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Pete Townshend's Lifehouse: one of rock's great 'nearly' projects has finally found its moment

Pete Townshend (De Fontenay/JDD/SIPA/Shutterstock)
Pete Townshend (De Fontenay/JDD/SIPA/Shutterstock)

William Faulkner put it best in his novel, Requiem for a Nun, when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” For Pete Townshend, for so long the creative force behind the Who, the past never seems to leave him. With good reason. It was Townshend who wrote the band’s legendary and groundbreaking concept album Tommy, Townshend who crafted the band’s only slightly less legendary Quadrophenia, and Townshend who will forever be worshipped as the man who made windmill strokes the ultimate rock and roll cliché.

He is also the man who, in 1970, lovingly created, and then reluctantly discarded one of rock’s greatest nearly projects, Lifehouse, the great abandoned Who sci-fi album that eventually surfaced as Who’s Next a year later. Intended as a follow-up to Tommy, a song cycle centered around “vibrations” inspired by the spiritual master, Maher Baba, that inadvertently anticipated the birth of the internet, Lifehouse has become the lingua franca of Townshend’s career; the loadstar, the jewel, the Rosebud.

“I keep coming back to it because it’s central to me in so many ways and was a turning point for me as a writer for the Who,” says Townshend. “Initially, when it came to writing for the Who, one of the big problems was that I didn’t really like the band. I felt I was, as it were… commissioned to write for this particular bunch of people, all of whom were extremely difficult.

"And I hasten to say that, as the guitar player and performer, I was equally difficult. I had to make sure whatever I was writing fit this particular brief for me as a stage performer with an electric guitar, swinging my arms and occasionally smashing guitars. So, for me, in the early days, I realised that what helped me was storytelling, in songs like Happy Jack, I’m a Boy or Pictures of Lily; stories about strange creatures or strange animals or strange people.

"So when it got to post-Tommy, which was a story I wrote almost unconsciously, I wanted to write about about my interest in Meher Baba and Sufism, and the idea that there was a philosophy that was worth pursuing to do with human consciousness and life itself.”

The rest of the band were not so enthusiastic, and even though the Who had managed to pivot from dynamic if rather oddball singles to the cerebral material on Tommy, not one of them – not Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle or Keith Moon – were interested in pursuing it. Daltrey even went so far as to say, “Let’s face it Pete, it’s a load of shit.”

A page from the Life House graphic novel (IMAGE COMICS)
A page from the Life House graphic novel (IMAGE COMICS)

They tried to workshop the material, although they just ended up getting frustrated and playing Eddie Cochran songs. The Who’s genius was always the kinetic way the band’s individuals managed to interpret Townshend’s songs, whether they were energetic or elegiac. Lifehouse, however, was beyond them.

So the project languished, with various songs appearing on albums and singles by the Who, as well as Townshend’s solo albums. Earlier this year, many of the Lifehouse demos were included on a gigantic Who’s Next box set, but now, over 50 years since its inception, it has been reinvented as a deluxe graphic novel.

“Lifehouse has always needed a story that makes sense but without the egos of new creatives who think they can ‘fix’ what was wrong with my first draft,” says Townshend. “I’m delighted with the comic. The art is beautiful and dense, colourful and engaging. The artists and their team have made an amazing and hugely collectible piece that adds depth and clarity to an otherwise complex story.”

Based on Townshend’s original scripts, this original 172-page graphic novel is written by James Harvey and David Hine (co-creator of Spider-Man Noir) with art by Harvey and Australian visual artist, Max Prentis. It introduces us to a dystopian world which doesn’t feel vastly different from 2023, a darkly funny counter narrative that feels as fresh as it does nostalgic.

In fact, aspects of the Lifehouse are almost indisputable predictions of the future, from, in Townshend’s words, “foretellings of the internet and online streaming, to a Britain separated from Europe by its leaders.”

A page from the Life House graphic novel (IMAGE COMICS)
A page from the Life House graphic novel (IMAGE COMICS)

The story takes place in a future world in which music has been outlawed. A small band of idealistic rebels seek to defy the tyrannical leader, Jumbo 7, and free Britain and all of humanity by staging a spiritual concert at a secret underground venue known as the Life House (hence the novel title's different spelling).

The novel is published by Image Comics. “Growing up, the Who were one of my favourite bands, and Who’s Next loomed large in their discography as a major touchstone," says Image's Chief Creative Officer, Eric Stephenson. "Pete Townshend is a natural storyteller, so it’s both a pleasure and a thrill to see one of his most legendary projects take on a new life as a graphic novel.”

Who’s Next contained two Lifehouse songs, which would start to define the band, Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Riley. “Whenever an American football club wants to use one of our songs, it’s always one of those,” says Townshend. “Those are the two that just get trotted out again and again and again. They must have earned multiple millions in royalties and have become almost biblical in their anthemic value.

"There was a moment pre-Tommy, before these two songs entered the fray, there was My Generation, which was sort of epochal in its anthemic value – once you started it, the audience would explode. And it would often be the last song we performed. But then after Tommy, it was See Me, Feel Me and Listening to You, which we would play until the audience got on their feet. It wouldn’t matter how long it took, we would know that eventually they would get on their feet. Because it’s like a prayer. And it’s an incessant prayer, a secular prayer," he says.

"We didn’t play My Generation for many years, and now we’re playing it again. It takes me back to those early years when I’d actually managed to not just make a hit record, but to make a hit record that actually dealt with all of the issues that my generation – we call ourselves the boomers now, but we were just the kids then – were going through, which was being seen to be worthless.”

A page from the Life House graphic novel (IMAGE COMICS)
A page from the Life House graphic novel (IMAGE COMICS)

And how would the Who’s career have changed if Lifehouse had been released?

“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, smiling. “Watching the Who was already a congregational experience by then. It’s a case of Who Knows?”

If the past really is prologue, then perhaps Lifehouse’s time has finally come.

The Life House graphic novel is available at book stores, comic book shops and specialty retailers on December 19, by Image Comics