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Bill's Pete Townshend Pages ›Lifehouse Chronicles Introduction From Pete Townshend

Introduction from Pete Townshend

For twenty nine years I have been entangled in this thing called The Lifehouse. I blamed the frustration it caused me on its innate simplicity and my innate verbosity; one cancelled out the other. The story contained ideas that were once regarded as overly ambitious. I felt like a jungle explorer who had stumbled upon an Inca temple of solid gold and become impeded by roots and vines in a knot of undergrowth, only yards from civilisation. One day I would emerge crying aloud that I’d discovered something marvellous, but would be patted off the head and indulged in my triumphant ranting. The package you hold in your hands today is the result of this awkward, though not particularly heroic, journey. I have come to the end of a creative adventure in which I struggled as much to overcome my own impatience as obstacles in my path. I present you now with a finished play a collection of music that the idea has inspired, a history of the project, and a graphical response to the very deepest spiritual notions underlying it.
In 1971 I wrote a film script of Lifehouse for Universal Pictures. It was never realised as a film, or any kind of theatrical narrative drama. I have often found myself telling and retelling the story of Lifehouse, usually in conversation with interested journalists. Because the story itself is about a highly technological media corrupted by myopic conglomerates, many writers - working for ‘the media Man’ - have identified with my phobias about the future. 

Briefly, the story of Lifehouse as It was presented to The Who in 1971.

A self-sufficient drop-out family group farming in a remote part of Scotland decide to return South to investigate rumours of a subversive concert event that promises to shake and wake up apathetic, fearful British society Ray is married to Sally, they hope to link up with their daughter Mary who has run away from home to attend the concert. They travel through the scarred wasteland of middle England in a motor caravan, running an air- conditioner they hope will protect them from pollution. They listen, furtively to old rock records which they call ‘Trad’. Up to this time they have survived as farmers, tolerated by the governments who are glad to buy most of their produce. Those who have remained in urban areas suffer repressive curfews and are more-or-less forced to survive in special suits, like space-suits, to avoid the extremes of pollution that the government reports.

These suits are interconnected in a universal grid, a little like the modern Internet, but combined with gas-company pipelines and cable TV company wiring. The grid is operated by an imperious media conglomerate headed by a dictatorial figure called Jumbo who appears to be more powerful than the government who first appointed him. The grid delivers its clients’ food, medicine and sleeping gas. But it also keeps them entertained with lavish programming so highly compressed that the subject can ‘live out’ thousands of virtual lifetimes in a short space of time. The effect of this dense exposure to the myriad dreamlike experiences provided by the controllers of the grid is that certain subjects begin to fall apart emotionally. Either they believe they have become spiritually advanced, or they feel suffocated by what feels like the shallowness of the programming, or its repetitiveness. A vital side-issue is that the producers responsible for the programming have ended up concentrating almost entirely on the story-driven narrative form. ignoring all the arts unrestrained by ‘plot’ as too complex and unpredictable, especially music. Effectively, these arts appear to he banned. In fact. they are merely proscribed, ignored, forgotten. no longer of use.

A young composer called Bobby hacks into the grid and offers a festival-like music concert-called The Lifehouse-which he hopes will impel the audience to throw off their suits (which are in fact no longer necessary for physical survival) and attend in person. ‘Come to the Lifehouse, your song is here’.

The family arrive at the concert venue early and take part in an experiment Bobby conducts in which each participant is both blueprint and inspiration for a unique piece of music or song which will feature largely in the first event to be hacked onto the grid.

When the day of the concert arrives a small army force gathers to try to stop the show. They are prevented from entering for a while, the concert begins, and indeed many of those ‘watching at home’ are inspired to leave their suits. But eventually the army break in. As they do so, Bobby’s musical experiment reaches its zenith and everyone in the building, dancing in a huge dervish circle, suddenly disappears. It emerges that many of the audience at home, participating in their suits, have also disappeared.

There is no dramatic corollary I didn’t try to explain where they may have gone, or whether they were meant to he dead or alive. I simply wanted to demonstrate my belief that music could set the soul free, from both the restrictions of the body, and also the isolating impediments and encumbrances of the modern world.

60’s rock achieved so much in its first seven years, a period that to me now seems such a short space of time. My expectations of the rock form, The Who group, its managers and myself, were huge. During the development of Lifehouse, my Svengali-like manager Kit Lambert suffered a massive spiritual demise and took refuge variously in the gloom of a famously cursed palazzo in Venice or the headiness of a Central Park hotel in Manhattan. While this was happening, the emotional distance of the otherwise encouraging Hollywood establishment confused me. I had written the script, which Universal Pictures had read and apparently understood: they had promised me two million dollars. Then there was silence. I came up against my first real brick wall since I had started writing and acting as spokesman for The Who and many in their audience. Until then I had felt omnipotent. I hope not arrogantly. But that wall that rise up between me and my Lifehouse film stood up to every energetic idea I threw at it. I could not work out what to do.

Had I been working in theatre I believe I would have been encouraged to carry on, instructed that dramatic ideas need to be work-shopped and nurtured, not simply tossed onto paper and then talked, hyped (or sung) into being by the author. Chris Stamp, Kit’s management partner in the period Tommy was recorded, remembers a truly synergetic and symbiotic process of creativity then, something that for various reasons failed to happen when I presented Lifehouse to The Who. I should say quickly that the hand members and everyone involved were immensely supportive. The music I’d written with the script was excellent, and there was a lot of it. And not everyone found the story confounding.

Frank Dunlop was director of the brand new Young Vic theatre at the time, and through our meeting at AD8, a gay restaurant in Kensington frequented by Rudolph Nureyev, I became a customer. I give this snapshot not to deepen the impression that I enjoyed a bisexual life with ballet dancers, but rather to show that I moved in exalted circles of wildly wilfull, imaginative and creative people, and when I spoke to anyone about Lifehouse  socially, they were encouraging and enthused. Frank and I had been introduced by Kit Lambert who told me we would all three together develop the script I’d written. We never did, and for a while I wondered why. Recently Frank explained that behind my back Kit had confused him, saying my idea was unworkable, that Frank should go through the motions, then let it fade and move on to the more important project, a movie of Tommy which Kit hoped to direct as his first feature. Frank did not let the project drop. He arranged a regular weekly concert at the Young Vic, and held a press-conference during which I explained the general idea.

Tremendous confusion followed. I had planned to conduct rather simple experiments during these concerts producing pieces of music for some loyal audience members, In this experiment my most earnest champion was the late Tim Souster composer-in-residence at Cambridge University and electronic music performer. He introduced me to Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and members of the BBC Radiophonics workshop. I had no hope of producing anything like the expansive music I had envisioned and attempted to describe in my fiction, but certain people around me believed that was my target. Whispers of ‘madness’fluttered backstage like moths eating at the very fabric of my project. In order to get The Who into the film, I figured I would make them look as though they were really making the musical part of the experiment work: documentary film of our concerts would later be incorporated into the action of the film, so the concert (the one at which Bobby’s audience disappears) would be a genuine one, not a lash-up by some megalomaniacal film-director. The press conference was the beginning of the end. I was portrayed by some as confused when I was merely tired, and by some as arrogant when I was merely deeply committed to the idea that the story would work, that the almost omnipotent Who could pull it off.

With no money from Universal, and (mysteriously for me) no creative help from Kit Lambert, within a few weeks our ‘experiments’ had dwindled into trips to the local pub and over-loud short concerts of our early hits for anyone who showed up at the Young Vic. One of these unadvertised and thus poorly attended concerts (of which I remember only two) was recorded and produced a reasonably good live tape. Eventually exhausted and disillusioned, I abandoned the idea of making a film, and when Kit invited me to New York to start working on a straightforward recording at the Record Plant, a wonderful new studio there, I jumped at it.

When I got to New York I found that Kit had changed, and not entirely because he had became a heroin user. I realised later he had been deeply hurt by my failure to see how desperately he wanted to produce and direct a movie of Tommy and I had blocked him, fearing I would lose my mentor and friend to Hollywood. I lost him anyway. At the time, in New York I was still obsessed with my own problems and was unaware of all this. He had completely lost all affection for me and began calling me not ‘Pete’, but ‘Townshend’, or 
‘Pete Townshend’. The recordings we made in New York were very good, but I left the druggy scene as soon as I could. The brilliant recording finally made by Glyn Johns was knocked off quickly in London when we all finally got back. It was entitled ‘Who’s Next’, and the story of Lifehouse wasn’t even mentioned on the sleeve. Several songs vital to the plot were left off -  ‘Pure and Easy’ being especially important.

After twenty years, I became obsessed with telling the story behind my failure to complete what was a genuinely good idea for the first genuine rock musical film. The obsession to do this was greater than the desire to complete the original film itself, and led to ‘Psychoderelict’, my last solo album of 1993

Briefly, the story of Psychoderelict as it was performed by me in 1993

In Psychoderelict, Ray High, a reclusive rock star (not entirely dissimilar to the fellow parodied in Private Eyes ‘Celeb’ cartoon strip), during a serious emotional crash. and from a place of extreme isolation, rediscovers an aborted project from his past which brings him hope. The story is set in the world of rock celebrity excess, but is actually about a different kind of self-abuse to that most commonly associated with that world. Ray High has cut himself off from every high’. He allows himself no fixes, there is no love in his life, no fans, no music, no present, no recovers nor rehabilitation, lust a kind of apologetic tipsiness that allows him to survive petulantly. at a distance from his old friends and family. Only a few voices penetrate his existence. One is that of Rastus, an old road-manager who is trying to get Ray back on the road. Another is Ruth Streeting, an acerbic journalist, once a fan herself, hut today more powerful than Ray. Another is Rosalind, a new fan of that uncertain age between childhood and the rest, who sends Ray a salacious photo and revives him from his gloom. I should quickly say that Ray High’s experience does not entirely reflect my own. (Incidentally, the name Ray high was concocted as an amalgam of two rock contemporaries of whom I’m most fond, Ray Davies and Nick Lowe).

Ray’s forgotten project from the past is of course based on Lifehouse. Ray is cajoled by Rastus, manipulated by Ruth Streeting and intoxicated by Rosalind (for whom he writes a hit song) and manages to get his version of Lifehouse - called ‘Gridlife’- on stage. It is a tremendous success, but he remains a little jaded, and yet nostalgic. I tried to deliver a double irony: Ray prefers to look back to a time when he was still able to look ahead. The play closes as he begins to forget his recent success, pores over new letters and pictures from new fans, and resentfully bemoans his great, lost hippy days of the 70s.

I wrote some quite beautiful songs for ‘Psychoderelict’, and as I listened to them on the finished CD, I realised I had been more deeply wounded by the failure of Lifehouse than I had been previously able to admit. My problem was not simply one of failure to let go of the idea, or an unwillingness to accept defeat. I had been, in a sense, humiliated and broken by its non- appearance as a drama. It is, as you have read, quite simple. What was once seen to be incomprehensible was the background setting of the play: a world in which entertainment and global information and communication become dangerously intertwined. In fact, in my first draft, I came up with my own version of ‘Virtual Reality’ as a device by which I could immerse the creatures of my story in total isolation. just as I had with the sensually-deprived Tommy. That idea is not hard for us to grasp today; it is framed by the more practical and elegant term ‘couch-potato’.

In the 2-CD radio play contained in this package, the definitive version of Lifehouse, my writer Jeff Young, producer/director Kate Rowland and I decided not to try to further predict any problem with the current march of technology; and ignore common phobias about it all. After all, in the current climate, to describe the future is to describe tomorrow, possibly even some daft science fiction writer’s yesterday. Here we speak not of ‘grids. or the virtual reality experience suits of my 1971 story, but of ‘tele’, ‘hackers’, ‘pirates’ and of course ‘web-sites’. In his latest book Ray Kurzweil, who invented the repeatable triggered digital recordings (called samples) so beloved of modern composers, predicts that within twenty years a wise and benign cyborg
will be walking down Oxford Street with arms remind me that thirty years ago with arms outspread entreating us all to follow him’ My contemporaries I had had a chance to build and future phobia in the 1971 Lifehouse was that we contribute to a better world. We would owe it all to someone like Rupert Murdoch (who was still in Australia in 1971 I think). In a time when rock concerts occasionally did catch fire especially those by thee Who, the real heroes of the l971  Lifehouse were the audience, the people who showed up at the Big Show. There was a real sense of danger there. The philosophy was: Better to congregate, dance, worship and possibly die than to live in a bubble’.

Here in the 1999 BBC play the hero of the story-another Ray - is a rather simple man who remembers to voices from his childhood. One is his own childlike voice of around nine or ten years old, imagining the future, delighting in the certainty that we would all one day blow ourselves to bits. The other is an imaginary from that childhood, a kind of Uncle-In-Overalls who replaces the emotionally distant, war-ravaged father who can only recommend to the kid that he sits and quietly watches the newly-acquired miracle of a tiny grey-screened tele. The Ray character during creative sessions with  Jeff Young and Kate Rowland. We suddenly realised  we must accept that my phantom presence in the story was more forcefully felt than I intended.  I occasionally spoke in these creative meetings of the ‘tragedy’ of my time, and the moral cowardice’ of my generation. There has been no great bomb since that last one dropped on Japan, but there has been a steady erosion of what is natural. As my art school mentor Gustav Metzger says, nature has been replaced by  ‘environment’ we no longer know the true values of natural life and art. We are slowly destroying ourselves in an  ‘auto-destructive’society. My adolescent guitar smashing and early nihilistic lyrics returned during these latest house discussions not to haunt or taunt but to remind me that thirty years ago with my contemporaries I had a chance to build and contribute to a better world. Had I done that? Tragically, I realised I had not. I had merely been a skilful and loquacious pop-artist.

My contact with my audience has always been unconscious, but processed and analyzed. I've always known where I've just come from, placing great emphasis on understanding the journey itself, rarely planning properly where I would end up next. It is a childlike way to work, well suited to the life of a writer of pop songs. Not so useful for books I remembered that when I gathered my collection of prose writing, ‘Horse s Neck’, my editor Robert McCrum urged me to accept that my readers would always come to my writing believing they knew me inside out, and that if I pretend to be able to deceive them with my fictions. I would fail. He was right. Thus it was that fiction mixed with or perfumed by experience became ‘autobiogritphical prose’, even though many of the stereotypical rock n roll events that I described had never happened. With Robert’s good advice in mind, and extrapolated into Lifehouse, we decided that we must let ‘littlePete’ speak. When we did, we found a captivating fellow full of suburban bomb-site spunk and really bright ideas. We called him Rayboy, and he
was most brilliantly recreated for me by Jeff Young who recorded my childhood memories very carefully.

Rayboy was, however, something of a pessimist. In our play the adult Ray grows tip tailing to realise his dreams and visions. I have of course realised many of my own childhood dreams, and I feel today that the few that are unrealised are within my grasp, or within my scope. But Ray and Rayboy are still very much of me. Perhaps they are also of my audience and childhood friends: all those West Londoners anti Carnaby Street immigrants from Ireland or the Caribbean who sometimes turned to me and said that I had a knack of putting into words what they could party-dance away, but found hard to otherwise express. It turned out that what I was best at
putting into words for them was the frustration that they could not put anything into words.

What is probably important to say now is that when you hear this play on the radio, the music will not change your understanding of the story. It will enhance your appreciation of it. Kale Rowland is especially good at using music in drama. But what the many descriptions of music’ in the play offer are gentle realisations of some of
the New Age Millennial notions argued by the play’s protagonists. These may appear to be rather cosmic ideas, but I implicitly believe in them. In Lifehouse, music itself is a fundamental and rudimentary principle, almost a functional character. To a musician like me, music is what is ‘inside us all’, it represents expericnce, emotion arid spiritual potential. I have invested my leading characters with this belief.

To go even further, I have always hoped that the Lifehouse concert referred to in this play can happen in reality. I imagine a celebratory gathering at which a large number of individuals hear modest compositions or songs created specifically for them. In a finale, all those pieces could be combined, perhaps with creative and engaging images of each subject. I believe the result would have enormous impact and significance. I recently wrote a proposal to a friend of mine who owns a computer company that might have agreed to sponsor some events of this kind. For my purposes here, I shall call the company ‘Threshold’.


From vision to reality:

In 1971, as the follow-up to his hugely successful rock-opera Tommy, Pete Townshend wrote The Life House
for The Who. The Life House was drafted by Pete Townshend as a film script. The film project stalled, but the legendary album Who's Next, was acclaimed by many of The Who's finest. Songs like Won't Get Fooled Again, Behind Blue Eyes and Baba O'Riley, have become part of the vertebrae of rock radio. A subsequent re-write brought forth Who Are You and Join Together. This year, 5 December 1999,  the definitive story behind the famous songs will finally be told when the BBC broadcast in the United Kingdom a radio play by Pete as part as their Millennium Drama series.

In the first draft of the play was a fictional scene that, at the time, seemed almost inconceivable in reality, In the finale of the film members of an audience attending a concert provided personal data to composers working with powerful computers, and heard the results. Ever single piece of music’ was then combined, and a mathematical-yet wonderfully creative-metaphor for the  universality of the human spirit was demonstrated.

Thirty years on, as the Millennium dawns, Threshold Computers, in association with Pete Townshend, are going to make this fictional scene happen. Threshold to The Life House will give everyone a chance to hear a piece of music specifically composed for them by Pete and his team. Indeed, their piece of music will be unique and special, produced using special computer programmes, based on data produced from questionaire accessed on the web, and perhaps even from DNA extracted from a hair of each participant. Pete will, in some cases, involve himself more deeply with participants, and develop lyrics or poetry to complement certain pieces of music.

On a date (yet to be set) in the future, an event will be held at which many of the pieces of music will be heard in public for the first time. Impudently, there will also be an attempt to realise Pete's 1971 vision for The Who's 'lost' movie project, and every single piece produced in the exercise will be combined and broadcast world-wide.We could hear the Music of the Spheres, or a busy night on Broadway. Pete believes we will hear the ocean.

Threshold Computers make buying and working with computers easier for people. Now they are making it easier for people to step into their own creative reflection.

Threshold to The Life House

But this is perhaps just my composers megalomaniacal dream. Such visions must be realised rather than described. That much I have learned on my Lifehouse journey which pauses here. Thus I move quickly onto the reality You are holding a CD package containing all the music inspired by the Lifehouse story over the last twenty nine years. A limited edition of 2001 (called The Lifehouse Method) will contain a unique code and a free ticket to the as yet unscheduled Lifehouse Concert. This is an excerpt from the brief I am giving to my software designers.


* The Method package will other access to music generation software.

* Each 'Method' package will contain a signed certificate from me with a unique code.

* This code will unlock a deeper area of software.

* The software should be available in all computer formats and can be distributed and 'shared', used without the code.

* The code, when entered, will bring up a special data-entry page which will lead the user through a process that produces a one-off, unique piece of music, that contains a unique lyric generated by lyric motifs by me.

* Users of the  'Method' can take their completed unique composition to the PT web-site, and expect to have their music developed further as the software is deepened. This process might unfold over a period of months or years.

* The end-aim is that many buyers of the 'Method' will attend a concert in future at which their piece of music is  'premiered' and contrapuntally or fractally combined with other pieces.

* Attendance at this concert is free to every purchaser of the  'Method'  package whether they take part in the experiment or not.

The Lifehouse logo, with its straight line
base and circle is derived from a
in mathematical and artistic principle known
as 'The Golden Mean'. It is expressed as a
series of geometrically related shapes, all
related to one another by specific ratios.
However, ' The Lifehouse' is of course more
than an abstract idea today. It is more than
a logo, or an icon more indeed than a
delightful animation. 'The Lifehouse' is a
place, an event, and-it is to be sincerely
hoped one day in the future-a building.
The evolution and transformation of the
Lifehouse symbol into an architect's first
vision of a building is the latest
serendipitous miracle or coincidence (that
is of course all part of the plan) that is
project continues to offer.

The Lifehouse building will be a rotunda, a
large round building where music is heard
and performed. Around the main building
will be other smaller round buildings
topped by a significant tower. In these
smaller buildings there will be workshops
and dressing rooms, music labs and

This animation can be viewed properly at . But here you
can see a vision and dream of the future, a
building designed specifically for the
production and performance of
experimental music produced in co-
operation with, and at the specific
commission of the audience.

Pete Townshend

So I still have this crazy urge to make the fiction real. If you don't wish to come to my Lifehouse party; or enjoy the fine art of 'The Method', you can be content with the cheaper 'Chronicles'. You can enjoy the story; the story behind the story and wait for the next chapter which I hope will be some down-to-earth concerts, possibly a Broadway musical (most likely based on Psychoderelict) and perhaps a feature film. Of course my next chapter should really be an air conditioned motor-caravan on its way South, but I am enjoying my work too much at the present to a take a holiday.

This entire package addresses the necessity for human beings to congregate regularly in order to share their emotions, and their responses to the spiritual challenges of art, great and small.

Pete Townshend, December 1999

WDK 2008

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