INTRODUCTION TO WON'T GET FOOLED
AGAIN: THE WHO FROM
LIFEHOUSE TO QUADROPHENIA
"It just felt like the one that
got away. It felt to me like it was such a fantastic idea that just
escaped me somehow." – Pete Townshend on the failed Lifehouse project, for the 1999
documentary on Who's Next in
the Classic Albums series
"It's a magnificent piece of work,
absolutely magnificent. It's our towering triumph." – Pete Townsend on Quadrophenia in the 2007
documentary Amazing Journey: The
Story of the Who
In many respects, the two rock operas Pete Townshend wrote for The Who
in the early 70s could hardly have been any different from each other.
The first, Lifehouse,
attempted to weave together ideas that still seem futuristic in the
21st century. The second, Quadrophenia,
could in contrast have hardly been more down-to-earth, based as it was
on The Who's own real-life coming-of-age experiences in mid 60s British
mod culture. Lifehouse's
concept and storyline was incomprehensible to virtually everyone except
its creator; Quadrophenia's
tale of a teenaged mod was a relatively straightforward narrative.
Most crucially of all, Lifehouse never did get completed.
Despite fitful attempts to revive it in the following decades, in the
view of most observers, it's still
unfinished. Quadrophenia was
conceived, recorded, and released with relative speed and efficiency.
Ironically, while Lifehouse
would never be made into the film that Pete Townshend saw as a vital
dimension to the multimedia production he envisioned, it would be Quadrophenia that would be made
into an enduring cinema classic.
The Who, of course, always thrived on contradictions
in the decade after Keith Moon's 1964 recruitment into the lineup
turned them from an exciting R&B club band into an unstoppable
powerhouse. They were the band with the literally bloodiest internal
fights, yet the one top British Invasion group to endure with the same
lineup for nearly 15 years. They were the loudest, most exhibitionistic
rockers on the planet, yet the band most dedicated to exploring the
quirkiest, murkiest, and most philosophical and cerebral corners of the
human psyche. For all their mastery of the power pop single, they were
the most dedicated practitioners of the rock opera, and the musicians
most determined to somehow make rock into a more intellectually
highbrow art form. They were also the band with the loftiest
aspirations for merging the lives of themselves and their audiences
into one, Townshend in particular aiming for some sort of transcendent
elevation of himself and his followers into a purer plane of existence,
with rock music as the vehicle.
Such grand ambitions, of course, are bound to fail
at least some of the time. Indeed, much of what endears The Who to
their audience are those very human failings – the public blow-ups, the
celebrated onstage equipment screw-ups, the endless fountain of ideas
too downright impractical to translate into flesh-and-blood reality.
They reminded us that, for all their talent and charisma, The Who were
very much flawed beings not so different from their listeners.
Never were their genius and flaws so simultaneously
evident as in Lifehouse.
There have been numerous legendary opuses by major artists never
finished as intended, including the Beach Boys' Smile, the Doors' 'Celebration of
the Lizard' suite, the Beatles' Get
Back, and whatever Jimi Hendrix's fourth studio album might have
been called. But none is as tangled or complex as Lifehouse, though Smile and Get Back might give it a run for
In part that's because no project previously launched by a
rock band was as complex as Lifehouse,
a multimedia endeavor before its time. Not only was it a concept
album/opera, but it was also a film, albeit one that wasn't even
properly started, let alone completed. And not only would it be a
record and a movie, it would also take shape as real-life concerts,
some of which did take place, but without anything like the results for
which Pete Townshend hoped. In hindsight, its failure seems almost
inevitable, and to many fans (and even some fellow Who members), a
blessing in disguise inasmuch as it did yield the material for Who's Next, their most popular
album besides Tommy. In
could be seen as a scaled-down exercise in relative sanity, even if was
a double album with the kind of extravagant gatefold sleeve and picture
booklet never seen these days.
In some ways, however, Lifehouse and Quadrophenia aren't as different as
they may seem. Both were group-executed extensions of Townshend's
unmatched abilities as a rock'n'roll auteur, giving vent to his most
personal (and sometimes even literally religious) fascinations with a
power his home demos of the same songs couldn't hope to achieve. Both
used cutting-edge recording technology, particularly in their use of
synthesizers. While Quadrophenia
wasn't nearly as ill-fated as Lifehouse,
it too would be plagued by reality checks that kept it from ever being
presented as the group intended, though these were for the most part
confined to the stage rather than the studio. And in the minds of much
of the public, Lifehouse and Quadrophenia would forever be
linked together as attempts by The Who to follow up their first rock opera, the massive 1969
blockbuster Tommy, with a
concept album of equal resonance. That was an order so tall that some
commentators would find it doomed to failure – commercially and
culturally, at least ¬– no matter what the brilliance of the music.
For all the fame of Who's Next and Quadrophenia, and for all the
interviews The Who (and Townshend in particular) have done in the past
four decades, some aspects of The Who's peculiar early 70s journey
remain surprisingly murky. In part that's because Townshend's
interviews, though a goldmine of information in many ways – especially
as no rock superstar, at any
time, seemed to give as many interviews or write as many letters and
articles for the music press as Pete did at the beginning of the 70s –
are in some senses false trails. For Townshend, though for the most
part as enthusiastic and articulate an interviewee as any in rock, has
flip-flopped his opinions on innumerable occasions – not least in his
estimation of work that most regard as masterpieces. Sometimes it
seems, for instance, that his regard for 'Won't Get Fooled Again'
depended on what day he was asked and what mood he was in, such was his
vacillation between pride and embarrassment.
Whatever the creators think of these projects nearly
four decades later – and however rocky their road to realization – the
quality of most of the music The Who made during this period is
undisputed. From Lifehouse to
Quadrophenia: The Who in the Early 1970s is the story of that
era, which saw the band log both some of rock's most spectacular
failures and some of its most enduring songs and records.