The Blocked Road to the Who’s Lifehouse

Between 1969’s Tommy and 1973’s Quadrophenia, the Who recorded a wealth of material, though they released only one full-length album in those four years, 1971’s Who’s Next. The new eleven-disc box Who’s Next/Life House has most of the material (though not Live at Leeds or recordings related to that album). That includes the original Who’s Next album; numerous 1970-72 non-LP singles; a wealth of demos for the Tommy follow-up Pete Townshend originally envisioned, Life House (or Lifehouse, as it’s sometimes spelled); plenty of early ‘70s studio outtakes; and four CDs of live 1971 recordings. There’s also a big hardback book of liner notes, along with a less essential hardback graphic novel based on Lifehouse and some pieces of memorabilia.

This isn’t a review of the box, which will come as part of my year-end overview of 2023 reissues. Instead, these are some thoughts as to why Lifehouse (I’ll stick with the one-word spelling) wasn’t completed. I offered a lot of these in my 2011 book Won’t Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia, and this is a condensation of what I see as the primary reasons. That book is out of print, and especially as the liner notes to the new box clarify some of the background information and sequence of events, if any publishers want to issue an updated version, they’re welcome to contact me.

Lifehouse is one of the most well known ambitious rock albums that failed to get finished, or at least finished as intended, along with the Beach Boys’ Smile, the Beatles Get Back, and whatever studio album Jimi Hendrix might have polished off in 1970. Lewis Shiner wrote a good science fiction novel about a rock fanatic who goes back in time to help those artists complete those records, albeit with mixed results, in his 1993 book Glimpses. Should fans fantasize about trying such a feat with other unfinished potential masterpieces, Lifehouse would be on many lists. So would changing the trajectories of other careers. For the Velvet Underground, for instance, it would be good to go back in time and arrange for them to actually have good quality film footage of some of their performances, and perhaps for their 1969 studio outtakes to get released as an album at the time instead of surfacing on archival compilations many years later.

The story that would have been the basis of a Lifehouse opera/film/concept album of some sort is complicated—one of the key reasons it wasn’t made. The plot isn’t really possible to explain in a paragraph, in part because its chief architect, Pete Townshend, sometimes explained it in different ways. Basically, it would have taken place in a dystopian future where the world was so polluted that most of the population had to live inside suits protecting them from the environment. A totalitarian government would have kept them mollified by transmitting entertainment and experiences to them, a concept often now hailed as anticipating the Internet. Rebels would have lived outdoors and outside this system, and organized a rock concert in opposition to the suffocating lifestyle imposed on them by authorities. Performers—the Who, namely—and the audience at the concert would have transcended attempts to suppress this expression by merging as one and elevating to a higher plane of existence.

As I see it, there were three primary obstacles to Lifehouse getting finished, and possibly even getting much off the ground:

1. By trying to make a film of Lifehouse at the same time as the album—and also playing live concerts that they, and especially Townshend, hoped to generate material for both the music and the movie—the Who were taking on way more than they could chew at once.

There are some similarities here to another project mentioned above, the Beatles’ Get Back. The Beatles were hoping, with considerably widely varying degrees of commitment and enthusiasm, in January 1969 to write/gather material for a new album; return to live performance with at least a concert or two; have the concert feature the new material; make a concert recording of that new material their next album; film that concert or concerts to make that footage the basis of a rockumentary; and also film a lot of the rehearsal/recording of that material in a film and/or recording studio as the album/concert was being prepared.

Not too much of this actually came to fruition. They played live, but only as an impromptu concert on the roof of Apple Records that could be seen by few people, and was done primarily for the film cameras. The film project became the Let It Be movie, a blend of the rehearsals/studio recordings and rooftop concert that, maybe inadvertently, also revealed tensions within a group on the verge of splitting up—and didn’t come out until more than a year later, right after the group had split up. The Get Back album mutated into the Let It Be LP, a mixture of studio work, live recordings, and a bit of improvised tomfoolery that didn’t really satisfy any of the Beatles’ initial ambitions. 

Worst of all, the whole endeavor played a crucial part in ending the Beatles, though it took about fifteen months to play out. George Harrison quit about ten days into January 1969, although he was coaxed back to play out the remainder of what the Get Back project was turning into. When Phil Spector did controversial post-production in early 1970 for the Let It Be album, most of which was based around their 1969 recordings for an intended Get Back LP, the results formed the final straw that led Paul McCartney to quit and the band to break up for real. It wasn’t just Paul who split the group; Ringo Starr had briefly quit in summer 1968, Harrison had left for a few days in January 1969, and John Lennon had at least told the others of his intention to leave back in September 1969, without making public announcements.

Lifehouse didn’t split up the Who, but in some ways it didn’t even get as far as Get Back in terms of eventual results. There was no Lifehouse film—in fact, no filming was done at all, then or since. There were concerts at London’s Young Vic theater intended to generate audience/performer interaction that would have produced more material for both the album and movie. But apparently it virtually immediately became evident that nothing of the sort would take place, with an audience who wanted familiar songs to experience in a fairly standard concert situation, to which the Who largely reverted.

And the Lifehouse album evolved into—possibly, in Townshend’s perspective, was diluted into—Who’s NextLifehouse probably would have, like Tommy and Quadrophenia, filled up a double album; Who’s Next was a single disc. Who’s Next wasn’t linked by a story or concept. Unlike Let It Be, it was a huge critical success, and consistent in the tone of the production and arrangements. It was also a big commercial success. But Pete Townshend nonetheless didn’t seem as happy as he might have been about any of this, owing to the abandonment of his Lifehouse plan.

What would my advice have been to Townshend and the Who? First, it should be noted that had I been around and offered my suggestions, or even if I could travel back in time and do so, my guess is that my beliefs would have been laughed at or ignored. That’s true of all three issues I’m detailing in this post. It’s one thing to look back with many years’ hindsight; it’s another to try and interfere with grandiose notions at the time they’re being launched and debated, by musicians with very strong opinions and, at least some of the time, likely big egos.

That acknowledged, my feeling is when you come down to it, if your primary talent is musical, multimedia projects need music at the core, and need the music to be done first. Maybe it’s not as simplistic as the Field of Dreams cliché “build it and they will come,” but the most important thing is to have the songs, and hopefully in a good recorded state. If it’s meant to be a multimedia endeavor, the rest won’t necessarily follow, but at least it can follow. That’s sort of what did happen with great success with Quadrophenia, on which a great movie was based, though it took quite a while (about a half dozen years) after the album’s release to reach the screen, and without nearly as much direct involvement from the Who as Pete Townshend hoped Lifehouse to have.

So my advice to Pete and the Who would have been: get the album done first. Discard the audience-feedback idea, which probably everyone but Townshend would have conceded was unlikely to work. Then and only then, address the much more complicated, and costly, task of making it a movie, and possibly then the yet more complex process of perhaps making it an evolving project with audience participation. This still might not have resulted in a movie or anything else in other media. But it would have increased the chances of that happening, and also maybe the chances of there being a thematically linked Lifehouse double LP instead of the single non-concept disc Who’s Next.

Incidentally, I would have given the same advice to the Beatles: focus on getting a Get Back album done, maybe live-in-the-studio if you want that feel, and not complicating the matter by trying to make the new material a concert album – especially because George Harrison wasn’t enthusiastic about performing an official concert in the first place, though he might have been clearer about articulating this to the others before briefly quitting. Maybe abandon the film idea altogether, or at least reduce it to a concert documentary if George and everyone can agree on playing a live show or two after the album’s done (a remote possibility, considering the differing opinions and arguments about where to even do a concert). Such intervention wouldn’t have had wholly positive effects. If all this advice had been taken and no filming of the rehearsals/studio recordings done, we wouldn’t have Let It Be and Peter Jackson’s Get Back, which are of enormous value in documenting the music and internal state of the Beatles at the time.

And some similar advice to Brian Wilson and Jimi Hendrix: get a track list or two together and pick the best versions you have to get on the road to getting a finished album together, instead of perpetually recording and re-recording in a quest for perfection. Far easier said than done, I know, especially considering how much pressure they (and the Who and the Beatles) were under from multiple directions to churn out product instead of taking their work into new, risky, and expensive territory.

Just to keep us on our toes, by the way, Townshend—not one to consistently offer the same assessments of his work—had a cheery perspective on how Who’s Next came out in the November 2023 issue of Record Collector. “The success of the album—oh fuck, it was just great,” he said. “Prior to that, the Who were considered to be a bit of a joke by most musos. Tommy, as a rock opera, was not considered to be as important as, say, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album, the Band, or what the Beatles were up to.

“I knew that the music was gonna be among the best that I’ve ever produced. What actually happened was that Glyn put together an album, which was very, very workmanlike, beautifully recorded. He honored my demos, he took the good bits and ignored the bad bits—not the bad bits, but the unnecessary bits. I was immensely proud of the fact that, at last, we’d made a record that felt like a good music record…suddenly the music buffs were taking notice.”

2. If Lifehouse should be a double album, take some more time to make the songwriting of a more consistent standard, and/or provide brief link tracks of sorts that both make the story clearer and move it along, as was done in Tommy.

A good number of Who fans and associates feel that the Lifehouse project was too complicated and taking on too much at once. Lots of people felt Lifehouse was just too hard to understand or incomprehensible, which will be addressed by the third and final of this post’s points. It’s far less often postulated that most of the songs known to have been intended or at least considered for Lifehouse that weren’t used simply weren’t as good as the ones that ended up on Who’s Next. Of the twenty-to-twenty-five or so songs likely in the Lifehouse pool, there’s a considerable gap in quality between the best half of those and the lesser half. That’s not something I would say of Tommy and Quadrophenia. And on those albums (much more so on Tommy than Quadrophenia), the lesser songs performed a much greater function in explicating the story and moving it along than the lesser songs likely to end up on Lifehouse would have.

Many of what I’d consider the lesser songs are on the new box in some form, and most of them saw release by the mid-‘70s on singles, B-sides, Pete Townshend’s 1972 solo debut LP Who Came First, or the outtakes/rarities compilation Odds & Sods. Leftovers from the Lifehouse era comprise a fairly long list, though among the more notable are “Pure and  Easy,” a snatch of which was heard in the Who’s Next track “The Song Is Over”; “Naked Eye”; “I Don’t Even Know Myself,” the B-side of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; “Time Is Passing,” which like “Pure and Easy” and the non-LP 1971 Who single “Let’s See Action” would also be among the songs found on Who Came First; the folky “Mary,” which like “Time Is Passing” and some Townshend solo demos of more familiar Who’s Next songs were bootlegged by 1973 under the title The Genius of Peter Townshend; and “Water,” which wouldn’t show up until a 1973 B-side. It should be noted that not all of these would have shown up on Lifehouse and some might not have been targeted toward Lifehouse at all, especially the ones that ended up on non-LP singles.

But with some exceptions—and I know some other fans’ assessments can be much different, even violently so—I don’t find most of these on the same level as what was chosen for Who’s Next. The obvious greatest exception is “Pure and Easy,” which not only was up to that level, but was absolutely essential to Lifehouse’s storyline, or at least what plot most people aside from Pete Townshend could grasp. “Mary” too is very good, if not as conducive for a full band arrangement as the Who’s Next material. “Time Is Passing” is both good enough to have merited consideration for a single-disc condensation of the Lifehouse candidates and one that fit into the Lifehouse plot, albeit again in a way that most people other than Townshend could only tentatively understand.

In another controversial evaluation, it could be said that some of the secondary Lifehouse-era compositions were rather too similar to some of the better Who’s Next selections to have stood out too much in that company. I would put “Naked Eye,” “I Don’t Even Know Myself,” and “Too Much of Anything” in that category. As for “Water,” the lyrical boast—even if Roger Daltrey was just voicing a character—of needing water and somebody’s daughter has not dated well. The three most obscure demos that are on the new box—”Greyhound Girl” (a song which did find its way onto a Pete Townshend B-side in 1980), “There’s a Fortune in Those Hills” (unissued until it appeared on the 45th anniversary edition of Pete Townshend’s solo album  Who Came First , though it was played to Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Cott in 1970), and “Finally Over” (previously uncirculated to my knowledge)—are the most unmemorable tunes of all from the batch.

My quite possibly unwelcome advice, had I been there, would have been: to Townshend in particular, spend more time writing some better songs that could fill out a really strong double LP, possibly with some attention to tunes that could make the plot easier to follow. Get some help from John Entwistle, or even Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon, if they can come up with anything that might add some variety with reasonable quality. Entwistle, after all, wrote the pieces on Tommy (“Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About”) going into areas of family abuse that Townshend was not as comfortable penning. Moon had come up with the idea for “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” even if it was later disclosed that Townshend actually wrote the song, though the Tommy track bore a Keith Moon songwriting credit. Daltrey had written a reasonably decent 1970 B-side, the folk-rockish “Here for More,” and while that wouldn’t have had an obvious place in Lifehouse, maybe some encouragement would have gotten him to at least try to come up with a Lifehouse song of acceptable caliber.

Even in the unlikely case the Who would have seriously considered such feedback, there was another consideration that would have made it difficult. Writing more material, whether all by Townshend or with some help (Entwistle being by far the most likely to come up with something of use), would have taken more time. Time doesn’t seem to have been something that any of the four wanted to spend if it meant delaying an album or, maybe more crucially, tours showcasing new material.

While it had been “only” two years since the Who’s last studio album, Tommy, that was a big gap in the early 1970s—much more of a gap in the eyes of record buyers and the business for a big act than it is today, or even than it would be by the end of the 1970s. The Who—especially if you weren’t Pete Townshend, who had more songwriting royalties—depended on touring for a large part of their income, with sheer desire to play live perhaps an even greater reason they wouldn’t have wanted to take too much time off the road. And remember the Who had only been superstars for two years, since Tommy’s release, with a lot of debts, expenses, and scrambled business affairs that sucked up revenue from TommyLive at Leeds, and touring in 1969 and 1970. Taking much more time for songwriting, which would have been largely viewed as inactivity by the public, might have been perceived as endangering their grip on their newly acquired superstar status.

As is very well known, the Who—nudged by associate producer Glyn Johns, after he got involved with the sessions—decided to cut down the options to a single-disc LP without a concept. Had I been there, I would have offered another likely unwelcome suggestion: to take out Entwistle’s “My Wife” and replace it with “Pure and Easy.” It’s not a popular position with many Who fans, but I’ve both never liked “My Wife” much and also felt it doesn’t fit with the vibe of the rest of the record. In the small sample of asking people I know over the years, “My Wife” doesn’t seem to be too well loved by many of them either, though that’s probably not the overall consensus, given that John Swenson wrote in the original Rolling Stone Record Guide that it’s Entwistle’s “best song and a lot of people’s favorite track on the record.”

Taking “My Wife” off Who’s Next would have likely created some tensions in the band. Entwistle would have lost significant royalties and also suffered a blow to his pride, even if it had been used as a B-side in compensation, like a couple of his other songs (“Heaven and Hell” and “When I Was a Boy”) were in the early ‘70s. As for the option of adding a couple of the better, more subdued Lifehouse leftovers to the running order—“Time Is Passing” and especially “Mary”—that was theoretically possible, but very unlikely given the limitations of 1971 LP technology. Sound quality could suffer when there was more than forty minutes of music on one piece of long-playing vinyl, and Who’s Next ran 43 and a half minutes as it was.

3. No one really understood the Lifehouse story, and Pete Townshend didn’t articulate it well in whatever blueprints he made.

This is easily the most well known of the three obstacles to Lifehouse’s completion highlighted in this post. As his longtime friend and frequent sounding board Richard Barnes wittily put it in the DVD The Who, The Mods, and the Quadrophenia Connection, “There were two groups: people that understood Lifehouse, and people who didn’t. The people who understood Lifehouse included one, Pete Townshend. The people who didn’t was everybody else he ever tried to explain it to, and the whole rest of the human race, which was about four billion at the time.”

Elaborated Barnes when I interviewed him for my book, “Pete kind of tied himself in knots, particularly in Lifehouse, with the sort of rigid format that he set for himself. When I was writing my book [the 1982 biography The Who: Maximum R&B], I think he gave me a whole load of stuff on Lifehouse. I started to read to try and make sense of it, and thought, ‘No, I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown,’ like everybody else.”

Some of Townshend’s comments about the inability of everyone— even his closest associates—to get their heads around what he had in mind seem disingenuous and maybe even a bit cruel. “I was at my most brilliant and I was at my most effective and when people say I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about what they’re actually doing is revealing their own complete idiocy, because the idea was SO FUCKING SIMPLE! It’s not complicated,” is an outburst quoted in the liner notes to the box. In his memoir, he wrote that it was like “trying to explain atomic energy to a group of cavemen.”

Maybe such comments come off more harshly than Townshend intended or ever believed, but they can be interpreted as insulting to the intelligence of some of his best friends and collaborators. Richard Barnes is not an idiot; he wrote one of the better books about the Who, went to art school with Townshend, helped come up with the name the Who, and remained a trusted friend of Pete’s for many years. Townshend wouldn’t have hung out for so long with someone who wasn’t smart, and wasn’t smart enough to comprehend a concept that was reasonably workable. 

The other guys in the Who might not have been as cerebral as Townshend; few rock musicians were. But they weren’t idiots, either, and were quite willing to support Pete as much as they could for Lifehouse‑within reasonable limits. Daltrey’s sometimes been criticized as someone whose insistence on mundane practical realities got in the way of Lifehouse, but that very pragmatism could be an asset. He got to the heart of the matter in a way that could have been the foundation for a real-world Lifehouse by zeroing in on its most comprehensible and vital central theme.

As he stated in a radio special for the thirtieth anniversary of Who’s Next, and has also stated in a similar way elsewhere, Townshend’s “idea of the piece initially came from one sentence that he came out with, ‘if we ever found the root of all life or the basis of all life, it would probably be a musical note.’ Now that in itself is wonderful, just a great basis for a story.” Perhaps simplifying the story to emphasize the concept the primary singer firmly grokked would have been an avenue to Lifehouse’s completion.

If Townshend’s explanation of the plot to Sounds was any indication of how he tried to transmit it to the Who and others (like their managers and film studios who were interested in financing a Lifehouse movie), there seems no mystery about why they would have been baffled. “Rather than get into another fantasy thing like Tommy I’ve decided to make every area as practical as possible,” he told the magazine.

What he proceeded to lay out seemed like the antithesis of “practical as possible”: “So I’ve been working on a piece of music that goes from the first single note—oneness—then it divides into twoness and then threeness then it’s rock music. Then it wasn’t to be oneness again. From there we go to people. We’re the notes, we’re the divisions, we’re the spearheads—the highest form of intelligence—and we’re the people that have got the problem.”

Townshend did describe some more nuts-and-bolts aspects of the story in Sounds, but the passage above still reads like it needs a translator into something that can actually be understood. It wasn’t the only instance in which his explanations to print media were difficult to fathom. When that many people can’t make sense of an idea, and when very few if any can make sense of it aside from the originator, it might just have something to do with the idea itself, or at least how it is being explained and articulated.

Also odd was Townshend’s division of Lifehouse into two “barrels.” As he explained it to Sounds, “One barrel is fiction in the way Tommy was fiction. It has music, a story, adventures in it. On the other side is the story about man’s search for harmony and the way he does it is through music. Through going into this theatre and setting up certain experiments.” The quirky use of the term “barrels” wasn’t limited to this interview. It crops up several times in the box’s liner notes’ account of how Townshend tried to explain, script, and pitch the project.

Even within the liner notes, the “barrels” are sometimes described differently. After reading it a few times, the best I can summarize it is that one barrel would have been the main story of Lifehouse, and the other how the story and music would have been shaped to some degree by interaction between the Who and their audience. Maybe it’s a testament to the limits of my own capabilities, but I’m not entirely sure of what was in the barrels, how they would have interacted, how they could have blended into a coherent film (or, possibly, even a coherent album), and why they were even being referred to as barrels at all. I think this confusion would have been shared by quite a few people with whom Townshend would have to work on Lifehouse, and certainly by journalists he was explaining it to, and readers of those explanations.

An intriguing disclosure in the liner notes to the new box states that as the Who got ready to work with Glyn Johns on an album (and not film) that could come out of all this, Pete “envisioned a double album where the sleeve would give him an opportunity to include text about Life House (sic) where he could explain the idea.” This is pretty much what he did within the gatefold sleeve of the 1973 double-album Who rock opera Quadrophenia, in the shape of a very short story that nonetheless explained the plot and scenario in a pretty succinct and accessible manner.

This was amplified by the booklet of photos bound into the gatefold, which almost seemed like stills from an actual movie, though the Quadrophenia film wouldn’t be made until the end of the 1970s. Had Townshend and the Who scaled down Lifehouse in a similar manner, maybe we could have had a strong double album with a theme—perhaps simplified from Pete’s grandest ambitions—that could have then been developed into a movie, as Quadrophenia was.

A key difference is that while Lifehouse was something of a science fiction story that would have been hard to film in the 1970s, with a plot still challenging to follow if it was only in LP form, Quadrophenia was very much based on the real-life experiences of the Who and their fans in the mid-1960s. That itself made it more conducive to generating a story that could be reasonably straightforward to follow, and eventually developed into a film. And, perhaps, something ultimately more universally appreciated and understood than what Lifehouse ever could have been, as much as Townshend wanted it to address universal concepts in life, music, and transcendence into a higher state of existence.