“I was around nine when a babysitter snuck Who’s Next onto the turntable. The parents were gone. The windows shook. The shelves were rattling. Rock & roll.”
I did not originate the statement above. Eddie Vedder did back in 2016. But I could have originated it, as I had a similarly formative experience with The Who‘s classic 1971 LP when I was a kid. I was not introduced to the album famous for supplying a plethora of warhorses to classic-rock radio — “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes” — by a babysitter. I don’t remember exactly how I discovered it. I imagine now that it was handed down to me from up on high, like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments in the form of sanctified stone tablets. That’s how elemental Who’s Next seems to me in terms of informing my love and understanding of music. It is one of my favorite records of all time, and one of the greatest rock LPs ever. This album is epic. It is bombastic. It is mythic. It inspires middle-aged men to type “rock & roll” as a standalone sentence. It really is that kind of record.
I have purchased Who’s Next many times. Cassette, CD, vinyl, CD reissue, deluxe CD reissue — this 43-minute slab of poetic caterwauling has taken several forms on my shelves. But while the packaging changes, the songs and that cover depicting the four members of The Who and an enigmatic, urine-stained monolith stays the same. Now there’s yet another edition of Who’s Next in the form of an actual monolith, a massive 10-disc (plus one Blu-Ray!) box set that purports to be the ultimate version of the proper album and it’s never-wholly-realized sister project, the legendary rock opera Life House.
Let’s assume you are like me and/or Eddie Vedder. You are surely familiar with the backstory of Life House. You know that Pete Townshend was moved to create a new rock opera that could supplant Tommy as the centerpiece of The Who’s live concerts and also work as the basis of a major motion picture. You are aware that the plot concerns a futuristic society in which rock music is outlawed, a storyline that would be later borrowed by Rush for 2112, Styx for Kilroy Was Here, and approximately 1,000 other rock bands for their rock operas. You have read about Townshend’s grand ambitions to fuse cutting-edge synthesizer technology with utopian ideology about the power of music to create a level of collective ecstasy that approximates spiritual transcendence. You have heard the story about how The Who rented out a theater in London and performed these songs regularly as part of a free residency, with the idea that the audience would eventually engage with the band and become characters in the prospective film. And you have tried and failed to understand Townshend’s nuttiest ideas for the project, like the one about compiling personal information about each audience member, inputting that data into a computer, and subsequently producing a single musical note capable of creating “a kind of celestial cacophony” that would induce mass enlightenment.
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Eventually, Townshend was forced to confront some inconvenient truths. No. 1, nobody in his band understood what in the hell he was trying to do. No. 2, what he wanted to achieve was basically impossible. No. 3, making a normal, run-of-the-mill rock masterpiece out of his mountain of wonderful new songs was far more viable financially and artistically, if also less satisfying mystically. Townshend responded by abandoning Life House, almost throwing himself out of a hotel room window, and making Who’s Next with The Who.
Over the years fragments of Life House have popped up on various albums. The year after Who’s Next was released, Townshend included several unreleased songs on his first solo LP, Who Came First. More tracks appeared two years later on the outtakes collection Odds & Sods. In the ’80s, Townshend put out some of his Life House demos via his series of Scoop records. In the ’90s, he released a very meta solo record, Psychoderelict, about a Pete Townshend-like rock star who makes a Life House-like album that contained music from the actual Life House. In the aughts, he put out a limited edition six-disc box set, Lifehouse Chronicles, that compiled dozens of demos along with a radio play that dramatized Townshend’s film script. (Since then, Townshend apparently decided that Life House is two words, not one. This is truly a work in progress.)
If you are, again, like me and/or Eddie Vedder, you already have all of this stuff. What this new box set offers is the most comprehensive view of how Life House became Who’s Next, all in one package. You hear the demos, the songs that didn’t make it to Who’s Next, and concerts performed before and after the album was released. You even get a graphic novel version of Life House that must be considered the most coherent version yet of what Townshend envisioned.
For me, the box set prompts five important questions, which I will now attempt to answer.
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1. Is Who’s Next a good album?
The answer should be “of course.” Like I said, this is the record that inspires middle-aged men to pontificate about windows shaking and shelves rattling. But the weird thing about the mythos of Life House is that it’s inevitably accompanied by the negging of Who’s Next. When viewed through the prism of Life House, Who’s Next is no longer one of the most famous records in rock history. It is the compromise, the mop-up job, the failure of Townshend’s career. It completely transforms a winner into a loser. Incredibly, that seems to be how the people closest to Who’s Next seem to view it. This is, after all, the record that Townshend and his bandmates literally piss all over on the cover. “Fabulous album,” the band’s former co-manager Chris Stamp says of Who’s Next in the Classic Albums documentary. “I mean, it’s a great pity that it wasn’t as fantastic as it was intended to be.”
But what exactly was Life House “intended to be”? Life House has always had the same advantage that all legendary “what if?” albums have, which is that it never came to be and therefore can live forever as a figment of the public’s imagination. And imaginary albums always seem greater than real albums, even when the real album in question is Who’s Next. This box set, which is about as “real” as Life House will ever be, includes a tantalizing tidbit in the liner notes about how The Who originally wanted to make a double album — which would have allowed for the inclusion of beloved numbers like “Pure And Easy,” “Let’s See Action,” and “I Don’t Even Know Myself” — but were dissuaded by their associate producer Glyn Johns, who (rightly) viewed a single LP as more commercial.
But would this imaginary double album be better than the real Who’s Next? I don’t think so. As it is, Who’s Next is the epitome of larger-than-life rock ‘n’ roll epic-osity. (Steven Wilson’s excellent remix reiterates this.) It already feels infinitely bigger than a 43-minute record. Making it a 73-minute record would be too much of a good thing, like feeding Keith Moon a handful of horse tranquilizers right after he’s polished off a bottle of brandy. Life House is much better as a 73-minute album of the mind.
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Anyway, Who’s Next isn’t a good album. It’s a fucking great album.
2. Was Life House a good idea?
This question, to me, points to the fatal flaw of the Life House mythos. It’s taken as a given that Life House was a brilliant concept that failed only because Pete Townshend was too far ahead of his time. In the ’90s, around the time of Psychoderelict, some critics (as well as Townshend himself) credited Life House with helping to invent the internet, as one of the story’s concepts involves a computer mainframe called The Grid that connects all the people in the dystopian future society.
Townshend has always insisted that the Life House concept is so simple that anyone who doesn’t get it must be an enormous moron. And he’s right. Having performed at rock festivals like Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, he personally witnessed the ways in which music can transfix the masses and move them to an elevated hive-mind state that is more akin to religion than show business. That magical feeling is what he was writing about. The problem isn’t that this idea is too complicated. The problem is that it’s so basic to the project of being a rock band that attempting to literalize it in the form of a concept album makes no sense. It would be like writing a bunch of songs about playing encores. Transfixing an audience is a job for a band, not subject matter.
3. Are these songs better when Pete Townshend sings them?
The most fascinating part of the box set is the demos, which are remarkably well-realized versions of songs we have all heard a million times. In the liners, Townshend talks about how hard he worked on the synthesizer sounds because he anticipated that the band would eventually have to use them as backing tracks on stage. But as his demo of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” demonstrates, his home recordings also set a template that The Who closely copied in the studio. Listening to those tracks, it occurred to me that if Pete Townshend were a young artist in 2023 — and he didn’t have a world-class rock band at his disposal — he likely would have released his demos as the record. And that record would be pretty great!
In some ways, this theoretical “Bandcamp” version of Who’s Next would also be more modern. The complaint I hear the most from people who don’t like The Who is about Roger Daltrey, whose style of macho howling is virtually absent from contemporary rock music. Even many of the Who fans I know prefer Townshend’s softer and more sensitive vocals. But when it comes to Who’s Next, the operatic sweep of Townshend’s songs requires a singer of Daltrey’s heft. As good as the “Won’t Get Fooled Again” demo is, it doesn’t have that iconic scream at the end. And if you don’t have that iconic scream, you don’t really have “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
4. Is the best song on Who’s Next written by John Entwistle?
Because this is a Life House box set as much as a Who’s Next box set — it’s probably more of a Life House box set, actually — it is almost entirely centered on Pete Townshend. Which means we don’t get multiple versions of the one song not written by Townshend on Who’s Next, John Entwistle’s “My Wife.” Among Who fans, a popular contrarian opinion is that “My Wife” is the best song on the album. I don’t happen to share that opinion, but my one criticism of this box set is that we don’t get a glimpse into Entwistle’s creative process. How exactly did he hit upon the idea to write a song about his spouse trying to murder him? Did he always sing “airplane” like “aeroplane”? Did any of this tie into the Life House concept in ways that are heretofore hidden? The mystery lives.
5. Is Who’s Next the ultimate classic rock album?
Even with this doorstop of a box set, Who’s Next still has that air of mystery at its core. And that mystery is centered on the lost potential of Pete Townshend’s grandest ambitions. It is, simultaneously, one of the most overexposed rock albums ever, with a reach that extends into every sports stadium (and CSI franchise spin-off) known to man, and an intriguingly nebulous idea dreamt up by a genius who earnestly believed that his music could elevate his audience to a better, heretofore untouched astral plane. On paper, it’s easy to point out the ludicrous improbability of Life House. But the faint possibility that maybe, one day, Pete Townshend might take us to that mystical place with his soaring rock anthems remains alluring 52 years later, particularly for those who can’t quite shake the faith in ancient classic rock mythology. As for Who’s Next, it offers proof positive that aiming for the impossible can result in achieving the incredible. And that’s why it’s the ultimate classic rock album.