The Who – The Lifehouse Saga and Who’s Next (Part One)

“The song ‘Pure and Easy’ was the fulcrum song for Lifehouse just as ‘Amazing Journey’ had been for Tommy.”

There once was a note
Pure and easy
Playing so free
Like a breath
Rippling by

“I knew there was a manic-depressive element to my personality, a seasonal swing in my psyche between periods of emotional bleakness (forced hibernation) and the dynamic creative activity (the Lifehouse).” – Quotes by Pete Townshend

Wikipedia: Lifehouse was a science fiction rock opera by the Who intended as a follow-up to Tommy. It was abandoned as a rock opera in favor of creating the traditional rock album Who’s Next, though its songs would appear on various albums and singles by the Who, as well as Pete Townshend‘s solo albums.

Townshend: “I’ve seen moments in Who gigs where the vibrations were becoming so pure that I thought the whole world was just going to stop, the whole thing was just becoming so unified.” He believed that the vibrations could become so pure that the audience would “dance themselves into oblivion,” Their souls would leave their bodies and they would be in a type of heaven; a permanent state of ecstasy.

“These ideas were directly linked to the writing of philosopher Inayat Khan, a Sufi musician who had written about the connection of vibration and sound with the human spirit. Another source of inspiration for Townshend was Meher Baba, (hence “Baba O’Riley”) who claimed to be an Avatar of Brahman.”

Townshend: “I conceived the idea of Lighthouse in August 1970 in my big new camper bus, in which I stayed for a few days after playing the third Isle of Wight Festival. … It was essentially one of a dystopia, a nightmare global scenario, a modern retelling of Brave New World. My hero … would be a good man, an advanced soul who would make a bad mistake and suffer the karmic repercussions.

Humanity would survive inevitable ecological disaster by living in air-filtered seclusion in pod-like suits, kept amused and distracted by sophisticated programming delivered to them by government. As with Tommy, people’s isolation would … prove the medium for their ultimate transcendence. … Only through submission to a police state would we survive.” (Gotta hand it to Pete – he thinks big. Weird, but big. His description of The Grid sounds a lot like the Internet and one could easily confuse grid sleep for virtual reality.)

He continues: “It’s a fantasy set at a time when rock ’n’ roll didn’t exist. The world was completely collapsing and the only experience that anybody ever had was through test tubes. In a way, they lived as if they were in television programs. Everything was programmed. The enemies were people who gave us entertainment intravenously, and the heroes were savages who’d kept rock ‘n’ roll as a primitive force and had gone to live with it in the woods. (“Out here in the fields …”) The story was about these two sides coming together and having a brief battle.

“Everybody would be snapped out of their programmed environment through a rock and roll-induced liberated selflessness. The Lifehouse was where the music was played, and where the young people would collect to discover rock music as a powerful catalyst — a religion as it were. ..

People from everywhere would be drawn to the Lifehouse where each person would sing their own unique song to produce the music of the spheres, a sublime harmony that would become what I called the ‘one perfect note.” (“There once was a note, pure and easy.”).

Around this same time, Townshend started getting his hands on synthesizers. He envisioned the band playing along to pre-recorded synthesizer music and marveled at how comfortably Keith Moon took to this. He then realized that Moon had always followed rather than led the tempo of the band.

But his explanations to the band about how they were creating ‘one note’ in communion with the audience didn’t go down well with his bandmates who may as well have been just as happy to do “Can’t Explain” or “I Can See For Miles” again. He could not communicate his ideas to Daltrey, Moon, and Entwhistle.

Townshend: “I was nearly ready with Lifehouse by the end of 1970. I had overworked, was paranoid, short of ready money and despite my family’s support I felt lonely.” He recorded all the demos in early 1971.

The Who were planning on staging a residency at the Young Vic theater where they could develop the material in front of an audience. “Individuals would emerge from the audience and find a role in the music and the film. When the concerts became strong enough, they would be filmed along with other peripheral activity from the theater.”

“Townshend worked out a complex scenario whereby a personal profile of each concert-goer would be compiled, from the individual’s astrological chart to his hobbies, even physical appearance. All the characteristics would then be fed into a computer at the same moment, leading to one musical note culminating in mass nirvana that Townshend dubbed ‘a kind of celestial cacophony.’

This residency, like so many things, didn’t go quite as planned. The guys in the band still didn’t know what the hell to make of it. John Entwistle believed that the band were to actually stay at the Young Vic with the audience in a sort of commune. The Vic’s artistic director quickly realized this whole thing was about as well planned as the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.

The small – less than thirty – audience had no access to instruments. “Audiences at the Young Vic gigs were not interested in interacting with the group to create new material, but simply wanted the Who to play “My Generation” and smash a guitar. (We’re not that sophisticated Pete, we’re really not – ME.) Townshend pretty quickly realized his (largely underfunded) dreams were going up in smoke.

The band went to the Record Plant in New York to do some recording and perhaps even salvage the proposed film. A lot of the great tunes we know and love were recorded there and wound up either on Who’s Next or some of Pete’s other solo stuff. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Let’s See Action,” “Pure and Easy,” But Pete’s manager Kit Lambert – so instrumental in helping Pete pull Tommy together – had fallen into a substance dependency problem and was of no assistance.

Every article you read says that Pete suffered a nervous breakdown over this endeavor but he himself never uses that term (and for the record, there is no such clinical diagnosis.) That said, he may have alluded to such a thing in liner notes for the remastered Who’s Next.

According to Pete’s autobio Who I Am, Townshend went up to Kit’s hotel room to talk to him. “Kit is calling me “Townshend” now? I loved him and felt terribly betrayed.  Anya (Kit’s assistant) had opened both sash windows to their limit and the park stretched out like a green lake into the distance. .. I walked to the window and looked out. I had a sense of weightlessness and at that moment whether I lived or died seemed of no consequence. As I started to fall forward between heaven and hell Anya was suddenly by my side, grabbing my sleeve.”

Pete went back to London and enlisted producer Glyn Johns who – like pretty much everybody else – could make no sense whatsoever of the story. Pete wanted whatever album they released to serve the story; Glyn wanted it to serve the music. Pete decided – reluctantly – to make it a single album and salvage what they could. That album, of course, was Who’s Next which I’ll talk about more in the next post.

Townshend has never really fully given up on the idea of releasing Lifehouse in one form or another. He revisited it somewhat in his (believe it or not) last solo album to date, Psychoderelict (1993). He later published an Internet novella called The Boy Who Heard Music which had some of the themes of Lifehouse. That novella evolved into an EP which became 2006’s Who album Endless Wire.

In 1998, the BBC approached Townshend with the idea of developing Lifehouse into a radio play. The play, just under two hours in length, was transmitted on BBC Radio 3 on 5 December 1999.

And if all that weren’t enough, in April 2019 it was announced that a graphic novel based on the Lifehouse concept was in production, with a scheduled release date of July 2020. This is to be published by an online tome called Heavy Metal but I could find nothing about it on their website. 

In 2000, Townshend released The Lifehouse Chronicles, a box set consisting of demos, synthesizers, radio plays, orchestrations and for all I know, Townshend’s therapy sessions.

Lastly, The Lifehouse Method was an Internet site where applicants could sit for an electronic musical portrait made up of data they enter into the website. The website was discontinued in July 2008, having generated over 10,000 pieces of unique, customized music.” (Pete – maybe it’s time to hang this fucking thing up. Just sayin’)

And that is the Lifehouse saga. And having read this, you’ll never listen to Who’s Next quite the same way ever again. We’ll genuflect to that one in the next post.

Below is a live recording of the band doing “Pure and Easy” at the Young Vic in 1971. A lot of Lifehouse got bootlegged at the time so my guess is this slipped out as well. Historical. Pure greatness.

“We all know success when we all find our own dreams.”

And Pete’s solo version

Spotify link

This post is based on various websites and Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am

Per Wikipedia, this is the original, intended track listing and where the songs ultimately wound up:

Side 1 – Ray’s Story
“Teenage Wasteland – Lifehouse Chronicles
“Going Mobile” – Who’s Next
“Baba O’Riley – Who’s Next
“Time is Passing” – Odds & Sods
“Love Ain’t for Keeping” – Who’s Next

Side 2 – Mary/Jumbo’s story
“Bargain – Who’s Next
“Too Much of Anything – Odds & Sods
“Greyhound Girl” – Lifehouse Chronicles
“Mary” – Scoop
‘Behind Blue Eyes” – Who’s Next

Side 3 – Bobby’s Story
“I Don’t Even Know Myself” – Who’s Missing
“Put the Money Down” – Odds & Sods
“Pure and Easy” – Odds & Sods
“Getting in Tune” – Who’s Next
“Let’s See Action – Hooligans

Side 4 – The Lifehouse Concert
“Relay” – Hooligans
“Join Together” – Hooligans
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” – Who’s Next
“The Song is Over” – Who’s Next

27 thoughts on “The Who – The Lifehouse Saga and Who’s Next (Part One)

  1. “Lifehouse” failed in the first version; it didn’t came out as the big rock spectacle that would change the rock music and bring back The Who “a money-driven outlet”; it was not realized as a big film, failed for almost thirty years.

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    1. Yes, and I’m not sure it ever really succeeded. Townshend keeps releasing and re-releasing it in one format or another. But it never became “Tommy” or even “Quadrophenia.”

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      1. The original idea of “Lifehouse” was, that “Lifehouse” should be a place where it would be possible to play music in a way that cancels out its merchandise form and opens the boundaries between musicians and the public. Townshend was here certainly influenced by the philosophy of Meher Baba.

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  2. CB was and is a huge “OO” fan so I knew and heard Pete talk about it for years. I’ve heard all the songs ( maybe missed a couple. I dont recognize a couple titles on the play list) throughout the years. Townshend was always releasing them on different albums like the ‘Scoop’ records. Plus scattered on other records. I guess the first time I heard about it was on ‘Who Came First’ or ‘Who’s Next’ in the liner notes. Been a long time. Like Fox said , Meher Baba was influencing PT at the time.
    I don’t chime in on the “Top Songwrter” takes but I’ll let you in on something. Pete is one i really dig.

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    1. Yeah, Pete can’t seem to get Lifehouse out of his system. I don’t think anybody knew at the time it was released that Lifehouse was even a thing. Or if we did it wasn’t a big deal. I actually mentioned Meher Baba in the piece but I guess it doesn’t get any credibility until Fox says it.

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      1. I guess with things like ‘Lifehouse’ getting released so much after the day plus having heard most the music it takes the sting out of it or the major give a shit. The Who and The Kinks were always playing around with the concept thing, especially the Kinks. Could you imagine what was going through Avory and Moons heads when the concepts were being explained to them. They were street guys. Meher Baba (who you mentioned) and the like were not even in these guys makeup. Funny.
        I’ve been on a bit of a Pete/Who run lately so as usual our paths cross. I think old Pete still follows Meher Baba (who you mentioned) but I’m to lazy to find out. I’ll just listen to Pure and Easy instead.

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        1. Heh! Yes, I did mention him. I just don’t think the other guy even read my piece. Just spouted some top-of-the-head shit that repeats everything I said. Bring something to the table.
          Kinks were a big influence on Pete. He modeled “Can’t Explain” to sound like “You Really Got Me.” I know this because after writing this piece I started re-reading his autobio called Meher O’ Cornball.
          Pete and Ray were the dreamers, the other guys were meatpackers.
          Pure and Easy is a great tune. I should go listen to Lifehouse Chronicles. I hear Pete’s gonna do a 10-part series on Netflix with Britney Spears as Keith Moon. And Taylor Swift.

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        2. WHO pissed on your cornflakes this morning.
          ‘Meatpackers”. That got a quick chuckle. Perfect.
          Doc you know your stuff here. I lean towards the Kinks/Who as you know. That ‘Pure and Easy’ cut is The Who at the top of their live game. Man does it sound like a great band. Hey they were a great live band.

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        3. Daltrey was a sheet metal worker. Nothing wrong with that but he just wanted to play rock and roll and get laid. Nothing wrong with that either.Pete dated Roger’s sister. It was always Roger’s band but the dynamic always shifts when we find out who can actually write songs (Petty, Cobain, Knopfler, Fogerty, etc.) Fogerty. I need to do a CCR series.

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        1. Pete was one big nerve end. I like how Dalrey called him a “nose on a stick.” I will never not love Pete. If I ever met him I’d just stick my hand out and say Thanks, man.

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        2. All this said. I get a little, I dont know if the word is bored, listening to musicians talking at length even ones i like. Townhend is one of the exceptions. He’s just an interesting guy plus he has a wicked sense of humor and directs it at himself. I like that. I guess living behind that nose has shaped him.
          I watched a concert on PBS where Quadraphonia was done with a big orchestra, London Symphony I think. There was a guest lead singer. He was good. But all I could think of the whole time was how much I wanted Roger there belting it out. I have a buddy who met Pete. He said he was a lovely guy.

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        3. Elton John’s interesting too. A seriously bright guy. I’ve always wondered if Pete would be cool or a dick. When we saw the band here a few years back he kept busting the audience’s balls about how much we all loved saying ‘Boston’. I don’t know what he was on about but I loved it. Great show. Sonny Boy gets blown away when I take him to see Classic Rock bands. We were gonna go see Roger Waters but that got canceled due to this fucking virus.

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        4. So many interesting folks out there. As far as musicians go I dont even have to like their music. Some are very funny and interesting. Elton? Man I used to like his music. That was a long time ago. My guys like that old shit also. The good “old shit”.

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        5. Oh yeah, his dad was a big band sax and clarinet guy and his mum a singer. I think there was some of that with the grandparents too. But he spent his early years touring around them watching from backstage. And he stole the windmill from Keef.

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  3. Man, the Lighthouse Project background is one crazy story that’s almost painful to read. It sounds like Pete was pretty obsessed with it. But, hey, despite all the weirdness, many great tunes came out of it – and of course “Who’s Next,” which I guess is my favorite Who album!

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    1. Yeah, a real clusterfuck. It’s odd that the band could get it together for “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” but not for this. I think it was a combination of Pete’s inability to explain it to anyone and the half-baked workshop idea. He just couldn’t get it off the ground. But it eventually came out one way or the other. If you read his memoir you see he really does think in terms of high art. It doesn’t necessarily always come out that way.

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      1. I suppose Pete really does think in terms of high art. It helps explain his stubborn pursuit of the project. On the other hand, I can’t blame his band mates and other folks who didn’t get it. It really sounded like a quite unusual story and concept.

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        1. Pete even saw his destruction of guitars as art. He called it autodestruction. Damn serious about it too. If you haven’t read it, his memoir is well worth your time.

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