If you’ve been a fan of The Who for any length of time then chances are you’ll know all about the cantankerous side of the band’s dynamic guitarist Pete Townshend. Never afraid to unleash a barrage of barbed comments when he sees fit, more often than not, the target within his crosshairs was his own band.
Whether it was his comments (that he later retracted) about the two members of the band no longer with us, Keith Moon and John Entwistle, or indeed his fractious relationship with Roger Daltrey. It’s more than fair to say that Townshend doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is more than willing to let rip about his own work. He’s even gone as far to pick out The Who songs he hates, with one, in particular, acting as quite a shock.
The reason it is so shocking is that the song is arguably one of The Who’s most famous songs, ‘Pinball Wizard’. Artists disliking their own songs is nothing new, after all, you could probably reel off numerous acts who have created smash hits that they later regretted—Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’, Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ to name a few—but Townshend’s dislike is a little different.
The previous artists mentioned grew to dislike their songs. After they were overplayed and used to define them, the artists became sick of their impact. But for Townshend, he disliked ‘Pinball Wizard’ almost instantly and has since called it an “awful” song as well as saying in the album’s liner notes: “I’m embarrassed. This sounds like a Music Hall song,” he wrote.
Originally written as part of The Who’s epic rock opera Tommy from 1969, Townshend later admitted that he wrote the song to impress Nik Cohn, whom had been giving the band some terrible reviews. As well as being an influential music critic Cohn was also a well-know lover of pinball and so Townshend shamelessly directed a track at the writer in a bid to gain some favourable reviews.
The track was debuted live in 1969 and has been played at nearly every Who concert since, likely adding to Townshend’s misery. While it fitted into the opera very neatly, with Tommy, the main character in the film who is deaf, dumb and blind, being able to pick up the vibrations of the pinball machine, there’s no doubt that the song’s origination came from such a contrived place.
When describing the writing of the song, Townshend said: “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.
“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.”
It was a hit with Cohn and a hit with fans too and has since become one of The Who’s most beloved songs. So if you’re ever considering naming ‘Pinball Wizard’ as your favourite song by The Who, just know that Pete Townshend is really, really embarrassed by it.