One of rock and roll’s most iconic guitarists, Pete Townshend is known all too well for his fiery performances with The Who. When the band took to the stage at the Monterey Pop festival, he demanded that his group “leave a wound”, and it is this sentiment by which the musician lived his life. Townshend leaves everything out there for all to see, warts and all.
While it is this message that Townshend instilled during his artistic creation, it is also a characteristic that has bled into his personal life. Typically outspoken, the guitarist’s forthright reputation has, on occasion, ruffled more than a few feathers during his career. While his choice words about Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix have often received a public pushback, Townshend has stayed true to his words — even outright criticising his own work.
The Who, a band that was often battling internal issues, managed to overcome their squabbles to sell over 100 million records worldwide, etching their name into the annals of music history in the process. However, that hasn’t stopped Townshend from publicly discrediting the work of his bandmates and, at times, even his own creations. It is on that theme we enter the discussion of ‘Pinball Wizard’, the now famed 1969 song released as part of the rock opera album Tommy.
The lyrics, written from the perspective of a pinball champion named ‘Local Lad’, represents what The Who were attempting to achieve with Tommy. Building the melody around an old symphonic piece that Townshend discovered around the time of recording, he later told Guitar World: “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 US composer] Samuel Barber composition ‘Adagio for Strings’, only the Purcell piece was written in 1600 or something. A single bowed note runs throughout that whole piece”.
Townshend added: “I found that a stunning thing to call upon while I was in the process of writing ‘Pinball Wizard.’ I analysed every single chord, and found ways to play them on guitar. 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.”
Despite the somewhat poetic process of creation, Townshend has, over time, slowly distanced himself from the track somewhat, watering down the significance of its creation. “[The song was] Intended as a poorly aimed dirty joke,” Townshend shared in the liner notes for his compilation album Scoop. “I had bought myself an accordion and learned to play it one afternoon. The polka-esque rhythm I managed to produce from it brought forth this song. Amazingly recorded by The Who to my disbelief. Further incredulity was caused when it became a hit for us in the USA.”
However, later in life, Townshend has grown significant disdain for ‘Pinball Wizard’, so much so that he labels it as a source of embarrassment: “I knocked it off. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is awful, the most clumsy piece of writing I’ve ever done,” he said. “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.”