The Who’s Pete Townshend Shares the Story Behind "Pinball Wizard"

Pete Townshend (The Who) “Pinball Wizard” Tommy (1969)

Featured on the 1969 rock opera album Tommy, “Pinball Wizard”‘s iconic acoustic introduction was inspired by a master. According to legend (and the gurus at wikipedia):

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. The song “Pinball Wizard” was written and recorded almost immediately.

Townsend shares, “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 U.S. 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. I found that a stunning thing to call upon while I was in the process of writing ‘Pinball Wizard.’

“I analyzed every single chord in the piece and found ways to play them on guitar.”

Here’s the Who performing “Pinball Wizard” live in Atlanta in 1989.

From the GW archive: Portions of this story originally appeared in the February/March 2005 issue of Guitar World Acoustic.

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