Townshend's new epic saw the future 30 years ago

THE WHO'S Pete Townshend calls it the story of "a vast global network." Begun in 1971 it would have foretold the coming of the internet and worldwide web.

But Townshend took nearly 30 years to complete it: a longer conception than any other work in rock history. Now, it can be revealed, the piece, entitled Lifehouse, is to have its premiere.

A performance of an early version of the work was in fact given in 1971 to a small audience at the Young Vic Theatre in London, which I attended. Townshend had intended it to be the successor to his massively successful rock opera, Tommy.

But he then discarded the ambitious project which demanded `creative feedback' from the audience, and returned to conventional music making.

The completed project will surprise Who fans and non-fans alike. For it is clear now why it seemed so baffling in 1971. Townshend, in a particularly visionary phase, had foreseen the worldwide web.

The basic storyline, unchanged for the past 29 years, addresses the spiritual consequences of a move away from a physical, human community to digital networking and the power of music. At the heart of the drama is an 11-year-old, avisionary, full of daring ideas and dreams.

Perhaps reflecting Townshend's ascent to the arts establishment in the intervening period or rock's now classical status, its premiere in December will be on Radio 3.

Kate Rowland, head of BBC radio drama, said yesterday: "I feel sure that Lifehouse will be greeted as a contemporary classic. It's extraordinary when you think about what he was writing in 1971. It was like he was projecting ahead. He didn't use the words net or web. He called it `grid.' But he was hitting the nail almost right on the head."

Townshend, who has been adding to the original Lifehouse concept over the 29 years, has been working secretly with BBC drama executives on the project, and rehearsing a cast that includes Geraldine James, David Threlfall, Kelly Macdonald who appeared in Trainspotting, and 11-year-old primary school pupil Phillip Dowling.

Explaining the genesis of the piece in typically idiosyncratic analytical fashion, Townshend says: "At the end of the Sixties I was wary of growing tension between entertainment and commerce. My experience was salutary. Rock music was a bastard art form, and many in society tacitly approved the corruption of its exponents. Many Sixties rock artists and their cronies were Utopian visionaries, or bed-sit revolutionaries. However, their peaceful post-war middle-class upbringing instilled in them an innate belief in democracy, rather than direct action. My corollary ran thus: show business was corrupt and exploitative; the Establishment colluded.

"What made this bearable was the fact that rock had passed through its infancy and was occasionally generating spiritual uplift only matched in the classical arts. Technology and rock were hand in hand, marching to the future like a modern salvation army. Rock was a mirror to society, and reflected spiritual hunger.

"In the midst of all this uneasy anticipation, I wrote a play. If, in the future, life itself ever had to be experienced through art - let's say because of a necessary curfew to avoid the effects of radiation or pollution - a vast global network would be required.

"Would rock have a place or not? Was rock's particular brand of spiritual uplift - its main claim to be regarded as art - confined to live events before masses of people?"

Ms Rowland says that Lifehouse is more like a play with music than a rock opera. Townshend will sing the music himself, reworking most of the well-known Who numbers for the two-hour performance. The score includes several Who songs such as "Won't Get Fooled Again", "Baba O'Riley" and "Behind Blue Eyes", which were originally intended for Lifehouse. There will also be previously unheard songs by The Who's composer and lyricist.

For rock chroniclers, the completion of Lifehouse after its inordinately long gestation will be a major landmark, coming as it does from such a pivotal figure in contemporary music.

Townshend's most cherished project has taken on near mythic status over the decades and has been discussed by rock historians and Who biographers alike.

It is mentioned in the encyclopaedic Rough Guide To Rock, which describes the birth and apparent death of the project that it - like almost everyone else - thought had been abandoned. It notes how the music for Lifehouse set the tone for the coming decade. It says: "The band embarked [at the start of the Seventies] on a film/music project called Lifehouse which involved the band living with some of the fans, in the hope of creative feedback ... Retreating to the studio, The Who attempted to make something from the material they had got. Perversely, although Lifehouse was a major league failure, the resulting album Who's Next was probably their best. A remarkable collection of crunching riffs, power chords and anthemic lyrics - most notably `Won't get Fooled Again' - it virtually defined Seventies hard rock."

Townshend's 1969 rock opera Tommy, about a messianic deaf, dumb and blind boy, was eventually followed by another concept project in 1973, Quadrophenia, a hark back to the Mod era. But it is now clear that the project really intended to be Tommy's successor was, in its musical content and its prophetic storyline, a lost classic.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones