Song of the Week: The Who, “Pinball Wizard”

Rockus Maximus

Late Wednesday night, I was hanging out at Neil’s.  Neil’s is a bar and music venue in midtown Memphis where I sometimes play on Wednesdays.  Anyway, I was at Neil’s with my brother and our friend Will, waiting to hit the stage.  We were talking about macroeconomics, or Proust, or fantasy football when The Who’s “Squeeze Box” came on Neil’s crusty ole jukebox.

And though I like “Squeeze Box,” it only made me crave another song.

Song of the Week, The Who “Pinball Wizard

I’ve always loved “Pinball Wizard’s” beginning, before Daltrey begins singing (0:32).  In terms of sheer stage-setting, pulse-quickening, adrenaline-prepping, kickstarting energy, it’s peerless.  It’s not just a badass intro; it’s practically the blueprint for badass intros.  Townshend’s electric fill (0:24) over rapid acoustic strumming has been copped, stolen, acknowledged, referenced, and lovingly borrowed countless times.  Here’s one.  Also, the minor-chord walk-down to the actual key is another advent; with every descending chord, the listener feels like they’re falling further into some dark unknown, waiting for bottom.  Just about everyone (Pearl Jam here and here) has adopted this device.

Technique and influence aside, just listen to it.  It’s thrilling.  It’s brooding, simple, stark,  effortlessly suspenseful.  It demands attention.  There’s no way to hear those opening thirty seconds and not be excited for whatever comes next.

And there’s the rub.  What comes next (the rollicking, unironic tale of a deaf-and-blind pinball prodigy who’s kinda Jesus-ish) isn’t as good as what comes before.  To be fair, almost anything would feel anti-climactic after that introduction.  But the intro should set the stage for the actual song, not upstage it.  “Pinball Wizard” is like a novel that peaks in its prologue.

If that sounds harsh, I want to clarify two points:

1)I love The Who.  I LOVE The Who.  They’re in my personal all-time Top 12, they’re indisputably pop’s greater Pantheon, and I will bullwhip anyone who claims otherwise.  I love “Pinball Wizard” in its entirety, awkward allegories and all.  While I don’t to relate to every aspect of The Who’s rock operas, the songs themselves influenced similarly operatic work from Radiohead, Pearl Jam, and Green Day that I do relate to.  In that way, The Who occupies rarefied air: I even love the songs I don’t want to listen to.  Their existence matters.

2) I’m pretty sure The Who knew they couldn’t top the intro.  Why do you think they revisit it (2:15)?

Anyway, The Pinball Wizard Problem sparked a discussion/debate at Neil’s: what other songs don’t fulfill the promise of their introduction?

Here are a few more, off the top of my head.  Feel free to add yours in the comments.

–Band of Horses, “Islands On the Coast

–The Hold Steady, “Sequestered In Memphis

–Kings of Leon, “Slow Night So Long” (slightly)

–Led Zeppelin, “The Song Remains the Same

–My Morning Jacket, “Evil Urges

–Nirvana, “Scentless Apprentice

–The Raconteurs, “Intimate Secretary

–Radiohead, “National Anthem” (Note: Kind of.  The vocal melody underwhelms, but everything else is extraordinary.)

–Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (It’s all great, but most of the magic’s in the first 100 seconds.  Honestly, I get bored halfway through.)

–And, finally, the immortal Jet.  “Are You Gonna Be My Girl

Bonus Pick!  What about the opposite of the Pinball Wizard Problem?  What about when a song’s ending totally pays off the rest of the song’s debt?  We’ll call this the “Thunder Road Corollary,” in honor of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” which (to me) relentlessly wastes time and tests patience until the awesome catharsis of its says-it-all-without-saying-a-thing coda (3:49).

Can y’all think of any more?


2 thoughts on “Song of the Week: The Who, “Pinball Wizard”

Holler Here!

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