will put anybody in the firing line, including his own art. When you’ve made as much music as he has, it’s only natural that you’ll grow to hate some songs, and Townshend is no different.

In 1969, The Who released their opus, Tommy, and it was a first of its kind creation. Nowadays, the idea of a concept album is ingrained into the musical lexicon, but it was a radical development when Townshend introduced the idea. His brave move was lauded as genius, and it remains a masterpiece which the guitarist is yet to topple. 

The album was an international sensation and was turned into a film starring Jack Nicholson as well as a theatre production. It’s a heartbreaking story which proved to be the perfect foil for The Who and allowed them to reach the pinnacle of their ability.

During the story, the eponymous lead character discovers he has supernatural pinballing powers, which play out on the track ‘Pinball Wizard’. It was chosen as the lead single from Tommy and is one of the most successful songs The Who have ever released. Yet, it’s nothing more than a source of great embarrassment for Townshend.

Straight away, he wasn’t convinced by the song, but after other people assured him it would be a hit, Townshend decided to go ahead with the release. He later explained: “I knocked it off. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is awful, the most clumsy piece of writing I’ve ever done. Oh my God, I’m embarrassed. This sounds like a Music Hall song. I scribbled it out, and all the verses were the same length, and there was no kind of middle eight. It was going to be a complete dud, but I carried on.”

Townshend continued: “I attempted the same mock baroque guitar beginning that’s on ‘I’m a Boy’ and then a bit of vigorous kind of flamenco guitar. I was just grabbing at ideas, I knocked a demo together and took it to the studio, and everyone loved it. Damon Lyon-Shaw (the engineer on Tommy) said, ‘Pete, that’s a hit.’ Everybody was really excited, and I suddenly thought, ‘Have I written a hit?’ It was just because the only person that we knew would give us a good review was a pinball fanatic.”

Ultimately, he was reluctantly proved right to listen to Lyon-Shaw’s advice because ‘Pinball Wizard’ charted internationally and helped point seismic attention towards Tommy. Even though Townshend hates the song, it was the anthemic moment that the album needed, millions adore it, and every time The Who performs it live, it’s an unmissable moment.