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Aug 13 2011

Popular Culture (Music) 20110812: Lifehouse

This is an extremely difficult piece to write, because the only living soul who understands it is Peter Townshend, and he still has a bit of difficulty articulating the concept in terms that we mere mortals can understand.  This is not in any way a criticism of Mr. Townshend, but more of a comment of my own poor understanding of his high goals.

In a nutshell, perhaps a cracked one, the concept for Lifehouse was sort of like A Brave New World, or 1984, in that society has been overtaken by a monied elite and thought suppression was the norm.  Does that sound timely?  I think that Townshend has presaged the ideas that the “modern” Republican Party is trying to impress on us all, but perhaps I give him too much credit.  I think not.

The concept that I finally came with was that individuality was suppressed, and group think was being imposed by the technocrats that ruled.  I ask for everyone’s thoughts on this, because it is so hard to decipher.

Some of you may wonder what the heck happened to Popular Culture last week.  It is a tale of pain and woe, it is.  Folks, I screwed up royally at 8:40 PM Eastern.  I was in a hurry to get everything finished, and whilst writing about song #21 out of 24 in the playlist for Lifehouse, I fatfingered the keyboard and wiped out literally everything except the introduction above here.  I do not know if I can finish in time to make it worth it posting this tonight (written last week).  If now, then next week.  Three hours of work gone in a millisecond.  I REALLY miss the old v3 Autosave feature.  I just have to be more disciplined in future, but implore the site managers to consider reinstating it.

To address this horrible event, I have become much more using of the Save and Preview button.  Last week I was in such a hurry that I neglected to use it at all, obviously.  Another thing that I have done is that I have begun running Lazarus which is supposed to keep a mirror of everything written until such time that I no longer need it.

The reason for Lifehouse was a combination of Townshend’s personal feelings and ambitions and the need to “top” Tommy commercially and artistically.  I shall begin by quoting from the seminal book about The Who, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere:  The Complete Chronicle of The Who 1958 - 1978 by Andy Neill and Matt Kent.

These are the opening paragraphs for the chapter 1971 of that book:

The Who, or more precisely Pete Townshend, faced a quandary.  The runaway success of Tommy created unenviable pressure to produce and equally remarkable follow-up in terms originality and commercial favour.  The Who were at the top of their form, consistently drawing maximum-capacity audiences due to their reputation as the ultimate live experience, aurally confirmed by Live at Leeds.

However, the group urgently needed to progress, as much as their stage act seemed to revolve around the sensory-impaired Walker boy.  Townshend had sincere faith in rock music’s potential to cut through barriers and communicate on all levels.  “At rock concerts you can achieve those rare moments where both group and audience completely forget themselves and become completely ego-less,” he told Disc and Music Echo in 1972.  “The most precious moments of my life are those moments on the stage when all is one.”

Thinking of this almost makes one realize that Townshend had set himself up for failure.  I did not read this in any book except the book of life.  He was essentially attempting to contrive a method to achieve ecstasy, and that is just not possible for the most part.  Some mystics have convinced themselves that they have done so, but only after decades of dedication to the goal.  For the vast majority, ecstasy comes only in rare moments when a combination of random factors, tied together with a willingness to allow one to give up her or his ego at least for a time, and then fleetingly.  Attempting to create it is a fool’s errand.  It comes only when one lets go, not when one tries ever more stridently.  That is the trap of drugs:  drugs give the appearance of it, and the feeling can be reproduced at will, for a while and at a great cost.

Anyway, so much for philosophy.  Very briefly, Lifehouse is a sort of futuristic vision of society (specifically in the United Kingdom, but it translates to other places) wherein some disaster has rendered the air nearly unfit to breathe except in very rural areas.  Since most of the population lived in the urban areas, they were easy to control because they had to wear what are called either life suits or experience suits, depending on the source of the information.  The function of the suits was to provide breathable air AND to bring information that the government wanted the wearers to have.  For some reason known only to Townshend, rock music was not allowed, and only older people remembered it.  That sort of sets a date on the disaster, but I dast not name it because of the reworks on Lifehouse.

We shall concentrate on the original concept from 1971, and not newer iterations.  Townshend tweaked it now and then.  This piece is too long already to go into three separate directions.

Here is a brief synopsis of the storyline, and the songs sort of fill in the details.  Society was divided into two factions (other than the government).  The highly populated urban areas with horribly polluted air that had to wear life suits, and the sparsely populated rural areas where the people were mostly farmers, hunter gatherers, or itinerants who either stole or did odd jobs for sustenance.  The government would buy food from the farmers to feed the urbanites, so the rural folks had some autonomy, but still were dependent on the government for information and the like.

Now, the life suits not only provided essential air to the urbanites, but also were connected to what Townshend called The Grid that provided them nonstop information suitable to the government.  Remember, this was conceived on or around 1970 by Townshend.  The concepts were so prescient that the rest of the band and the production team simply could not understand it.  The Grid sounds very much like the Communist Chinese version of the internet, and Townshend could not have been aware of the internet at the time because it was just being developed as ARPANET by the US military, only being somewhat successful around 1968 and still highly classified.  It was not until around 1978, almost a decade after the concept for Lifehouse was created, that word of this development because widespread.  By the way, Grid and Web imply almost identical concepts, except that Grid is a bit more regimented, the implication of the word being more mathematically precise, whereas Web seems to be more diffuse.

There was another concept in Lifehouse called grid sleep.  I think that is very similar to the regeneration cycles that the Borg on Star Trek used.  During grid sleep, images and sounds were injected into the minds of life suit wearers, thus controlling their behavior even more.  It is very similar to directed dreaming, with similarities to virtual reality.  These concepts have been exploited quite a lot in recent years, with films like The Matrix (which I did not like at all), the Borg, and several other offerings.

Now, Townshend thought all of this up himself in 1970 and 1971.  Not only a very gifted composer and musician, he was also a true visionary.  I wonder if he ever met with Buckmaster Fuller?  Perhaps this gives my readers a bit more insight on why I favor The Who over all bands.

Anyhow, the folks in the suits were forced to experience only what the government wanted them to experience.  The farmers were a bit more free, but never completely so.  This sets up a class warfare scenario.  

The nearest thing to a protagonist that the story has is a character named Bobby who worked for the government and hijacked the Grid.  He began playing rock and roll music to the life suit wearers, and they found that they were not actually married to the suits, that it was government propaganda.  They began to rebel and start a revolution.  Bobby transmitted from the Lifehouse, thus the name for the concept.

Finally, it appears that the revolution succeeded, as well as revolutions ever do, with the liberation of everyone, but since this is Townshend, you have to realize that the final outcome is far from clear.  OK, enough of the story line.  It was fine, but Townshend’s technical and artistic aspirations are what doomed the project.

First, Townshend insisted that the entire work be taped in quadrophonic sound (he gave that a nod later with the album named Quadrophenia) and include studio work, live work, and audience participation.  He also wanted it to be a feature film.  I suspect that the amphetamines and the alcohol were somewhat to blame for that.  He was WAY too ambitious for the technology at the time to carry him.  Now it would be easy, except for the musical art parts, since The Who who are left are too old to pull it off, and the other two are deceased.

Townshend needed money to finance the project.  Kit Lambert, their producer, went to Universal Studios and pitched the concept to them, and they agreed to fund it.  What Lambert did NOT tell the band was the funding was contingent of a screenplay for Tommy, still riding high in success.  Universal demanded a script, so Lambert started to write one.  He was becoming quite addled by drink and drugs by that time, and the script was never finished.  Universal finally pulled the plug on the financing, and when Townshend and the rest of the band realized what Lambert had been doing, they fired him summarily.  The song How Many Friends Have I Really Got from The Who by Numbers is a chronicle of that.  This was a serious thing, because without Kit Lambert, The Who almost certainly would have played locally for a couple of years and NEVER been known, except as a flash in the pan when Shel Talmy was their producer.

Anyway, Lifehouse fizzled in 1971, although Townshend kept at it for decades and kind of sort of finished it, although The Who NEVER performed the entire playlist in order.  Without further ado, here is the playlist for the original iteration of Lifehouse.  I have tried to find songs for each of them, studio, live, and then Townshend’s original demos for the band.  The ones that finally appeared on Who’s Next are not included since we went in depth on them last time, here.

As circumstances warrant, I shall throw in some of my observations about the content of the music.  This is the original song lineup, as far as I can tell.  No source is complete that I can find, but this one from Wikipedia (modified for our purposes) seems to be about as comprehensive as possible.

01.  Teenage Wasteland

02.  Going Mobile

03.  Baba O’Riley

04.  Time Is Passing

05.  Love Ain’t for Keeping

06.  Bargain

07.  Too Much of Anything

08.  Music Must Change

09.  Greyhound Girl

10.  Mary

11.  Behind Blue Eyes

12.  Baba O’Riley (Instrumental)

13.  Sister Disco

14.  I Don’t Even Know Myself

15.  Put the Money Down

16.  Pure and Easy

17.  Getting in Tune

18.  Let’s See Action

19.  Slip Kid

20.  Relay

21.  Who Are You

22.  Join Together

23.  Won’t Get Fooled Again

24.  The Song Is Over

I shall leave the song list intact so that you can keep them in order.  Now I shall find and post embeds for each of them, usually at least two, sometimes more.  Now you can see how disappointed that I was when I wiped out everything after I had gotten to #21, and why it is not possible to post this tonight, but will rather wait until next week.  This time I shall start by embedded the Townshend demos, where available, so that you can see how much detail and complexity that the rest of the band add.  Unless otherwise noted, all songs are written by Peter Townshend.

01.  Teenage Wasteland  This is NOT Baba O’Reily!  It is a completely different song, and early performances are difficult to find.  The song does share some with Baba, but is quite different overall.  My interpretation is that all was not well within each faction.  This is the demo:

This is the only other one that I could find, most of them that purport to be Teenage Wasteland are actually wrong titles for Baba O’Reily.  That sort of strikes me odd since it was the opening song for Lifehouse.  Perhaps you can find a version by the entire band and post it in the comments.

02.  Going Mobile  We discussed that one last week at the link above here.  It has to do with the rurals and the urbanites sort of melding, I think.

03.  Baba O’Riley  We discussed this one last week as well, but it is important to the Lifehouse story to know that Mary (to be mentioned later in a song) is the daughter of Sally in this song.  They were farmers, and Mary went to find the protagonist at the Lifehouse.

04.  Time Is Passing  This is a very nice song.  Let us see what I can find on You Tube.  Note the reference to “… while my sister plays her jar.”  That has to do with Indian music, with which Townshend was very attached at the time because of his reverence towards his avatar, Meyer Baba.

The demo is very nice:

Here is a live one from Young Vic, the venue where Townshend wanted most of the live parts of Lifehouse to be recorded and filmed.  I have not ever been able to find actual motion pictures of anything from Young Vic, but lots of nice live recordings:

Here is a studio version, purportedly from the enhanced edition of Odds and Sods.  This is one song that I think is better sung by Townshend than by Daltrey.

05.  Love Ain’t for Keeping  This one was treated at the link above, but I should point out that I believe that is a conversation betwixt Sally and her husband, the farmers.  I also believe that “the babe” mentioned is Mary.

06.  Bargain  This was also treated last week, but I think that is important that one of Meyer Baba’s sayings went very much like that.  Townshend was very interested in that philosophy at the time.

07.  Too Much of Anything  This is an excellent song.  If you listen very carefully, you can make out a reference to Townshend losing his hearing, viz., “…I think these ears have heard a whole lot of music, this time maybe a bit too much.”

Demo first:

Here is the whole band version from the enhanced CD of Who’s Next, and it seems to be pretty much the same one from Odds and Sods.  It is a marvelous piece, one of their best.

Here is the one from Young Vic that was supposed to be part of the actual Lifehouse release that never was:

08.  Music Must Change  This one was not released until 1978 on the last Moon record, Who Are You.  Moon did not drum on this one, but I am not sure about the story behind it.  The conventional wisdom is that he was unable to keep up with 6/8 time because of drink and drugs, but the demo has no drums either.  I think that this song was just designed not to have drums.  What do you think?

As it comports to Lifehouse, I can only wonder.  I suspect that it has to do with rock and roll just having to change to keep up with the life suit folks, but that is speculation on my part.

Listening to it again, I can not believe that he did the demo back in the early 1970s.  His voice is much too coarse and throaty for for then.  It is possible that he wrote it and never recorded it until many years later, but that is NOT the Townshend of 1971, unless he had been ill.

Here is the studio version from Who Are You.

Notice the outstanding enunciation by Daltrey!  Every word is pronounced perfectly, and his voice is outstanding.  But no drums.  The song did not need any, and I declare the myth of Moon not being able to play it bunk.

I was unable to find a decent live version, so I leave it up to you to find one.  The ones that I found had horrible audio.

09.  Greyhound Girl  This is sort of enigmatic.  My interpretation is that Mary has come to town to find the Lifehouse on a bus.  There are not very many specimens of it.

Now, it is also true that Townshend loved playing the greyhound races, and perhaps that might be a girl that he met there.  One of things that I love about Townshend’s pieces is the ambiguity.  One never knows what to think!  Of one think I am sure:  the song is about a human female.

Here is a live performance from 2006 with Townshend.  I was never able to find one from The Who.  If you can, please embed it in the comments.  Note that he is playing a 12 string acoustic and has to wear earphones to know where he is in the piece.  Age is a horrible thing, and I am not aging well.

10.  Mary  As far as I can tell from the story line, Mary is the Greyhound girl and certainly is the daughter of Sally.  She went to the urban area (London, as I take it) to find the pirate that reprogrammed the Grid.  The demo is haunting:

Even this very recent live version is haunting.  I have a few tears, especially about the part when he say something about pushing her away.

11.  Behind Blue Eyes  We discussed this one last week.  I think that it autobiographical for Townshend, and he mentions a coat, an echoing reflection of his often.  Ten point to whomever can tell me in what song, and on what album, the term “echoing reflection” was first used by him.

In Lifehouse, the song was supposed to be told by Brick, a very bad fellow who was the foil to Bobby.  I think that it was Townshend, in both of his personae.

12.  Baba O’Riley (Instrumental)  This one is hard to find on You Tube, and the one that I found may or not be the original one.  This one is extremely complex, and sounds like it was created in 1971 or so, when Townshend was experimenting with synthesizers and feeding actual instruments through their filters.  At the time, most were analogue, but now most are digital.  Imagine the difficulty in controlling the output when impressing an analogue signal into an unpredictable analogue device!

Listen to this one over and over!  It is wonderful!  If Townshend were alone, he just about would be The Who!  I shed tears listening.

At #13 is Sister Disco.  My take is that it was written contemporaneously with the other Lifehouse works, but was not released until 1978 on Who are You.  However, I have just a bit of trouble with that.  True, the discotheque was popular even in the late 1960s, but I am not aware of it being called a disco until somewhat later, but that might be because of my ignorance of UK usage.  I shall give Mr. Townshend the benefit of the doubt on this one.  I can say with some assurance that the term disco music had not yet been coined, because the musical genre had not at the time.

I have not a single shred of evidence that Townshend made a demo of this at the time, in or around 1971, but that does not mean that he did not write it at the time.  Here is the studio version from Who are You from 1978:

Here is a live version, around 1979.  I still do not see where it fits in with Lifehouse, although it is an OK song, I suppose.  You can probably tell that this is far from my favorite song of theirs, and I think that its inclusion in Lifehouse is spurious.

For the next song, #14, there is better evidence that it belonged there.  I Don’t Even Know Myself seems to fit in with the era.  Here is the demo:

Here is what seems to be an early studio version that was never released until years later:

Finally, I found the Tanglewood live version of it.  I have criticized the Tanglewood series before because Roger was not in his best of voice, but the videography is excellent, as is the bass and drumming, and lots video of John and Keith.

The next song is one of my favorites of theirs, Pure and Easy.  It was #16 of the 24 songs.  Most critics agree that this is the central part of Lifehouse, about how rock and roll can be liberating.  I concur.  I also note, and no one that I have read has asserted, that it is autobiographical as well.  The line about “… and a child flew past me riding on a star,” has to mean something about the early success that Townshend had.  Wunderkinds have trouble, often, later in life.  Just ask me.

Here is the demo, and it sounds a lot like the one from Who Came First:

Few songs show the difference betwixt the demo and the full Who version as this one does.  Pete’s demo is very nice, but just not quite up to the full band at their prime.  Try this one:

I must say that Glyn Johns did a wonderful bit of work translating Townshend’s demo into a full Who version of it.  This remains one of my favorites.

Here is the one, sorry no video, from Young Vic, supposed to be part of the multimedia presentation.  Do you like it?

Getting in Tune was #17, and we treated it last time when we discussed Who’s Next, so I shall not use extra bandwidth for it.  However, it is a wonderful song.

The next one, Let’s See Action, is a phrase that I used to use as my tagline.  This is also a wonderful piece, and we shall start with the demo.  It was #18 of the 24 (IF you include Sister Disco).

In some ways I like this better that the version from The Who, because it seems to have a bit more feeling.  Musically, there is no any contest, The Who being much better.  Here is the original studio version:

I seem to remember that this came out on Odds and Sods, but I might be incorrect.  Please correct me if I need to be corrected.  I could not find a version before Keith died, so we end this one here.

Number 19 was Slip Kid, and I am not convinced that this was written back then either, but we shall see.  Here is Townshend’s demo.  Note that his voice seems much more, for lack of a better term, older than his did in the very early 1970s.  Once again, I do not think that this song was ever recorded earlier than 1977 even by Pete, but just because something was not recorded does not mean that it was not written earlier:

However, the differences in his writing styles are pretty great.  I sort of think that Slip Kid is not really supposed to be part of Lifehouse, at least as originally conceived.  I could be incorrect, but it, like Sister Disco, seem to be quite out of place.  Here is the studio version from The Who from The Who by Numbers:

Again, the more Who sound is wonderful, even if the song is out of time.

There are very few live performances of this song that are even listenable.  Here is a fairly good one, whilst Keith was still alive, but the audio is not all that good:

Now, #20, The Relay, is almost certainly part of the Lifehouse canon.  It was written and performed at about the right time.  Here is the demo:

Notice that the effects are much more like those from Who’s Next than those from Who are You.  This one is authentic.  Here is the studio version:

This live version, venue unknown to me, is illustrative about it.  If one considers the clothes and the hair styles, it had to be in the early 1970s.  It is also a pretty good performance, and I like this clip because it shows lots of John and Keith.  Please enjoy something from around 1972 or 1973:

This might be the original studio version, but seems to be a bit short:

Now we get to where I fatfingered my keyboard last week!  Coming up to Song #21!

21.  Who are You.  I am also dubious of this one being part of the original Lifehouse concept, because it does not fit with the futuristic concept that Townshend originally conceived, and the style of writing and music were so different from that of the very early 1970s.  Once again I might be incorrect, but it just does not seem to fit.  By the way, the album, Who are You, released in 1978, was the last that Moon lived long enough to which to contribute.

Here is the demo:

This is the studio version from the record of the same name:

Here is a pretty good live version.  Notice that Zak Starkey is drumming.  I am not aware of a true live version with Keith.

Song number 22 is certainly part of the original canon.  Join Together was sort of a central tenet of Lifehouse.

Once again we start with the demo:

The studio cut by the whole band also included harmonica and Jew’s harp, the only Who song of which I am aware that combined these two instruments:

This song has on of the most unique sounds of any by The Who.  I really like it a lot!

Here is a live version from 1975.  Without digital technology, it was difficult to reproduce the sound of the studio version.

There is a classic music video of this song but I have not been able to find it.  If you stumble over it, please add it in the comments.

We discussed the 23rd song in the concept at length last time, so I shall just mention Won’t get Fooled Again.  Go to the link near the top if the body of this piece and you can find the versions that I included.  In my opinion, this may be the very best song that the band ever released, and seeing them perform it live was a highlight of my life.

The final cut for the concept is The Song is Over, also discussed last time when we covered Who’s Next.  It is interesting how it fades to Pure and Easy in the final few bars.

Folks, this has been a long slog through lots and lots of songs.  I leave the interpretation of Lifehouse to you, because like all art, the meaning is unique to the observer of the art.  I will tell you a couple of things that I got out of it.

First, Townshend was trying to create something that had never been attempted before.  As we discussed when we looked at Tommy, the concept of a rock opera was not really new with The Who.  However, this kind of a multimedia approach was new.

Second, Townshend is, or at least was, a musical and more broadly, an artistic visionary.  The way that these songs tie together into a more or less cogent theme is quite remarkable.  I am also quite impressed with his ability to predict that the technology would progress to very much like what we have today.

Third, because of the strength of the music and the performances, even the failed Lifehouse project brought us one of the very best record albums ever, Who’s Next.  When a failed project can lead to such a masterpiece shows that even when doing a few things wrong, they did everything else right.

Between this installment and the one last time about Who’s Next, I have left you with well over six hours of music (24 songs, five minutes each, three versions, and the five minutes and three versions are very conservative figures), so please do not listen to all of it before commenting!  If you want to read through quickly, listen to the second version of each song, usually the studio version that was on either Who’s Next of came out later either as a single or on some ethical compilation.  I hope that you enjoy listening and commenting as much as I enjoyed listening to the songs as I decided which ones to include.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

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