Hello there! This is the sixth installment in our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In these posts, we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a movie.
This week’s entry is Pinball Wizard. This is a great hard-rock song composed by Pete Townshend. It was featured in the 1975 movie Tommy, directed by Ken Russell.
We will start with a brief review of The Who. We will then review the movie Tommy, and discuss the importance of Pinball Wizard in that film.
One cover of that song was performed by Elton John in the movie Tommy. We will review a second cover of that song by the British pop group McFly.
The Who, Pinball Wizard:
The Who have been one of the most durable and influential rock bands of all time. Since their inception over 50 years ago, they have produced an exceptional body of work. The Who have also inspired any number of hard-rock or punk-rock groups that followed them.
The Who evolved from a band, The Detours, originally organized in 1959 by Roger Daltrey. Three of the band members – lead guitarist Pete Townshend, lead vocalist Roger Daltrey, and bassist John Entwistle – had been classmates at Acton County Grammar School.
After a few early personnel changes, and a change of name to The Who, in spring 1964 the band settled on Keith Moon as their drummer. Daltrey concentrated on vocals, while Townshend moved to lead guitar and also started writing all of their songs. The group then began to establish themselves as a cutting-edge British Invasion band.
Below is a photo of The Who. They are appearing on the TV show “Pop Go the Sixties,” in Dec. 1969. From L: Keith Moon; Roger Daltrey; Pete Townshend; John Entwistle.Embed from Getty Images
The Who were one of the first groups I saw after I arrived in England as a graduate student in October 1965. They made a vivid, lasting impression on me.
First off, the volume of the music, the ferocity of the playing, and the showmanship were unlike anything I had seen. At that time The Who were pioneers in the use of those gigantic Marshall amplifier stacks that are now staples of rock music.
Furthermore, the use of feedback and distortion were also rather new to me. And the manic antics of Pete Townshend on guitar and Keith Moon on drums were spectacular.
Pete Townshend would fling himself about the stage – leaping in the air and kicking his legs apart; twisting his body around; and showcasing his legendary ‘windmill’ style where he would swing his right arm in a gigantic circle, passing over the guitar at exactly the right instant to strike a power chord.
After attending a Who concert and trying to re-gain my hearing, I pegged The Who as primarily a novelty act. They seemed to stress aggression and sheer volume over craftsmanship, and I predicted that they would rapidly burn out.
Silly me! The two surviving members Pete and Roger are still touring, over 50 years later. They are one of the most long-lived rock bands.
In the late 60s, The Who were famous in Britain but much less well known outside the U.K. They were elevated to world superstardom after their performance at Woodstock in August, 1969. The Who a major hit there, and they were also one of the stars of the Woodstock concert film.
At Woodstock, The Who played several songs from Tommy, the double album they had released three months earlier. This was the music to a rock opera composed by Pete Townshend.
Tommy is a youth who has suffered a traumatic experience that has rendered him temporarily deaf, dumb and blind. Tommy experiences only vibrations, such as arise in music. Despite his handicaps, he is still able to play pinball at an incredibly high level.
Pinball Wizard recounts the experience of a pinball champion called “Local Lad.” To his amazement, he loses a crucial match to young Tommy.
Ever since I was a young boy
I’ve played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played them all
But I ain’t seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall
That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pin ball!
He stands like a statue,
Becomes part of the machine
Feeling all the bumpers
Always playing clean
He plays by intuition,
The digit counters fall
That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pin ball!
Here are The Who performing Pinball Wizard live.
This took place at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, just about a year after Woodstock. The Who are at their hard-rocking best here. Performing before an audience of roughly 700,000 people (to put this into perspective, the entire population of the Isle of Wight is about 100,000), Pete Townshend flails away on his guitar, while John Entwistle chimes in on bass guitar. Meanwhile, Roger Daltrey provides his rocking vocals and Keith Moon wallops his drum kit with all his might.
Pete Townshend was not thrilled with his lyrics for Pinball Wizard. He once called it
“the most clumsy piece of writing I’d ever done”.
Nevertheless, Pinball Wizard remained a favorite song for The Who. Over the decades, it was nearly always included in Who concerts.
Tommy, Elton John and Pinball Wizard:
In 1975, Tommy was converted into a major motion picture by director Ken Russell.
Roger Daltrey, lead singer for The Who, played the lead character Tommy. The other band members of The Who appear in several scenes. The movie also featured an all-star cast.
Here is a brief summary of the plot of Tommy. A WWII pilot, Captain Walker, gets married and goes on honeymoon with his wife Nora (Ann-Margret) before he leaves for active duty. In battle, he is shot down and presumed dead, although in reality he is missing and severely wounded.
After a few years, Nora begins a relationship with a co-worker, Frank (Oliver Reed). Frank and Nora are making love one night when Captain Walker suddenly returns. A struggle ensues and Walker is killed.
Tommy (Roger Daltrey) observes the whole scene and is sufficiently traumatized that he becomes temporarily deaf, dumb and blind. Frank and Nora make several efforts to cure Tommy; not only are these efforts unsuccessful, but Tommy is badly abused in several different scenes.
Tommy is mistreated by the cult of a religious figure, and by an “Acid Queen” (Tina Turner) who administers hallucinogenic drugs to him. He is also bullied and sexually abused.
Despite his multiple disabilities, Tommy discovers that he is a pinball prodigy. Eventually he triumphs in a major pinball championship.
A medical specialist (Jack Nicholson) correctly diagnoses Tommy’s problem, but seems more interested in flirting with Nora than in curing Tommy. In frustration, Nora throws Tommy through a mirror; this miraculously cures him.
Tommy then wishes to share with the world the insights he gained from his experiences. He produces extravagant shows, constructs a holiday camp, and becomes a world-famous personality.
Eventually, his followers become restless and demand that he teach them something. In response, Tommy temporarily turns everyone deaf, dumb and blind. The followers then riot, killing both Nora and Frank and burning down the camp that Tommy had founded. At the end of the movie, Tommy returns to the same mountain where his parents had celebrated their honeymoon.
Apparently Pete Townshend and The Who played a draft version of Tommy to critic Nik Cohn. Cohn’s opinion was that the plot was depressing and ponderous. He suggested it would lighten up the story if, despite his handicaps, Tommy was proficient at a sport.
Townshend then came up with pinball. He immediately wrote and recorded the song Pinball Wizard, and added it to the score for Tommy.
Here is Elton John in the Pinball Wizard scene from the movie Tommy.
Elton is cast in the role of the former pinball champ “Local Lad,” while Roger Daltrey plays the lead role of Tommy. Apparently Elton had to be convinced to sing Pinball Wizard in the film; one of the inducements provided by Ken Russell was that Elton was allowed to keep the enormous oversized pair of Doc Martens shoes that he wears in the movie.
Elton John replaces Pete Townshend’s guitar parts by keyboards in his version of the song. In the background of the movie scene, we see the other members of The Who – Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon.
However, they are not playing on Elton’s record. Elton is backed by his own band – Davey Johnstone on guitar; Dee Murray on bass; Nigel Olsson on drums, and Ray Cooper on percussion. Several of these musicians worked with Elton John for more than 40 years.
For pinball aficionados, the machine used by Roger Daltrey in the movie is a 1965 Gottlieb Kings & Queens, while Elton John is playing on a 1965 Gottlieb Buckaroo. Both machines were modified to allow the unbelievably high scores shown in the film. The pinball scene was one of the most critically-acclaimed in the movie Tommy.
The movie Tommy was generally highly rated. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture/Musical or Comedy, and Ann-Margret won a Golden Globe Award as Best Actress. As a “rock opera,” I have to say that the music is a big success.
As far as the movie goes, I don’t agree with the critics. To my mind, the film is embarrassing and nearly unwatchable. Ken Russell’s flaws as a director are glaringly obvious, and the movie is so over-the-top that even the great rock songs from The Who can’t salvage it.
The following clip is an example of Ken Russell’s excesses. This is a scene where Ann-Margret is hallucinating. The TV set literally explodes, drenching her first in detergent, then baked beans, and finally molten chocolate.
It is truly awful to watch Ann-Margret writhing on the floor, covered in liquids. At the end, she is rolling around while hugging a bolster that resembles a gigantic wiener. What were you thinking, Ken?
One more interesting note about Tommy. The music for the film was recorded on five separate speakers, a technical innovation called “Quintaphonic sound” that was developed specifically for this movie.
However, Quintaphonic sound turned out to be difficult to implement. Every theatre showing Tommy had to be specially retro-fitted with new speakers, and the playback equipment had to be aligned in every venue. To the best of my knowledge, Quintaphonic sound was never again used in another movie.
At the time Tommy was released, Elton John was already a major international star. Elton John’s version of Pinball Wizard was issued as a single in the U.S. and U.K., where it reached #7 on the pop charts.
The movie Tommy coincided nicely with Elton John’s ‘manic phase,’ the period from roughly 1975 to 1990. Elton John enjoyed phenomenal productivity, while trotting out some of the most flamboyant costumes in the music industry. Below is a photo of Elton John performing in 1975.Embed from Getty Images
Over a nearly 50-year span, Elton John has established one of the most enduring and productive careers in rock music. He
has sold more than 300 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists in the world. He has more than fifty Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10, four No. 2 and nine No. 1. For 31 consecutive years (1970–2000) he had at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100. … In 2008, Billboard ranked him the most successful male solo artist on “The Billboard Hot 100 Top All-Time Artists” (third overall).
Elton John has been an outspoken and articulate advocate for the GLBT community. He has been quite courageous about combatting public prejudice in this area, particularly since his advocacy might have negatively affected his career.
At age 70, Elton John continues to perform today. Elton, long may you rock.
McFly, Pinball Wizard:
McFly are a highly successful British rock quartet. In 2003, Guitarist Tom Fletcher participated in auditions for a new band, where guitarist and vocalist Danny Jones was brought in.
The group then added bassist Dougie Poynter and drummer Harry Judd through an ad in the British music magazine NME. So, McFly was formed. Fletcher and Jones share the lead vocals for the band. Below is a photo of McFly performing at the O2 Forum in London in 2016.Embed from Getty Images
McFly appears to be a band that has experienced tremendous success in the U.K., but has significantly less acclaim in the U.S. For example, their first album, the Dec. 2003 release Room On the 3rd Floor, debuted at #1 in the U.K. This made the group the youngest ever to have their first album start out at #1 on the charts, a title they took from none other than The Beatles. However, to the best of my knowledge, this album did not dent the U.S. charts.
McFly’s next album was the 2005 Wonderland. Once again, this reached #1 on the U.K. album charts. They released their version of Pinball Wizard as the B side of a single in 2005; that record also reached #1 in the U.K.
Here is a live performance of Pinball Wizard by McFly. This took place at Manchester during their Wonderland tour of 2005.
This is a straightforward cover of The Who’s rock classic. McFly produce more or less a note-for-note copy of the original. Danny Jones does his best Pete Townshend impression, thrashing away on acoustic guitar, while Jones and Tom Fletcher share the lead vocals. McFly are a tight ensemble, and the audience seems to love their performance.
It appears that in 2006, McFly attempted to penetrate the U.S. pop market. Several of the band’s songs from their first two albums were used as the soundtrack for the Hollywood film Just My Luck, starring Lindsay Lohan and Chris Pine. McFly also appeared in the movie (Chris Pine plays the manager of the band), and they released an album of that title in the U.S.
I don’t know about the movie soundtrack, but Just My Luck must have been a stinker of a film. It has a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which stated that the movie “confuses misfortune with stupidity.” For her performance in this film, Ms. Lohan was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Actress of the Year.
Despite their lack of success in the U.S., McFly continued to “mcfly high” in the U.K. They released more best-selling albums, including a “Greatest Hits” album in 2007, and headlined a number of arena tours. They also toured extensively in South America.
It is always interesting to me when a group is phenomenally successful in one country but relatively unknown in another. It would appear that McFly falls into this category.
You can probably tell from this segment that I am not “tuned in” to modern rock ‘n roll. So I hope that my remarks about McFly are reasonably accurate, and apologize in advance if I have let mistakes creep into this entry.