"It just felt like the one that got away. It felt to me like it was such a fantastic idea that just escaped me somehow." – Pete Townshend on the failed Lifehouse project, for the 1999 documentary on Who's Next in the Classic Albums series

"It's a magnificent piece of work, absolutely magnificent. It's our towering triumph." – Pete Townsend on Quadrophenia in the 2007 documentary Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who

In many respects, the two rock operas Pete Townshend wrote for The Who in the early 70s could hardly have been any different from each other. The first, Lifehouse, attempted to weave together ideas that still seem futuristic in the 21st century. The second, Quadrophenia, could in contrast have hardly been more down-to-earth, based as it was on The Who's own real-life coming-of-age experiences in mid 60s British mod culture. Lifehouse's concept and storyline was incomprehensible to virtually everyone except its creator; Quadrophenia's tale of a teenaged mod was a relatively straightforward narrative.

    Most crucially of all, Lifehouse never did get completed. Despite fitful attempts to revive it in the following decades, in the view of most observers, it's still unfinished. Quadrophenia was conceived, recorded, and released with relative speed and efficiency. Ironically, while Lifehouse would never be made into the film that Pete Townshend saw as a vital dimension to the multimedia production he envisioned, it would be Quadrophenia that would be made into an enduring cinema classic.

    The Who, of course, always thrived on contradictions in the decade after Keith Moon's 1964 recruitment into the lineup turned them from an exciting R&B club band into an unstoppable powerhouse. They were the band with the literally bloodiest internal fights, yet the one top British Invasion group to endure with the same lineup for nearly 15 years. They were the loudest, most exhibitionistic rockers on the planet, yet the band most dedicated to exploring the quirkiest, murkiest, and most philosophical and cerebral corners of the human psyche. For all their mastery of the power pop single, they were the most dedicated practitioners of the rock opera, and the musicians most determined to somehow make rock into a more intellectually highbrow art form. They were also the band with the loftiest aspirations for merging the lives of themselves and their audiences into one, Townshend in particular aiming for some sort of transcendent elevation of himself and his followers into a purer plane of existence, with rock music as the vehicle.

    Such grand ambitions, of course, are bound to fail at least some of the time. Indeed, much of what endears The Who to their audience are those very human failings – the public blow-ups, the celebrated onstage equipment screw-ups, the endless fountain of ideas too downright impractical to translate into flesh-and-blood reality. They reminded us that, for all their talent and charisma, The Who were very much flawed beings not so different from their listeners.

    Never were their genius and flaws so simultaneously evident as in Lifehouse. There have been numerous legendary opuses by major artists never finished as intended, including the Beach Boys' Smile, the Doors' 'Celebration of the Lizard' suite, the Beatles' Get Back, and whatever Jimi Hendrix's fourth studio album might have been called. But none is as tangled or complex as Lifehouse, though Smile and Get Back might give it a run for its money.

    In part that's because no project previously launched by a rock band was as complex as Lifehouse, a multimedia endeavor before its time. Not only was it a concept album/opera, but it was also a film, albeit one that wasn't even properly started, let alone completed. And not only would it be a record and a movie, it would also take shape as real-life concerts, some of which did take place, but without anything like the results for which Pete Townshend hoped. In hindsight, its failure seems almost inevitable, and to many fans (and even some fellow Who members), a blessing in disguise inasmuch as it did yield the material for Who's Next, their most popular album besides Tommy. In retrospect, Quadrophenia could be seen as a scaled-down exercise in relative sanity, even if was a double album with the kind of extravagant gatefold sleeve and picture booklet never seen these days.

    In some ways, however, Lifehouse and Quadrophenia aren't as different as they may seem. Both were group-executed extensions of Townshend's unmatched abilities as a rock'n'roll auteur, giving vent to his most personal (and sometimes even literally religious) fascinations with a power his home demos of the same songs couldn't hope to achieve. Both used cutting-edge recording technology, particularly in their use of synthesizers. While Quadrophenia wasn't nearly as ill-fated as Lifehouse, it too would be plagued by reality checks that kept it from ever being presented as the group intended, though these were for the most part confined to the stage rather than the studio. And in the minds of much of the public, Lifehouse and Quadrophenia would forever be linked together as attempts by The Who to follow up their first rock opera, the massive 1969 blockbuster Tommy, with a concept album of equal resonance. That was an order so tall that some commentators would find it doomed to failure – commercially and culturally, at least ¬– no matter what the brilliance of the music.

    For all the fame of Who's Next and Quadrophenia, and for all the interviews The Who (and Townshend in particular) have done in the past four decades, some aspects of The Who's peculiar early 70s journey remain surprisingly murky. In part that's because Townshend's interviews, though a goldmine of information in many ways – especially as no rock superstar, at any time, seemed to give as many interviews or write as many letters and articles for the music press as Pete did at the beginning of the 70s – are in some senses false trails. For Townshend, though for the most part as enthusiastic and articulate an interviewee as any in rock, has flip-flopped his opinions on innumerable occasions – not least in his estimation of work that most regard as masterpieces. Sometimes it seems, for instance, that his regard for 'Won't Get Fooled Again' depended on what day he was asked and what mood he was in, such was his vacillation between pride and embarrassment.

    Whatever the creators think of these projects nearly four decades later – and however rocky their road to realization – the quality of most of the music The Who made during this period is undisputed. From Lifehouse to Quadrophenia: The Who in the Early 1970s is the story of that era, which saw the band log both some of rock's most spectacular failures and some of its most enduring songs and records.  

The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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