This is part of Tommy, the first "rock opera." Tommy is about a young man who is deaf, dumb, and blind, but becomes a pinball champion and gains hordes of adoring fans. It was made into a play and continues to run as an off-Broadway production.
Tommy was made into a movie in 1975 starring Jack Nicholson, Ann Margaret, Tina Turner, and Roger Daltrey (who played Tommy). Elton John made an appearance as The Pinball Wizard and performed this song. His version hit UK #7.
Pete Townshend wrote this. It existed mostly in his head while they were recording it, and the other members of The Who had no idea how most of the story would end until they finished it. Townshend was not credited as the only songwriter on the project - John Entwistle wrote "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About," and Keith Moon got credit for "Tommy's Holiday Camp."
This was the last song written for Tommy. Townshend wrote it when he found out influential UK rock critic Nik Cohn was coming to review the project. Townshend knew Cohn was a pinball fanatic, so he put this together to ensure a good review. Cohn gave it a great review, and pinball became a main theme of the rock opera.
The character Tommy played pinball by feeling the vibrations of the machine. Townshend liked how that related to listeners picking up the vibrations of the music to feel the story.
The single version was sped up to make it more radio-friendly.
This was the most famous and enduring song from the Tommy project. Along with "See Me, Feel Me," it is one of 2 songs from the album that The Who played throughout their career.
The Who performed this at Woodstock in 1969. The song was still fairly new, so many in the crowd did not recognize it. The Who were given the early morning slot, so they ended up playing this as the sun came up.
The Who performed the entire album from start to finish on their subsequent tour. Two of the dates were in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
The famous guitar riff was sampled by The Shocking Blue on their 1969 hit "Venus," which was covered by Bananarama in 1986.
The album got The Who out of a financial mess. After a legal battle with their manager, Shel Talmy, and some bad business deals in England, they were facing bankruptcy if it didn't sell.
After writing this song for Nik Cohn, Townshend almost didn't even mention it to the band because he hated it so much. They told him to play it and told him he had written a hit. Meanwhile, he thought it was a mindless, badly written song.
According to the book The Duh Awards
by Bob Fenster, Rod Stewart asked Elton John if he should accept an offer to sing in Tommy
. Elton told him no way, "Don't touch it with a barge pole." A year later, The Who asked Elton John to sing the same song. Elton grabbed his barge pole and took the offer. "I don't think Rod's quite forgiven me for that," he commented years later.
The Dutch group The Shocking Blue used the guitar riff from this song for their 1969 hit "Venus
Townshend played a 1968 Gibson SG Special guitar on this song.