"Pinball Wizard" is a song written by Pete Townshend and performed by the English rock band The Who, and featured on their 1969 rock opera album Tommy. The original recording was released as a single in 1969 and reached No. 4 in the UK charts and No. 19 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
The B-side of the "Pinball Wizard" single is an instrumental credited to Keith Moon, titled "Dogs (Part Two)". Despite similar titles it has no musical connection to The Who's 1968 UK single "Dogs".
The lyrics are written from the perspective of a pinball champion, called "Local Lad" in the Tommylibretto book, astounded by the skills of the opera's eponymous main character, Tommy Walker: "What makes him so good?; He ain't got no distractions; Can't hear those buzzers and bells; Don't see lights a flashin'; Plays by sense of smell.; Always has a replay; Never tilts at all; That deaf dumb and blind kid; Sure plays a mean pin ball.", and "I thought I was the Bally table king, but I just handed my pinball crown to him".
Townshend once called it "the most clumsy piece of writing [he'd] ever done". Nevertheless, the song was a commercial success and remains one of the most recognised tunes from the opera. It was a perpetual concert favourite for Who fans due to its pop sound and familiarity.
The song was introduced into Tommy as an afterthought. In late 1968 or early 1969, when The Who played a rough assembly of their new album to critic Nik Cohn, Cohn gave a lukewarm reaction. Following this, Townshend, as Tommy's principal composer, discussed the album with Cohn and concluded that, to lighten the load of the rock opera's heavy spiritual overtones (Townshend had recently become deeply interested in the teachings of Meher Baba), the title character, a "deaf, dumb, and blind" boy, should also be particularly good at a certain game. Knowing Cohn was an avid pinball fan, Townshend suggested that Tommy would play pinball, and Cohn immediately declared Tommy to be a masterpiece. The song "Pinball Wizard" was written and recorded almost immediately. The single version was slightly speeded up and runs to 2:57, whilst the natural length album version runs to 3:01.
This song is one of the band's most famous live songs, being played at almost every Who concert since its debut live performance on 2 May 1969. The live performances rarely deviated from the album arrangement, save for an occasional jam at the end sometimes leading to another song. Bootleg recordings show that this song has been known to last as long as 8 minutes (at a concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London on 3 February 1981), although live versions lasting as long as that are extremely rare.
The song was performed by Elton John in Ken Russell's 1975 film adaptation of Tommy. This version was released in 1975 as a promotional single only in the US, and in 1976 in the UK, where it reached number 7. John's version uses a piano as the song's centerpiece in place of the acoustic guitar in the original (in the film, John's character is shown playing his pinball machine via a small piano keyboard), and features additional lyrics specially written by Townshend for the movie version, as well as a subtle inclusion of musical phrases from The Who's 1960s hit "I Can't Explain" during the outro (similarly, The Who's later cover of John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" included parts of "Take Me to the Pilot"). Unlike most of the soundtrack's music, which featured various combinations of The Who and some of the era's best session players, John used his own band (Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson, Davey Johnstone and Ray Cooper) and producer Gus Dudgeon for the track. John has performed the song as part of his Las Vegas Red Piano Show, as well as on various tours. To date, it is the only cover of a Who song to reach the top 10.
Rod Stewart performed the song for the 1972 orchestral version of Tommy, and it is included on several of Stewart's greatest hits compilations. According to the book The Duh Awards by Bob Fenster, Rod Stewart asked Elton John if he should accept an offer to sing in a film version of "Tommy." John replied no way, "Don't touch it with a barge pole." A year later, The Who asked John to sing the same song, and he agreed. "I don't think Rod's quite forgiven me for that," he commented years later.
The song was featured in a medley with another song from Tommy ("See Me, Feel Me") in a recording by the British pop group The New Seekers in 1973. This version reached No. 16 on the UK charts, No. 28 in Canada, and No. 29 U.S. In the same year, this medley was covered by the Shadows, in instrumental version, on "Rocking with Curly Leads"
Tenacious D has covered the song live on numerous occasions.
British pop-rock act McFly covered the song as the B-side to their UK chart topping single I'll Be OK in 2005. It was as a result of this, that the band gained the attention of Roger Daltrey, which led to them collaborating on a charity re-recording of My Generation for the Nordoff-Robbins music therapy charity, retailed exclusively in September of that year through the then newly launched digital download offshoot of leading music store HMV.