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
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
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
- 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
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