Pete Townshend's Operatic Highs... And Lows

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Won't Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia
By Richie Unterberger
Jawbone Press, 300 pp., $19.95

Following the release of The Who's ambitious rock opera, Tommy, Pete Townshend was faced with the inevitable question of any band cresting on a massive success: What's next? As ambitious, erudite and visionary a performer as any in rock (or any other genre), he began formulating concept for another epic tale, this one to encompass a record, a film and live performance, called Lifehouse.

He began talking up the piece - yet to be written - in a flurry of interviews from the most esteemed of music journals to seemingly local weekly shoppers. The vaguely sci-fi concept and storyline - which seemed to shift daily - dealt with gurus, a runaway daughter, the current state of rock, and the connection became human existence and music via something called a "one pure note" which could deliver listeners to ecstasy.

The problem was, the only person who seemed to understand Lifehouse was Pete Townsend - and even he wasn't so sure. Four decades later, he's still not.

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Unterberger's book - very detailed and not for the casual Who fan - chronicles how the aborted piece eventually led to what many believe was the band's greatest record and a classic-rock cannon - Who's Next, which included many songs originally slated for Lifehouse ("Won't Get Fooled Again," "Baba O'Riley," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Bargain," "Going Mobile").

After the collapse of Lifehouse, Unterberger tells how the band embarked on...another rock opera..., which became the well-received Quadrophenia. A nostalgic (though not warm) revisit to both the band's past and the culture of Mods, its young protagonist, Jimmy (meant to exhibit four distinct characteristics of the real-life Who members), stumbles through trying to bridge between youth and adulthood.

That album spawned familiar numbers "The Real Me," "5.15," and "Love Reign O'er Me," but the ensuing U.S. concert tour played to audiences not familiar yet with either the record of the concept of the Mod subculture, as well as the band's own trouble melding pre-recorded music with live performance, was hit and miss. A better effort of telling the story was the atmospheric 1979 film adaptation, wholly different from bombastic cinematic take on Tommy.

And though Townsend has consistently revisited and rethought the idea of Lifehouse - including issuing a limited edition 6-CD and 2-CD set of demos, playing concerts, adapting it into a radio play, and even offering online software where people could created a musical "portrait" - it remains for all intents and purposes unfinished as a whole and one of rock's great "what if" questions.

But hey, if Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys could eventually complete and release Smile...

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Silas Stingy
Silas Stingy

Townshend actually completed Lifehouse in 2000 in a few forms: As a BBC Radio play and as a strictly musical presentation that spanned two CDs which included reworkings of some familiar material alongside new material and fleshed out demos from the 70s. He also staged a couple of concerts at Sadler's Wells Theatre to present the completed music for Lifehouse with a full band and the London Chamber Orchestra. That concert, as well as all the productions I mentioned, were released on CD through Townshend's website in 2000.

Andy DiGelsomina
Andy DiGelsomina

The book is terrific, especially if you're into both Who's Next and Quadrophenia, or at the least a devoted Who fan. It goes into fascinating detail in regard to Pete's mindset during this period, and taught me a lot personally about the Lifehouse project, which before this was for me a baffling mystery.

The scope of the Lifehouse project is stunning, especially considering how prophetic its grid concept was of the internet.

Corgi C
Corgi C

Maybe after all this time, its just best to say "what if". It's like the Stones re-recording some bits for the extra stuff from "Exile" and "Some Girls". Great stuff, but Jagger in the 2000's aint Jagger in 71/72 or 77/78 (and it shows). I'm happy with the expanded "Who's Next" that came out ages ago. What was...was.

Bob Ruggiero
Bob Ruggiero

Hi Silas - I do mention many of those aspects of "Lifehouse" forms in the review, but the 2000-completed "Lifehouse" also included, as you say, other material picked up in the ensuing decades and even aspects, I believe, of his "Psychoderelict" piece with Ray High. Splitting hairs, I know, but I would have loved to have heard what a early '70s version would have sounded like without the retinkering and revisiting. 

Matt Benzing
Matt Benzing

 I've listened to the 2000 version and its interesting, but no, I don't believe that this is what the 70s version would have been like. Plus the 70s version would have been The Who as a whole, while the 2000 version sounded a lot like Pete's Scoop material; valuable stuff, but just not Who caliber.

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