More than anything, the Who craved success in America. Despite overwhelming success in their native England, the band had trouble selling records in the States. They had reached the American Top 10 with their singles “I Can See for Miles” and “Magic Bus,” but their album sales were abysmal with many of their early releases languishing in the cutout bins for a buck or two.
Concept albums had been all the rage since the release of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper LP. Yet the Who’s own concept album The Who Sell Out could get no higher than #48 on the Billboard LP chart. Clearly, the Who needed something more.
Then Pete Townsend had the brilliant idea to write a “rock opera.”
Yet even that needed a helping hand from fate. Townsend decided to play some of the early tracks for influential rock critic Nick Cohen. Nick was decidedly underwhelmed, telling Townsend that all that spiritual stuff was dull.
Now Townsend knew Cohen was an avid pinball player. So he asked Nick, “What if Tommy was a pinball champion?” Well, that was a different story. Cohen loved the idea. So Townsend set about writing a pinball song.
We all know the rest of the story.
“Pinball Wizard” was released in March of 1968. It was an immediate hit. When the full Tommy double album hit the stores two months, copies virtually flew off the shelves.
The success of the album drove kids to see the Who in concert. Their live shows had always been their strong point. By the time the Who released Live at Leeds a year later, their position in the upper level of rock royalty had been secured.