The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” has long been regarded as a classic, but did you know it was composed in a petty attempt to gain a good review? Pete Townshend played the songs they had in the can for rock journalist Nik Cohn near the end of the recording process for Tommy, the band’s 1969 rock opera. Cohn, in addition to his love of music, is an ardent pinball player. When the album fell short of Cohn’s expectations, Townshend knew just what to do to regain his favor. “I just remember saying to him, perhaps sarcastically, ‘So, if it had pinball in it, would you give it a decent review?” Uncut quoted Townshend as saying (via Ultimate Classic Rock). “He replied, ‘Of course I would.'” Anything with pinball is amazing.’ “As a result, I created ‘Pinball Wizard,’ purely for the purpose of deception.”
Though it began as a fun poke at Cohn, it quickly became the standout from Tommy. The song reached No. 4 in the United Kingdom. It peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. It was even covered by another rock legend, Elton John, in 1974. Despite the song’s popularity, Townshend has always thought it was “clumsy.” “This is awful, the most clumsy piece of writing I’ve ever done,” he said in the liner notes of the Tommy edition in 2003 (according to SongFacts). “I’m ashamed.” This has the feel of a Music Hall song. He’s a fantastic pinball player. I wrote it out, and all the verses were the same length, with no middle eight.
“I knew it was going to be a flop, but I persisted,” he explained. “I tried the same mock baroque guitar beginning as on ‘I’m a Boy,’ followed by a bit of vigorous flamenco guitar.” I was just scribbling down ideas, so I put together a demo and took it to the studio, where everyone loved it.” Everyone except Townshend, that is. His dislike for the song is regrettable, given how fast it became a fixture in The Who’s live performances. “Pinball Wizard” is The Who’s second most played song of all time, according to Setlist.fm. It is only second to “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”