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!

Review: Elton John, ‘Madman Across The Water – 50th Anniversary Edition’ – Is It Worth It?

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It would be impossible for me to overstate how big Elton John was in the mid-70s. Yes, the rock n roll world was listening to Zeppelin, but everybody and I mean everybody was listening to Elton. I really didn’t start listening to rock n roll until 1978-ish so I missed out on a lot of that “Elton heyday.” I remember hearing “Rocket Man” and “Bennie And the Jets” and loving those songs. But in truth, I actually didn’t get into Elton through my junior high or high school years. In those early days of my listening to rock n roll the greatest sin of all was to profess to like music that was considered “pop.” Any artist you were listening to had to be pure rock – Aerosmith, Zeppelin, and Van Halen were all rock approved. You couldn’t be caught dead listening to say, disco or Olivia Newton John from the Grease soundtrack, which I never did. I think back to that macho posturing now and laugh… I mean we thought Journey and Styx were cool. Journey might have been…but Styx?

The “problem” with Elton, even though by ’78, ’79 he’d had a slight decline was that he was still viewed as being this, well, pop juggernaut. And if Elton was pop music then by definition he wasn’t rock n roll. Or at least that’s what the prevailing attitude was back then amongst my gang of miscreant friends. It wasn’t until the summer after my senior year of high school, right before leaving for college that my attitude toward Elton turned completely around. It was on a hot early July evening in 1982 that my parents drug me to Starlight Theater to see Elton. It was my brother’s birthday gift – he, for one, was not afraid of people’s opinion’s of what he listened to, something it took me years to do. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t want to go (forgive me, I have told this story before: Elton’s Retirement From Touring Takes Me Back to His KC Starlight Theater Show July 6, 1982 ). I wanted to drink beer and hang out with a girl I knew. Elton came out that night with his original backing band who’d just reunited – Davey Johnstone (guitar), Nigel Olsson (drums) and Dee Murray (bass) – and they blew the lid off the place. They opened with “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and from that point on I knew, oh yes, this was rock n roll.

It wasn’t until I got up to college and started hanging out in a record store with my roommate Drew that I started to actually collect Elton’s albums. All of those records are so iconic I just assumed they all sold a billion copies. Whether it was Tumbleweed Connection, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Honky Chateau his albums had songs that had been drilled into our collective consciousness by radio. I just assumed that every album from Elton John (his 1970 U.S. debut but actually his 2nd LP) to Captain Fantastic had been monster sellers. I was surprised when I learned later that his first three U.S. records while selling better here than in the UK were not huge sellers – Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water which are now widely considered some of the greatest records of all time. It wasn’t until Honky Chateau that his album sales exploded. Honky Chateau was his first LP that the record company let him record with his backing band vs hired guns. Coincidence that it was the LP that exploded his popularity? I think not.

Back in college I was picking up an Elton LP almost every trip to the record store there for a while. I remember buying Elton John at the used record store. “Your Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot” were essential. The next LP I purchased was his third (fourth in the UK), Madman Across The Water. I loved, loved the title track. I will admit, I was little put off by the LP art – embroidered blue jeans but you can’t judge an LP by it’s cover. The album starts with two of Elton’s most iconic songs, “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” Elton’s piano playing is just stunning. The songs are all beautifully orchestrated. “Tiny Dancer” somehow combines gospel with country flourishes. “Tiny Dancer,” featured on almost all of Elton’s greatest hits LPs wasn’t a huge hit at first. I thought it was since it was central to an episode of the TV show WKRP In Cincinnati, a show I watched religiously. “Levon” is a beautiful song about the passing of generations and how they each want something different than the previous one. It was supposedly inspired by Levon Helm, who didn’t like the song, but there’ some disagreement about that. Admittedly Elton and his lyricist Bernie Taupin were huge fans of The Band at the time.

The epic title track was the gold for me (and no, “Madman Across the Water” wasn’t about Nixon) on this record but I also really liked “Razor Face” about an older musician who was perhaps a mentor who returns to town and being an itinerant musician needs help. I’ll be honest, when I first bought Madman Across the Water I thought side two was weak. Listening now I question my judgement when I was a college kid. Well, let’s face it my judgement was shit back then so why not extend that to some of the music. These songs are Elton’s classic blend of rock n roll, country rock and gospel. It conjures the 70s to me. I think “Indian Sunset” is a great, intense tune even if the lyrics are historically inaccurate. Geronimo was not “gunned down.” “Holiday Inn” is a humorous song about the road. I like “Rotten Peaches” as well, another song about traveling down the road and the interesting people you meet there. The only track that still leaves me cold when I listen to this wonderful LP is “All The Nasties” an apparent swipe at critics.

Last weekend Elton released a 50th anniversary edition of Madman Across the Water. It was released in 1971 so this is actually 51 years but I think the box was a Covid delay. I couldn’t resist this edition. I have to say, this music sounds incredible. Included with the original LP on the first disc is the original version of “Madman” with Mick Ronson (of Bowie’s Spiders From Mars fame) on lead guitar. It’s almost 3 minutes longer than the Davey Johnstone version released and Ronson proves why he belongs on lists of “greatest guitarists” on this track alone. Not that Davey doesn’t belong on that list also… There’s a version of “Rock Me When He’s Gone” a track Elton gifted to mentor Long John Baldry. Baldy employed not only Elton but Rod Stewart in various incarnations of his band. This was the first I’d heard Elton’s version. It might have really picked up the tempo on side 2 if he’d kept it instead of say, “All The Nasties.” I even liked the extended version of “Razor Face,” but then I love that song.

Disc 2 of the new box has a collection of ten “piano demos” of the tracks. One thing I’ve always thought about Madman is that the album captures some of Elton’s greatest piano playing. Unlike the Rock Chick I love the piano in rock n roll. From Fats Domino to Elton to Billy Joel, the piano gives rock it’s roll. On the released versions the wonderful strings conducted by Paul Buckmiester almost overwhelm the songs to the point where you miss what great things are happening on the piano. Don’t get me wrong, I love the released versions, and after a few listens the piano starts to jump out at you but these demos give you a more prominent piano that I liked. But I get it demos aren’t for everybody. There’s also a couple more versions of “Rock Me When He’s Gone,” a piano demo and a longer fully done version on disc 2.

The final disc is a live performance – just Elton and his rhythm section (Olsson on drums; Murray on bass) – taken from an April 29, 1971 performance from “BBC Sounds For Sunday.” There is no crowd or audience for the show, or at least there’s not one that you can hear. It’s an intriguing listen. I like Elton’s introductions of the tracks. I was surprised they did the entire new album on the show, not in order. I have to assume this was widely bootlegged.

The question here is, is this 50th anniversary version of 1971’s Madman Across The Water worth the money. If you’ve never purchased the album before this is a great version to buy. The sound is amazing. I liked the extras on disc 1. I understand if you’re not a fan of hearing demos and the creative process, disc 2 might not be for you. The songs are pretty fully realized, save for the strings on disc 2. The live performance, while intriguing, is probably not essential live Elton. So my answer to the “worth it” question is qualified. I’d say this is a must have for big fans of Elton or of this album in particular. If you’ve never owned it, I’d also recommend this version as a purchase. But for the most part this box is for big fans only. If you’re a casual fan this is not the box for you. There are some great moments in the extras, certainly worth streaming but if you’re not into Elton like I am, that’s as far as I’d go with it.

Cheers and Happy Summer everyone.