At the beginning of the 1970s, the Who wanted to become the Greatest Band In The World. Their 1969 rock opera, Tommy, had vaulted them from theaters into arenas. Explosive performances at Woodstock and Monterey Pop were captured on film for everyone to see, and then they released Live at Leeds, the decibel-shattering record that cemented their legacy as the band heard blaring at full volume from the car stereos of every self-respecting rock’n’roll fan, from the stoners to the nerds. They had worked tirelessly for years to get to this very spot, but as soon as they did, the connection with their fans suffered due to larger venues and higher ticket prices. Reflecting in a 1971 Melody Maker column, Pete Townshend wrote, “At rock concerts you can achieve those rare moments where both group and audience forget themselves and become completely ego-less. The most precious moments of my life are on the stage when all is one.”
This unflagging belief in the bond between the Who and their followers drove Townshend’s work on the songs that ended up on Who’s Next. Its genesis, development, and creation are extensively chronicled in Who’s Next | Life House, an 11-CD box set that beautifully communicates the spirit of the original project by opening up the vaults and inviting everybody inside.
This anniversary release presents a remastered version of the original album, two discs of demos, two discs of working studio sessions, a disc of singles and outtakes, two different live concerts from 1971, and finally, a Blu-ray containing the original album and bonus tracks in Dolby Atmos and 5.1. It’s accompanied by extensive liner notes from Townshend along with longtime Who archivists Matt Kent and Andy Neill and a graphic novel that tells the story of Life House: the ambitious, never-completed concept album that inspired Who’s Next. This is the appropriate level of gravitas for a project that has always been Townshend’s great white whale, a lost epic that he has revisited multiple times, trying to finally get it right. (When Townshend launched his own website in 1999, there was a whole section for Life House, leading to a self-released 6-CD box set titled Lifehouse Chronicles, which sold out immediately.)
The plot of Life House details a dystopic vision of the destruction of planet Earth, a militaristic regime that puts the population into virtual reality suits, and the existence of a central Grid controlled by mega-corporations. Rock’n’roll is banned because it will over-stimulate the Grid, and rebellion comes in the form of those who escaped and make it to the Life House, where each audience member would perform their own individual “note,” and after which they would achieve, yes, perfect harmony and ascend to Nirvana. Now that you can buy virtual reality headsets in a vending machine at the airport, this all sounds less fantastical than it did in the ’60s, but the complexity of this attempt at a coherent summary of the plot is symptomatic of why this box set, half a century later, is probably the closest Townshend will come to his vision being realized.
The detailed liner notes chronicle every painful step and misstep trying to manifest Townshend’s sci-fi dreamworld, accompanied by recordings that reinforce the story. When you listen to the first attempt to record the Life House songs in New York with manager Kit Lambert and compare them to the second attempt with producer Glyn Johns in London, it’s clear why Townshend called off the New York sessions after a week and called in Johns, his friend and the producer of the hour, to start all over again. Johns helped them sort through all of the Life House material and crucially, convinced Townshend that the project should be pared down to a single album for commercial reasons. Whether or not you agree with that decision, the difference in sonic clarity and energy between the Olympic tapes and the ones in New York is remarkable: It’s not hyperbole to suggest that music history would have been much different had this decision not been made.
Cutting the record to a single disc meant that some of the best songs didn’t make it onto the album. Fan favorites like “Pure and Easy,” “The Seeker,” “Naked Eye,” and “Let’s See Action” were setlist regulars for decades and could have survived without being part of a storyline. Their absence makes one contemplate why Who’s Next included bassist John Entwistle’s “My Wife,” a banal lament about domestic life, or “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” a flimsy treatise on relationships, over these gems that are among the band’s best work in this era—or any other, for that matter. On the other hand, it’s clear why other demos, such as “Greyhound Girl” and “Mary,” didn’t make the cut; they’re gorgeous but they’re too intrinsically linked to the storyline.
Another vital element of this set is the opportunity to explore Townshend’s original demos. The demo of “Baba O’Riley” sits in opposition to the heart-stopping anthem that ultimately opened the album. As Roger Daltrey delivers it, “Baba” is larger than life; in contrast, the demo is a ballad, plaintive and searching, on the edge of desperation but full of hope. The dominating instrumentation is piano with a sharp undercutting guitar melody line full of the kind of angular attack that could only be Townshend. Hearing the evolution of the songs and the insight into Townshend’s intricate process is a sharp contrast with the power and immediacy of the Who, which was loud, sweaty, and overwhelming. But the members were always so locked together it felt like magic.
The transformation of the new material is illustrated by the two live recordings from 1971. The impromptu show, recorded at the Young Vic during the recording of the album, is more like expanded rehearsal in front of a live audience. The other performance is from the second night of a stand at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium, which rumbles and vibrates with more power and confidence. The Who’s Next songs aren’t so new anymore, and although Tommy gets more space on the setlist, “Baba O’Riley” still gives you goosebumps, and there’s a moment in “Naked Eye,” after Daltrey finishes the first verse, when the guitars and Keith Moon’s drums exquisitely crash into each other, and you’ll wish they’d figured out how to get it on the album. Everlasting quibbles like these may shed some light on why Townshend still considers Who’s Next to have been a “compromise album,” compared to his original concept. And with this massive investigation into the project, you get the sense that he could finally quell his endless devotion to revisiting it—but don’t bet on it.
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