home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

An introduction to lifehouse
A feature article by Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend/
Jeff Young
Pocket Books
London 1999

Related Links

petetownshend.co.uk – Pete Townshend’s home page

Merchandise Links

UK Edition: Amazon.co.uk

Pete Townshend

For twenty-nine years I have been entangled in this thing called lifehouse. I blamed the frustration it caused me on its innate simplicity and my innate verbosity; one cancelled out the other. The story contained ideas that were once regarded as overly ambitious. I felt like a jungle explorer who had stumbled upon an Inca temple of solid gold and become impeded by roots and vines in a knot of undergrowth, only yards from civilisation. One day I would emerge crying aloud that I’d discovered something marvellous, but would be patted on the head and indulged in my triumphant ranting. The playscript is the result of this awkward, though not particularly heroic, journey. I have come to the end of a creative adventure in which I struggled as much to overcome my own impatience as obstacles in my path.

My allies in this satisfactory moment are many, but chiefly here I look to Jeff Young who adapted the story as a play for radio during our many creative brainstorms, and my BBC producer Kate Rowland who contributed so much more than a commission and – by my standards – some rather modest BBC money to contrast the rest of the magnificent traditional BBC resources provided. My creative facilitator and co-producer Tom Critchley was also vital to the process. I should also thank my old friend John Fletcher who worked with me on a substantial earlier draft for this BBC play, eventually retiring in frustration, telling me that I kept changing my mind. I simply enjoyed what had become a habitual process of exploration. I certainly enjoyed his company. One thing John did deliver for me was my sense of myself as a complete composer. At one time he compared me to Purcell, because of my quintessential Englishness rather than my skill with choristers, but it gave me the confidence to pursue the chamber orchestral drafts which were completed by Sara Loewenthal and Rachel Fuller and appear in the play – my first orchestral composition. Everyone in this creative team worked tirelessly and successfully to unravel the chief enigma presented by my original naive film script, which is whether the story is about anything interesting, or just about someone who used to be a really big rock star called Pete Townshend.

Because the script I wrote for Universal Pictures in 1971 was never realised as a film, or any kind of theatrical narrative drama, I have often found myself telling and retelling the story of lifehouse, usually in conversation with interested journalists. John Fletcher believes it has evolved too much and become confused over the years purely because I have a needy celebrity’s need to keep journalists engaged. But because the story itself is about a highly technological media corrupted by myopic conglomerates, many writers – working for ‘the media Man’ – have identified with my phobias about the future.

Briefly, the story of lifehouse as it was presented to The Who in 1971.

A self-sufficient, drop-out family group farming in a remote part of Scotland decide to return South to investigate rumours of a subversive concert event that promises to shake and wake up apathetic, fearful British society. Ray is married to Sally, they hope to link up with their daughter Mary who has run away from home to attend the concert. They travel through the scarred wasteland of middle England in a motor caravan, running an air-conditioner they hope will protect them from pollution. They listen, furtively, to old rock records which they call ‘Trad’. Up to this time they have survived as farmers, tolerated by the government who are glad to buy most of their produce. Those who have remained in urban areas suffer repressive curfews and are more-or-less forced to survive in special suits, like space-suits, to avoid the extremes of pollution that the government reports.

These suits are interconnected in a universal grid, a little like the modern Internet, but combined with gas-company pipelines and cable-television-company wiring. The grid is operated by an imperious media conglomerate headed by a dictatorial figure called Jumbo who appears to be more powerful than the government that first appointed him. The grid delivers its clients’ food, medicine and sleeping gas. But it also keeps them entertained with lavish programming so highly compressed that the subject can ‘live out’ thousands of virtual lifetimes in a short space of time. The effect of this dense exposure to the myriad dreamlike experiences provided by the controllers of the grid is that certain subjects begin to fall apart emotionally. Either they believe they have become spiritually advanced, or they feel suffocated by what feels like the shallowness of the programming, or its repetitiveness. A vital side-issue is that the producers responsible for the programming have ended up concentrating almost entirely on the story-driven narrative form, ignoring all the arts unrestrained by ‘plot’ as too complex and unpredictable, especially music. Effectively, these arts appear to be banned. In fact, they are merely proscribed, ignored, forgotten, no longer of use.

A young composer called Bobby hacks into the grid and offers a festival-like music concert – called The lifehouse – which he hopes will impel the audience to throw off their suits (which are in fact no longer necessary for physical survival) and attend in person. ‘Come to the lifehouse, your song is here’.

The family arrive at the concert venue early and take part in an experiment Bobby conducts in which each participant is both blueprint and inspiration for a unique piece of music or song which will feature largely in the first event to be hacked onto the grid.

When the day of the concert arrives a small army force gathers to try to stop the show. They are prevented from entering for a while, the concert begins, and indeed many of those ‘watching at home’ are inspired to leave their suits. But eventually the army break in. As they do so, Bobby’s musical experiment reaches its zenith and everyone in the building, dancing in a huge dervish circle, suddenly disappears. It emerges that many of the audience at home, participating in their suits, have also disappeared.

There is no dramatic corollary. I didn’t try to explain where they may have gone, or whether they were meant to be dead or alive. I simply wanted to demonstrate my belief that music could set the soul free, both of the restrictions of the body, and the isolating impediments and encumbrances of the modern world.

* * *

Sixties rock achieved so much in its first seven years, a period that to me now seems such a short space of time. My expectations of the rock form, The Who group, its managers and myself, were huge. During the development of lifehouse, my Svengali-like manager Kit Lambert suffered a massive spiritual demise and took refuge variously in the gloom of a famously cursed palazzo in Venice or the headiness of a Central Park hotel in Manhattan. While this was happening, the emotional distance of the otherwise encouraging Hollywood establishment confused me. I had written a script, which Universal Pictures had read and apparently understood: they had promised me two million dollars. Then there was silence. I came up against my first real brick wall since I had started writing and acting as spokesman for The Who and many in their audience. Until then I had felt omnipotent, I hope not arrogantly. But that wall that rose up between me and my lifehouse film stood up to every energetic idea I threw at it. I could not work out what to do.

Had I been working in theatre I believe I would have been encouraged to carry on, instructed that dramatic ideas need to be workshopped and nurtured, not simply tossed onto paper and then talked, hyped (or sung) into being by the author. Chris Stamp, one of The Who’s managers during the period in which Tommy was recorded, remembers a truly synergetic and symbiotic process of creativity then, something that for various reasons failed to happen when I presented lifehouse to The Who. I should say quickly that the band members and everyone involved were immensely supportive. The music I’d written with the script was excellent, and there was a lot of it. And not everyone found the story confounding.

Frank Dunlop was director of the brand new Young Vic theatre at the time, and through our meeting at AD8, a gay restaurant in Kensington frequented by Rudolph Nureyev, I became a patron. I give this snapshot not to deepen the impression that I enjoyed a bisexual life with ballet dancers, but rather to show that I moved in exalted circles of wildly wilful, imaginative and creative people, and when I spoke to anyone about lifehouse socially, they were encouraging and enthused. Frank and I had been introduced by Kit Lambert who told me we would all three together develop the script I’d written. We never did, and for a while I wondered why. Recently Frank explained that behind my back Kit had confused him, saying my idea was unworkable, that Frank should go through the motions, then let it fade and move on to the more important project, a movie of Tommy which Kit hoped to direct as his first feature. Frank did not let the project drop. He arranged a regular weekly concert at the Young Vic, and held a press-conference during which I explained the general idea.

Tremendous confusion followed. I had planned to conduct rather simple experiments during these concerts producing pieces of music for some loyal audience members. I had no hope of producing anything like the expansive music I had envisioned and attempted to describe in my fiction, but certain people around me believed that was my target. Whispers of ‘madness’ fluttered backstage like moths eating at the very fabric of my project. In order to get The Who into the film, I figured I would make them look as though they were making the musical part of the experiment work: documentary film of our concerts would later be incorporated into the fiction of the film, so the concert (the one at which Bobby’s audience disappears) would be a genuine one, not a lash-up by some power-crazed film director. The press conference was the beginning of the end. I was portrayed by some as confused when I was merely tired, and by some as arrogant when I was merely deeply committed to the idea that the story would work, that The Who could pull it off.

Within a few weeks our ‘experiments’ had dwindled into trips to the local pub and over-loud, short concerts of our early hits for anyone who showed up at the Young Vic. One of these unadvertised and thus poorly-attended concerts (of which I remember only two) was recorded and produced a reasonably good live tape. Eventually, exhausted and disillusioned, I abandoned the idea of making a film, and when Kit invited me to New York to start working on a straightforward recording at the Record Plant, a wonderful new studio there, I jumped at it.

When I got to New York I found that Kit had changed, and not entirely because he had become a heroin user. I realised later he had been deeply hurt by my failure to see how desperately he wanted to produce and direct a movie of Tommy and I had blocked him, fearing I would lose my mentor and friend to Hollywood. I lost him anyway. At the time, in New York, I was still obsessed with my own problems and was unaware of all this. He had completely lost all affection for me and began calling me not ‘Pete’, but ‘Townshend’, or ‘Pete Townshend’. The recordings we made in New York were very good, but I left the druggy scene as soon as I could. The brilliant recording finally made by Glyn Johns was knocked off quickly in London when we all finally got back. It was entitled ‘Who’s Next’, and the story of lifehouse wasn’t even mentioned on the sleeve. Several songs vital to the plot were left off – ‘Pure and Easy’ being especially important.

After twenty years, I became obsessed with telling the story behind my failure to complete what was a genuinely good idea for the first genuine rock musical film. The obsession to do this was greater than the desire to complete the original film itself, and led to ‘Psychoderelict’, my last solo album of 1993.

Briefly, the story of Psychoderelict as it was performed by me in 1993

In Psychoderelict, Ray High, a reclusive rock star (not entirely dissimilar to the fellow parodied in Private Eye‘s ‘Celeb’ cartoon strip), during a serious emotional crash, and from a place of extreme isolation, rediscovers an aborted project from his past, which brings him hope. The story is set in the world of rock-celebrity excess, but is actually about a different kind of self-abuse to that most commonly associated with that world. Ray High has cut himself off from every ‘high’. He allows himself no fixes, there is no love in his life, no fans, no music, no present, no recovery nor rehabilitation, just a kind of apologetic tipsiness that allows him to survive petulantly, at a distance from his old friends and family. Only a few voices penetrate his existence. One is that of Rastus, an old road-manager who is trying to get Ray back on the road. Another is Ruth Streeting, an acerbic journalist, once a fan herself, but today more powerful than Ray. Another is Rosalind, a new fan of that uncertain age between childhood and the rest, who sends Ray a salacious photo and revives him from his gloom. I should quickly say that Ray High’s experience does not entirely reflect my own. (Incidentally, the name Ray High was concocted as an amalgam of two rock contemporaries of whom I’m most fond, Ray Davies and Nick Lowe.)

Ray’s forgotten project from the past is of course based on lifehouse . Ray is cajoled by Rastus, manipulated by Ruth Streeting and intoxicated by Rosalind (for whom he writes a hit song) and manages to get his version of lifehouse – called ‘Gridlife’ – on stage. It is a tremendous success, but he remains a little jaded, and yet nostalgic. I tried to deliver a double irony: Ray prefers to look back to a time when he was still able to look ahead. The play closes as he begins to forget his recent success, pores over new letters and pictures from new fans, and resentfully bemoans his great, lost hippy days of the seventies.

I wrote some quite beautiful songs for Psychoderelict, and as I listened to them on the finished CD, I realised I had been more deeply wounded by the failure of lifehouse than I had previously been able to admit. My problem was not simply one of failure to let go of the idea, or an unwillingness to accept defeat. I had been, in a sense, humiliated and broken by its non-appearance as a drama. It is, as you have read, quite simple. What was once seen to be incomprehensible was the background setting of the play: a world in which entertainment and global information and communication become dangerously intertwined. That idea is not hard for us to grasp today. In fact, in my first draft, I came up with my own version of ‘Virtual Reality’ as a device by which I could immerse the creatures of my story in total isolation, just as I had with the sensually-deprived Tommy. This neoteric idea is today framed by the more practical and elegant term ‘couch-potato’.

In this playscript – the definitive version of lifehouse – Jeff Young, Kate Rowland and I decided not to try to further predict any problem with the current march of technology, and ignore common phobias about it. After all, in the current climate, to describe the future is to describe tomorrow, possibly even some daft science-fiction writer’s yesterday. Here we speak not of ‘grids’, or the virtual reality ‘experience suits’ of my 1971 story, but of ‘tele’, ‘hackers’, ‘pirates’ and of course ‘web-sites’. In his latest book Ray Kurzweil, who invented the repeatable, triggered digital recordings (called ‘samples’ ) so beloved of modern composers, predicts that within twenty years a wise and benign cyborg will be walking down Oxford Street with arms outspread entreating us all to ‘follow him’. My future phobia in the 1971 lifehouse was that we might all become like spiritually perfect cyborgs, and perhaps be contented, but our hearts would be empty. We would owe it all to Rupert Murdoch (who was still in Australia in 1971 I think). In a time when rock concerts occasionally did ‘catch fire’, especially those by The Who, the real heroes of the 1971 lifehouse were the audience, the people who showed up at the Big Show. There was a real sense of danger there. Better to congregate, dance, worship and possibly die than to live in a bubble.

Here in the 1999 BBC script, the hero of the story – another Ray – is a rather simple man who remembers two voices from his childhood. One is his own childlike voice of around nine- or ten-years-old, imagining the future, delighting in the certainty that we would all one day blow ourselves to bits. The other is an imaginary friend from that childhood, a kind of Uncle-In-Overalls who replaces the emotionally-distant, war-ravaged father who can only recommend to the kid that he sits and quietly watches the newly-acquired miracle of a tiny, grey-screened telly. The Ray character landed firmly during creative sessions with Jeff Young and Kate Rowland. We suddenly realised we must accept that my phantom presence in the story was more forcefully felt than I had intended. I occasionally spoke in these creative meetings of the ‘tragedy’ of my time, and the ‘moral cowardice’ of my generation. There has been no great bomb since that last one dropped on Japan, but there has been a steady erosion of what is natural. As my art school mentor Gustav Metzger says, nature has been replaced by ‘environment’. We no longer know the true values of natural life and art. We are slowly destroying ourselves in an ‘autodestructive’ society. My adolescent guitar smashing and early nihilistic lyrics returned during these latest lifehouse discussions not to haunt or taunt but to remind me that thirty years ago with my contemporaries I had a chance to build and contribute to a better world. Had I done that? Tragically, I realised I had not. I had merely been a skilful and loquacious pop-artist.

My contact with my audience has always been unconscious, but ultimately processed and analysed. I’ve always known where I’ve just come from, placing great emphasis on understanding the journey itself, rarely planning properly where I would end up next. It is a childlike way to work, well suited to the life of a writer of pop songs. Not so useful for books. I remembered that, when I gathered my collection of prose writing, Horse’s Neck, my editor Robert McCrum urged me to accept that my readers would always come to my writing believing they knew me inside out, and that if I pretended to be able to deceive them with my fictions, I would fail. He was right. Thus it was that fiction mixed with or perfumed by experience became ‘autobiographical prose’, even though many of the stereotypical rock ‘n’ roll events that I described had never happened. With Robert’s good advice in mind, and extrapolated into lifehouse, we decided that we must let ‘little Pete’ speak. When we did, we found a captivating fellow full of suburban, bombsite spunk and really bright ideas. We called him Rayboy, and he was most brilliantly recreated for me by Jeff Young who recorded my childhood memories very carefully.

Rayboy was, however, something of a pessimist. In our play the adult Ray grows up failing to realise his dreams and visions. I have, of course, realised many of my own childhood dreams, and I feel today that the few that are unrealised are within my grasp, or within my scope. But Ray and Rayboy are still very much of me. Perhaps they are also of my audience and childhood friends: all those West Londoners and Carnaby Street immigrants from Ireland or the Caribbean who sometimes turned to me and said that I had a knack of putting into words what they could party-dance away, but found hard to otherwise express. It turned out that what I was best at putting into words for them was the frustration that they could not put anything into words.

What is probably important to say now is that when you hear this play on the radio, the music will not change your understanding of the story. That was never my intention. Much of the music featured in the play is used by Kate Rowland in an almost incidental way, but I hope in a manner that could not be improved upon. She is especially good at using music in drama. But what the many descriptions of ‘music’ in the play offer are gentle realisations of some of the New Age Millennial notions argued by the play’s protagonists. These may appear to be rather cosmic ideas, but I implicitly believe in them. In lifehouse, music itself is a fundamental and rudimentary principle, almost a functional character. To a musician like me, music is what is ‘inside us all’. It represents experience, emotion and spiritual potential. I have invested my leading characters with this belief.

To go even further, I have always hoped that the lifehouse concert referred to in this play can happen in reality. I imagine a celebratory gathering at which a large number of individuals hear modest compositions or songs created specifically for them. In a finale, all those pieces could be combined, perhaps with creative and engaging images of each subject. I believe the result would have enormous impact and significance. I recently wrote a proposal to a friend of mine who owns a computer company (that for now I shall call Threshold), that is going to sponsor events of this kind:

Threshold to the lifehouse From vision to reality.

In 1971, as the follow-up to his hugely successful rock-opera Tommy, Pete Townshend wrote lifehouse for The Who. lifehouse was first drafted by Pete Townshend as a film script. The film project stalled, but the legendary rock album ‘Who’s Next’, was acclaimed by many as The Who’s finest. Songs like ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again‘, ‘Behind Blue Eyes‘ and ‘Baba O’Riley‘, have become part of the vertebrae of rock radio. A subsequent re-write brought forth ‘Who Are You‘ and ‘Join Together‘. This year, 5 December 1999, the definitive story behind the famous songs was finally told when the BBC broadcast a radio play in the United Kingdom as part of their Millennium Drama series.

In the first draft of the play was a fictional scene that, at the time, seemed almost inconceivable in reality. In the finale of the film, members of an audience attending a concert provided personal data to composers working with powerful computers, and heard the results. Every single piece of music was then combined, and a mathematical – yet wonderfully creative – metaphor for the universality of the human spirit was demonstrated.

Thirty years on, as the Millennium dawns, Threshold Computers, in association with Pete Townshend, are going to make this fictional scene happen. Threshold to the lifehouse will give everyone a chance to hear a piece of music specifically composed for them by Pete and his team. Indeed, their piece of music will be unique and special, produced using special computer programmes, based on data produced from a questionnaire accessed on the web, and perhaps even from DNA extracted from a hair of each participant. Pete will, in some cases, involve himself more deeply with participants, and develop lyrics or poetry to complement certain pieces of music.

On a date (yet to be set) in the future, an event will be held at which many of the pieces of music will be heard in public for the first time. Impudently, there will also be an attempt to realise Pete’s 1971 vision for The Who’s ‘lost’ movie project, and every single piece produced in the exercise will be combined and broadcast worldwide. We could hear the Music of the Spheres, or a busy night on Broadway. Pete believes we will hear the ocean.

Threshold Computers make buying and working with computers easier for people. Now they are making it easier for people to step into their own creative reflection.

Threshold to the lifehouse.

But this is perhaps just my composer’s megalomaniacal dream. Such visions must be realised rather than described. That much I have learned on my lifehouse journey, which ends here. Thus I move quickly onto the reality. By the time you read this I will have released a CD package containing all the music inspired by the lifehouse story over the last twenty-nine years. This package will be called ‘The lifehouse Chronicles’. A limited edition of 2001 will be called ‘The lifehouse Method’ and each will contain a unique code and a free ticket to the as yet unscheduled lifehouse Concert. Both packages will be available from my commercial web-site: www.eelpie.com. This is an excerpt from the brief I am giving to my software designers.

Brief for the Method

  • The ‘Method’ package will offer access to music generation software.
  • Each ‘Method’ package will contain a signed certificate from me with a unique code.
  • This code will unlock a deeper area of software.
  • The software should be available in all computer formats and can be distributed and ‘shared’, used without the code.
  • The code, when entered, will bring up a special data-entry page which will lead the user through a process that produces a one-off, unique piece of music, that contains a unique lyric generated by lyric motifs written by me.
  • Users of the ‘Method’ can take their completed unique composition to the Pete Townshend web-site, and expect to have their music developed further as the software is deepened. This process might unfold over a period of months or years.
  • The end-aim is that many buyers of the ‘Method’ will attend a concert in future at which their piece of music is ‘premiered’ and contrapuntally or fractally combined with other pieces.
  • Attendance at this concert is guaranteed and free to every purchaser of the ‘Method’ package whether they take part in the experiment or not.

So, I still have this crazy urge to make the fiction real. Sadly, this particular package will not be cheap. It contains four hours of music – the entire play as broadcast by the BBC – and is lavishly packaged. It also contains that guaranteed concert ticket and my promise that the buyer will be treated there like a V.I.P. But if you don’t wish to come to my lifehouse party, or enjoy the fine art of ‘The Method’, you can buy the cheaper ‘Chronicles’. You can enjoy the story, the story behind the story, and wait for the next chapter, which I hope will be some down-to-earth concerts, possibly a Broadway musical (most likely based on Psychoderelict ) and perhaps a feature film. Of course my next chapter should really be an air-conditioned motor-caravan on its way South, but I am enjoying my work too much at present to take a holiday.

What is the story for? Why should it be heard? This play is essentially about the necessity for human beings to congregate regularly in order to share their emotions, and their responses to the spiritual challenges of art, great and small. This is something we are especially conscious of in this Millennium year. Even the British Government are putting on a show that could have been some seventies rock star’s idea of a good night out. In this play, as a writer of fiction, and the bearer of post-apocalyptic wounds and generational shame, I suggest that the party might not end quite as they hope. Less seriously, I predict most of us will merely get drunk and laugh a lot, just like any other December 31.

In any case, lifehouse was never meant to be about ‘prediction’. Since David Lister (the Independent‘s art editor) gave me the front page recently, quoting the head of BBC Radio Drama (who also just happened to be directing the play) as saying that I’d foreseen the Internet thirty years ago, I’ve had a certain amount of sarcasm directed at me. That’s OK. But I really did know the next big deal in future media would be paid for by sex, or music. I wasn’t the only one. ‘Sex’ and ‘MP3’ (music downloading software) are the big web-words these days, so it is said. Both words get used in billions of searches every year. But downloading sex is still bigger than downloading music. I use the internet, but real sex is better than virtual sex, listening to music is better than talking about it, buying it on CD is better than waiting six hours while it downloads and then doesn’t play properly because your computer is two weeks too old. Music you can hold is so marvellous: shiny CDs, slick black vinyl, wobbly cassettes and fiddly Minidisks – I love them all. They are the living flesh of the pop music industry.

I still like to make the odd prediction. Watching a sci-fi film recently I wondered what it is that makes their directors feel that all space ships will look rusty in the future. I wondered what spaceships would really be made of, and what they would look like. Plastic? Shiny metal? Something self-repairing, like flesh? I believe that in the future, all machines will be made of flesh. And for good measure, they will sigh, swoon and sing when polished. In twenty years a beautiful cyborg with a body of genuine flesh will walk down Oxford Street with her arms outstretched saying, ‘. . . come to The lifehouse, your song is here.’

Copyright © 1999 Pete Townshend/Eel Pie Recording Productions Ltd

This article may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of An Introduction to lifehouse is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author and his agents, Ed Victor Ltd.

All rights enquiries to Lizzy Kramer, Ed Victor Ltd., 6 Bayley St, London WC1B 3HB, Tel: +44 20 7304 4100


Search The Richmond Review

Enter email address and Subscribe for updates

Product finder

Browse our network:

Visit The Big Bookshop www.thebigbookshop.com