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Bill's Pete Townshend Pages › A History of Lifehouse

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A History of Lifehouse
By Matt Kent, December 1999

Come to this house
Make this your house
Be one of us....

These words are taken from 'Welcome', the penultimate song on Pete Townshend's rock epic 'Tommy'. It's a call for people to congregate together to attain a (false, in this case) spiritual enlightenment. These words though could also have fitted snugly in to Townshend's next project 'Lifehouse'. In Lifehouse, Pete Townshend took the concept of congregational worship one step further by not only providing a refuge for enlightenment but a place for, ultimately, spiritual salvation. Lifehouse, however, as a project, is much, much more complicated than that. To Pete Townshend it's always been clear-cut but to the majority of others it's been a matter of considerable speculation and guesswork, much of which has elevated the project to an almost mythical status.

After the worldwide success of Tommy, Pete Townshend was under considerable pressure to produce another hit album. However, after two solid and exhausting years of touring with Tommy, Townshend was concentrating on moving The Who away from the continual slog of being on the road and onto celluloid. The Who had always been a band that was made for film, their explosive stage presence ensured that. The promise of some sort of film exposure was always there but somehow it never materialised. The band's early management team of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp had originally signed the band on the premise of making a film (parts of which have surfaced on various Who collections) but it was never finished. Antonioni had wanted the band to appear in his film 'Blow Up' but opted instead for the Yardbirds doing a very strange impression of The Who's destructive stage act. Some evidence of Lambert and Stamp's attempts at filming the band in the sixties do still exist. Early promotional films for songs such as 'Happy Jack' and 'Call Me Lightning', show that the band were keen to do something more with their music, other than just see it released as seven inches of vinyl. But it wasn't until the success of Tommy that the band had enough clout to go into a major film studio and be taken seriously.

Lambert had always wanted to make Tommy into a feature film. He had written a script (as had Townshend) whilst the band were recording the ground breaking album in 1969. But, by 1970, Townshend was tired of the 'deaf, dumb and blind boy' and wanted to move onto something else; wanted to move the band and, in turn rock music in general, out of the rut he felt it was in. His answer to this was to approach Universal Pictures with an idea for a rock film which encompassed a fictional story melded together with live concert footage of The Who. The result he felt would move rock away from the commercial excesses it was only really just beginning to find itself exposed to and place it back firmly in the hands of the audience, where he felt it belonged. The process, however, was complicated by Kit Lambert who, keen not to let go of his Tommy script, talked Universal into producing both films. As a result the press announced that the Who were to release two new films; 'Tommy' and 'another new project'. Billboard magazine ventured two possible names for the new project; 'Your Turn In The Barrel' and 'Barrel One, Barrel Two'. Whilst it's not clear where Billboard writer Mike Gross had got his information at the time, the assumed titles did reflect Townshend's ambition for the project. In later interviews he stated that he had basically thrown all his ideas into two barrels, one for fact and one for fiction, and mixed them up. Universal had wanted to see the title reflect the story's 'Englishness' and suggested 'Made In England' (they, like many still do today, believed the story was called 'Lighthouse'!).

Townshend wanted nothing to do with the Tommy project and, with hindsight, believes that Lambert pushed his favoured project at the expense of what was to become 'Lifehouse'.

Pete Townshend proposal for the Lifehouse project was multi faceted. It would involve fiction (one 'barrel') - his original script was set some time in the near future (or in an alternative present?), in a world that had suffered some form of ecological disaster. As a result, the population in the cities, who were forced to live indoors, were 'fed' life experiences through cables linking their 'experience suits' with 'the grid'. In charge of The Grid was a totalitarian conglomerate, called 'Plus Bond', who policed the 'grid sleep' (which essentially meant that people were kept off the streets). Others led 'gypsy' lives in the rural areas farming and travelling. Within this scenario is a Plus Bond dissident, Bob Snow, who hijacks the grid and, in a theatre known as The Cut (or The Life House), provides a 'real' rather than 'virtual' experience in the form of a rock concert at which the audience and a band (The Who) 'blend' together. It is to be the ultimate experience - the second 'barrel' was fact, in the form of the actual performances of The Who themselves.

Into this plot Townshend wove ideas he had himself experienced at Who concerts, the spiritual Sufi writings of Inayat Khan, science fiction, computer technology, synthesised sounds and a world founded on domination and rebellion. The fiction itself, looking back with hindsight, seems fairly easy to follow; the spiritual side, however, in a fairly 'unenlightened' world of the early seventies, suffered from Townshend's eagerness to talk about the project to any journalist willing to listen. As a result the explanations often blurred with each other and confused not only the reader, but also often the band themselves. Townshend sees it differently. To him the story has always been clear: "I was at my most brilliant and I was at my most effective and when people say I didn't know what the fuck I was talking about what they're actually doing is revealing their own complete idiocy, because the idea was SO FUCKING SIMPLE! It is not complicated". In a recent interview on the subject of Lifehouse, Townshend elucidates further "What Lifehouse was about, at its root, was to reaffirm that what's important is that music reflects its audience as absolutely and completely as possible."

Pete Townshend has always believed in the power of rock music and its redeeming features. He had witnessed its power from the stage of Who gigs; "Standing on stage and waving your arms about is wearing a bit thin, I think. There's going to have to be a way of listening to music which doesn't mean that you're going to have to face in a particular direction, there's going to have to be a way of listening to music that doesn't mean that you have to go out to a concert hall between eight and ten in the evening. I've seen moments in Who concerts where the vibrations were becoming so pure that I thought the world was just going to stop, the whole thing was just becoming so unified. But you could never reach that state because in the back of their minds everybody knew that the group was going to have to stop soon, or they'd got to get home or catch the last bus or something - it's a ridiculous situation". This statement could be judged as being the underlying credo for the Lifehouse project. Townshend believed in the potency of music and understood the power of it on an audience and, more importantly, the need for that audience to respond to the music. From early in his career he felt that he had been charged with the responsibility of reflecting what his audience was feeling, or, more precisely, that rock music had been given that responsibility. A decade on, he still felt that he had to fulfil that promise he had made to the Shepherd's Bush 'geezers', who had made up those early audiences. In the intervening years, however, he had also opened his mind up to other influences, musicians and composers such as Terry Riley, Tim Souster, Stockhausen, Mort Subotnick and Sun Ra but more particularly to the spiritual writing and teachings of Meher Baba and Sufi philosophers. The 'vibrations' he had felt at those Who gigs was a direct link to the writings of Inayat Khan;

"Music creates that resonance which vibrates through the whole being, lifting the thought above the denseness of matter; it almost turns matter into spirit, into it's original condition through the harmony of vibrations touching every atom of one's whole being". "The way in which we can find our own place is to tune our instrument to the keynote of the chord to which we belong. Sound is the force which groups all things from atoms to worlds".

With these teachings in mind, and fuelled by his own experiences, Townshend worked the Lifehouse fiction of domination and rebellion, around the notion of attaining spiritual fulfilment (as a result of producing the 'Universal Note') at the reality experience / concert given at 'The Cut' theatre - 'Welcome to the Life House folks, your song is here'. He felt that he could help to unharness that power within the music and allow the 'pure vibrations' to develop to such a state that each individual could find his own note within nature; within the great scheme of things; "I felt that what The Who were doing could be taken several steps forward in a few months, so that when you went to a Who concert you just sat and instead of being subjected to a barrage, you were seduced out of yourself into something else and it became part of the whole thing.."

After the success of Tommy, Townshend had invested heavily in new electronic 'hardware', particularly synthesisers, on which he would experiment to produce some of his most ambitious writing ever. It was the synthesiser that Townshend looked upon to help bridge the gap between audience and performer and help him to compose music that would not only reflect what the audience was feeling but who the audience actually were; he hoped to produce music which was literally 'their' music. To do this Townshend knew that he had to find a way to combine the audience and the band to a much greater extent than was possible on the 'one night stands' the band experienced through touring. As a result he investigated the possibility of buying his own premises, in which the band could perform regularly. However, money from Universal wasn't forthcoming and he was unable to find somewhere suitable. Instead he decided to use the newly opened Young Vic Theatre (of which he was a patron) in The Cut, just off Waterloo Road in South London. The theatre was ideal for what Townshend envisaged; it was small with a capacity of around 400, and its audience profile was neither that of a traditional theatre or rock concert. Townshend didn't want to attract the normal Who audience to these shows; they may have just wanted to hear the band play its greatest hits and that's not what these concerts were about. He needed an impartial audience to launch these new musical experiments on; an audience with no pre-conceptions of what a Who gig was like. The band were enthusiastic about using the theatre and held an impromptu concert there on January 4 1971. The concert was little more than a rehearsal but the band felt the need to play to an audience rather than an empty auditorium. The doors were thrown open and anybody who happened to be passing was invited in. The feeling the band got from the show confirmed that the venue was the ideal place to carry out the concerts on a regular basis.

A press conference was held in early February 1971 to announce the first three shows at the theatre, which were to take place later that month. Press reports that followed announced that Townshend had written 20 songs in the previous six months for the project. Pete Townshend told Melody Maker, "We are intending to produce a fiction, or a play or opera and create a completely different kind of performance in rock. We are writing a story and we aim to perform it on the first day we start work in this theatre. Tied in with the whole idea is the use quadrophonic sound and pre-recorded tapes. About 400 people will be involved with us and we aim to play music which represents them."

The film script by this stage was complete although Townshend wasn't completely confident that it was strong enough. He felt, however, that the concerts would galvanise the script. It didn't seem clear though how the two elements (or "barrels") of fact (the concerts) and fiction (the script) would come together. It seems likely that Townshend hoped that the concerts would in fact help to turn much of the fiction into reality.

Much to Townshend's annoyance the theatre wasn't available for the band's exclusive use. It was a subsidised theatre and needed to put on other productions in order to maintain its grant, which meant that the band could only perform there one day a week. It was Townshend hope that the same members of the audience would return night after night (in the script the audience spent six months at the Lifehouse). It was only in this way that he felt the audience could get involved in the process of making music in the way he had imagined. However, due to the theatre's other productions this was impossible. Some of the audience did return on a weekly basis but the continuity and the feedback he had wished for wasn't there.

The band themselves was not entirely confident either of playing the new material live; a mixture of pre-recorded tapes and synthesised sounds together with more established 'Who' type music. The audience was certainly unaware of what was expected of them. Townshend had hoped that they would respond, contribute and, in some ways, take over the music that was played. He had genuinely expected that some characters would emerge from the concerts to take their place in the fiction of the film. At no time though did he explain how the audience was expected to fulfil their part of the deal.

As a result, neither the band, or its audience, were satisfied with the performances and the group responded by reverting to old established favourites in place of the new songs.

The failure of the concerts to provide Pete Townshend with the desired results threw the Lifehouse project into doubt. Subsequently it all but died because the money from Universal also failed to materialise. The underlying element of the whole Lifehouse project was to be the film; that is what Pete Townshend had aimed for. Universal Pictures were keen, at first anyway, to fund Townshend's idea. However, that funding was in the form of words rather than money. Townshend believed that making the film was the only way in which The Who specifically, and rock music in general, could move forward. He was so devastated with the failure of the concerts and of Universal's ability to come up with the funding, that he had a well-publicised breakdown.

Although the Lifehouse project was in itself shelved, the band went into the studio to record the tracks that Townshend had written for it. The result was the spectacular 'Who's Next' album. The album contains many of the important songs of Lifehouse such as 'Baba O'Riley', 'Won't Get Fooled Again' and 'Song Is Over'. However, the engineer on the album, Glyn Johns, steered the band away from producing a concept double album, as Townshend had wished, towards a more commercial (in his opinion) single album. Although considered by many to be The Who's greatest album it would be difficult to recognise the Lifehouse elements if you didn't know the history. Songs essential to the understanding of the project, such as 'Pure and Easy', were omitted. 'Who's Next' was released in August 1971 (it was premiered to the press a month earlier at Keith Moon's house Tara) to critical acclaim and topped the UK charts. The band had played some low key dates in May to get used to the new material before embarking on a major US tour in August, followed by some UK gigs (which, coincidentally, is when I first managed to see the band perform live). The material from 'Who's Next' was to become the backbone of band's live performances for then onwards.

Townshend, never one to give up on a good idea, continued to believe that the 'Lifehouse' project was still viable. He had worked on a further draft of the script and continued to write music for the project. The new script changed the scenario to a world where music was banned, well rock music anyway; Musak supplied by media moguls was allowed. The basic theme, however, of the 'One Note' stayed the same other than the fact that this time the radicals were the disenchanted 'Musos'. Songs such as 'Slip Kid' from the 1975 who album 'The Who By Numbers' is instantly recognisable as a 'possible' Lifehouse song but the first real evidence of the Lifehouse resurrection came with the 1978 release of 'Who Are You', where, together with Roger Daltrey, he had revisited the project once again. Songs such as 'Music Must Change', 'Sister Disco' and possibly 'Who Are You' itself, were written with 'Lifehouse' in mind. By the time of this release The Who were heavily involved in film production; they had released a film version of "Tommy" in 1975 and were busy working on two new feature films: one a biographical film called "The Kids Are Alright" and the other a cinematic version of their 1973 album "Quadrophenia". Townshend produced a new script for 'Lifehouse' which he sent to director Nic Roeg. Roeg wasn't overly keen on what Townshend had produced and brought in another writer to work on another version of the script. Once again fate intervened and the finished film never materialised.

In 1993 Pete Townshend released his solo album 'Psychoderelict'. Recorded in the form of a radio play the album leaned heavily on some of the ideas Townshend had in mind for the original Lifehouse project. Although it wasn't an attempt to rekindle Lifehouse (it was a story in its own right) it did include references to 'The Grid' and 'Life Experience suits'. It also elaborated on some of the ideas that maybe Townshend didn't quite get across in the early Seventies; ideas such as the damage that media control is capable of. Townshend toured heavily (his first major solo tour) with 'Psychoderelict', and the stage show reconstructed the idea of a radio play.

In 1996 BBC Radio 1 produced an important documentary on Lifehouse, directed by John Pidgeon, called The One That Got Away'. The documentary looked at the history of the project and included interviews with Townshend in which he explained the thinking behind it and why he felt it initially failed.

1999 finally saw 'Lifehouse' touch ground with its performance on BBC Radio 3 as a play with music. Pete Townshend, in collaboration with Jeff Young, reworked all the ideas on the project to come up with a definitive version for broadcast. To coincide with the broadcast of the play Pete Townshend has also put together a 6 CD box set, 'The Lifehouse Chronicles' which aims to bring together all the diverse influences and ideas to come from the project in order for the history to be presented to you. The Chronicles was released exclusively on Pete's www.eelpie.com website in February 2000. To celebrate the release of the box set Pete performed two sell out shows at London's Sadler's Wells theatre that month. A single, taken from the Chronicles, was released in the States and this was followed by the 'Lifehouse elements' a single CD which took tracks from main set. It is likely that Lifehouse will continue to grow from the radio play into live performances (which, who knows, may even include YOUR song) and, maybe, finally a film will materialise. Who knows?

The early musical experiments of "finding your song" are almost definitely going to continue; the technology available now facilitates the mechanics of what Townshend had in mind almost 30 years ago. People are more aware now of the power of the technology that surrounds them and so maybe this time Lifehouse can be completed without the frustration he endured then. The limited edition 'Lifehouse Method' set will include access to software which will allow these experiments to happen.

When this new, definitive version of Lifehouse was first reported on, in early 1999, the press made Pete Townshend out to be some kind of visionary or seer; they stated that he had predicted the Internet and virtual reality with 'the Grid'. Townshend would hate that kind of tag; he doesn't see himself in that way at all. As I previously mentioned he sees Lifehouse as a very simple concept and with this version, I think he hopes that we will all finally see it that way too.


WDK 2008

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