The Who's Tommy was a groundbreaking record, and is a favorite of mine. A self-described "rock opera," the album tells the story of a boy who endures a series of traumatic experiences - from watching the murder of his father, to torture at the hands of his cousin, to sexual abuse from his uncle (that song is so creepy that I almost always have to skip it). The trauma turns him inward, to the point that he effectively becomes non-responsive to the outside world.
But right in the middle of the record, it is revealed that Tommy - despite at that point in the narrative being "deaf, dumb, and blind" - is an excellent pinball player. "Pinball Wizard" is a terrific rock song, but even for a weird story like Tommy it is an incongruous addition.
The reason "Pinball Wizard" feels out of place is that it is. Pete Townshend, who was the principal architect of Tommy, wrote it in waves between September 1968 and March 1969. In the midst of recording, Townshend played a rough assembly of the unfinished record for an influential rock critic named Nik Cohn. Cohn was only 22, but he wrote record reviews both for London's The Observer and for the New York Times. He was also "an avowed pinball maniac."
Cohn was not a fan of the record he heard. "It's a bit po-faced, all this spiritualism," Townshend recalls him saying. "You need something to make it more fun." Townshend took the advice to heart and, to coax a good review, he gave a wink to Cohn's love of pinball by making Tommy a master at the game. Then, as he describes it, he "wrote all the other pinball references into the story sideways."
The rest is history. Tommy was certified gold in the US just three months after its release in May 1969, and is now double platinum. It has been made into a film and adapted for opera performance and for Broadway. It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (for records with "historical, artistic, and significant value") in 1998.
Now, of course, "Pinball Wizard" is the most famous part of Tommy, and it's hard to imagine the record without it. So here's a toast to Townshend's shameless pandering.
BONUS FACT: The, Spanish tennis player Tommy Robredo - ranked 17 in the world - is named after Tommy. Per his bio on the ATP's website, his dad was a big fan of The Who and gave him the name in tribute to the band. It paid off: in 2007 Robredo and his dad got to meet the band at a show in London.
BONUS FACT 2: A few years ago, a YouTube user uploaded isolated tracks of each member of The Who doing their part of a live version of "Pinball Wizard." They are not for everyone - my wife asked "what is that?! It's AWFUL" as I wrote this - but I love them. I am partial to Keith Moon's drum part (starts at 0:49) and John Entwistle's bass line (starts at 0:36).
BONUS FACT 3: Being a rock journalist in the late '60s, Nik Cohn reviewed some of the most famous records of all time. In his take on Abbey Road for the New York Times, Cohn rightly praises the medley on the back half of the record, but says that "the rest of this album is unmitigated disaster" and that "[t]he badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment." He dismisses George Harrison's contributions to the record (those would be "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something") in two words - "mediocrity incarnate." Wow.
BONUS FACT 4: My high school band did a mean rendition of "Pinball Wizard."