Some day all music will be made this way. In 1970 it seemed so barking mad the band asked him to drop it. Now, Pete’s vision of a third millennium world united by a global network sounds surprisingly apt.
FILE UNDER ‘just one of those things’: Just because a project is 30 years in the making doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to arrive late.
Case in point: Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse. The massively complex and ambitious putative follow-up to Tommy made its predecessor look like a knocked-off B-side, and both Townshend and The Who almost sank under its weight before band and manager pulled the plug, took its creator to one side and suggested that he simply took the best songs from the project, dumped the conceptual scaffolding and cut a ‘regular’ Who album instead. The result was the awesome Who’s Next, still considered by many to be the finest studio album The Who ever cut, plus a fistful of stand-alone singles (including ‘Join Together’ and ‘Let’s See Action’) and assorted extras that ended up on subsequent albums, such as The Who By Numbers and Who Are You.
For anybody else, this would have constituted a serious result. Nevertheless, Lifehouse continued to haunt Townshend and, despite periodic attempts to lay the ghost, it’s taken until now for Lifehouse to make it from inside Townshend’s bonce to an objective existence in the outside world.
The original concept involved the then-new technology of programmable synthesizers and the then-nonexistent notion of an electronic network – which is now a part of millions of daily lives as the Internet – linking people confined by a manmade disaster (industrial pollution, nuclear fallout) to their homes. As the human race is atomised and alienated, The Lifehouse – then a band, played by The Who, now a mysterious hacker DJ – summons people to get together physically in one place, to congregate, in order to reassert their collective humanity once more by participating in the creation of a piece of art. The idea was that each person would supply information about themselves which would be expressed as code and programmed into the synth to generate a musical composition which would represent each and every one of them.
Lifehouse now exists as a radio play, adapted by Jeff Young from Townshend’s script, which will be broadcast by Radio 3 on December 5. This play, in turn, makes up two of the seven CDs in this package. Does it work? Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, because as this issue of MOJO goes to press, these two CDs are still unavailable for review. We do, however, have Townshend and Young’s intriguing script (soon to be available in paperback from Pocket Books at £ 7.99), though without Townshend’s introductory essay. The 1999 version of the story finds protagonist Ray in pursuit of his estranged daughter as she heads for the Lifehouse, and attempting to come to terms with the fragmented memories and broken dreams of his younger self.
So, we hear you asking, what do we have? (After all, you’re asking us to read a review of something you haven’t actually heard.) Well, we have two CDs of Townshend’s original demos, some of which surfaced on albums 15 or so years ago and some of the early synth experiments which were included, rather more recently, on PT’s Julie Burchill-inspired concept album Psychoderelict. We have a third CD which includes some recent live recordings from a show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the most spectacular of which is a devastating version of ‘Who Are You’ featuring a pile-driving rap and some of the most boggling guitar Townshend’s ever played, which sounds at first exposure as if he’s channeling Hendrix but in which he ultimately channels himself.
Then there’s a sixth CD of orchestral music, including huge chunks of Scarlatti and Vivaldi and almost 10 minutes’ worth of an orchestrated Baba O’Reilly. A limited-edition deluxe version of the box – to be called The Lifehouse Method – will contain, among other goodies, a seventh CD which preserves a radio documentary, Lifehouse: The One That Got Away, produced by John Pidgeon and introduced by Townshend, recounting some of the project’s convoluted history, and yet another CD incorporating software which will enable the ‘netted-up to contact a website which will attempt to realise the original Lifehouse intention of enabling us to contribute to the ultimate group composition.
The first, and most obvious, reaction to all this is that Townshend deserves to share a pedestal with William Gibson – author of Neuromancer and all manner of other good stuff – for inventing the internet in terms of metaphor and malaise: the latter as an insidious illusion that tells us that there’s something (as he puts it in our interview which you’ll find immediately below this review) “better than life”; as something which pretends to offer a solution for our alienation (the pollution and fall-out are spiritual, cultural and political rather than literal) but which in fact makes the problem worse in our wonderful modern globalised, New Labourised world.
The second is to restate a boring old humanist truism which is, nevertheless, true: in other words, that we need each other, that our inner voids can only be filled with other people, that none of us are truly complete when we’re alone. Our own culture has always told us this: from the Mod Clubland of Townshend’s youth, through Woodstock and all the other rock megafests right up to today’s rave scene, that we like to be together, that we need to be together. Watching TV these days, we seem to be told twice a night that what we’re really most interested in is upgrading our homes and gardens and tinkering with our own little private environments.
Lifehouse, ultimately, is an examination and exploration of the eternal dialectic between inner and outer worlds, and what each has to contribute to the other.
Thank heavens it’s finally finished.
Pete Townshend talks to Charles Shaar Murray.
“Congregation is the most important thing that we humans have – particularly for artists – the importance of congregating to enjoy the response of others. At the same time, what’s actually paying the bills is a kind of network, fucking network proliferations. Money making money, flotations making money, shares making money, ideas making money, but with very little substance, in a sense. I find it ironic, and quite cruel, and in a way I’m glad that the play doesn’t concern itself directly with the details of what’s going on in society at the moment. We felt that if we said, Listen this is what’s going on today, as I did back in the ‘70s – I was trying to say to people, Listen, this is what’s gonna happen in the future, and I would have been partly but not completely right – then people would shut down. They wouldn’t hear it. There is wholesale apathy, a sense that we’re powerless.
“The predicament I find myself in is that I’m uncomfortable as an artist living in the world today. The only thing I can be certain of is my process, and I’m not sure about my interaction, my interface with the world.
“Like Bowie and like others, I’m fascinated by the potential of a network, a way that we can communicate. What would be great for the internet would be to use its intimacy. You do performances, you do gatherings, you set a date, you say, ‘At such-and-such a time, something will be happening, please join in. Be present. Observe. Communicate. Interface.’ For performers who have become remote, like The Who, because their mythology is bigger than their reality, the intimacy offered by bringing people into a place where you can say, ‘This is how we are today; it’s not who we were, but this is where we’ve arrived at’, that this intimacy offers a potential for an artistic process: a performance, a response, an ever-echoing fashion…but it doesn’t work. It promises to work, but it doesn’t.
“Why the internet is so intoxicatingly powerful is that the one thing that it doesn’t trouble you with is another human presence. When you’re in the presence of another human being you have to deal with things in the moment. You can’t suspend time.”
How come Lifehouse stayed with you so long?
It’s a very far-reaching idea. It was ambitious. And in some respects it was ahead of its time, and so it’s travelled with time. I have let it go a number of times, but it’s always come back, and sometimes other people’s interest has brought it back. [Film producer] Jeremy Thomas brought it back in 1978, and Michael Hurst, who wrote Eureka with Nicolas Roeg. But usually it’s the music: every time I hear or play one of those songs – ‘Baba O’Reilly’, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ – I think, These songs are great, but they’re out of context.”
So after planning it as a movie, how did it end up on radio?
“Partly because I wanted to do it in the UK, and partly because I felt that the film I had in my head could only be made if the idea was allowed to land as a narrative. What’s strange about the story of Lifehouse is a kind of double irony. I was conscious of the first irony, but not the second. I was attempting to tell a story about a time in which there were only stories and that, to some extent, in Hollywood, has already happened. What I feared was that narrative and story would undermine the passing of the moment, and that the principal form which would suffer is music. Because what narrative is about is that it replaces a moment of your life: it’s better than your life, you prefer to live in that story. At the heart of Lifehouse is this notion that we are today, and have been for a long time, losing sight of where the fiction ends, and where life takes over.
“In music and in painting and in poetry and in dance, none of this really matters. I had to get the story behind the story properly nailed down, and when I wrote the first script, I was just down on narrative, on plot. I’d never written a plot in my life. When I wrote my short stories I absolutely refused to plot: I used any process which would avoid me having a beginning, a middle and an end. In Tommy, I didn’t plot. In Quadrophenia, I didn’t plot. I did not want to go to fucking Hollywood. The decision to do a radio play was because radio would force me to get the story sorted out, without any falling back on animation, images, trickery, special effects, esoteric sci-fi computerised bollocks. What was it about?
“What we found out was that the story was about me, my childhood, and kids like me. It’s an immediate postwar story, about a kid who is born after the war and has a vision of the future which is disturbing but exciting. He realises as he grows up that he is not going to realise his vision. He has had a wonderful, almost utopian, vision: he sees that there is danger of pollution, of nuclear proliferation, but also of the watering-down of art. He hears this fantastic music in his head, as I did, and what I used to fear was that I would never hear that music when I became an adult, and I haven’t. The hero grows up and wants to have that back, and realises that he’s in a time when the generation after him, his daughter and her boyfriend, are going to do something about it: they’re gonna stop the rot. And he desperately would love to be a part of it, but it’s too late.
“What Lifehouse is about on the radio, and what’s timely about it in this millennium year, is: why does the Labour government feel that it has to put on a Big Show? It’s because Big Shows are fucking important. It’s not gonna be very good, but going to the Big Show, showing up, getting off your arse, going somewhere, buying a ticket, being with other likeminded people, hoping for the best…is what congregation is about. And the story has to talk about it, rather than demonstrate it. What makes it work as a radio play, as with all radio plays, is that it leaves a lot of pictorial and graphical stuff to the imagination. The music’s not particularly vital to it, but when you hear the play in the full package with all the original demos, then the music will fit in in a more tangential way. It’s like having a DIY musical.”
You and William Gibson both helped ‘invent’ fictional internets: to what extent does the real-life Net compare to your ‘grid’ and Gibson’s Matrix?
“Well, I wrote a mischievous piece for The Guardian suggesting that if the two biggest searchwords are ‘sex’ and ‘MP3’, then Prince should be selling more CDs: the stuff he sells on his own site is selling incredibly well, but not in the shitloads that’d be worthy of an impish, rather perverse genius. What’s missing is the human connection. What would get me onto that site would be the sense than I was going to get something from Prince that no-one else was going to get, and not some fucking sarky remark, which is what I normally get from him. Why is it that when I see him play, I get that? Because my experience is unique. What’s happened to recordings is that they’re no longer about interpretation and response.
“The impersonal selling machine of the internet is very one-way; it’s the artist instructing the audience. You can send e-mail, but that’s as far as it goes. What Bill Gibson talks about in Neuromancer and what I talk about in Lifehouse is a myriad dreamlike experiences so highly compressed that you could live many virtual lifetimes in one lifetime. I’m a 21st century creature in that my addictive process begins with a physical hole in my chest, and I want somebody to fill it: a low-level process. What society offers is a quick-fix: we can fill that hole in your chest. If that can be filled physically, then the process is complete. But the artistic process comes from the mind, from the unconscious, and that is a much higher process. When I described my ‘Grid’ in the original Lifehouse, it was something reprehensible that would come under the control of governments and corporations. The Russian internet’s only been up six months, and their first 150,000 customers are the people who run the fucking bent orphanages.
“My feeling was that this was going to destroy the human race. Not because story-telling is bad; I was on a spiritual journey and looking for a metaphor like the Tommy one, where I wanted to describe how we’re spiritually so shut down. It’s my responsibility as an artist that drives me to restate it. It’s not a paranoid vision any more: where the Internet today fails is that it’s not a psychedelic dream like Neuromancer or an apocalyptic disaster inherent in my script in 1971… but politicians and media power-brokers would realise that they had the power to manipulate people spiritually. A good artist is someone who has absolute ego, absolute humanity… at the same time.”