In 1969, after years of fluctuating fortunes, The Who finally achieved stability when Tommy made them superstars.
You?d think it would have been smooth sailing for the band following the critical and commercial success of that saga of a ?… deaf, dumb ?n? blind boy,? a work that effectively kicked off the whole rock opera industry. In fact, The Who was about to enter one of the most difficult passages of their career. At the end of it, though, they would emerge with Who?s Next, a magnificent achievement with an enduring reputation 35 years after its release and a fixture of ?greatest album ever? polls.
That Who?s Next became a landmark album is all the more remarkable considering that is was not a fully realized, organic concept, but the arbitrarily assembled remnants of an abandoned intended masterwork.
Following Tommy ? and with the barnstorming in-concert album Live At Leeds (1970) serving as a strong stop-gap ? Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend had set about work on an even more ambitious and intellectually challenging project: a multi-media production called Lifehouse that was supposed to combine elements of cinema and music. Although there was a story, it was not a narrative sustained by the songs, like Tommy.
?The music was tangential, like a Broadway musical, because the story was meant to [be] told through film ? part reality, part fiction.? Townshend said. ?I think the concept of mixing documentary and fiction might fly today, but it was a strange idea in 1971.? However, he also says, ?There was a very clear story long before I had any music ? so in a way it had a stronger narrative than Tommy. The narrative to Tommy evolved through the recording process.
?I think Lifehouse is far more pretentious in aim than Tommy ever was. Tommy is much more of a sociological document about the family post-war. Lifehouse is science fiction really and based on the promise of the home computer, which we all knew was coming but we didn?t know when.?
Townshend?s aim was to use Lifehouse as a device to show how human beings become disconnected from the spiritual mechanics of everyday life. It would portray an individual living a life of total artificiality via experiences drip-fed into him via something that Townshend says was a little like what would become known as the Internet.
?It was very simple, I believed,? he said. ?Certainly as naive as Tommy in basis but a very simple story and although it predated William Gibson?s first book about the Matrix, a lot of writing had already been done about the future of the Internet, about the way the computers would link people together, that data would be exchanged. Although the first two computers weren?t linked together until after I?d scratched out the story for Lifehouse, they were working on it. I?d been taught about it at art school.?
It?s long been said that one of the story strands of Lifehouse involved the ?universal chord,? an aggregation of individual musical sounds produced by every human being. Via the harvesting of their individual sounds, it was intended that some of The Who?s audience would participate in Lifehouse.
?That?s simply a fictional idea,? says Townshend of the idea of ?music from people.?
?It does have of course a metaphysical and to some extent some scientific basis. The universe resonates. The thing about the ?universal chord? ? that was actually something to do with the Moody Blues. It had nothing to do with The Who?s Lifehouse. What I talked about in my script was a man who goes mad, who starts to work with people and produce pieces of music an