Song Lookback: Pinball Wizard – With 3 Versions To Pick From, What’s Your Favorite?

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I was listening to my MP3 player on “shuffle” the other day while I was reclining in the sun. All these years after those summer jobs, toiling in the heat and here I am still working on my tan. While listening to an MP3 player seems to run against our vinyl ethos here, I’m on record as listening to multiple sources of music as it’s hard to take a turntable everywhere you go. While my turntable may fit in the overhead space on an airplane it’s generally frowned upon to bring it with you on the flight…it is certainly frowned upon by my wife. There is something to be said about the convenience and portability of your music. I have to “not so humbly” admit, my MP3 player is the best “radio station” around right now, but I digress. Anyway, I’m basting in the sun, half expecting a chef to come rotate me ala rotisserie while pouring butter on me, and up pops the great Who song “Pinball Wizard.” It got me thinking about that particular tune and the different versions by different artists that I’ve heard over the years. Most of my ideas for B&V come when I’m listening to tunes and I guess this is no exception.

There are certain songs that are just classic in and of themselves regardless of who records it. The song seems to take on a life of it’s own. I remember long ago before I met the Rock Chick, having an argument with a woman in a bar – not an irregular experience at the time, sadly – and she was insisting that the song “Black Magic Woman” was first and perhaps only recorded by Santana. I was gently trying to explain to her who Peter Green was and that there was a Fleetwood Mac before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. She was having none of it. I’m not sure she even believed me about Peter Green founding Fleetwood Mac and she certainly didn’t believe that he’d written that song. If I may quote the movie Cool Hand Luke, “Some (wo)men you just can’t reach.” It was indeed “a failure to communicate.” I finally demurred and backed off realizing it was better for her to live in ignorance and for me to head to a different bar stool.

As I thought about “Pinball Wizard,” I was reminded of a similar post I’d done a few years back. I had the good fortune to be able to go on a beach vacation. One rainy afternoon I ducked into the lobby bar and the guy was playing the old Smokey Robinson tune “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.” That melody quickly lodged itself into my rum-addled brain. I started thinking about the three versions of the song I like the most: the original, the Beatles’ version and finally Eddie Money’s version. To the surprise of most people, I like the slinky almost bluesy version done by Eddie Money(!) best. That may seem crazy and perhaps hurts my rock n roll credibility, but that was the first version of the song I was familiar with – being a product of the late 70s/early 80s – and the version that appeals to me most. Sometimes, a version of a song you hear first is the one you attach to.

In the 60s when the British invaded they brought with them all these great blues and soul tunes that they’d been listening to. Most white folks over here weren’t listening Little Richard, Chuck Berry or Muddy Waters but Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Keith Richards and Paul McCartney (among others) were. When young teenagers in the suburbs heard all those great cover versions on early Stones’ or Beatles’ records it’s doubtful many of them realized they were songs by great African-American artists right here in their own backyard. It was kind of subversive if you think about it. There are probably a large number of people who think “Roll Over Beethoven” was strictly a Beatles tune… and word to the wise, if you happen to get into an argument in a bar about it, just quietly change seats. It’s not worth it.

When I was growing up, the source, yay the font of rock n roll music was local radio. For us here in Kansas City it was KY/102. There was a more pop oriented station Q104 but that was for wussies and soccer moms. I’m sure most cities around were similar. They may have had more than one rock n roll station, and probably more than one pop station, but the radio universe was similar wherever you went. As a young teenager in the late 70s, I didn’t have a vast knowledge of all the music that came before me. I was into what was on the local radio. While they played the Who they really didn’t play “Pinball Wizard” very often. I heard “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Who Are You” on high rotation but “Pinball Wizard,” not so much. I even heard “You Better You Bet” from one of the LPs only I like, Face Dances, more than “Pinball Wizard,” but it was then-current. The version of “Pinball Wizard” that did get airplay was the one by Elton John, recorded in 1975. To this day, it’s the Rock Chick’s favorite version of the tune. That freaks the purists out but I get it – it was the first version of the track she heard.

For me, there are really three essential versions of the song. They are, as follows, the original by the Who, a version recorded by Rod Stewart with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and finally the aforementioned Rock Chick favorite by Elton John.  Let’s look at all three:

The Who, 1969

“Pinball Wizard” was the first single released from the Who’s fourth LP, the epic rock opera Tommy. It’s hard to overstate how innovative it was for Pete Townshend and the Who to marry low brow rock n roll with the high brow concept of opera. Tommy is one of the earliest examples of a “concept album.” I remember being somewhat disappointed that the main riff, played by Townshend, was on an acoustic guitar instead of an electric but when I was a teenager I liked it loud and I too was raised on Elton’s version. It’s one of the Who’s great singles. It’s hard not to love this track. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks or rock n roll.

Rod Stewart & the London Philharmonic Orchestra , 1972

This is a version of “Pinball Wizard” that I’m going to guess not many people have even heard. I hadn’t ever heard it until I bought Rod’s box set Storyteller. Rod had been approach by the Who to sing the song with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – a project they were fully involved in – and appear in the movie version of Tommy. The Who did a few versions of songs from the rock opera with the Orchestra as well. Rod agreed to sing the song (in a more rock n roll version) and be in the movie but his drinking buddy Elton John talked him out of it. Elton told Rod he’d be too identified with and tied to the song if he appeared in the movie. I like this version of the song because well, I like Rod but also like the dramatic tension the Orchestra brings to the music. It’s a really elevated, cool version.

Elton John, 1975

Having screwed his buddy Rod Stewart by talking him out of the role and performance of the song, Elton slipped in and recorded his version. And he also appeared in the movie, pictured above. This is a more 70s rock n roll version. The piano and electric guitar fuel the classic riff instead of Townshend’s acoustic guitar on the original. There are a lot of people from the 70s who grew up listening to this version rather than the Who’s version who will swear it is the ultimate version of the song. I bet there are a few drunk people in bars who think that but hey, I don’t hang out in bars any more… OK, at least I don’t argue with women in bars anymore other than my wife. This really is a great version of the song. Davey Johnstone, Elton’s great guitarist, plays a tasty solo toward the end.

Conclusion?

As you listen to these three versions of the song back to back – as I did over and over this week while waiting for Ozzy’s new album to drop (review forthcoming soon) – you come to realize this is really one of the absolutely great rock songs of all time, whoever is performing it. I would advise any rock band whether they’re just starting in a garage or if they’re a bar band or playing arenas to learn how to play this song.

So what’s my favorite? Will I make a radical choice like the Eddie Money pick from the “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” post? For me, the favorite is clear, it’s the Who’s version. Although I’ve always been more partial to Quadrophenia than Tommy. For all of those who vote for Elton, I get it, it’s a tremendous version of the song and it gave me pause when trying to decide which version I liked best. For those who dig the Rod version – kudos on thinking outside the box.

If you want to voice an opinion of these three, I encourage everyone to contribute in the “comments” section. Enjoy this and be good out there.

Cheers!

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