Novelty Aside, For the Who Pinball Wizard Represents a Crossover Favorite by Virgil Vince
'Pinball Wizard' is one of those songs that has taken on a life of its own. Completely removed from the context of the original rock opera 'Tommy', for which it was written, 'Pinball Wizard' seems to be a strange, somewhat whimsical tale of a 'deaf, dumb and blind kid' who has somehow managed to master playing pinball. His skill level is great enough to defeat even the most talented of sighted champions, and he goes on to become the king of the local pinball community. It may even seem as though the song was written for children, given its non-threatening acoustic guitar breaks and seemingly light lyrical content.
The meaning behind the track and the reasons for which it was written are of course quite different. 'Tommy' was the story of a boy who was robbed of the standard senses that human beings are usually afforded, and as such it is not a lighthearted tale. The band was worried that perhaps the overall message and themes explored in 'Tommy' were too dark for public consumption, and that something had to be done in order to keep people from falling too deeply into the spiritual abyss. This concern was amplified when critics responded to a rough assembly of the album with limited enthusiasm. To The Who Pinball Wizard was a way of giving their title character a quirky skill that would endear him to the audience, even though Pete Townshend was never happy with what he considered his 'clumsy' arrangement for the song.
The song was originally intended to be a bit less clean cut and cheery than the version which was put on the album. Townshend had written slightly raunchier lyrics and had hoped to imbue the song with the kind of schoolyard cheekiness and humor that he felt was appropriate for the characters in the story. It is also interesting that of all the songs on 'Tommy', this was the single which was picked up by rock radio and which became extremely popular. Given that the entire piece sounds like a novelty song outside the confines of the work, perhaps it is not unusual that for many casual fans of The Who Pinball Wizard is the only track from that album with which they are familiar. The appeal of 'Pinball Wizard' was not limited to fans. Artists as far ranging as Rod Stewart and Elton John recorded cover versions of the track, and it continues to be a popular cover song for modern rock group as well.
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