What is Life House?
Does Life House exist? If it does, what exactly is it?
What is the meaning of Life House?
These are questions that Who fans have asked since first hearing it described by Pete Townshend in interviews from the year 1971. Today, lots of people claim to know exactly what it was, and what the artist’s intent was, though these people can’t seem to agree on much. They don’t even agree on this question: Does Life House bloody exist?
How can a thing that thousands upon thousands have contemplated at length be said not to exist? But if it does exist definitively, what is it? And does this new ten-CD boxed set, with an additional BluRay disc of HD audio, get us any closer to a final answer? It has Life House in the title, so is this finally it? Or is it just “Who’s Next plus extras, with all the songs recorded after Tommy, that didn’t end up on Quadrophenia”? Can it be said to contain the completeness of the Life House thing that was never properly produced?
There have been a lot of ideas tossed out there by Townshend, ever since the idea was first sparking. At one time, he wanted to have an audience large enough to fill a theater, living there with the band for six months while they wrote a new album, using the vibrations of the audience members to inspire them. That never happened, of course. They did manage to do a handful of unannounced gigs in a local theater where they took up residence, featuring their new material in an embryonic state (one of which is reproduced here, complete for the first time.) But the audience, locals who had been passing by on the street, always went home afterwards.
Presumably some kind of film would be needed to tie the different songs together with dialogue, and there are various script ideas said to exist. But no film was ever made, nor is there any evidence of any visual design or storyboard. Townshend eventually accepted that his idea was not ready for Hollywood, and was convinced to put out the nine strongest songs as a standalone LP in time for their big summer 1971 tour of the States.
Those nine songs became the album Who’s Next, followed by a series of singles in 1972 and a solo Townshend album, Who Came First, which had his own versions of some of the leftover tracks. The 1974 collection of unreleased Who work, Odds and Sods, brought more songs from the period to light, as did the release of Townshend’s devotional album I Am, dedicated to his spiritual guide, Meher Baba.
So if Life House is a collection of songs, and we have both Who recordings and Townshend’s original home demos of these songs available to listen to in this box, surely it must be said to exist, right? Well, not exactly. Because even here, Townshend doesn’t actually define any particular set of tracks as being from “Life House” as distinct from “bonus material and b-sides from the 1970-72 period”. We suspect that neither of John Entwistle’s compositions of this period, “My Wife” and “When I Was A Boy”, are intended to be part of Life House. Neither were Roger Daltrey’s country blues number “Here For More”, the Keith Moon-credited “Waspman”, a jolly up on a familiar two-note riff the group often fell back on during jam sessions, or the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It”. Even if we accept that songs from 1970 such as “Water”, “Naked Eye” and “I Don’t Even Know Myself” are thematically close enough to fit into Life House despite pre-dating it, we still get all the different recorded versions, spread across the set higgledy piggledy, rather than a definitive couple of discs marked “Official Life House Material”.
Townshend is still being coy with what the thing really is. How can we confirm Life House exists if we can’t agree on what is in it?
While parsing the evidence in the box set to reach any kind of conclusion, it’s clear that the producers of this set have met their immediate challenge of “something the Who fans will enjoy listening to” head on, and emerge with overall high marks.
The mastering of the previously released material really does sound nice, an improvement compared to the previous edition on CD which was excessively loud to the point of distortion, as well as the thin 1980s pressing. The demos also benefit from the new mastering, by comparison to their previous issue on the limited edition Life House Chronicles box set from the early 2000s, the first days of direct-to-fan internet releases of dubious quality. And the new content – the complete San Francisco Civic Center show from December 13, 1971 and a handful of studio performances we haven’t heard before – sounds fierce and dynamic, utterly killer.
That San Francisco show has been a holy grail for Who collectors for decades, and its complete release here, in a mix that rivals Live At Leeds for gritty authenticity, is everything fans imagined it could be. It’s a phenomenal live album from an era which previously had no complete concert recordings of quality. We knew they were hot that night, from the handful of performances released as b-sides and compilation cuts, but the full two-hour experience is a dip into Who heaven.
The studio tracks that are newly surfaced have their own appeal. The biggest discovery is a pristine stereo master of the Who version of “Time Is Passing”, long thought to be lost except for a damaged mono copy that made it onto a re-released Odds And Sods to little fanfare. This fully intact stereo version sounds superb, and finally a missing puzzle piece from the Who’s tape history gets its first proper release. While much of the band’s early sessions from the Record Plant in New York were previously issued in edited form, disc 4 here contains the full New York sessions, with a version of “Behind Blue Eyes”, that’s never been heard before, even on bootlegs.
There are some pretty interesting bits among the extended takes, such as longer versions of “the Seeker”, “My Wife” and “Let’s See Action” with sections that didn’t survive the editor’s blade. From spring 1970, there are versions of “Water” and “I Don’t Even Know Myself” with early, unfinished arrangements, presumably tracked before leaving for the tour where these songs were premiered. We also hear the later studio recordings of these songs, which became b-sides. And there’s a second studio version of “Naked Eye”, cut later then the take released on Odds & Sods, obviously after they’ve been doing it live for a while. We also hear the band cut loose a bit on “Getting In Tune”, relishing the opportunity to jam in the middle of what must have been some intense sessions.
Townshend’s demos from this period, sketches from his home studio used by the band to learn the material, offer a glimpse into the “pure” songwriting and what they might have sounded like with a more conventional lineup. We also hear the evolution of “Baba O’Riley”, from the themes of an entirely different tune titled “Teenage Wasteland”, to the 13-minute instrumental during which all the main themes are developed, and a final cut of that instrumental into the recognizable sections replicated by the Who in the studio. We hear a couple of tracks that never did get developed by the Who. “Teenage Wasteland”, “Mary” and “There’s A Fortune In These Hills” have been issued before, another titled “Finally Over” gets its first airing here. It’s good, possibly a precursor to “Too Much Of Anything” which ends up taking its main riff.
I haven’t had a chance to check out the graphics for the set yet, which look really extensive and I’m certainly a sucker for replica 1971 tour programs. It will include a graphic novel that will finally tell the story of Life House. I look forward to reading it, but don’t guess that will be any more central to our understanding than the BBC Radio Play that was produced in 1999, given two discs on Life House Chronicles, and is virtually never referenced in recent discussions of what Life House is, and what it isn’t. Pete himself, asked about that set, said something to the effect that, it’s not really Life House, just some of the music that would have made up a part of the actual thing.
Having gotten to the end of the ten disc package (haven’t heard the Atmos and 5.1 mixes yet, but this material seems appropriate for such a thing), I think I actually do have an answer to the central question of this piece: what is Life House? I would say that it does indeed exist, and it has been right in front of us this whole time.
Life House is a work of conceptual art.
I know a fellow, an accomplished musician and painter, who once told me that he used to be a conceptual artist. I asked him, so, what was your stuff like? And he said, “Bob, at that point, I was so extreme that as long as I had realized this concept in my own mind, that was enough, and I didn’t have to paint it or sing it or give it any kind of representation at all.”
That’s what Life House is. It is a work of conceptual art that has only ever been experienced by one person – Pete Townshend himself.
He doesn’t need to write a script for it, put dialogue in characters’ mouths, have visual art represent it, have dancers do a dance about it, or anything. He doesn’t need the input of brain waves from 500 people living in a theater for six months, God, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? Thanks to producer Glyn Johns for talking him down from that.
But having that idea, in its multiple dimensions, gave him the ability to write music that expresses the gist of the thing. The into to “Baba” sounds like what might come out if you actually did turn brain waves into sound waves, without actually doing it. It gave him the inspiration to write all this incredible, ground breaking music, well into the following year. All those 1972 singles relate more literally to the Life House ideas than the Who’s Next songs. And at the time, he had the most phenomenal rhythm section and lead singer, at the top of their game, to help realize his ideas in the studio. While it may seem like a compromise to have chopped up the work into chunks – the ultimate in “The Who Sell Out” – in truth, I see it as an act of generosity to the Who. They had made it to the top like they wanted, but badly needed to follow up Tommy with a hit. Rather than wait for the world to catch up to his grand idea, he made a conventional album at the moment they most needed it, and if they were in the right place at the right time, they turn out to be the right ones. They lived up to their own hype, and then some.
One of my favorite concert memories is from a rare airing of “Let’s See Action” where I sang Pete’s refrain back to him from the front row – “Nothing is everything, everything is nothing. ” Another way to translate that could be: “That which is form is emptiness, and that which is emptiness, form.” By giving up the need to realize Life House all at once, Townshend got to realize it more fully, in the form of this music that just kept coming.
Considering all that, I’d say Life House doesn’t just exist, it is a fantastic success, a masterpiece. With this set, you can go as far into it as it is possible to go.