#28: The Who, "Who's Next" (1971)

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The idea behind the Who’s aborted Lifehouse project was simple enough—in the future, everybody lives in special suits, through which the Government feeds non-stop entertainment to keep citizens numb and distracted. Then one day, a roadie named Bobby discovers that rock and roll music might have the power, through the performance of a perfect, “universal note,” to free these hyper-connected men and women from their digital shackles, and maybe, too, provide some sort of spiritual transcendence. As far as the first part of all that goes, looking at it in 2019, it’s an easy idea to wrap our heads around, sort of Fahrenheit 451 meets The Matrix meets the actual internet. What’s so difficult about any of that?

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Obviously Townshend’s idea turned out to be more difficult than it sounded, as Lifehouse was never completed, becoming one of the most desired lost albums in rock history. All was not lost, though—Lifehouse ultimately became Who’s Next, one of the great albums of the classic rock era.

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But to Pete Townshend, an album like Who’s Next wasn’t initially perceived as being enough. The impetus for Lifehouse was the success of Tommy. That is, the Who’s star, after a meteoric rise on the strength of early singles, fell into decline almost as quickly, with Sell Out, their 1967 classic, being their first LP not to crack the UK top ten. Across the pond, album sales were steadily increasing with each album, but the band still hadn’t wormed their way into the top forty on the LP charts—until Tommy. Tommy reintroduced the Who in England, and announced their coming out as a major act in the States. As such, as soon as the Who started thinking about what to do after Tommy, Pete Townshend was worried that the band would be perceived as having peaked were it incapable of somehow “topping” their beloved rock opera. Townshend became obsessed with doing just that. That’s where Lifehouse came from. And, really, that’s the only place an idea as convoluted as Lifehouse could come from.

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To be fair, this is a fairly common place for lost albums to come from. The Beach Boys’ Smile was driven by Brian Wilson’s desire to surpass Pet Sounds. The project fell apart due to the pressure Wilson was putting on himself and his declining mental health. Prince’s The Black Album was driven by his desire to answer calls that his music had become too pop-oriented, and was shelved for years because he came to believe the album was evil. Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams was never realized due to the weight of a heavy concept—one side would be a history of America, the second side social commentary. Even Guided By Voices lost a number of albums to big ambitions, with a number of “shitcanned” albums, going by names like The Power of Suck and The Flying Party Is Here, eventually evolving and converging into Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the album that would follow Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, Pollard et al’s two undisputed masterpieces. For these “lost” albums, however, Pollard’s desire to produce a strong follow up was further complicated by his hyper-prolificacy and Matador’s desire that the band release only an album a year—by the time the new album could be released, Pollard’s body of current work had shed and regrown its skin, twice.

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Of course, it’s rare for lost albums to stay lost forever. Smile was famously released twice, first as a Brian Wilson solo LP in the mid-00’s, and later as a Beach Boys sanctioned reconstruction from original studio recordings. The Black Album? It was released briefly in 1994. As for Lifehouse, like Chrome Dreams and those lost Guided By Voices releases, fans have reconstructed the album from outtakes and official releases, using studio notes, books, and published interviews to guide sequencing. These versions can be found fairly easily online.

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Still, there is not, and almost certainly never will be, a full, finished, “canonical” version of Lifehouse. At least as an album, anyway. See, Lifehouse does exist as a radio drama, and as a “sessions” box set, and will, in 2020, also exist as a graphic novel. Honestly, that’s all Lifehouse should be, because, instead of Lifehouse, we have Who’s Next, born almost entirely from songs that had been recorded for Lifehouse (John Entwistle’s “My Wife” being the only one that never seemed earmarked for the failed album). For a project that failed so spectacularly, it’s odd to realize that many of the songs that had been recorded for Lifehouse are among the band’s best: “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes”—these have all become a part of popular culture, were part of popular culture before Who songs were adopted as opening credit anthems for CBS crime scene procedurals. Your friend’s parents might not know that it’s called “Baba O’Riley,” but the minute they hear that song’s opening synths and its iconic “teenage wasteland” refrain, they know exactly what song they’re listening to. A song from a failed album.

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It’s clear that Lifehouse didn’t fail, was never going to fail, because of its songs. The songs were always there. No, the problem with Lifehouse was part narrative, part conceptual—that is, Townshend’s ideas for the narrative of Lifehouse were so convoluted and intricate that the rest of the band couldn’t keep up. Conceptually, too, Townshend’s ideas moved beyond the realm of reason into a bizarre notion of spirituality. As part of the album’s concept, the band booked a residency at the Young Vic theatre, with some heady goals, as described by Townshend: “We want to see how far the interaction [between audience and band] can be taken . . . I don’t seriously expect people to leave their bodies. But I think we might go further than rock concerts have gone before.” Townshend added, at a later press conference, “We shall try to induce mental and spiritual harmony through the medium of rock music.” Lifehouse had no prayer of succeeding.

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Still, Lifehouse came remarkably close to becoming an actual album. Close enough that somewhere out there in the multiverse, there is a reality in which Pete Townshend completed the album. There is almost certainly not, however, a universe in which rock and roll music caused an audience to transcend their physical trappings, and no universe in which a perfect note came to embody spiritual awakening, or unity, or whatever it was that Townshend was going for.

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When Pete Townshend tried to explain the various ideas comprising Lifehouse to the rest of the Who, Roger Daltrey famously struggled to understand how such a world was possible, saying, of the premise that all homes and people are connected, “They’ll never get enough wire.”

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The cover of Who’s Next features the Who standing around a giant pylon in some sort of post-industrial wasteland. There are piss stains on the concrete object. Townshend appears to be refastening his belt. The band, we are to believe, have just finished urinating on the concrete object. There are theories that this cover was selected to imply that the Who were pissing all over the idea of Townshend’s masterpiece that would never be. If the lore is to be believed, though, the image came together organically when the band, driving with photographer Ethan A. Russell, saw the giant concrete block and decided it was a good spot for a photo. As it happens, the only member of the band who was able to actually piss on command was Townshend, with the photographer or an assistant splashing rain water from a tin on to the concrete, giving the appearance of at least one other member having pissed. Maybe Townshend liked the idea of pissing over his own failed narrative and conceptual ideas for Lifehouse. Or maybe the piss photo had nothing to do with any of that, was just some rock and rollers blowing off some steam.

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And maybe this is, at least in part, some of the charm of Who’s Next. Townshend was all set to provide us with his second narrative concept album about how white rock and roll music could deliver us from evil, but instead, we ended up with just an exceptional collection of songs, sans narrative and concept—just some rock and rollers blowing off steam. There is no heavy handed symbolism holding the songs back, no convoluted narrative. Maybe Who’s Next is the greatest argument ever made against the artistic viability of concept albums. Maybe the Who and some of their contemporaries could have learned a thing or two from the failure of Lifehouse and the stunning success of Who’s Next. I guess that’s easy to say in retrospect.

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Having listened to a couple Lifehouse reconstructions, I can say confidently that Who’s Next is the better album, by far. The bloat and mess of Lifehouse obscures the power of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Buries the beauty of “Behind Blue Eyes.” Defangs “Bargain.” Maybe, had Lifehouse been released instead of Who’s Next, it would have been just as much or even more of a classic, but I doubt that. Who’s Next was tight, powerful, brilliant. It showed the world that the Who didn’t need to do musical theater to make important music—they could still be just a killer rock band. So, why am I spending so much time writing about Lifehouse in this essay that’s supposed to be about Who’s Next? Because even though I know Who’s Next is better than Lifehouse could have ever been, I can’t shake the lost album’s mythology.

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Consider this: what is the enduring legacy of Smile now that it more or less exists? The night that Brian Wilson’s version of Smile was set to be released, my friend Seth and I drove all over Dayton at midnight, looking for a twenty-four hour big box store that had already put its copies out on the shelves. When we found a copy, I don’t remember where, we drove up I-75 listening, then stopped at a Waffle House. We’d both known about the album for years, had listened to bootleg studio outtakes and half-formed reconstructions, had fantasized about it. For my part, I believed it would be the greatest pop record ever made. After that first listen, when Seth and I talked about the album, we were both in awe, sort of. Not long, maybe a year after the album was released, I downloaded the beloved “purple chick” reconstruction, which used original Beach Boys outtakes to piece the album together. When an official Beach Boys version was released a few years later, I bought, that, too—and sure, it’s the closest we can get to Smile, but it’s still not Smile, not the way it would have existed in 1967. I thought of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys as a contemporary American take on Pierre Menard, but instead of trying to “arrive at” the text of Don Quixote, word for word, in a contemporary context, Wilson and the Beach Boys were trying to recreate that text out of their own, original context, and in doing so, had somehow breached the authenticity that music fans crave. This is when I came to understand that I would never know Smile the way I wanted to, could never know Lifehouse.

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Maybe the idea of authenticity in pop music is absurd. Is Lifehouse such an alluring idea because it was Pete Townshend’s original idea for the Who’s follow up to Tommy? Though I recognize that Who’s Next is the superior album, part of me still yearns to hear the original concept as Townshend originally intended. Just like I want to hear a 1967-released version of Smile, or a fully sequenced and mastered version of Jimi Hendrix’s fourth album, or a ‘70s-released version of Chrome Dreams. But none of these things can ever happen. And so if the “authentic” release in its “authentic” context can never be realized, what is the point of desiring these things? Isn’t what exists, be it officially released or cobbled together by fans, enough? Shouldn’t we respect the artistic process in which some ideas fail and newer, better ideas rise to the surface? I’ve written multiple drafts of this essay, trying to find the right balance between discussions of Lifehouse and Who’s Next, and discussions of “lost albums.” My original intent was bigger and messier, but this version is stronger. Maybe albums like Lifehouse and Smile are different because their creators are the ones who can’t quite let them go. If the creative muscle driving the music believes something great was lost when the album was shelved, maybe, it seems, we should carry a torch for that album as well?

We shouldn’t. Ultimately, Lifehouse is an unnecessary footnote in the history of the Who. Who’s Next may not have been Pete Townshend’s first, authentic vision of the project, but Townshend’s vision for Lifehouse failed, and as should happen with bands, all four members picked up the pieces of one member’s failure and turned that failure into one of the classic rock era’s true masterpieces.

—James Brubaker