(Pictured: Entwistle, Moon, Townshend, and Daltrey in the summer of 1971.)
In the fall of 1971, I bought the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on a 45. As a young record buyer, I’d memorize the details not just of the songs but the labels, and my copy of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” said that the song was from the motion picture Lifehouse. Lifehouse, of course, is one of rock’s most famous failed projects—as David Hepworth puts it in Never a Dull Moment: 1971, the Year That Rock Exploded, Lifehouse “was supposed to be a film, a multimedia epic, a unique collaboration between performer and audience, and, on some level, a ‘crowd-sourced’ piece of art in which the band would facilitate the audience in reaching a new level of consciousness.” Even accounting for Hepworth’s tendency to snark, his description of Lifehouse seems pretty accurate based on what I’ve read about it—yet very much in keeping with one spirit afoot in the moment.
Elsewhere in Hepworth’s book, he tells of the gentle, confessional, personal music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor (in early 1971, Tapestry and Blue were recorded in adjacent studios at A&M in Los Angeles, and Taylor was working on Mud Slide Slim just down the street), refitting the hippie idyll for those who were growing older, starting families and/or contemplating single adulthood, and coming to grips with the 70s as a different place than the 60s had been. But in other precincts, rock was reaching for grandiosity. Led Zeppelin’s rock-godliness certainly was; Alice Cooper’s theatrics were the same thing, only different. Similarly, Hepworth writes, Lifehouse was the product of a feeling that the art of rock could and should transcend mere singles and albums in favor of prestigious long-form works. The Who’s manager, Kit Lambert, was a fan of classical music, even more committed to long-form than Pete Townshend was. Tommy had been a success in 1969 and Jesus Christ Superstar was the rage of 1970, so why would the Who want to take a step backward in 1971?
But the Who was in a volatile position at that same moment. Hepworth quotes Roger Daltrey as saying the band was never closer to breaking up than at the dawn of the 70s. Townshend felt the pressure of producing a whole ‘nother rock opera, but at the same time, Hepworth says, “he had too many ideas rather than not enough.” Lifehouse may have “seemed the only proper vehicle for [Townshend’s] seriousness,” but not if it never got off the ground.
Enter producer/engineer Glyn Johns. He’d made many great singles in the 60s, including the Who’s own “My Generation,” so Lambert invited him to work with the Who on Lifehouse. One of the first things he did was to tell Townshend that nobody would ever get the Lifehouse idea (Hepworth says neither the rest of the Who nor Lambert fully understood it themselves), and they should just make an album. They repurposed some of the songs from Lifehouse, went to work in a studio in New York, and the result was Who’s Next. Hepworth writes, “Who’s Next is way better than Lifehouse could ever have hoped to be,” and people are still listening to it and stealing from it “long after the likes of Tommy and Quadrophenia have grown tiresome.” He considers it “the best recording in the best year in the history of recording.”
Hepworth reserves a couple of paragraphs for “Baba O’Riley,” a song written for Lifehouse, as a remarkable innovation in its use of a synthesizer, as well as a click track to keep Keith Moon steadily on the beat. (“In years to come all records would be made like this.”) He notes how perfectly it stands directly between the psychedelic 1960s and what the 1970s were about to become.
Although “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Behind Blue Eyes” were the singles in the UK and US, “Baba O’Riley” is the best thing on the album, and despite years of play and overplay on classic-rock radio, millions of people still love it—even if they have no idea what it’s really called. On the campus radio station circa 1980, we rotated our music with a card file, one 3-by-5 card for each song in the library’s various categories. On the “Baba O’Riley” card, someone helpfully wrote, “Often requested as ‘Teenage Wasteland,'” which it universally was. And, I am guessing, it still frequently is.
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Interesting stuff, you hear so little about Lifehouse, I wonder how far along they actually got. I can only imagine doing yet another “rock opera” would have really irritated some people in the group.
Still it worked out, of course, as Baba O’Riley is one of the greatest songs ever and Who’s Next is one of their better albums.