The Who Vs. Elton John: "Pinball Wizard"

The Who Vs. Elton John: "Pinball Wizard"

One of the most iconic riffs on acoustic guitar of all-time is the introduction to The Who's "Pinball Wizard."  Originally written and recorded for the 1969 Rock Opera, Tommy (the song was track #3 on side 3 of the two-record set), it was also recorded in 1975 by Elton John for the Tommy movie soundtrack.  Here's the big question: Which version is better, the original or the cover?  We shall listen to each and discuss below.

The Who Vs. Elton John: "Pinball Wizard"

In 1975, The Who was arguably the biggest rock band in the world.  Meanwhile, Elton John was arguably the biggest solo artist in the world.  Sir Elton's cover of a Who song (his version was a Top 10 hit in the U.S.) would be repaid when The Who (without a deceased Keith Moon) would cover "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" for the Two Rooms album in 1991, a tribute to the music of Elton John & writing partner Bernie Taupin.  (For a full review of Two Rooms comparing original recordings to covers, just read HERE.)

Let's not stray too far from this very important topic.  Which version of "Pinball Wizard" is better?  Let's listen/watch the two versions below.

When I, the writer of this very important and enlightening post/article/submission/waste-of-our-time, first heard "Pinball Wizard," it would have been in 1975, when I was 8 years old and my mom drove around our blue Dodge station wagon (all metal, no fake wood paneling for our family) with the AM radio playing (definitely not blasting).  She would have had her dial tuned to WABC, which was still a top music station in the New York market.  All this means that my first encounter with "Pinball Wizard" would have been the Elton John version.

Does that make it better?  Nope.

That said, when I gained eternal consciousness around 1983 by making my way into high school (and watching Caddyshack whenever possible), the Elton John version of "Pinball Wizard" was long-forgotten since my older brother had purchased the original Tommy album, if my recollection is correct, for 1 penny from the Columbia House Music Club.  Our house rocked to "I'm Free," "We're Not Gonna Take It," "The Acid Queen," and, of course, "Pinball Wizard."

As I learned to become a bad drummer and joined better bands than I deserved to be in, somehow every guitarist would play that opening riff to "Pinball Wizard" at random points during nearly every band practice.  The Who's version was the version to know.  It was first.  It was classic.

But did that make it better?  Nope.

We're still in Rock 'N' Roll limbo.  Which version of "Pinball Wizard" is better?

I'm going to place my vote for the Elton John version.  Some of you will agree.  Some will hire a hit man to blow up my Civic.  Here's why I, your writer of this important piece of Rock journalism, thinks the Elton John version is better.

The Who did it first.  They recorded it in 1969.  Many recordings from the late-60s/early-70s don't necessarily sound great.  The entirety of Tommy doesn't sound great.  Even Townshend would agree (one reason why he spent an insane amount of time on the soundtrack 6 years later).  Interestingly, if you compare Tommy to the first Led Zeppelin album, they don't compare in sound quality.  Led Zeppelin sounds HUGE.  It's so alive.  Tommy does not.  It's a thinner sound.  It doesn't grab you.  

Conversely, Elton John's version is does.  It has a louder, more energetic sound.  The cover version is a stark contrast to what The Who originally did.  While Roger Daltrey does his best, he wasn't at his Who's Next vocal ability yet.  Keith Moon's drums are there, but not up front like they would be soon.  John Entwhistle's bass is buried in the track.  The Who's version, while electric, is based on acoustic guitar.  It works on its own.  But when compared to what Elton John did, it's almost like a demo recording.

Elton gets points for turning what was already a great song into something that sounds like an Elton John song.  The acoustic guitar riff, so famous in rock circles, is replaced by acoustic piano.  The tempo is faster, barely, but noticeably if you play each right next to each other.  The drums are louder, more prominent.  The guitar is fully electric.  Elton's voice is dirtier, angrier, grittier, funny considering how, in 1975, Daltrey owned the greatest Rock 'N' Roll voice in the world (Robert Plant fans will scream their disagreement here).

More points go to the Elton John arrangement.  It features percussion, two guitar solos, additional lyrics, a great backing piano track, and better placement and more frequent use of a bridge bringing us to the chorus.


It's not perfect.

"How do you think he does it?"

"I don't know."

"What makes him so good?"

In the original version, Townshend sings lines 1 and 3 above.  He sings them passionately and Daltrey answers perfectly.

In the Elton John version...well, that part just falls flat.  You can even hear it.  By the third line, the background vocalists almost run out of breath.  How cool would that have been for Townshend to sing his part in both versions?

If this was a baseball game of The Who vs. Elton, it wouldn't have been a blowout.  It would have been something like 7 to 4.  No, the game would not have been closer than the score indicated.  Elton John's soundtrack version, in this boy's opinion, is clearly better than the original Who version.

Or is it?  What do you think?  Is this Rock 'N' Roll blasphemy?

Your turn. (Check out a free BONUS "Pinball Wizard" below.)

Dave Philp is Assistant Professor of Music Management at William Paterson University and Chief Organizer Guy of YouChoose, a live events music fundraising and social media company that has raised many, many thousands of dollars for non-profit causes. Join the good fight and help change your corner of the world by visiting YouChoose now: To sign up for our email newsletter, click HERE. Mmkay?  

Final Note:

I saw The Who perform Tommy in 1989 in support of the 20th anniversary tour of the original album's release.  The band played at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  Before the show, I drank my very first Corona beer (well, more than one, but I was 21 and it was free - the dudes who gave me the brews were trying to pick up my girlfriend, whom I would break up with a month later because I was a jerk - TMI?).  Anyway, The Who deserve some love for their performance of "Pinball Wizard" in the video below, taken from one of those Giants Stadium shows in '89.  With the horn section added in, and with AWESOME drummer Simon Phillips, "Pinball Wizard" pops so much better than '69.

Or do you disagree here too? 


Obviously I agree with the author..Elton's version of Pinball Wizard sounds much better than The Who's version, and after all it was Elton who sang it in the movie 'Tommy" and Elton's own version he released with his band was a Top 10 hit while it never was for The Who...same thing goes for Elton's cover of The Beatles "Lucy in the Sky w/ Diamonds"...