Revisiting Pete Townshend’s Ambitious ‘Lifehouse’ Project
Any artist, if he pushes hard enough, will eventually reach a point where his creative reach exceeds his grasp. For Pete Townshend, that moment arrived in 1971, in the middle of working on a hugely ambitious multimedia project he'd dubbed Lifehouse.
Townshend closed the '60s on a creative and professional high fueled by the Who's 1969 effort Tommy, a song cycle that would go on to become arguably the band's defining achievement — and one of the few rock operas to find critical as well as commercial acceptance. Emboldened by Tommy's success and intent on pushing the boundaries of rock as far as he could take them, he set about building an even bigger musical narrative.
The crux of the story came to Townshend while the Who were on tour in support of Tommy — a run of dates during which he found himself so emotionally in tune with the audience that he later recalled occasionally feeling like the music could carry them all to a higher state of being.
The idea of music as a grand unifier laid the groundwork for Lifehouse, which imagined a future in which most people drift through meaningless lives wired into a sort of virtual reality, with the exception of a few stragglers (and some kids, natch) who find a way to reawaken the human race with a communal rock concert.
That brief overview leaves out a number of the story's finer points, but — as Townshend himself was soon to discover — there's no easy way to describe Lifehouse. Admitting that "pretentious is just not a big enough word" to describe what he was after with the project, he outlined his motives for the project in a 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times, explaining that as the Who grew ever bigger, he felt himself losing his emotional connection with the audience. "Lifehouse started with my feeling that stadium rock was going to kill us all. Because I knew as an artist that I was completely powerless," he mused. "I couldn’t stop the Who performing in football stadiums and I absolutely hated it."
As he worked on the story and built up a track listing, Townshend grew further inspired by the writings of Sufi master musician Inayat Khan, fixating on the idea of staging a show that would incorporate not only the band's music, but songs generated by the personalities, astrological signs, and other assorted characteristics of the people in the audience. In Townshend's mind, it would be possible to gather data about everyone in the crowd and feed it into a computer, generating a senses-altering harmony he described as a "celestial cacophony."
"The whole thing was based on a combination of fiction – a script that I wrote – called The Lifehouse which was the story – and a projection within that fiction of a possible reality," Townshend told ZigZag in 1974. "In other words, it was a fiction which was fantasy, parts of which I very much hoped would come true. And the fiction was about a theater and about a group and about music and about experiments and about concerts and about the day a concert emerges that is so incredible that the whole audience disappears. I started off writing a series of songs about music, about the power of music and the mysticism of music."
To that end, the Who booked a residency at the Young Vic, a London theater where they intended to set up shop for months, performing and slowly becoming one with the crowd — all of which was to be recorded and filmed. As Townshend envisioned it, the convergence he imagined for Lifehouse's final act would develop over time, organically, and ultimately with minimal guidance from the band.
"The idea was to get 2,000 people, and keep them for six months in a theater with us," he explained. "The group would play and characters would emerge from them; eventually the group would play a very minor role. Maybe 500 of the original 2,000 would stay during the six months, and we would have filmed all that happened."
Unfortunately, that idea — like a number associated with Lifehouse — proved easier to conceive than to execute. The Young Vic shows went infamously poorly, with the audience heckling the new material and calling out repeatedly for the hits. Instead of the harmony he'd hoped to achieve, Townshend was faced with a mounting inability to bring his vision to life — or even, in an increasing number of instances, communicate it in such a way that anyone in the Who's circle could truly understand it.
"What fell apart with it ... was that I actually tried to make this fiction that I'd written happen in reality," Townshend told Trouser Press in 1978. "That's where I went wrong, actually trying to make a perfect concept."
Townshend's problems were exacerbated by the absence of manager Kit Lambert, who'd had a falling out with Townshend over the screenplay for a prospective Tommy movie and decamped to New York while Lifehouse was in the works. Without Lambert, who'd often served as a sort of de facto interpreter for him when he couldn't get his ideas across to bandmates and associates, he found himself a man on an island, and under increasing pressure to deliver new product.
"I didn't understand a bloody word," admitted Who publicist Keith Altham. "It was very hard to grasp the concept."
"I was at my most brilliant and my most effective," retorted Townshend. "And when people say I didn't know what the f--- I was talking about what they're actually doing is revealing their own complete idiocy, because the idea was so f---ing simple."
Listen to Pete Townshend Perform 'Teenage Wasteland'
Whatever the case, Townshend ultimately found himself on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown. Persuaded to break Lifehouse up into parts, he brought a number of songs previously earmarked for the record — including future Who classics "Baba O'Riley," "Getting in Tune" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" — to the spring 1971 sessions for what became the band's Who's Next LP. In spite of its piecemeal origins, the album was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic and would come to be regarded as one of their more consistent studio records.
Still, Townshend continued to be troubled by the way Lifehouse had slipped out of his grasp. He included demos from the record on his 1971 Who Came First solo release and made another run at the project in 1978 — and after that didn't work out, he returned to it again in the '90s, folding some of its themes and components into his 1993 Psychoderelict solo album. Over the years, worrying at Lifehouse's stubborn refusal to come together seemed to become an artistic compulsion for him.
"The music that's been written for the various incarnations of that project, most of which have failed, has always been of the highest quality," Townshend argued in a 1996 Ira Robbins interview. Insisting Lifehouse remained a "going concern," he added, "I think if I could get a story together that really worked that didn't feel dated – because of virtual reality as a subject having become rather passe – then I think Lifehouse would pay off."
Finally, by the late '90s, technology had almost caught up with Townshend's visions for the project, which now included a website where consumers could enter personal information that he'd use as the grist for new songs inspired by their lives and interests. The interactive possibilities at last allowed Townshend to experience the collaborative energy he'd hoped to tap into with Lifehouse in the early '70s.
"I haven't seen anyone do anything like this before," Townshend told the Guardian. "Have you ever had someone say, 'I've written you a song'? It's an extraordinary feeling. It immediately becomes significant and powerful – someone is responding to your essence. Some people might pretend not to be affected by it, but even the most hardened person – even if you said to Hannibal Lecter, 'Hannibal, dear, we've brought you your song' – would be interested."
Townshend tested that theory with The Lifehouse Chronicles, which bundled all manner of Lifehouse-related material — including original demos, solo recordings, a classical score and a recording of the radio play inspired by the story, which aired on the BBC in late 1999. He released the six-disc set in February 2000, and followed it in 2007 with the Lifehouse Method website, which reportedly generated roughly 10,000 pieces of music before shutting down. That impressive number notwithstanding, the Lifehouse project ultimately had a fairly short lifespan in the marketplace, given its long gestation: At the time of this writing, the box is out of print, and fetches budget-busting prices on the used market. Still, there's every reason to expect it to surface again in some form or other.
"It’s a very far-reaching idea," Townshend told MOJO. "It was ambitious. And in some respects it was ahead of its time, and so it’s traveled with time. I have let it go a number of times, but it’s always come back, and sometimes other people’s interest has brought it back. But usually it’s the music: every time I hear or play one of those songs – 'Baba O’Reilly,' 'Won’t Get Fooled Again,' 'Behind Blue Eyes' – I think, 'These songs are great, but they’re out of context.'"