The Who: Interview with Pete Townshend
From the ruins of his failed rock opera rose the Who’s greatest album, Who’s Next. Now, with the release of the group’s new record, Endless Wire, Pete Townshend discusses the triumphs of Tommy and Quadrophenia and reveals the secret history of Lifehouse, the lost masterpiece that continues to haunt his music.
How do you top your best work? It’s a question most successful musical artists face throughout their careers. Pete Townshend is no exception. As the Who’s guitar-smashing auteur, Townshend is responsible for penning the band’s greatest hits, from early pop singles like “My Generation” and “The Kids Are Alright” to full-scale rock operas such as Tommy and Quadrophenia.
Yet Townshend’s, and the Who’s, unarguably finest work was presented on 1971’s Who’s Next. The album is packed with many of Townshend’s best-known songs, including “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Going Mobile,” “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes,” and features some of strongest and most inspired performances that Townshend, singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon ever delivered.
So it is perhaps not entirely surprising to find Who’s Next is referenced both musically and thematically on Endless Wire (Universal), the first album of new material that the Who (now just Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey) have released in 24 years. The new disc even kicks off with an arpeggiating synth pattern, in the song “Fragments,” that recalls “Baba O’Riley.”
“The similarity was intentional,” says Townshend. “I wanted to make the opening of the CD evoke the Who’s Next album, which most people regard as our best. I wanted to challenge it, audaciously.”
Not only challenge it but draw resources from it, like a contender preparing for a championship title in the champ’s own gym, and with his trainer to boot. Central to this challenge is the Endless Wire track “Wire and Glass,” a mini-opera some 18 minutes in length that comprises 10 song fragments. Not coincidentally, its plot, central character and narrative elements are extensions of an earlier rock opera, a failed project from 1970, the music of which formed the basis for Who’s Next.
Lifehouse, as the project was called, was to be the followup to Tommy, the Who’s 1969 rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind boy whose disabilities lead to his spiritual enlightenment and rise as a post-World War II messiah (see sidebar). In the year after Tommy’s release, Townshend—fueled by the album’s success and his rise as one of rock’s most important creative forces—began to conceive and write Lifehouse as a futuristic parable for the post-hippie times.
As originally conceived, Lifehouse presents an Earth in which most of civilization lives underground, where inhabitants wear suits that connect them to the Grid, a lifeline controlled by a dictatorship. The Grid provides not only food and air but also virtual reality, allowing citizens to live away their existence in a persistent dreamlike state that satisfies their every emotional and physical desire.
Enter Bobby, a rebel computer programmer who still lives above ground. Hacking into the Grid, he steals the personal information of several hundred inhabitants and uses the information to compose musical portraits of them. These Grid dwellers eventually join Bobby at the Lifehouse, his commune, where performances of the works created from their data provide a passage to spiritual fulfillment and ascension to paradise.
While the ploy seems simple enough, particularly in today’s internet-driven culture, it proved to be the project’s undoing; no one aside from Townshend could make sense of the storyline. Musical technology plagued the project as well. Townshend wanted the Who to be accompanied by sequencer-driven keyboard synthesizers that would follow along with the band in real time, but the technology didn’t exist and wouldn’t for a couple more decades. Ultimately, Townshend had to settle for the band members dutifully playing along to previously recorded backing tracks on “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” trying their best not to fall out of synchronization with the precise rhythms of the electronic score.
Although Townshend abandoned Lifehouse, references to it creep up in “Gridlife,” the musical project within his 1993 solo rock opera Psychoderelict, as they do in Endless Wire, where the protagonists hatch a plan to compose music from personal data fed into a computer program. Closer to the original point, in 1998 Townshend created a radio play of Lifehouse using music from his unfinished rock opera; it was broadcast on the BBC in December 1999. For a project that caused him such personal distress, Lifehouse has been an almost career-long obsession for Townshend. “I’d obviously put it in a back pocket to produce later on,” he says.
In the following interview, Townshend discusses the origins of his rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia and reveals the near-catastrophic effects of his struggle to create Lifehouse.