I Thought I Was The Bally Table King (Pinball)

There are a number of things that I was born at the right time for. There is no element of nostalgia when I remember hearing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Good Vibrations” or “Sgt Pepper” on the day they were released. It sure made the 1960s an interesting musical experience. Similarly three of the first movies my wife-to-be and I saw together at the cinema …”Easy Rider”, “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy”. Now I don’t spend too much time checking my footprints (“they are upstairs in my socks”  Groucho Marx) but a twice weekly cinema-going habit in the 1970s meant that you saw a lot of good movies. Then there was the Sexual Revolution, all the women I knew were “on the pill”. Yeah, I would be lying if I said that I did any more than read about that.

Anyhoo…here’s another thing that I thought was golden at the time and is now as obsolete as the video machine.

In the monochrome early 1960s my family went to the same seaside holiday camp. Being the eldest of 4, soon to be 5, children I got to explore the place by myself. The only source of colour around had, of course, a magnetic attraction for my young self. The amusement arcade had a juke box and a pinball machine. If it was my choice, I would still be living there now. I had little spare cash to flash but, like Chance the Gardener, I liked to watch. It was in this neon oasis that I learned how to put the three best records on the juke and how a proper pinball player presented himself in the battle of man versus machine. The designs, the noise, the lights…I liked those too.

“Pinball Boogie” is a song one of our favourite mid-70s bands, Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers, played in a live set which always included imaginative covers. They were a fun band which included a former Resident and a future Attraction. When they whipped out this belter from the 1940s we loved it. I suppose that “Pinball Boogie” can be read as rather clumsy sexual metaphor. “Rattle it and shake it till it gets in the hole”…mmm…it might be worth a try.

The university I attended was an experiment conducted by mad social scientists. A concrete carbuncle dropped into beautiful Constable country and a 1,000 students left to find a way to get along. There were three communal TV rooms (one for each channel !) and little else to divert. There was, however, a bare room containing four shiny new pinball machines. It was time to put those misspent rainy holiday afternoons to good use.

We were competitive and we were pretty good. An etiquette was established. stand away from the table and don’t talk to the guy who is playing. Let him concentrate and don’t give him an excuse when he screws up. It takes more than crazy flipper fingers to get the best out of a table which can be a cussed thing giving you nothing. The ball has to be cajoled with body English (lovely phrase) , careful not to “tilt” and lose it, when you get it right, grokking the machine, the ball will just run onto the flippers and the points will rack up, giving up it’s replays with that satisfying “THWACK !”

We left the campus and lived in a nearby seaside village. In Winter the tumbleweed fluttered along the streets of shuttered chalets  but a small arcade remained open all year round. We knew the machines inside out, playing pinball was what we did of an evening. Good times. On leaving the seaside and student life there were tables to be found in pubs and we would drink in those discerning dives with no thought for the quality of alcohol available. Living in London there were still arcades and from Soho down to Brighton we must have played them all. In a splendid low-life Brixton joint we would play the locals for money, careful not to win big as we lived our Hustler/Cincinnatti  Kid dreams.

“Pinball Cha Cha” is by the Swiss band Yello. It is a song of a man who can only find solace at a pinball table. “It’s just pinball for me. It’s claro que si” (of course). There have been afternoons with just me in the pub and I’m doing the thing I do when I may have been that man playing “the sensational game”. OK, I suppose that I have to do this…

Not too obvious…this is a ready-for-prime-time demo of “Pinball Wizard”, Pete Townshend’s epic from “Tommy”. If I had a pound for every time some wit has said to me, “Oh, you’re a Pinball Wizard are you ?” I would have £15. The machines got more electronic, more complicated. Of course I liked the traditional machines but this was no Fonz fantasy. Bring it on…make the whistles and bells blow and ring until, one day, the machine disintegrates in front of you !

And now the pinball machine has pretty much disappeared. I have even stopped looking in the nooks of the seaside arcades because it’s disappointing that this last refuge no longer comes through. I have had friends who, building their own man-cave, bought their very own tables. It’s cool for a couple of days to get a few games in while the first kettle boils but they are bloody noisy in a confined space and unlimited free games can take the edge off your game. Then, when you have sated yourself, friends arrive and they want to make some noise for a few more hours. It’s just not the same as being down the pub.

So now it’s the X-Box and the PS3, games from the comfort of your sofa and that’s OK. I have done my share of Tomb Raiding. Console Pinball , crazy flipper thumbs ?…Please ! I really enjoyed my pinball days (still think I could kick a machine’s arse, if I could find one). I liked to walk away from a table leaving the free plays for the next player. If you have had the perfect game you will do no better. I really liked the arcade days when a young kid would be watching as you subjugated the silver ball to your will. I would give him the free plays just as the aces I had watched back in the day had given them to me. Pay it forward, yeah.