In 1999, the Wachowskis siblings launched a little multi-part film franchise called The Matrix. Although I have yet to see the fourth installment, the whole series revolves around the original film’s basic tenets. According to Wiki, “The Matrix depicts a dystopian future in which humanity is unknowingly trapped inside a simulated reality called The Matrix. Intelligent machines have created The Matrix to distract humans while using their bodies as an energy source. When computer programmer Thomas Anderson, under the hacker alias ‘Neo’, uncovers the truth, he joins a rebellion against the machines along with other people who have been freed from the Matrix.” I find similarities between The Matrix and Pete Townshend’s follow up to The Who’s massively popular album Tommy that are hard to ignore.
In Classic Rock Magazine (Issue 303, Summer 2022), writer Christopher Scapelliti tackles the vexing problem of explaining how a Pete Townshend science-fiction rock opera imploded in 1971 only to resurface (in part) as one of the strongest albums of the classic rock era, Who’s Next. Before getting too deeply into Townshend’s mind-set at the time, I am going to let Scapelliti explain what Lifehouse (the title of the sci-fi rock opera previously mentioned) was all about. I am going to borrow Scapelliti’s explanation in full because prior to reading his description, I never could put a handle on what Pete was trying to do.
Scapelliti on Lifehouse: “The futuristic fable is set in a dystopian Great Britain, where pollution has forced much of humanity to retreat into womb-like Life Suits attached to the Grid – an internet-like device run by the government, the gas company, and a cable concern. In addition to food, medicine, and anesthesia, the Grid provides programming that lets its netizens live out virtual lives. Within this world, music and art have diminished value, and are seen as providing little to human experience. Beyond the Grid, a small collective of farmers have been allowed to subsist in the countryside. Among them are Ray, Sally, and their daughter Mary, who live in Scotland. One day, they learn of a rock music festival being held in London. Called Lifehouse, it’s the project of a computer hacker named Bobby, who collects raw data from the Grid’s users and converts it into music. After Mary runs away to attend Lifehouse, Ray and Sally race in their van to find her. They arrive right when the concert reaches its peak, as the combined songs from the Grid’s users ring out the perfect note, and the attendees, including those observing the concert from their Life Suits, disappear in the musical equivalent of the Rapture.”
Do not misread my intent here. I am not saying the Wachowskis nicked the idea for The Matrix from Pete Townshend. Many elements for the Wachowskis’ film come from all over the map. One Easter-egg like hint takes place in The Matrix when a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulation (a French publication from 1981) is seen on-screen as the ‘book used to conceal disks’, and Morpheus quotes the phrase ‘desert of the real’ from it. Many see this as a hint that the Wachowskis borrowed heavily from Baudrillard’s philosophy. The author himself, however, has said he felt the film ‘misunderstands and distorts’ his work. What I find remarkable is that Pete Townshend was attempting to write such an ambitious piece of sci-fi rock opera in 1971, fully 28 years before the appearance of The Matrix. This was well before the terms ‘digital’ and ‘internet’ entered our vocabulary.
The year 1971 was a turbulent one for The Who, but especially so for their chief songwriter / guitar player Pete Townshend. He was feeling the pressure. The band had a few hits in the mid to late 1960s but he was feeling constrained by the typical pop song format. Pete began toying a little with deeper concepts; songs that followed some sort of story line – a mini-opera if you will. The first was A Quick One, While He’s Away and then a musical suite called Rael that appeared on the 1967 release The Who Sell Out. The Sell Out album was a bit of a concept in itself with fake advertisements used as interludes to mimic the pirate radio stations operating outside of Britain’s territorial waters. Experimenting with this format led to Townshend’s crowning glory; the full blown rock-opera Tommy. This LP succeeded on three fronts: First, it was a high concept for a rock record. Second, it had songs with enough pop sensibility to produce hit singles which further spurred massive album sales, and lastly, it made the band wildly popular.
When The Who appeared at the original Woodstock Festival (and in the subsequent concert film), they set the bar so high Townshend wondered if he could ever get over it again. Thus began his odyssey to do just that with the Lifehouse project described so well above by Scapelliti. The problems came at Pete faster than he could process them and he was feeling trapped – the same feeling one would get after painting oneself into the corner of a room with no easy exit available. Manager Kit Lambert seemed to be the one person who understood what Townshend was doing and often ‘interpreted’ his work to others. The problem here? Even Lambert could not decipher what Lifehouse was about. There was also Lambert’s other little problem: heroin. With Pete stuck in neutral, Lambert’s cash flow dwindled as his drug money flowed out faster than his record company profits came in. Kit decided the way to get Pete off square one was to get him to New York to record at the fabled Record Plant studio.
Why transplant the recording to New York in the first place? A month before being summoned to the Record Plant, The Who took what they had already assembled for Lifehouse and played several unannounced shows at London’s New Vic theater for whoever decided to walk in the door. It was a mistake because very few people showed up. Townshend’s tenuous hold on his songwriter’s ego was shaken: “It was disturbing. The place was empty. There weren’t Who fans there, it was people we’d invited in off the street, local kids.” It is no wonder Pete welcomed the opportunity to work at the same studio where Jimi Hendrix recorded some tracks for his double album masterpiece Electric Ladyland.
The plan didn’t work out exactly as Lambert had hoped and it almost answered the question, “Can Pete Townshend fly?” According to the guitarist, the band found themselves meeting in Lambert’s hotel room when, as Pete later remembered, his anxiety about Lifehouse peaked: “I got this welling of energy, which I think you can only get in New York. And I started to hallucinate. I thought I must get some air, and I stumbled toward the window. I was about to jump out when Kit’s secretary grabbed me – just like that! I nearly killed myself.” After a few unproductive days in the studio, it became apparent that nothing good would come out of the session. The rest of the two week studio block was canceled and Townshend headed back to London. As Scapelliti noted, “Sometimes failures are just failures, and nothing more. Sometimes they are the fertile, nurturing hotbed from which success unexpectedly springs”. Lifehouse had become an albatross for Townshend, but in the end, it spawned one of the all-time great rock albums, Who’s Next.
Several things pushed Townshend over the edge before his full blown NYC panic attack. One was the success of Tommy. He feared the connection he made with his audience with The Who’s earlier pop hits was lost. He told Scapelliti, “What ultimately alienated us from our fans was the way Woodstock turned us into superstars. In some ways that was wonderful. We went from being a band with a predominantly male following to one where Roger seemed to be like a new kind of rock Sun God. And we had a few women in the audience for a change. But in other ways, it was disarming, because the actual natural, easy connection between me, as the writer, and the audience was broken.” The two sided nature of his relationship with Lambert also drove a wedge between Pete and his ability to create music. Arriving early at Lambert’s suite for a band meeting, Pete heard Kit ranting about, “Townshend this, and Townshend that” in none too friendly tones. When he finally opened the door, the vibe changed in volume and tone to, “Oh, hello, Pete!” Townshend recalled, “I sat down and I thought: ‘When I’m not doing what people want me to do, I’m this arrogant (expletive deleted) called Townshend, and people hate me.” Suffering from nervous exhaustion, Pete’s resolve caved in: “And that is when I gave up on Lifehouse.”
The Record Plant sessions may not have been productive, but they had one shining moment. Leslie West of Mountain (who had hung out with The Who at Woodstock and later at the Speakeasy club in London) was asked to come in and play guitar for the sessions because Pete wanted to record without doing overdubs. The Who and Mountain were known as two of the loudest live acts in the early 1970s and with both guitarists refusing to turn down the volume in the studio, it got loud. West said, “Afterwards, he came over to me – I guess he was a little embarrassed – and said: ‘Can you hear yourself okay?’ I told him I could hear myself even if I was in Chicago!” Unfortunately, none of these sessions were used and Townshend decamped back to London to try and figure out what to do next with his floundering project.
Soon after landing in England, Townshend hired producer / engineer Glyn Johns to help him move the project forward. Johns agreed to work with him for a week and if things didn’t go well, he wouldn’t hang around. Things went so well The Who began again, this time recording the backing tracks for Won’t Get Fooled Again at Mick Jagger’s Stargroves country estate using the Stones’ mobile recording studio. To say Johns saved the day is a major understatement. First, he suggested wildman Moon should tone down his style, something no producer familiar with his playing would have dared to do. Glyn asked him to simplify what he was doing by eliminating the rolls and fills his frenetic playing was known for. Oddly, Moon the Loon complied and did not chafe when Johns used Townshends’ pre-recorded keyboard parts on Baba O’Riley and Won’t Be Fooled Again to set the tempo. Townshend believes this didn’t limit the drummer at all, but rather freed him from, “Pretending to keep the beat. No, Keith was brilliant. When somebody else kept the beat for him, it was just great, he was just decorating.”
Moon wasn’t the only one liberated during these sessions. Johns next convinced Townshend to condense the album to one disk by focusing on the strongest tracks. With the daunting double album concept now in the dustbin, John Entwistle’s song My Wife could be added to the mix. Left to program the album in any order he wished, Glyn first took Pete out to a pub and asked him to explain the concept behind Lifehouse once and for all. Pete explains, “He asked, ‘Pete, tell me just once more about this Lifehouse.’ I thought: ‘Oh, god!’ So I told him the story, And he sat there, thinking. I thought he was going to say: “Now I get it!’ And instead he said: ‘I don’t understand a word that you said!’” Lifehouse was now truly dead and Townshend was still shaken by the failure. On the plus side, the artistic death spiral his fragile mental state suggested thankfully never materialized.
Pete’s greatest take away from working with Johns on Who’s Next was to work more simply. The lesson would pay dividends on their next high concept double LP Quadrophenia. As he told Scapelliti, “With Quadrophenia, I decided to get a much more loose line. I did that thing that one does if one’s working on a short story – to take a glimpse, a slice, and say: “This is something; this is three days in the life of a boy.’ That was all, and that will do.” Though bits and pieces of the original Lifehouse project would appear in various forms over the next thirty years, the songs pulled together for Who’s Next would not have had the same impact if they had been inserted as parts of the original double disk concept.
There was one other thing that stood out about Who’s Next beyond the outstanding tracks: the album cover. Photographer Ethan Russell had numerous shots rejected and he found himself under the gun as the album release date neared. On May 14, 1971, Russell joined the band on a car trip to a performance at the University of Liverpool. While there, he did take a series of photographs of the band pretending to destroy their dressing room, one of which eventually being picked for the back cover. Returning to London the next day, the band was passing through Sheffield when Russell spotted a large coal slag heap. There were four or five large concrete monoliths among the slag designed to keep it from shifting and running away in an avalanche of loose material. “It looked like the surface of the Moon,” Russell said. The monoliths reminded him of the scene from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey where primitive man receives knowledge in the form of a large monolith.
The original idea he had was to photograph the band reacting in fear to one of the slag heap monoliths, not unlike the apes and humans in 2001. Once they were done with the original shots, they decided to have a little fun as Russell snapped what would become the iconic album’s cover. For those unfamiliar with the record sleeve, let us just say the ‘fun shot’ made it appear that the band had relieved themselves on the monolith and were turning to amble away. According to Russell, “Nobody peed [on the monolith]. We just filled some empty thirty-five-millimeter film canisters with water and poured it on the cement. I mean, the whole thing was so outrageous, I just thought, ‘There’s no way they’re going to use this!’” No, ‘outrageous’ would have been an earlier shot (soundly rejected by the band) of drummer Moon dressed in drag brandishing a whip.
For all the angst Lifehouse had caused Pete Townshend, he was able to recognize Who’s Next as a remarkable album still revered today. Townshend said, “I was delighted with it. It felt like The Who’s first proper album. It felt uncomplicated and simple, and I didn’t care that the story had been lost. I was just relieved to have made anything at all.” I wonder if the Wachowskis had similar feelings when the first The Matrix movie was released?
Top Piece Video: A great example of Keith Moon ‘decorating’ BABA O’RILEY rather than keeping the beat. Note also that Roger Daltrey is wearing his famous Chamois cloth shirt – he and his wife literally took two of these car wash cloths and stictched them together – Miles Davis sent his people to Roger’s house to photograph it – he couldn’t find a place to buy one (I wonder why) so he was having one tailor made!