Before millions of gamers did the Mario and Pac-Man Fever infected the world, the Pinball Wizard reigned supreme. Every arcade, bar, and pizza place had one. Anybody could walk down to their corner grocery store with a pocketful of change and a head loaded with aspirations of overthrowing the local champion. However, only the best players could climb over their competition to claim the title of “Pinball Wizard.”
So why do some current enthusiasts dislike that moniker, thought by some to be the ultimate prize for those who achieve Pinball fame? When did being called a “Pinball Wizard” become a bad thing? Does the history of the phrase have anything to do with its current status? What exactly is a Pinball Wizard?
This article will explore nearly everything you ever wanted to know about a pinhead’s least favorite phrase. So before you go play pinball, let's take a look.
“That deaf, dumb, and blind kid . . .”
Pete Townshend had a problem. The album he and his bandmates were putting together seemed too heavy. No, not the actual music, but its subject matter. Steeped in spirituality and other mature topics, the album tackled subjects that rock music avoided up to that time.
The circulating story goes that music critic Nik Cohn wasn’t too impressed after hearing the band run through the album. Townshend chatted with Cohn to get to the root of the critic’s opinion. They found a simple solution: lighten the mood.
Where could Townshend seek inspiration?
From Nik Cohn, a pinball fan.
(via Peter Sanfield)
The song that came from that conversation was “Pinball Wizard,” and it helped make The Who’s Tommy a seminal landmark in rock music history.
Who was the Pinball Wizard?
The main character Tommy Walker began his amazing journey when he witnessed his father murder his mother’s lover. Captain Walker had been believed to be missing during an expedition. Tommy was born shortly after. His mother took a lover, and all was well until Captain Walker reappeared.
The lover’s murder understandably traumatized the young boy, as it would anyone who was present for such a violent incident at such an early age. His parents told him, “You didn't hear it. You didn't see it. You won't say nothing to no one never in your life." As a result, Tommy disconnected from the world, becoming deaf, dumb, and blind.
He further slipped away when his uncles abused him. However, even after experiencing all of this trauma in his early life, his newfound love for pinball kept him from drowning in despair. He was able to play by feeling vibrations and using his sense of smell, and slowly but surely, Tommy ascended to the throne of the Pinball Wizard. His expert skills attracted fans who fueled his messianic ambitions, continuing to encourage his climb to the top.
After breaking out of his dissociative state, Tommy accelerated his rise to godhood by creating a holiday camp where he could spread his gospel. However, his teachings were accompanied by strict rules that attendees couldn’t, or simply didn’t want to, live up to. Tommy’s disciples became disillusioned with their leader after experiencing this side of him. They sought a shortcut to enlightenment, something fun and relatively easy, and got told all about what to do instead. They told Tommy, “We're not gonna take it, never did and never will,” and left him.
Tommy turned inward once again after his followers left him, trying to cope with another sense of loss. This time, however, a message of hope guided him, opening his senses to the needs of the community around him.
Tommy, the Movie
Tommy is a 1975 rock opera film based on the album of the same name by the English band The Who. It tells the story of Tommy Walker, a young boy who becomes deaf, dumb, and blind after witnessing his father's murder and his mother's subsequent affair. The film follows Tommy as he grows up and learns to overcome his disabilities, eventually becoming a world-famous pinball champion.
The cast of Tommy includes Roger Daltrey as Tommy Walker, Ann-Margret as Tommy's mother, and Oliver Reed as Tommy's father. Other notable cast members include Elton John as The Pinball Wizard, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, and Jack Nicholson.
What is a Pinball Wizard?
Someone who “plays a mean pinball” is generally regarded as a Pinball Wizard. Other characteristics can include:
- Standing like a statue.
- Becoming part of the machine.
- Feeling all the bumpers.
- Always playing clean.
- Having a supple wrist.
- Having crazy flipper fingers.
A Pinball Wizard usually gets a replay and will figuratively steal the resident table king’s crown, to the delight of their fans. A Pinball Wizard is a truly skilled pinball fanatic.
Who recorded “Pinball Wizard?”
Yes, they did.
The Who recorded the song during the Tommy sessions, sometime between September 1968 and March 1969. Pete Townshend wrote the majority of the material, including the song. Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, and Townshend brought Tommy’s story to life in the 75-minute rock opera Tommy which proved to be a spectacle, both onstage and off. Daltrey sang lead vocals on the song with Townshend supplying backing vocals.
The album was released on May 17, 1969, and shortly after reached #2 on the UK charts and #4 in the United States. Over time, the popularity of this album barely waned – Tommy stayed on the Billboard charts for 126 weeks, which was longer than any other Who album. It is estimated to have sold over two million copies.
The “Pinball Wizard” song appeared as the third song on the third side of the double album. On CD, it is the thirteenth track. It was the first single released from Tommy, hitting the airwaves on March 7, 1969. It hit #4 on the UK charts, its highest global chart position. The single sold at least 250,000 copies in the UK alone.
Are there any live performances of The Who playing “Pinball Wizard?”
The Who quickly incorporated the song into their live sets once its commercial success was evident. The group has played it nearly every time they’ve hit the stage. The song was captured on the following live albums from the band:
- Live at Leeds (1970)
- Live at Hull 1970 (1970)
- Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (1970)
- Greatest Hits Live (1976)
- Who's Last (1982)
- Live from Toronto (1982)
- Join Together (1989)
- Blues to the Bush (1999)
- Live at the Royal Albert Hall (2000)
- Quadrophenia Live in London (2013)
Ladies and Gentlemen, Pinball Wizard Elton John!
Pinball Wizard, The Who, and Tommy are forever linked with one another. However, Elton John’s version of the song for the 1975 film adaptation of Tommy nearly overshadowed the original’s popularity. Released on March 12, 1976, Elton John’s cover of the rock classic peaked at #7 on the UK weekly charts, becoming the only cover of a song by The Who to break into the top 10.
John’s “Pinball Wizard” also helped the soundtrack’s sales. Although the double album reached #21 on the UK album charts, it fared better on the Billboard Pop Album chart, reaching #2.
The song was such a hit for John that it appeared in the movie based on his life, Rocketman, in 2019, this time performed by Taron Egerton.
Who else has recorded a version of “Pinball Wizard?”
British group The New Seekers of “I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing” fame recorded a medley of “Pinball Wizard” and fellow Tommy song “See Me, Feel Me.” This 1973 single was a hit, landing at #16 on the UK charts.
In 2005, English band McFly included their version on their UK #1 single “I’ll Be OK.”
Who else has performed “Pinball Wizard?”
Two notable instances of “Pinball Wizard” being performed by someone other than The Who and Elton John involve Barry Williams of The Brady Bunch and Tenacious D.
Williams performed the song during a medley on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour in 1977. Several decades later, the comedy rock duo Tenacious D also inserted the song into medleys they would perform in concert.
Which version of “Pinball Wizard” is better?
There’s no definitive answer to this subjective question. Fans of The Who will probably choose the original. Elton John fans might pick his. An undiscovered talent may have performed the best version that eclipses everyone else’s, but most of us haven’t heard it yet.
However, if you use music chart designations as a barometer, Elton John’s version is placed higher than The Who’s. But is it better? Did the song’s established reputation help it succeed? Listen to both versions and determine for yourself which one is the best – any answer is a good one.
Are You Afraid of the Pinball Wizard?
The influence of the Pinball Wizard expanded beyond radios, movie theaters, and arcades. Television leveraged the phrase several times, most notably for an episode of the Canadian series Are You Afraid of the Dark?
An anthology series, Are You Afraid of the Dark? served as a sort of Twilight Zone for kids. In each episode, a group of young teens, The Midnight Society, would gather around the campfire to tell a scary story. Every member got their turn. On November 14, 1992, Gary submitted “The Tale of the Pinball Wizard” for the approval of The Midnight Society.
The thirteenth episode of the first season, “The Tale of the Pinball Wizard,” starred Joseph Posca as Ross Campbell and Polly Shannon as Sophie. Ross is a teenage loner who isn’t above fighting a homeless woman for a quarter. Whatever he wants, he’ll try to get, even if it means stealing it.
Ross makes his way to a repair shop called Olson’s. He asks the owner, unsurprisingly named Mr. Olson, if he decided to hire him. Despite his best efforts, Ross can not persuade the old man.
Amid all this, Ross notices a big, cloaked object in the shop. He checks it out only to be shooed away by Mr. Olson. It’s a pinball machine that Mr. Olson claims doesn’t work.
Mr. Olson decides to give Ross a test. If Ross can watch the shop without touching anything in the place, then he can work on a more permanent basis. Ross agrees. Mr. Olson heads to lunch, leaving the teenager alone.
Ross wastes no time firing up the pinball machine. It’s a medieval-themed game with three stages. The first stage concerns obtaining a crown. The second stage involves finding a throne. The final stage is to crown a princess.
A teenage girl, Sophie, arrives at the shop to pick up a music box that Mr. Olson fixed for her. After failing to help her due to love at first sight, Ross comes clean with her and tells her he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Sophie leaves just as the pinball machine turns back on . . . by itself.
Alone again, Ross plays pinball for what seems like hours. Noticing the time and Mr. Olson’s absence, Ross checks the shop and then the mall. The place is dark. No one else is around. The front doors are locked. He’s stuck in the mall.
After a few scenes that are too scary to recap in this article, Ross hears a girl crying for help. It’s Sophie, who happens to be dressed like a princess . . . like the one in the pinball game. Except now, it’s no game. It’s a life-and-death struggle!
Ross eventually overcomes the odds and saves Sophie. However, there has got to be a twist, right?
There is, but you have to watch the episode to find out.
Are there any other television series with “Pinball Wizard” as an episode title?
The two most noteworthy television series that have episodes titled “Pinball Wizard” are the 1993-1994 sitcom Getting By and the 1998-2001 science-fiction thriller Seven Days.
Getting By’s “Pinball Wizard” is about a character using all of his family’s vacation money on pinball. Seven Days’ episode concerns a woman who thinks she is playing a video game and inadvertently causing a missile attack on the Pentagon.
Speaking of Pinball Machines, Are There Any “Pinball Wizard” Tables?
Don’t call it “Pinball Wizard”
In 1975, Bally released a machine simply titled “Wizard!” Although promotional material featured Ann-Margaret and Roger Daltrey, who were both stars of the Tommy film, Wizard! was only “inspired” by the rock opera.
Bally produced over 10,000 units of the game. The simple yet classic design only had two flippers, three bumpers, and the likenesses of Ann-Margaret and Daltrey on the backglass. Sometimes, it seems like that’s all you need.
Fans hoping for a proper pinball adaptation of the musical milestone would have to wait several years.
Okay, call it “Pinball Wizard”
The Who’s Tommy Pinball Wizard was released by Data East in 1994. Based on the stage adaptation, the machine features twenty-one songs performed by the Broadway cast, “Pinball Wizard” obviously being one of them. The machine promised players over twenty-four play modes, brilliant graphics, and “pulse racing playfield excitement.”
4,700 units were produced. Playfield details include:
- 6 Multiballs
- 3 Flippers
- 2 Ramps
- 3 Bumpers
The machine stayed true to its source material. In one of the game modes, a blinder would block players’ views of the flippers. In essence, the player became the blind Tommy and had to use their other senses to try to become a true Pinball Wizard.
Hey, you’re not the Pinball Wizard
Elton John entered the pinball scene with Capt. Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in 1976. Inspired by his monumental album of the same name, this machine was another Bally creation. Over 16,000 units were produced. Each one had four flippers, three bumpers, and five drop targets. The art package for the machine features Elton's character from Tommy, as he plays pinball for the adoring crowd.
As of this writing, rumors swirl about a new Elton John machine from Jersey Jack. Maybe this one will feature Sir Elton’s cover of the song, but it hasn’t been confirmed – yet.
Doesn’t pinball have wizard modes? What is a pinball wizard mode?
Only the best players can reach a pinball machine’s wizard mode. (They’re simply called “wizard modes” minus the “pinball.”) Players unlock this final mission at the end of the game to score some major points. For tables that have storylines, this last stage wraps the narrative up.
It should be fairly obvious the wizard mode is named after The Who's song.
Has the Pinball Wizard Song Ever Been in a Video Game?
There are many video game versions of pinball. From 1977’s Video Pinball to all of the games you can download and play on your mobile device, pinball has never left the hearts of gamers. With all of the games released in the decades after the song, you may be wondering, has there ever been a game that has contained the song “Pinball Wizard?”
Yes. There have been several, in fact. Gamers can digitally rock out to the classic tune in many games, including but not limited to:
- Karaoke Revolution: American Idol Encore 2 (2008)
- Rock Band 2 (2008)
- Rock Band Unplugged (2009)
- Rocksmith (2014)
Isn’t there a game called “Pinball Wizard?”
ERE Informatique published Macadam Bumper in 1985 for computers. The video pinball construction program was released in North America in 1988 under the more marketable title “Pinball Wizard.”
But wait! There’s more!
In 2022, game developer Frosty Pop released The Pinball Wizard. The single-player game is a hybrid pinball/dungeon crawler that challenges players to reach the top of the tower castle.
Sticks, Stones, and Silver Balls
Now we come to the questions that probably brought you to this article. Why do pinball fans not like the phrase “pinball wizard?” Is “pinball wizard” offensive?
The short answer is that the phrase is old and boring. It’s not really offensive, nor does it have a particularly problematic past or undertone. More than anything, it’s just overused.
If you look online for reasons, then you can find the same often-repeated answers from many people frustrated by the term.
One online enthusiast writes, “Every stinking time an acquaintance not in the hobby finds out I'm into pinball, that exact cliche comes out. It does get old.”
Another commenter says, “Yes, it’s infuriating when any news or person outside hears about pinball, and “Pinball Wizard” is the only association they can make.”
“Everyone discovers you enjoy pinball,” someone else writes, "and the next thing you know, everyone sends you a link to the song or gives you a new nickname. Like that person is sooooo clever.”
One person gets “sick of reading articles where players are referred to as ‘pinball wizards.’”
Not every pinball fan criticizes the phrase. One person states, “If someone asks me if I'm a pinball wizard, I just say ‘yes.’"
“It doesn't bother me at all,” one person simply declares.
One fan brings up a great point. They state that people who don’t like something usually shout the loudest despite being few in number. “It's probably not as hated as you think.”
Perhaps the best response from all over the internet to the pinball wizard issue is, “If someone asks me if I’m a pinball wizard, I cast a spell on them and walk away.”
”Pinball Wizard” means what?
In certain circles, a pinball wizard is someone who goes to parties and successfully hits on people. Make of that what you will, but most people will still think of the old meaning: someone that is really good at pinball.
Pinball Wizard FAQ (for the TL;DR crowd)
Where does “pinball wizard” come from?
The phrase comes from The Who’s song “Pinball Wizard.”
When did The Who release “Pinball Wizard?”
March 7, 1969.
Who is the Pinball Wizard?
The fictional Tommy Walker was the first person named Pinball Wizard, but now, many people may go by or be called that name.
Was the Pinball Wizard really deaf, dumb, and blind?
Tommy Walker was deaf, dumb, and blind to the outside world. However, a doctor found his disabilities to be psychosomatic, meaning that they were caused by psychological issues rather than a physiological inability to use his ears, voice, or eyes.
Is “Pinball Wizard” a true story?
Although it was inspired by a music critic’s fondness for the game, “Pinball Wizard” is not a true story.
What does “pinball wizard” mean?
A pinball wizard is a person who is really good at pinball.
What are the lyrics to the song"Pinball Wizard"?
Ever since I was a young boy
I've played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played 'em all
But I ain't seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall
That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball
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 pinball
He's a pinball wizard
There has got to be a twist
A pinball wizard's
Got such a supple wrist
How do you think he does it? I don't know
What makes him so good?
Ain't got no distractions
Can't hear no buzzers and bells
Don't see no lights a-flashin'
Plays by sense of smell
Always gets a replay
Never seen him fall
That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball
I thought I was
The Bally table king
But I just handed
My pinball crown to him
Even on my favorite table
He can beat my best
His disciples lead him in
And he just does the rest
He's got crazy flipper fingers
Never seen him fall
That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball
Do pinball enthusiasts like the phrase “pinball wizard?”
It depends on who you ask.
Why do some people not like the phrase?
Because it’s a cliche, but again, it depends on who you ask.
“. . . sure plays a mean pinball.”
Does a name really matter? Does it rob you of enjoying what you like to do? Aren’t there worse names to be called?
Pete Townshend wrote “Pinball Wizard” to give The Who’s Tommy something it lacked: levity. In doing so, he created the Pinball Wizard phrase that pinball enthusiasts either like or detest. Regardless of what anyone thinks, the phrase’s place in musical and amusement history can never be denied.