THERE ONCE WAS A NOTE, PURE AND EASY: Who’s Next Celebrates 50 With Little Fanfare. Fifty years on, The Who’s most popular album seems more relevant than ever, despite the troubled fortunes of ‘Lifehouse,’ the rock opera from which it was born.
As originally developed, “Lifehouse” took place in a world where the ecosystem had collapsed, hibernation was mandated, and rock and live music were banned. The tedium of sheltering in place was made bearable by government-mandated entertainment pumped into “experience suits” that made people feel they were part of what they saw.
Enter a group of revolutionaries, who recalled the spirit of rock ’n’ roll. They stage an illegal live concert at a venue called the “Lifehouse.” Their goal is to have concertgoers produce a collective harmony that Mr. Townshend called “the one perfect note.”
By the end of 1970, Mr. Townshend completed 19 “Lifehouse” songs, though he said the project had left him “overworked, paranoid, short of ready money and lonely.” Demos were recorded in January and February 1971, with Mr. Townshend playing all the musical parts. But when he pitched his “Lifehouse” idea to the band and their manager, Mr. Townshend recalled in his 2012 memoir, they felt the concept was muddled.
The music was a different matter. The band tried workshopping “Lifehouse” at London’s Young Vic Theatre, but the reception was lukewarm. As the deadline for the Who’s next studio album loomed, Mr. Townshend agreed to put “Lifehouse” on hold. Instead, the band enlisted the help of engineer Glyn Johns, who in April 1971 began assembling “Who’s Next” from what Mr. Townshend called “the ‘Lifehouse’ rubble.”
Eight of the album’s nine songs were from “Lifehouse,” with “My Wife” contributed by the band’s bassist, John Entwistle. The discarded “Lifehouse” tracks eventually made their way onto future Who albums.
Over the years, “Lifehouse” has had many lives. In 1978, Mr. Townshend tried again, resetting “Lifehouse” 200 years after the “Who’s Next” events. In 1999, there was a radio-play version.
As Townshend confidant Richard Barnes famously said, “There were two groups: people that understood Lifehouse, and people who didn’t. The people who understood Lifehouse included one, Pete Townshend. The people who didn’t was everybody else he ever tried to explain it to, and the whole rest of the human race, which was about four billion at the time.” In all of his rock operas and concept albums, plotting an easy-to-understand story has always been Townshend’s weak point. But oh, what brilliant songs emerged from those stories.