Playing Lifehouse Live: The Story Behind the April 26, 1971 Concert on the Bonus Disc for the Who's Next deluxe reissue

With recording now underway in London for the still unofficially titled album that would be called Who's Next, and The Who and Townshend no longer talking up Lifehouse in the press, retrospective accounts sometimes conclude that Lifehouse had fizzled out at this point. Upon close examination, that's not so clear. There are indications that, at the very least, The Who hadn't totally decided to abandon the project in its original form, even if the film dimension had stalled. For after an absence of almost two months, the band returned to the Young Vic Theatre for two more evening concerts on April 26 and May 5, even recording the first of these. It seems unlikely they'd do more Young Vic concerts if there wasn't some sliver of hope that something of use for Lifehouse might emerge from them, or something unexpectedly positive could happen to reignite their enthusiasm for using it as a workshop of sorts for weeks or months at end.

    The purpose of the recordings made at the Young Vic on April 26 isn't certain. According to Jon Astley, "Pete wanted to use it as part of Who's Next. His big dream was to actually record live material that could be spliced into Lifehouse" – which would fit in with Townshend's memory of Glyn Johns being initially brought in specifically to record the band live. It also seems possible that The Who wanted to listen to the songs and how they sounded in concert, and probable that it wasn't taped for serious consideration as a standalone record release, especially as Live at Leeds was only about a year old at this point. Perhaps they even wanted some of the material on tape to act as a reference for themselves and Glyn Johns as they prepared for the most serious phase of recording the album in the studio, though versions already existed of at least a half-dozen songs under consideration from the Record Plant sessions.

    In his Who's Next deluxe edition liner notes, Pete Townshend places the time of these Young Vic recordings as winter 1971, between his home demos of much of the material and the Record Plant sessions. With less specific detail, he also does so in his Lifehouse Chronicles liner notes. However, this time frame is clearly incorrect, and even contradicted by the prominent dating of the tapes to April 26 in the deluxe edition annotation itself. Townshend's confusion is understandable given the rapid crush of events within these several months. But this has helped to create some misleading impressions that the Young Vic performances (and possibly the ambitions to make Lifehouse as originally conceived) were over and done with by the time The Who went to record in New York, which wasn't the case.

    The concert was recorded with the same 16-track Rolling Stones mobile studio the band had used at Stargroves. Overseeing the taping was Andy Johns, younger brother of Glyn, and building an impressive career of his own as engineer and producer on albums by the likes of Free, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and Traffic; soon, with Exile on Main Street, he'd engineer for The Rolling Stones. As yet another Stones connection, Ian Stewart, longtime Stones roadie/occasional keyboardist/general handyman, would also be helping out in the mobile truck. Most of the concert was officially issued as disc two of the Who's Next deluxe edition in 2003, and while no match for Live at Leeds, it's historically invaluable as a document of The Who's progress in that foggy gap between Lifehouse's inception and the more concentrated studio sessions that would result in Who's Next.

    "It might have been Lambert's or Townshend's idea," remembers Andy Johns, who – astonishingly – was unaware that the material had been issued on the deluxe edition when interviewed for this book in December 2009. "They wanted to see how [the material] parlayed out for an audience, and also record it so they could see the results and make whatever corrections." Evidently Lambert hadn't been wholly frozen out of The Who's recording process, as Andy also recalls Kit "standing up a couple of times [and shouting] 'Stop! Stop! Stop!' He'd stop them in the middle of a song, stamp around, and do the usual Kit Lambert thing with the big leather coat and the two poodles and the pink gin. They played a full set, but Kit stopped them a couple of times to make various suggestions at the top of his voice. I don't even remember the room being that full; there can't have been more than 200 kids or something like that. It wasn't a very big room."

    By Andy's account, much of the concert wouldn't have been taped if one irate neighborhood resident had managed to get his way. As he tells it, "We were parked out in back, and there were these sort of tenement row houses. There's all this racket coming out of the New Vic, and a little bit from the truck, [although] the truck was fairly well soundproofed. And they put on plays at the New Vic, they didn't have rock bands. I feel somebody coming into the truck and thought, hello, what's this? I go into the back of the truck, and there's this guy with this double-edged axe wearing a little sort of undershirt, some braces with a pair of trousers, and big hobnail boots. He said 'Oi, this fucking noise. I can't stand it.' It was only about nine o'clock at night! And he saw the big snake going into the room, he says, 'Oh, I know that's important. I've got this axe. I'm gonna chop it in half.' I went, 'Stu! There's someone here to see you!' So Stu I think paid him ten quid or something, and off he tottered. But I thought it was some axe murderer. He had this look in his eye; I thought, well, this could be it, then. [But] there wasn't much room to swing an axe in that truck, so it wasn't much good."

    Much of set did feature Lifehouse material, including all six of the songs known to have been worked on at the Record Plant, as well as 'Bargain,' 'Time Is Passing,' and 'Too Much of Anything.' The absence of Who's Next stalwarts 'Baba O'Riley,' 'Going Mobile,' and 'The Song Is Over' does seem curious, if the intention was to see how Lifehouse material worked live and record it for reference. Since there are no known Who recordings of these songs prior to this date, there's an outside chance they hadn't even been written, or at least not yet introduced by Townshend to the group.

    The rest of the set indicates the band might not yet have figured out whether the intention of these concerts was to work on new material, air out some oldies for their own pleasure, entertain an audience expecting at least some familiar favorites, or do all of these things at once. For it still included a couple Tommy crowd-pleasers, 'Pinball Wizard' and 'See Me, Feel Me' (still unofficially released, though they've been bootlegged); a few songs on the margin of Lifehouse consideration that had been part of their set since mid-1970 ('Naked Eye,' 'Water,' and 'I Don't Even Know Myself'); 'My Generation'; and 'Young Man Blues,' a Mose Allison cover that had been played by the band live at least as early as 1964, and made familiar to all Who fans via the version on Live at Leeds. There were also three oldies whose only fathomable purpose to Lifehouse would have been songs the parents played as they went from Scotland to London on the motorway: 'Baby Don't You Do It' (still unofficially released, though an incomplete performance has been bootlegged), Larry Williams' s 1957 hit 'Bony Maronie' (first issued as a 1988 B-side to a reissue of 'Won't Get Fooled Again'), and Bo Diddley's 'Road Runner.' At a rehearsal from this date that's been bootlegged (and, judging from its sound quality, likely also recorded from the mobile studio), they also do Rufus Thomas's classic 'Walking the Dog.' Featuring Daltrey singing the lyric with obvious relish, it might have been another oldie under consideration for filling up the live concert or the Lifehouse soundtrack.

    While generally The Who play well in front of an appreciative audience, the atmosphere's more tentative and muted than it would be for their post-Who's Next concerts. They're clearly getting comfortable with 'Love Ain't For Keeping' and 'Too Much of Anything' (introduced simply as 'Too Much') as midtempo hard rockers. They seem less settled into 'Bargain,' uneasily speeding and slowing during the verses; unable to mimic the swelling tones that intro the studio version (had that even been conceived yet), those notes have to be wordlessly sung. "The new ones are feeling a wee bit lame," offers an uncharacteristically nervous-sounding Townshend in his intro. "They'll come together."

    Of most interest is 'Time Is Passing,' ultimately destined as to be a Who's Next outtake, but still a strong Lifehouse candidate at this point. The wheezing organ and pastoral whimsy of Townshend's demo have vanished, the song having been turned into a typically Who-ish guitar-driven rocker, Daltrey interjecting some harmonica into the instrumental break.    Interestingly, Townshend introduces 'Behind Blue Eyes' as a song that will "probably be released as a single very shortly. It's a bit untypical of the old Who single, but it's one we just feel somehow right about ... we hope you feel the same way." This is certainly an arrangement they seem to have honed, down to the close harmonies; it and 'Pure and Easy' are by some distance the most refined and confident renditions of newly generated songs in the set. Without Nicky Hopkins, 'Getting in Tune' has to rely on Townshend's alternation of arpeggios and heavy chords to fill the space, which loses delicacy but makes for an interesting contrast to the Who's Next version.

    The group's tendency to stretch out for too long at times in concert asserts itself in an eight-minute 'Water,' but though 'Won't Get Fooled Again' lasts nearly nine minutes, its length is justified. It's also the first occasion on which The Who used a backing tape onstage, and while this approach would cause no small headaches later on, at this show the synthesizer backing was incorporated into the performance fairly smoothly. The rhythm does drag in the instrumental break, but Daltrey's climactic scream is now in place, though it's weedier here than the full-throated roar he'd perfect for the Who's Next version. What you don't hear on the Who's Next deluxe edition disc (though it's in unofficial circulation) is a false start, after which the tape is rewound by soundman Bob Pridden as Townshend tunes his guitar.

    In a moment of levity, Townshend smoked a cigar in celebration of the recent birth of his second daughter, some heckler prompting Pete's good-natured response: "I've had more fucks than you've had, mate. Many more! When you catch up, come round." Not so amusing to Daltrey was the sight of youngsters in the crowd making an ex-girlfriend of his uncomfortable, and according to Townshend's notes in the Who's Next deluxe edition, Roger was on the verge of diving into the audience to her rescue, causing the band's concentration to waver.
    "It was a fun evening, and I think we were done by about 10:30 or 11," summarizes Andy Johns. It might have been especially fun for one member of The Who, he adds, as "when I was setting up for the drums, Moonie had four floor toms. Two of them were very besmirched. I said to the roadie, 'Why does he need four floor toms?' He said, 'Well, two are for playing. The other two are to put the drinks on.' You could see all these rings from where Moonie had put down various refreshments on the last two floor toms. And we all went, 'That makes sense.' The other funny thing was, he'd use four rototoms, all the same size, tuned more or less the same. So he'd go, duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, and it would be like hitting one tom. It was really silly."

    Whatever The Who thought upon hearing the tapes, the concert apparently was not the end of their idiosyncratic attempts to hone Lifehouse material (or perhaps even have the audience hone it) at unannounced concerts. Another, final Young Vic concert took place on May 5; as much as The Who had ballyhooed the events in the press, only seven took place at the venue in all. And although the band were recording in the studio during much of May, they played a few barely publicized shows outside of London, distributing posters and leaflets in each town just a day before the concerts, charging a bargain admission price of 50p (about one dollar). The songs played at these gigs (in Sunderland on May 7, Birmingham on May 13, and Liverpool University on May 14) were much or entirely the same as the ones featured at the Young Vic on April 26. While Daltrey implied in Record Mirror that the group would take second billing to other acts and treat such engagements as rehearsals, as far as is known, only The Who were onstage at these events.

    Indications were, then, that the concerts weren't so much intended to work up Lifehouse as work up a new stage repertoire, as well as see how audiences would respond to the use of backing tapes. Occurring as they did before Who's Next was in the can, these (and indeed the much-slammed Young Vic shows) might have had an overlooked side benefit as the band got down to finalizing the LP. As Daltrey pointed out in Record Collector in 1994, "It was the only album where we played all the stuff extensively on the road before we went in to record it. We played all those songs over and over again. They weren't just Pete's songs, they'd become ours. We were never allowed that freedom after that."

    Working with the synthesizer backing tapes could prove to be something of a headache, however. It might have been at one of these shows where, as later reported in Circus, "at one of the first performances with the synthesizer, someone forgot to bring the magnetic tape onstage. 'The tape, the tape,' Townshend whispered frantically to a roadie, who disappeared offstage, returned with a roll of wrapping tape, tried to figure out why Townshend looked furious, disappeared offstage again, and came back with a roll of masking tape."

    Daltrey chipped in his reservations about using backing tapes in August to Crawdaddy. "It's all right for one number, but … no more," he shrugged, not realizing that the band would be struggling to play almost a whole album of material with backing tapes just a little more than two years later. In the Classic Albums documentary on Who's Next, he was more explicit: "I didn't mind the synthesizers and drumming in the back, but I didn't like it taking over as lead instrument when we had what I consider to be one of the best guitarists in the world in the band. It used to frustrate me a bit." In Uncut, he even suggested that "I don't think Pete did much with those sequencing things that he couldn't have done on the guitar anyway."

    Forty years later, many listeners might be wondering why the group didn't simply hire a keyboard player to handle at least some of those parts onstage, either in 1971 or for that matter when they used so many backup tapes when touring Quadrophenia in late 1973 and early 1974. Aside from the expense involved and the dilution of the four-strong image so important to The Who (who'd never toured with additional musicians, as The Rolling Stones were doing by the early 70s), the limitations of 1971 technology simply made such considerations impractical. "The maintenance fees were going to be ridiculous, and the downtime between songs would have been really long, because you have to reprogram the synthesizer to do each thing," says keyboardist Matt Cunitz, who even in 2009 found it challenging to play the parts onstage without unseemly delays and massive banks of equipment as part of the band Mushroom's presentation/simulation of Lifehouse in concert. "They would have [needed] like five of these synths onstage, [so] rather than reprogramming them, the player would move from one instrument to the next to change sounds. Which is how you end[ed] up with people like Rick Wakeman surrounded on all sides by multiple mini-Moogs and Mellotrons. Why did he have three of the same instrument onstage? Because he knew he needed a certain sound for this song, a different sound for that one, or even in the course of a song, do quick changes. Older instruments weren't as adept at that."

    Another theoretical alternative – Townshend playing the guitar to trigger the synthesizer, which meant he wouldn't have had to abandon his usual position onstage to activate the instrument – was yet more distant from becoming a reality. "The idea that you could accurately control a large synthesizer from a guitar was a pipe dream," says Roger Powell, who by the mid 70s (after leaving ARP, where he'd demonstrated the ARP 2500 to Townshend) was playing synthesizers and keyboards with Todd Rundgren in Utopia. "EMS had a primitive guitar synthesizer, called the Synthi. Todd used that. It was a thing that kind of looked like a toilet seat. It was shiny white plastic. The guitar synthesizer itself back then was extremely limited, and wasn't really designed to control a large system that may have enough stuff in it to be polyphonic [play more than one note at once]. Now Pat Metheny has the Orchestrion, where it's automatically playing a violin, trumpet, bass drum and all this, MIDI-generated from a polyphonic guitar pickup. [But] there is a lot of stuff you can do in the studio that is still impossible to pull off live."

    The Who seemed to be making the transition from using their concerts as Lifehouse workshops to refining the best new songs with an eye to how they'd be recorded and played live, regardless of whether Lifehouse came off or not. Nonetheless, for months afterward Townshend continued to regret and rationalize the failure of the Young Vic experiment in the press, and not only because of its technological shortcomings. Complained Pete to Sounds in a July 24 article, "We originally wanted the Young Vic for six weeks, and this was to be a trial period in which we were going to make the film, but the Young Vic is a government-sponsored bloody organization, and it turned out that we could only have it every Monday, and then everybody started to think that it should be every Monday – I could never see it like that, I always figured it would be something where you woke up and went to bed with it; either that or you came and went every day."

    To drag in a Let It Be comparison again, The Beatles had found it hard enough to perform in front of cameras in studios for nearly every day a month running, let alone in front of impromptu live audiences who'd be hearing and expected to liven up freshly minted material. Is it a surprise that even The Who, about the hardest-working rock band in the business, couldn't stomach the challenge? "It failed, more I think because we, the Who, couldn't really find the energy to cope with the technical problems, and by the time it came to doing it we couldn't fully identify with the idea," Townshend owned up in Sounds. "We proved that it was all possible, but by the time we'd done that, we just didn't have it in us to do it. We'd had so much of it, I mean I was getting slightly ... hallucinogenic I think is the word, and the whole thing eventually just fell apart."

    John Entwistle, as was his wont, put things in plainer, more concise English in the June 10 Rolling Stone: "It was supposed to be an experiment. We'd play a specific song aimed at a particular section of the audience. There was supposed to be feedback or something and the whole thing was to be filmed. Well, we forgot the film idea because we weren't playing well enough. I never really understood what it was all about. I think it did more bad than good. We weren't well enough prepared. The Who are diabolical at rehearsing."

    Where did that leave Lifehouse, as either a film or a record? Surprisingly, it was Daltrey, not Townshend, who gave a frank and articulate up-to-the-minute report in the May 8 Record Mirror. "It's only since yesterday when we all had a meeting that things have been decided," he stated, inferring this probably took place between the two spring Young Vic shows. "We've got enough material recorded for a single album, which would be fantastic, but we'll go on to make it a double, like we did with Tommy. It's got a theme because it works best for The Who. It builds where just a series of songs never seems to. It's been really hard for us, not just deciding on the theme, but how to go about it as well. But it will knock Tommy away."

    Though Townshend has remembered not getting the promised money from Universal, according to this article, a contract was in place that "allowed the group considerable freedom." Elaborated Roger, "We aim to have our album finished by mid-July. But the stumbling block we are up against is that we can't go out on stage and play a whole new act based on the album. So the best thing is to wait until the album is out and then do the stage act and film it. That will give the audience a chance to know the numbers. We've got a really good film deal, but we had to work hard to get their interest. They don't understand that you can't tie yourself down to a set time with pop, you can't say exactly when the album will be released and when you'll be onstage."

    As for the Young Vic shows, he pragmatically acknowledged, "When we went into it we were utterly blind and hoped that it should show us the way ... it's a nice idea which might have worked for us, but it didn't." As for the movie, "All we'll be doing in the film is playing, although that's not the whole point of the album if you understand." Though leaving room for the movie to be something along the lines of Townshend's Lifehouse script, Daltrey's comments seemed to indicate it might have been turning into something more along the lines of a Who concert documentary, though Lifehouse in its purer form would have just used some such footage as part of a larger plot.

    Roger's remarks did at least seem to clarify that around May 1, The Who had decided to do an album, and then a film related in some way to the album, though only after the LP was finished; and make it a double album based around a theme, not a single LP of unconnected songs. None of this would happen, in part because some tough decisions would be needed for the record to be finished by mid-July, as the group hoped.

The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 unless otherwise specified.