“Who’s Next/Life House” — The Who’s massive new box set — dives deep down the archival rabbit hole to shed light on the development of one of the band’s greatest records — and one grandiose idea that (mostly) slipped away.
The 10-disc, 155-track collection out Friday shows how Pete Townshend ’s self-described “mad idea” for a science fiction rock opera “Life House” project, which was abandoned and eventually became 1971’s “Who’s Next.”
But the sprawling original concept from The Who’s songwriter, lead guitar player and vocalist never left his mind and got refashioned numerous times in various formats over the ensuing half century.
At its most basic, Townshend’s original “Life House” concept foresees a future where an autocratic government, in a land ravaged by pollution, enforces a national lockdown where every person is hooked up to an entertainment grid to distract them. Music becomes an inconvenient diversion to the powers that be, while inhabitants search for the perfect note to create a sort of musical rapture.
More or less.
The exhaustive box set allows the listener to observe the evolution of some of The Who’s best and most well-known songs, including “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Reilly” (aka “Teenage Wasteland”), “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Goin’ Mobile.”
While first envisioned for “Life House,” the songs eventually were released on “Who’s Next,” a record that to the uninitiated may appear to be a greatest hits compilation, it’s just that good.
There’s plenty here for Who nerds to take a deep dive. One fascinating bit is hearing the difference in the demos, sung by Townshend, and the versions that were ultimately released with Roger Daltrey’s signature vocals — including the epic scream that defined the official version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Townshend writes the liner notes for the original “Life House” demos he recorded at his home studio, working tirelessly with some of the earliest synthesizer technology. His devotion to the material is reminiscent of other artists from that time, most notably Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ “Smile” sessions, who struggle to translate the ideas and songs in their head into a finished product.
In fact, Townshend reportedly came close to having a nervous breakdown while working out the material.
“I have to say I am still so deliriously proud of the work I did on this music,” Townshend writes. “When The Who perform it on stage, I sometimes give a little prayer of gratitude to that young man I once was who worked so hard on this for several weeks in that tiny studio full of dozens of excluded lengths of tape edited out to make it fly.”
As an added bonus, the box set also includes other songs recorded in the era, a “Life House” graphic novel and two complete 1971 concerts that showcase The Who in their prime debuting the material with some crowd pleasers like “Pinball Wizard” and “My Generation” sprinkled in.
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