Rock and Roll Feature: The Who, Art Rock, Lifehouse and Who's Next

This is the thirty-third in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

Somewhere along the twisted and turning path that is the history of rock and roll, I imagine there was a moment when some rocker had an epiphany, stood up and said: “Wait, I think I'm an artist!” thus sparking the debate that would rage across all of musical history thereafter: Is rock and roll (or you could argue any popular media) art?

Personally I error on the side of things being art, but as an artist myself, I tend to see everything through artistic colored glasses. Perhaps so much so in fact that I think the best albums are the ones that are “artistically adventurous”. It's not always the most successful ones that I find most engrossing either. Instead there are a number of albums that I'm strongly drawn to and fascinated with because of the artistic concept that surrounds them... how artistically adventurous they are, as opposed to how successfully that artistic vision is actually conveyed. Sometimes these albums are especially fascinating because the concept behind them actually goes largely unnoticed, or at least under appreciated. If the album then becomes a cultural success of sorts it leads to a really interesting dichotomy where the album at it's heart is this incredibly complex artistic concept, but the end result is a work that is mainly appreciated as just a great straight forward rock album.

There probably aren't too many better examples of that than this month's featured album. Released in 1971, Who's Next is probably the Who's most acclaimed work, containing some of their greatest hits and certainly is a peak in their career. It is an album that has become one of the classics of rock and roll right down to it's iconic concrete monolith cover art (yes, with the band having just urinated upon it... no joke, take a closer look next time if you never noticed).

Most of the songs of Who's Next though began as part of a massive followup project to Tommy, to be called Lifehouse. This driving force had tremendous scope and artistic vision, but proved to be too taxing on the band to be accomplished at the time. The result was a more direct album that still projects the original vision, but is also one of the best and probably most well known rock albums of all time.

The Lifehouse Project
One part science fiction, one part new age psychedelia as was popular in the late 60s and early 70s, with plenty of typical Who social comment, it was primarily designed to be a film that would partially be storyline, and partially be concert footage of the Who's residency at the Young Vic theater. There would also would have been an album release I believe and when combined with the concerts, you could call Lifehouse a full fledged multimedia project. Calling it just a multimedia project though, even if the phrases “ambitious” and “ahead of it's time” are included just doesn't seem to come close to doing it justice.

The storyline takes place in a future where rock music doesn't exist, disappearing from mainstream culture and becoming the domain of mystics who can just barely remember. The majority of the populous, driven inside by pollution lives self contained within “Lifesuits” connected to a mainframe like the Internet called “The Grid”. It is through this Grid that they experience everything in a sort of virtual reality where everything is programmed and nothing actually experienced. Although influenced by Aldous Huxley's Brave New World at the time, this sounds almost “Matrix-esque” or similar to “Second Life” when viewed against the back drop of modern popular culture. Remember though, this was all conceived back around 1970/1971!

In the original storyline a small group of rebels have decide to organize a real life rock concert called the Lifehouse, which is then broadcast into the system via pirate radio. Then by using a sort of perfect note the concert snaps everyone out of their programmed lifesuit existences and they achieve a sort of musical nirvana... freedom through rock and roll.

Heavily influenced by eastern philosophy, this “Perfect” or “Universal” note idea proved to be one of the most interesting and complex parts of the Lifehouse concept, along with one of the most problematic. The idea is that the details of an individual from their astrological information, to their personalities, appearance, hobbies etc could be used to create music... a sort of musical, vibrational representation of that individual person. These musical representations could then be combined and composed with to create the this unified musical consciousness that Pete Townsend referred to as “a kind of celestial cacophony” leading to a single perfect universal note that would elevate everyone to spiritual enlightenment, the musical nirvana in the story.

The Who didn't intend on this just happening in the film/album though, Townsend became engrossed with the idea of making it actually happen, as close as could be achieved in this reality, and the concert footage of such an event would become a central part of the film. The band would perform at the Young Vic theater for a series of nights, taking the concert goers information to create their musical vibrations, filming them and interacting with them so that the audience influenced both the music and the Lifehouse storyline becoming part of it musically and physically, to create a sort of massive performance art and multimedia piece wrapped around the Lifehouse story.

As I said, I don't think ambitious and ahead of its time really do the concept justice. It's a massive project... cool for sure, but massive... and so of course their were massive problems as well. The Young Vic residency proved to be problematic both because of the crowds that came seemed to be seeking more of a traditional Who concert, and there were scheduling issues as well, not to mention any of the technical problems that surrounded organizing this universal note idea into something tangible. The Lifehouse concept itself is so complex that at the time it seemed like no one outside of Pete Townsend really understood what they were trying to accomplish leading to personnel and funding difficulties as well along with heavy drinking and drug use.

Townsend suffered at least one nervous breakdown from the stress of trying to make his vision a reality and eventually the project collapsed. The band then decided to slim things down and produce a much more direct album from the Lifehouse songs and others. This is the Who's Next album.

The Lifehouse concept continued to remain a consistent part of Pete Townsend's writing though and so other Who albums and Townsend's solo work also contain fragments of Lifehouse related stories, or songs that are part of the original story. The concept wouldn't really come together in something of a fully realized form until the The Lifehouse Chronicles release in 2000. In 2007 though, Townsend worked to create an online site called The Lifehouse Method (http://www.lifehouse-method.com/), where people could create their own musical portrait of such, like originally conceived of as part of the universal note concept. Unfortunately that project has since been discontinued, but the site itself states that over 10,000 pieces of music were created, which I think is pretty cool.

As far as Lifehouse goes, I find it to be an extremely complex and interesting project... one of which I'm actually pretty sure I've misinterpreted at least some of the details of in my descriptions above, it's just that complex, that even when you think you have it right, you probably don't. In hindsight it seems unlikely that such an ambitious project could ever have been completed as originally intended at the time, or possibly ever. The social commentary of the story and the concept itself though, I find to be very powerful and somethings that really stands the test of time.

Then of course there's the album, which has taken on something of a life of it's own beyond it's Lifehouse roots... the life of one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time.

The Album
At the time of it's release, Who's Next was of course a major success and looking back there's no real wondering why... it contains a number of the Who's most well known tracks of all time. Remember though that almost all of the songs... actually all except one... were actually written for Lifehouse, so it can be quite interesting to view them through that lens as well.

Starting off, what can really be said about “Baba O'Riley”? Perhaps it's the most well known Who song of all time. Certainly instantly recognizable from the opening synthesizer lines, and yet it's those synth lines that tie it directly to the Lifehouse project as I'm pretty sure they were created to sound like the bits of data generated by the individual human vibrations ala the universal note idea. They're definitely catchy bubbling away though, and combined with a powerful driving rhythm and lyrics and you have an instant classic.

Same is true for the next track “Bargin”... one of my personal favorite Who songs. With it's light intro erupting into a one of the band's hardest rockers, it's just great from start to finish. The light, almost country twinged “Love Ain't For Keeping” has a great airy rhythm and harder hitting chorus that certainly hints at how they would preform this one live over the years: electric and turned up just a bit.

John Entwistle's “My Wife” is the only track here that wasn't originally part of Lifehouse, but it's a great rocker none the less, one of the band's best beyond their more well known work, with a great riff, massive blasting horns and a touch of sarcasm and humor to it's lyrics. What would a classic Who song be without a little wry humor and social comment thrown in?

I believe “The Song is Over” was originally supposed to close Lifehouse had it actually been released. It highlights that perfect enlightened moment with a bit of light “cloud parting, sun streaming through” melody, but also has plenty of drive in the middle sections as well as a bit of piano rock flair. I think it would have served as an appropriate finale, but here is simply a midway stop.

“Getting in Tune” is slightly melancholy ballad at it's core, but also has a massive chorus section that has that touch of melodrama like Tommy and the later Quadrophenia... true rock opera melody at it's finest. This song is also another favorite Who song of mine. I just love the feel and the way the soaring moments combine with the lighter touches. “Going Mobile” returns to the acoustic touches, again with a touch of country and a nice rapid folk stomp. This song also features some of my favorite Townsend lyrics and wordplay as it drives to the end.

Then there's “Behind Blue Eyes”... a favorite of just about every Who fan I'm sure from it's haunting opening and closing melodies, to it's raw explosive central riff. Not only does this song contain some of Roger Daltrey's best vocal work with plenty of range from sweet to growls when necessary, but I really like the airy backing vocals in the lighter parts. They seem dreamy and slightly psychedelic, perfect for the track and emotional charge of the song.

The album of course closes with another classic, one who's rocking awesomeness is not at all diminished by the fact that it has become the opening theme song for one of the CSI television shows: “Won't Get Fooled Again”. With those bubbly synthesizers returning, classic driving guitar riff and great lyrics, this one is timeless in every respect, but let's be serious for a second... What makes this song truly great? Is it the riff? The Lyrics? Nah... it's Daltrey's primal scream! There could be no better representation of all the fury, energy and rebellion of rock and roll than in that one vocal moment... Rock and roll perfection.

And that's Who's Next. A legendary rock and roll album no doubt. I hope you'll find it interesting to take a listen to the bits of Lifehouse storyline throughout the songs as well as the story is there, you just have to listen. I think it takes these songs to a deeper level unifying them along a central theme even if that theme is not as immediately apparent. It's especially interesting to listen to this album after having listening to the later Lifehouse collections that lays out everything from across the Who era in storyline order. The tracks here certainly aren't in the right order, but they work just as well. It's a unique case where songs that are actually taken out of context works extremely well as a new artistic creation... very cool... and just great rock and roll throughout.

The Conclusion
The conclusion to this one is simple... you should be listening to the Who... No... everyone should be listening to the Who. Amazing songwriting and some incredibly powerful and ambitious music and artistic vision. If you've never listened to this band before... or maybe you're only familiar with them from too much CSI Miami... this is a great album to start with if you're not going to start from the beginning of their catalog.

In my opinion Who's Next is a must have for any rock and roll collection, whether you're a major fan of the band or not... it's that good.

Also, next time you are listening to this album, take some time to see what you can pick about from the Lifehouse storyline... or better yet seek out some of the extended Lifehouse collections and other releases. I think the sheer scope of what the band was attempting makes it interesting, but as I said before, I also think the storyline, the emotional charge and the social comment behind it still hit home to this day.

Who's Next has been re-released a few times over the years I beleive, often with additional tracks, like a killer “punkified” cover version of Marvin Gaye's “Baby Don't You Do It”, and some great additional rarities like “Naked Eye” and “Water”. I'm fond of the Deluxe edition of this album as not only does it come with bonus tracks and a lot of additional liner notes from Pete Townsend discussing the Lifehouse project, but also a second disk of live performances from the Young Vic residency. Great stuff because as we all should know, the Who were, and still are, a killer live act... one of the best live bands of all time, even without the instrument smashing.

You can find that Deluxe version of Who's Next from Amazon here: Who's Next (Deluxe Edition)

For more information on Lifehosue, the Wikipedia page actually has some good information: Wikipedia: Lifehouse Rock Opera

As does this article from Ear Candy: Lifehouse - The "Lost" Who Album

Both of those websites, along with the album liner notes were used as sources for the information in this article.

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