"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 Tommy libretto 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 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.
Tommy is the fourth album by English rock band The Who, released by Track Records and Polydor Records in the UK and Decca Records/MCA in the US. A double album telling a loose story about a "deaf, dumb and blind kid", Tommy was the first musical work to be billed overtly as a rock opera. Released in 1969, the album was mostly composed by Pete Townshend. In 1998, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for "historical, artistic and significant value". It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide.
British Army Captain Walker goes missing during an expedition and is believed dead ("Overture"). His widow, Mrs. Walker, gives birth to their son, Tommy ("It's a Boy"). Years later, Captain Walker returns home and discovers that his wife has found a new lover. Captain murders this man in an altercation ("1921"). To cover up the incident Tommy's parents tell him that he didn't see or hear it. Traumatised, Tommy drops into a semi-catatonic state and becomes deaf, dumb, and blind. Years pass, during which he is outwardly immobile. Inside his head, however, sensations from the outside world are changed into amazing visions accompanied by music ("Amazing Journey/Sparks").
His parents are aware of none of this, and they fret that he will never find religion in the midst of his isolation ("Christmas"). Tommy's parents sometimes go on outings and leave their burdensome son with relatives, many of whom take advantage of his helplessness; he is tortured by his sadistic "Cousin Kevin", and molested by his uncle Ernie ("Do You Think It's Alright?", "Fiddle About"). Meanwhile, a pimp referred to as "The Hawker" is introduced and peddles his prostitute, who promises to return "Eyesight to the Blind" and is reputed to heal the deaf, the dumb, and the blind. Tommy is ultimately taken to this woman, who calls herself "The Acid Queen"; she tries to coax Tommy into full consciousness with hallucinogenic drugs. Although the attempted treatment affects him strongly ("Underture"), he does not lose his disabilities. Nevertheless, he subsequently gains public attention by his curious interest in pinball, which he plays very successfully by touch ("Pinball Wizard").
At last the Walkers take Tommy to a respected doctor ("There's a Doctor"), who determines that the boy's disabilities are psychosomatic rather than physical. Told by the Doctor to "Go to the Mirror!", Tommy appears to look at his reflection and later becomes obsessed with the mirrors in his house. Mrs. Walker grows so irritated at the habit that she smashes the glass into which Tommy is looking. The action somehow destroys Tommy's mental block, and he recovers his senses and speech ("Sensation", "I'm Free").
The "miracle cure" becomes a public sensation, upon which Tommy seizes (with uncertain motives) to make himself into a guru ("Welcome"). His era's interest with Messianic figures wins him a huge following. In a side story, a wealthy teenager named "Sally Simpson" becomes smitten with Tommy and tries to climb onstage as he speaks, only to be violently repulsed by security guards.
Uncle Ernie capitalises on his nephew's popularity by starting a tatty and expensive "Tommy's Holiday Camp" for the disciples, who are promised a life of hedonism therein. In fact, Tommy treats his audience brusquely and demands that they live in an austere manner in his presence. The discontent caused by this reversal is intensified when he asks the crowd to plug their eyes, ears, and mouths and play pinball—he is less interested in his recovery than in sharing the things he saw while paralyzed ("We're Not Gonna Take It"). As the story ends, the disciples reject Tommy in a body and leave the camp. In response, he retreats inward again and becomes wrapped in his fantasies ("See Me, Feel Me").