In 1969 The Who had finally broken as a big act with the “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb and blind boy named Tommy. Tommy’s success created a problem for the band – what to do next? Until Pete Townshend [hereafter referred to in this piece as “PT”] could find inspiration for a Tommy follow-up, the band released Live at Leeds. Then PT got an idea – an idea that today, 40 years later, is still hard to explain. PT’s idea was called Lifehouse.
“How could I make my subject of this new piece, this Lifehouse piece? I want the story to be about music, I want it to be about the future, I want it to be about hope and vision, but it’s got to be rooted in reality…how could I make my character effectively deaf, dumb and blind without doing it again? I’ll make him live in the future, and I’ll put him in a suit. And he’ll be in the suit and he won’t live “real life,” he’ll live “pretend life,” he’ll live “spoon-fed life,” he’ll live “couch potato life,” he’ll live the life that filmmakers, storytellers, advertisers, political manipulators and brainwashers want him to live. And thus he’ll be effectively deaf, dumb and blind to his spiritual potential, which is his freedom to congregate with other human beings, interact with other human beings and live what we now call life.”
The reason people had to live in the suits [the “Lifesuits”] was because the environment had become so polluted the people needed the suits to survive. The suits were connected to “The Grid,” which is similar to today’s Internet. In this dystopia, rock and roll didn’t exist. But a guru [like PT’s own spiritual avatar, Meher Baba] emerged to tell the people of rock and roll. He told of how people could reach a certain Nirvana by listening to it. And there was a guy named Bobby who hacked The Grid and advertised to all who wore suits about a rock concert where all the concertgoers can have all their personal information programmed into a computer. Each individual’s information then created their own personal song. As the band [The Who] is playing, everybody’s individual songs also get played by the computer simultaneously, and in one magical moment everybody’s songs combined to make that “one note,” what PT would call a “celestial cacophony.” Once that “one note” was struck, all the participants would disappear into Nirvana. The concert would be broadcast like pirate radio to those who wore the Lifesuits, and they too would achieve the musical Nirvana. Got all that? The group didn’t get it – not many people did. Roger Daltrey picked up on one of Pete’s ideas, that being if you were going to find the meaning of life it would be a musical note. The story of Lifehouse was told in the song Pure and Easy – “There once was a note pure and easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by. The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me, Forever we blend and forever we die.”
Baba O’Riley – This is one of the best opening songs on any album by any recording act. Few if any are better. Carol and I have a running argument on the best Who song ever – she thinks it’s Baba O’Riley, while I think it’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. From the opening notes of the synthesizer you know that this is going to be a much different Who album than anything that came before it. As part of the Lifehouse story, it’s sung by Ray, who wants to take his wife Sally and the kids and head south from London to Scotland [to “travel south cross land”]. Ray and his family make their living growing produce for the urban areas of the UK that are still polluted [Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals, I get my back into my living…]. This song shares a lot with the song Teenage Wasteland, hitherto unreleased by The Who but is part of PT’s DVD Music From Lifehouse. The song itself was a nine-minute synthesizer demo. PT originally wanted to input information of Meher Baba’s life into a synthesizer. PT had come up with the idea that one could have all the facts and figures of one’s life fed into a computer to generate a person’s unique personal “song.” This is what he calls “the Lifehouse Method.” PT revisited that theme on the song Fragments on the Endless Wire album . PT took his inspiration for this piece from minimalist composer Terry Riley. His name and that of Meher Baba are the origins of Baba O’Riley’s name, a tribute to both from PT.
Bargain – This is the most spiritual song on Who’s Next. I’m not sure where it fits into the Lifehouse narrative. This is Pete Townshend’s song of devotion to Meher Baba, the one for whom he’s gladly give up everything to find and to be with. To me, the song works within or outside the Lifehouse story. It can stand alone and the message will work just as well. PT’s acoustic guitar, sometimes heard alone on the song, sounds like it could through wheat like a reaper’s scythe. PT’s electric solo is probably one of his most angry ever captured on tape. He sounds angry, but he’s in control.
Love Ain’t For Keeping – This song is Who’s Next only bum note. It’s under three minutes long, has no synthesizers, and is dominated by PT’s acoustic guitars. It’s happy, it’s cheerful, but to my ears it’s also a throwaway. The themes are living in the moment, share love instead of keep it. I always hit the “skip” button here so I can get to My Wife.
My Wife – The only song on Who’s Next not written by Pete Townshend is this gem from John Entwistle. The Ox said this was a leftover from his solo album Smash Your Head Against the Wall. It was not a part of the Lifehouse story. The Ox sings lead, plays the bass, piano, and all the horns. My Wife became John Entwistle’s on-stage vehicle, a prime example of which can be found on the soundtrack album The Kids Are Alright. On stage, there were no horns, The Ox’s bass was much more prominent, and it allowed extended soloing from PT. Like most of John Entwistle’s work, the lyrics of My Wife are devilishly funny. His wife must have been a force to be reckoned with when she got angry. In the song, our hero has had too much to drink and got arrested [“I picked the wrong precinct, got picked up by the law and now I ain’t got time to think...”]. Of course his wife doesn’t know that – she might think something else is going on with another lady. He’s going to have to buy all kinds of weapons [tanks, airplanes], hire body guards and go on the run if she even thinks he’s been with another woman.
The Song Is Over – In the Lifehouse narrative, this was to be the last song. The Lifehouse concert has happened, the “One Note” has been struck, and all the participants, plus those who tuned in while wearing their Lifesuits, have disappeared and achieved Nirvana. PT and Roger Daltrey alternate the vocals, Nicky Hopkins plays the piano. The last line quotes the song PT was central to the story, Pure and Easy [“Sent him one note, Pure and Easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by…”].
Getting In Tune – This is a song about the power of music, something that is at the core of the whole Lifehouse story. But who is Pete Townshend tuning in to? Meher Baba? A woman? I haven’t any idea the object of the tuning.
Going Mobile – This is sung from the point of view of Ray. He doesn’t care about pollution because he lives outside of London. He and wife Sally decide to pack up their air-conditioned motor home [“I don’t care about pollution, I’m an air-conditioned gypsy…”] and travel to London to go look for their daughter Mary, who has headed that way to participate in the Lifehouse event. The Who recorded this as a trio, live in the studio. The only overdub was PT’s guitar fed through an envelope follower that gave it a wah-wah effect but fuzzy. I always thought it was kind of a goofy song but at least it sounds like PT is having fun for once.
Behind Blue Eyes – This is sung from the point of view of the villain in the Lifehouse story, a guy named Jumbo. He’s the “bad man” in the song who operates The Grid, who wants to stop the Lifehouse event from happening. Pete Townshend once said he wrote this song to illustrate how lonely it is to be powerful. Up to this point it was unheard of for a Who song to have Keith Moon silent for over a minute. The instrumentation is just PT’s acoustic guitar and The Ox’s understated bass. PT and The Ox provides Beatlesque harmony vocals until Moonie makes his entrance at the 2:18 mark.
Won’t Get Fooled Again - Is THIS the best Who song ever? I think it is, but others [including my wife Carol] will disagree. The live performance of this song as captured on The Kids Are Alright soundtrack is what got me hooked on The Who in the first place. The words “Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss” suggest that revolutions can and do have unintended consequences. As fate would have it, WGFA was the last song from the original band to be played live. Keith Moon died four months after the video below was filmed for The Kids Are Alright.
Lifehouse was originally going to be a double album. But when it turned out the only person on the planet who understood the concept was Pete Townshend, the band scaled down the ambitious project. Glyn Johns was convinced the songs were strong enough to stand on their own outside the context of the Lifehouse story; he was right. So with that, Lifehouse the double album became Who’s Next the single, nine-song album. Three extremely good songs got left off Who’s Next as a result – Pure and Easy, Let’s See Action, and I Don’t Even Know Myself. I would replace Going Mobile and Love Ain’t For Keeping with them, but that is just Monday morning quarterbacking. As time marched on, PT didn’t give up on the Lifehouse concept. The Who continued to record more songs that fit in the story. These include Join Together, The Relay, Put the Money Down, Too Much of Anything, and Slip Kid – just to name a few. The main character of Lifehouse, Ray High, resurfaced on PT’s Psychoderelict and The Who’s Endless Wire. A few years ago PT put together a six-CD package of Lifehouse material titled The Lifehouse Chronicles. Two CDs are PT’s Lifehouse demos, one is called Lifehouse Themes and Experiments, one is Lifehouse Arrangements and Orchestrations, and the final two CDs contain the BBC Radio 3 radio play of Lifehouse. I’d like to own it but I think I’d need a second mortgage to pay for it. So until that happens, I’ll have to enjoy Who’s Next and all the bits of Lifehouse that I can round up from all my sources.