Pete Townshend – “Lifehouse Chronicles” (2000)

February 15, 2010 at 11:50 pm (Music, Pete Townshend, Reviews & Articles)

Thom Jurek’s 2000 review from the All Music Guide website for Pete Townshend’s massive box set devoted to his Lifehouse project. This set is an absolute must for all devotees of Townshend and the songs that made it on to The Who’s classic 1971 album Who’s Next


Everybody who hasn’t been sleeping under an umbrella on some beach in the Greek Islands or on some rock off the coast of New Zealand has heard by now of the Lifehouse Chronicles. Lifehouse was a rock opera Pete Townshend worked on feverishly and then abandoned — due to outside tinkering and betrayal — between the issues of Tommy and Quadrophenia. According to legend, Townshend couldn’t get anybody interested in his allegedly disjointed ideas. The truth was all wrapped up in music and film-biz politics. Townshend’s Lifehouse was to be a rock opera all right, but it was to be a musical for screen with footage of the Who performing the story’s soundtrack. This desire of Townshend’s to move into film had a practical purpose: in part, it was to get the Who off the endless slogging of the road for sometimes years at a time. It was also Townshend attempting to move himself into other areas like fiction and theater and away from the constrictions placed on him as a “rock musician.” This contradicted the ambitions of the Who’s then-manager Kit Lambert, who wanted to make a film of Tommy by any means necessary — even without the approval and participation of Townshend — as his first feature, a project Townshend wanted nothing to do with. In short, according to Townshend, who had made contact with Universal about Lifehouse, Lambert made his own film, the disastrous Tommy by derailing the Lifehouse project using his influence with people at the band’s label and elsewhere by telling them the entire thing was too big and unruly for pop music, that Lifehouse was unworkable. The project was abandoned, but never let go of. The Who recorded a number of the songs for Lifehouse, produced by Glyn Johns, who talked them out of a concept album and into a strong pop album. Those sessions, minus the classic “Pure and Easy” also recorded then, resulted in the record Who’s Next.

Townshend eventually became obsessed with telling the story of his greatest failure, the same great failure that gave us Who’s Next, “Pure and Easy,” and other Lifehouse ideas such as “Sister Disco” and “Who Are You?” Even later, when Townshend’s radio play Psychoderelict was released in 1993 as an album, it contained ideas that had been adapted from the Lifehouse sessions. In 1999, Townshend worked with collaborators to create a two-hour BBC radio play for Lifehouse. The box set tells the story of the failure and presents the evidence for what he believed was possible in 1970 and up until the time Who’s Next was recorded and released in 1971.

Lifehouse is the story set in a “near distant” future, where government was no longer interested in interpersonal relationships between humans; their interest was the complete dependence of the individual on the power structure. To that end, they manufactured a story of a pollution crisis so bad, everyone was required to wear “lifesuits.” Lifesuits were articles of clothing that simulated all experiences so the person wearing it wouldn’t have to leave her or his dwelling place if he or she didn’t want to. They were designed, programmed, and plugged into a huge mainframe grid by a media mogul named Jumbo, who was more powerful than the government who appointed him to head this project. His media company provided medicine, sleeping gas, food, and programming so intense and compressed it would allow, according to Townshend’s notes, “an individual to live out tens of thousands of lifetimes in a very short period.” It also did away with any need for art. (Yep, virtual reality 15 years before William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer.)

The story begins when a dropout farming family in a remote part of Scotland hears about a subversive rock concert in London that their daughter runs away from home to attend. The farmers don’t wear lifesuits because they live far to the north and are supposedly out of the pollution’s range. They are tolerated by the power structure because the farmers grow produce the government is only too happy to buy. Bobby is the story’s hero. He hacks into the grid and discovers its fatal flaw. He plans to stage a concert called the Lifehouse in which each individual will be able to become a unique, blueprinted part of a piece of music, a song that hacks into the mainframe of the grid, distorts its data, and short circuits its fictions, allowing everyone to shed their suits and start living again. That song would have the power of liberating not only their minds, but also their bodies as well from the lifesuits — all through the power of rock & roll — which would have been supplied by the Who, of course. His experiment succeeds better than he could have ever dreamed with totally unexpected results — I’ll leave the rest to those of you actually interested enough to purchase the set.

The Lifehouse Chronicles are six CDs of all the material associated with the project, past and present, including the original demos for the songs Townshend planned to include as he was developing it. It is divided into two CDs of demos of songs such as “Teenage Wasteland” — that later evolved into “Baba O’ Riley” — with somewhat different lyrics — at one time an instrumental conceived as a different song altogether. Others include virtually every song from Who’s Next, and “Slip Kid,” “Let’s See Action,” “Relay,” as well as “Sister Disco” and “Who Are You?” among many, many others.

The first two discs are worth the price of admission alone. There isn’t a weak second on either of them, and the sound is pristine, professionally recorded from the jump, and remastered for CD. Perhaps nothing is more revelatory about Townshend that hearing his sketch “Teenage Wasteland” become the “Baba O’Riley” we know — a nine-minute instrumental version of “Riley” is on the demos, and it’s awe inspiring. The song’s lyrics and the tune’s melody set out the story of a transition so profound it changes everything. It’s the story of people moving into something from outside, having no idea what awaits them on the other side of “teenage wasteland.” The instrumental track is more anthemic than anything the Who ever recorded. “Pure and Easy,” “The Song Is Over,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and others are not sketches, but fully realized versions of songs before they were given to the Who. Hearing Townshend sing them sends chills down the spine as the songs take on even deeper meanings. “Sister Disco” is radically different than the one the Who recorded — the later one served the aims of a pop song far better than Townshend’s original — but in his hands, it’s a novel.

Disc three is full of experiments and themes Townshend worked and reworked as he revisited the Lifehouse material years later. There is a remixed version of “Who Are You,” and redone versions of “Baba M1” and “M5” as well as a redone “Pure and Easy” that is far superior to the originally released version. All of the material here was recorded in 1998 and 1999 when Townshend was conceiving and working on the radio play.

The fourth disc consists entirely of orchestral themes and arrangements employed both in the original concept and augmented in the radio play. The works are not only by Townshend, but by classical composers Henry Purcell, Corette, and Domenico Scarlatti as well. This CD might seem a stretch as interesting to some, but given Townshend’s vision and sense of drama, it fits perfectly inside it. The emotional and dynamic range of the pieces, their colors and textural elegance in this particular sequence make for a deep — and rousing — listening experience.

Finally, there are the last two discs that comprise the radio play. These are what everyone is wondering about, if they’re “worth it” for the price tag; if it is possible in the “sound and word byte” age to sustain listening to an almost two-hour bit of aural theater. Make no mistake, the radio play is brilliant, an essential addition to the literature of Townshend and the Who. Concept goes out the window when the voice of a young boy introduces the work, and gives way to a short orchestral reading of “Baba O’Riley.” What replaces it is pure drama, worthy not only of a radio play, but if reworked slightly, for stage as well, and perhaps even a film. Whoops, been there already, better to let sleeping dogs lie. But the work is so compelling it would be wonderful as a film, with only one catch, finding the proper vintage footage of the Who performing the soundtrack, and melding it in, because it wouldn’t work with any other band performing the material. Lifehouse is a chilling vision of a future where control and individuality no longer have a place in everyday life. This is the film the Matrix without the special effects or kung fu, and as a result, Lifehouse is far more subversive and instructive.

The Lifehouse Chronicles is a bit of rock history that finally gets its proper hearing and as a result begs the question in capital letters, “What if?” It’s fitting that it’s only available from Townshend’s own web site, The price is a bit steep, but the package was far from cheap to assemble and is a lavishly designed wonder. The set comes in a 12 by 12 box, with a corrugated impressed sleeve with and folds into a triptych. The CDs are laid out in individually colored and lettered glossy sleeves, four on the left panel, two on the right (the play), and a handsome 50-page book slips into its own spot in the middle bridging them. The book, with a long, no-holds-barred introduction by Townshend also contains Matt Kent’s own, somewhat more objective history of the project, contains complete lyrics to all the songs, and the script for the radio play. Everything printed lavishly on different colored pages with no regard for expense.

There isn’t another item on the rock or pop market that resembles The Lifehouse Chronicles or even comes close to its vision or integrity.

Thom Jurek

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