Interview: How The Who salvaged Who's Next from the Lifehouse wreckage
In 1971, amid managerial betrayal and internal dissension, The Who’s highly ambitious Lifehouse project collapsed. Out of the wreckage they salvaged their greatest album
In 1969, after years of fluctuating fortunes, The Who finally achieved a stability when Tommy made them superstars. Following the critical and commercial success of that celebrated 1969 saga of a deaf, dumb ’n’ blind pinball wizard, one would have imagined that things would now be plain sailing for the band. In fact they were about to enter one of the most difficult periods of their career. At the end of it, though, in 1971 they would emerge with Who’s Next, a magnificent piece of work which regularly comes high in polls to determine history’s greatest albums.
Having proved with Tommy that rock music could sustain a storyline across the length of a double album, Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend now set about work on an even grander scheme. What eventually became Who’s Next was originally to be a project called Lifehouse, a massively ambitious multi-media affair with its planned double-vinyl album merely a soundtrack to a movie. In the soundtrack, furthermore, The Who’s audience would become part of a creative process at gigs played by the band, for one of the story strands of Lifehouse was what has been described as the ‘universal chord’, an aggregation of the individual musical sounds produced by human beings.
This idea was to be tested at London’s Young Vic theatre, precursor gigs for which took place in the first quarter of 1971. Meanwhile, other story elements contained references to a ‘grid’ in which humans – confined to their homes by an ecological disaster – were effectively enslaved. Some particularly wild-eyed Who-ligans have insisted this proved that Townshend invented the World Wide Web, and it can’t be denied that in some ways this resembles what we now call the internet (and in others the Matrix movies).
With his (albeit belatedly) proven commercial track record, Townshend found movie studios willing. However, he was to be sabotaged by the increasingly erratic Who co-manager Kit Lambert, who bewildered Townshend’s Young Vic writing partner Frank Dunlop by telling him that Lifehouse was merely a new version of Tommy. Dunlop then alarmed Townshend by holding a press conference to clear up the confusion. Another problem that dogged the project is that the ideas on which Townshend was working were not only above the head of the average Who fan, but apparently even above the heads of his colleagues in the band.
Townshend has recalled the rest of The Who losing all faith in the project when journalists took them aside at the Young Vic and said: “You know, Pete’s mad. This’ll never work.” With the film project dissolving and Townshend himself losing faith in his ideas, some sort of salvation appeared – or so he thought – when the increasingly estranged Lambert invited him over to New York to at least record the musical part of the exercise. However, treachery by Lambert (by now addicted to heroin) was afoot, and the sessions at the state-of-the-art Record Plant studio were aborted after just five days.
A shaken Townshend decamped with his colleagues back to Britain. With it now out of the question that Lambert would produce the music, their former engineer Glyn Johns was brought in to remix the Record Plant material. But Johns believed he could do better, and suggested they begin re-recording from scratch. They had a trial run in April ’71, laying down Won’t Get Fooled Again at Mick Jagger’s country mansion, Stargroves. The result was an eight-and-a-half-minute crunching extravaganza that saw every member of The Who on top form, and which is for many the band’s magnum opus. They were so pleased that they took Johns up on his suggestion, and booked into Olympic Studios in Barnes, south London later that month to begin the recording process again.
There was another Young Vic concert on May 5, but it was around this juncture that Townshend realised that the development of the Lifehouse concept was not going as well as the simple mechanics of recording its songs. The solution was almost unthinkable for Townshend, who had invested so much blood, sweat and tears in the project: to abandon the Lifehouse concept and simply put out the best songs from the sessions as a single LP. Once the decision was made, though, a monkey was off Townshend’s back.
“I just felt fantastically relieved,” he said.
In one sense, Who’s Next, the album that was salvaged from Lifehouse, is a nonsense. The storyline was ignored, and the songs sequenced with no regard to their original place in the story. But the power of the material was undeniable. Baba O’ Riley, the album’s opener, has an hypnotic synth intro, the roaring power of vocalist Roger Daltrey’s voice – now possessing a ‘lived in’ quality not previously apparent on Who records – and the booming brilliance of the rhythm section of bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon.
Behind Blue Eyes may have started out as the theme song of Lifehouse’s villain, but its story of concealed torment has a universality which makes it relevant to anyone, especially set against its sonic beauty and delicacy. Love Ain’t For Keeping appeals to anyone who loves poetic songwords and exquisite, pastoral instrumentation. Entwistle’s domestic drama My Wife – never part of Lifehouse, but added after it was decided Lifehouse was history – was thoroughly enjoyable, twinkle-eyed hard rock. The finale Won’t Get Fooled Again, meanwhile, would have been timeless whatever the background.
Would it be fair to say that although Lifehouse is a concept it doesn’t have the same sense of narrative that Tommy has?
There was a very clear story long before I had any music, so in a way it had a stronger narrative than Tommy. The narrative to Tommy evolved through the recording process. The other thing here is that it is assumed that the songs were intended to tell the story [as with Tommy], but in fact the music was tangential, like a Broadway musical, because the story was meant to be told through film – part reality, part fiction. I think the concept of mixing documentary and fiction might fly today, but it was a strange idea in 1971.
I think Lifehouse is far more pretentious in aim than Tommy ever was. Tommy is much more of a sociological document about the family post-war. Lifehouse is science fiction, really, and based on the promise of the home computer, which we all knew was coming but we didn’t know when.
It seems that the Lifehouse project was never viewed with much enthusiasm – or even understood – by the other members of The Who. Was it an annoying period for you because of that?
Variously on and off. It depends. There’s been a lot of revisionism, looking back, by everybody involved. There were huge misunderstandings between me and The Who’s managers about the way the piece was going to be funded.
It was very simple story. And although it predated William Gibson’s first book about the matrix, a lot of writing had already been done about the future of the internet; about the way the computers would link people together, that data would be exchanged. Although the first two computers weren’t linked together until after I’d scratched out the story for Lifehouse, they were working on it.
But the story itself was very, very simple, and I actually think everybody in the band did get it. I think what happened was I took it a step too far. I wrote a very, very simple narrative, which is a very basic film script – I’d never written a film script – but then I tried to do a kind of theatre workshop version of it. I wanted to do a bit of the film to show everybody around me that you could make music using computers, that reflected a limited number of facets of an individual’s personality. And it was that bit that went astray.
And (Who manager) Kit Lambert wasn’t on board either?
What actually happened was that I’d been to see people in the States with Kit Lambert and Pete Kameron, who was his producer, and we got a promise from them of $2 million based on a scrappy little document that I’d written about Lifehouse [probably, though, based on the success of Tommy at the time]. I’d come back to London and immediately gone off with this imaginary money and started to talk to computer programmers, to emeritus musicians and composers – I started with Karlheinz Stockhausen and I worked downwards.
After about three or four months we started to run out of money. It was only about 10 years ago that [co-manager of The Who] Chris Stamp explained to me what had happened. When Tommy was finished as an album, Kit Lambert had written a very simple film script based on the Tommy story which he wanted to make into a film. He’d gone to Universal [and] he’d got an agreement to make the film, and I’d blocked him doing that. So what he did was, immediately after my meeting with the bigwigs at Universal he went back in and, unbeknown even to Pete Kameron, said: “You know Pete Townshend’s mad. And what this is about is the film of Tommy, this is just his new version of it.”
One of the strands of the Lifehouse story is said to be the universal chord.
It does have, of course, a metaphysical and, to some extent, some scientific basis. The universe resonates in a way that produces measurable vibrations. Individuals have electronic resonances running inside them. The thing about the universal chord, that was actually something to do with the Moody Blues; it had nothing to do with The Who’s Lifehouse.
What I talked about in my script was a man who goes mad, who starts to work with people and produce pieces of music and actually starts to affect them spiritually. A kind of Tommy figure again. I called him Bobby. He started to have an effect on the people around him, and as a result started to become carried away. And started to aspire to the idea that he could bring everybody together.
It was kind of based on the fact that as a group [The Who] had one area on which we all agreed, and that was that something extraordinary and magical happened when a really great band properly tried to reflect the feelings of the assembled audience. In other words, you don’t go up there and do a Freddie Mercury – not that there’s anything wrong with that – you go up there and you try to perform in such a way that you channel the audience’s feelings, energies, frustrations. And The Who were brilliant at that.
But would such an aggregate sound have necessarily been aesthetically pleasing, or simply a cacophony?
I am a composer. I am not interested in whether anyone might find what I produce pleasing. What interests me is whether what I produce is authentic. I suppose this is all about artistic striving for a higher truth of some kind. Strangely, this desire to put authenticity above pleasure is surely what makes the blues, R&B and the best rock so striking and engaging – but only to certain receptive people.
On the other hand the music you have to produce has got to be easy on the ear. So it seems like you’ve got this scientific idea which is not necessarily an artistic idea.
Well I think it is artistic. I am an artist. It’s not so much about science, but about metaphysics and about what it does, what the artist’s function is.
You have to remember too that I met [painter, performance artist and creator of auto-destructive art] Gustav Metzger, whose most recent action was to boycott all art as being bourgeois. I am not proud of the fact that I’m an entertainer. I’m proud of the fact that I’m an artist. Any cunt can be an entertainer. I don’t hold it up particularly large, because when all I have to do is jump up and down, smash a guitar, play a few power chords and there it is, it’s done, it makes the audience look as though that’s all they really want.
What are your memories of the Young Vic performances?
There was no real experiment at the Young Vic. There was a set of warm-up shows forced on us by the artistic director who was panicking. The experiment was planned to happen later, after we had built up a local audience. The Young Vic experiments were abandoned because the money that had been promised me by Universal never materialised. So there was no point trying to go on with the experimental part of the project – that was meant to be a part of the bigger film.
I’m an artist. Any cunt can be an entertainer - Pete Townsend
Did things improve when you relocated to the Record Plant?
Kit Lambert finally reached out to me after the Young Vic sessions. I arrived in New York and I was really elated because I wanted Kit back. I really felt that I needed him as a creative mentor, and that I was getting lost and that something had fundamentally gone wrong and I’d mismanaged everything. Because I didn’t know that he had engineered this problem. And when I got there I found that he was far from being my friend. He’d set himself up as my enemy. He was calling me by my surname rather than my first name and it was very, very painful. And he was trying to produce two albums at once. He was trying to do a follow-up album to the first Labelle album, which had been a big success for him.
Producer Glyn Johns is reputed to have suggested abandoning the Lifehouse concept. Did he choose the next album?
Glyn didn’t ‘get’ Lifehouse, and was honest about that. I had already abandoned the Lifehouse concept, and Glyn and I were in complete agreement that he should choose the tracks and sequence the record. This was an important part of his genius as a producer. Who’s Next was a record. Lifehouse was a film. It was the film that was abandoned, not the music that was written for it. Glyn was masterful; this must be one of his best sonic recordings, along with Rough Mix for Ronnie Lane and I.
You’ve said before that you felt ‘relieved’ when the decision was made to abandon Lifehouse and put out a non-concept single album instead. Was it really that easy? Didn’t you agonise?
I think I meant I was relieved because by that time I was exhausted... I did not agonise. I simply took a breath, understood that yet again an ambitious concept had delivered me and The Who a bunch of radio hits, and thanked God for making me such an irritating genius. I was relieved I had the good sense, and valued my sanity enough, to give up being stubborn, and just enjoy the great recording we’d delivered.
Baba O’Riley features what we now consider to be archetypal Who power chords, which in a sense are beneath your abilities as a guitarist. Do you see yourself as a lead or a rhythm guitarist?
I am one guitarist in a band with no other guitarist. I am not a ‘shredder’, but I can play blues, a little jazz, some fast stuff. I use the guitar, rather than play it.
Famously, on this track Keith Moon was ‘constrained’ by having to play within the parameters set by your synth motif. Was it a good idea to try to channel a man whose chief musical attribute was his wildness?
He didn’t mind. Keith was brilliant at playing to complex backing tracks, because [he] was always a follower, rhythmically speaking, not a leader.
Bargain sounds like a love song, and yet it’s reputed to be about the spiritual leader Meher Baba.
The song is about the spiritual search, so it was written about my thing with Meher Baba, not about him. In Lifehouse it was a love song, but a love song about a higher love, a love between disciple and master.
It’s so beautiful in its acoustic arrangement that it’s difficult to believe that it started out as a hard rock song. Are you of the opinion that any song can have its nature changed so radically?
The Who have proved this again and again. A lot of my songs have been transformed – by our aggressive band treatment – from gentle ballads to edgy rock. It must be possible to do the reverse.
On Who’s Next we see the start of a problem that got incrementally worse on Who albums, namely the weirdness of the fact that Roger was singing lyrics of yours that were autobiographical (for example, Getting In Tune, with its talk of writing songs and sitting at a piano, neither of which Roger did then), and you sang Going Mobile, a song so general that really Roger should have sung it. Did this occur to you at the time?
All my songs come from me, and are thus autobiographical in some way. We divide songs for reasons other than personal ones – we might have technical reasons. Roger is perfectly comfortable telling part of my story, and I am happy to try to help him tell part of his.
It sounds to me like you are talking about something else, which is the failure of the albums that followed Who’s Next to reach its power. That might be because I became discouraged and stopped writing concept works for a while. I am best when I have an overall, constraining brief. I think the Who Are You album was pretty good, but it landed at an awkward time, right in the main first wave of great punk. By the time we hit Who By Numbers I was genuinely stunned by the songs Roger picked to sing from the set of 35 demos I presented – they were all about my darkest moments. He selected and gave me Blue, Red And Grey to sing – a song I hate singing because it’s so cheesily optimistic.
Is it true that Behind Blue Eyes was written because you were tempted by a groupie?
Never heard this. Maybe. I think the song was really written outside myself (for Brick, a character in the story), but of course it may well have some roots in how I felt about myself. I did not feel I looked like a good man who was really a bad man, or a man with beautiful eyes who was really ugly. That is what the song was about on the surface.
John Entwistle’s My Wife is a genuinely great track. How do you think John saw his role in the band? Was he happy having the token single track on an album?
John was not entirely happy with his role. He was a hugely talented writer and musician, and was frustrated with the way I ran The Who’s creative career. That’s why he toured so much on his own.
The exclusion from Who’s Next of Pure And Easy is bewildering. Not only because of its beauty, but also because it seems to contain the essence of the Lifehouse project. Did you baulk at excluding it?
I may have asked Glyn to try to include it, but it is a long song. Vinyl placed extreme time limits on loud rock. Strangely enough, when it became available later on my first solo outing, Who Came First, few fans made a real and useful connection that helped them understand the underlying experimental idea of Lifehouse. You’re right, it is pivotal. It is to Lifehouse what Amazing Journey was to Tommy. It is a lyrical summary of the entire underlying thesis.
Won’t Get Fooled Again might be from Lifehouse, but it has been interpreted as a disillusion with the counterculture of the 60s and their alleged failure to change the world.
It is, of course, meant to be taken that way. What you suggest is precisely what the song was meant to suggest. I never believed in the counterculture, I believed in congregation, dancing and music. In the film script the song was aimed at those characters in the story who had stopped trusting music to change the world.
There have been various bonus tracks in the shape of out-takes from the Record Plant sessions and the Olympic sessions, although, annoyingly, never all on the same CD. From the vaults, could you assemble a full, properly sequenced Lifehouse album from tracks laid down by The Who?
No. I approached this with my own solo project Lifehouse Chronicles. There are too many gaps. We gave up too soon.
How willing have you found Who fans to ‘look beyond’ Who’s Next and try to understand the ideas and story of Lifehouse?
A certain kind of Who fan has been very willing. What is interesting about this entire thing is that it could never have happened outside the rock business. In rock, people like me are allowed space to try all kinds of things. I am so pleased that in July I opened a website on which people can interface with some simple software and hear an authentic, truly reflective piece of music.
Whether this is a realisation of my original experiment, or something completely new, hardly matters. What matters is that I’ve helped to invent a new way to compose music. What may follow is that all the music – when combined – may create the ‘symphony’ I once hoped for, or what you predict could be a cacophony. I believe the outcome will reflect the state of the participants, not the state of the composer. Of course, if it’s a complete racket the participants will blame me. If it’s fabulous they will demand a piece of the royalties.