Writer(s): Pete Townshend (see lyrics here)
First Charted: March 7, 1969
Peak: 19 US, 15 CB, 11 GR, 15 HR, 1 CL, 4 UK, 6 CN, 45 AU, 1 DF (Click for codes to charts.)
Sales (in millions): -- US, 0.25 UK
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 1.0 radio, 27.0 video, 188.98 streaming
Click on award for more details.
About the Song:
The gist of the Who’s 1969 Tommy album isn’t just summed up in this song, but one line: “That deaf dumb and blind kid / Sure plays a mean pinball.” According to singer Roger Daltrey, the idea to do a rock opera came from Kit Lambert, the Who’s co-manager. He pushed Pete Townshend, the band’s songwriter and guitarist, to “write something grander than a pop song.” TC In 1966, Townshend wrote the nine-minute mini-opera “A Quick One.” Three years later, he went all in with Tommy, a rock opera about a kid so stricken by childhood abuse that he has shut down all of his senses. He becomes a sort of messiah figure when he starts amassing fans amazed by his inexplicable pinball skills.
It was inspired by the Meher Baba. Townshend followed the teachings of the Indian spiritual master, who lived in silence the final 44 years of his life. He explained that “Tommy’s real self represents the aim – God – and the…way, the path and all of this.” FO Daltrey says, though, that the story line came more from Lambert than Townshend. TC
The song explains how Tommy played so well because there were no distractions via his senses, such as the lights and sounds of the machine. He plays based on vibration and, as the song says, “sense of smell.” Townshend called it “the most clumsy piece of writing I’ve ever done.” WK He considered it a “mindless, badly written song.” SF
Music author Toby Creswell, however, describes it as “an extraordinary piece. Townshend uses a wall of acoustic guitars in a almost flamenco style of lightning-fast strumming to set the atmosphere, which is then pierced with fat chords of electric guitar peeled off and then allowed to float through the air.” TC
This was the last song written for Tommy. The Who previewed the album for rock critic Nik Cohn, who wasn’t overly impressed. Townshend recognized that the project was heavy and the spiritual side and needed something to lighten the tone. He decided Tommy needed to possess a special skill. Knowing that Cohn was a pinball fanatic, Townshend made his protagonist excel at the game. Cohn then gave the project a glowing review. FO
Elton John performed the song in the movie version of Tommy in 1975. His version went on to be a top-10 hit in the UK. “Visually it’s hard to disassociate Tommy’s greatest hit from the scene in the movie, with the hyper-platformed Elton John leading the band through a manic reconstruction of the deaf, dumb, and blind boy’s most potent anthem. But musically, the original is still the one that matters.” DT
First posted 8/13/2021; last updated 9/18/2023.