With this super deluxe edition, finally, after over fifty years, The Who’s Pete Townshend, in all likelihood, has reached the peak of potential for his 1971 Life House project; an exhaustive undertaking that bequeathed the album, Who’s Next, which, itself, became one of the most acclaimed and successful recordings of all-time. As Townshend always suggested, the album was only an abbreviated representation of the much grander Life House project that inspired it- and nearly wiped him out.
The Life House narrative and the ensuing effort to realize it fully as a multi-media exhibition- album, live performance, and film- are both long and treacherous stories to articulate. Politely, and briefly, to summarize: Townshend, for his next rock opera following the glorious Tommy, conceived a world stricken by environmental calamity, in which the powers that be mandate its citizenry live in a locked-down state, wearing a life-suit that pumps in endless streams of entertainment. (The parallels to actual modern existence are a compliment to Townshend, and rather alarming.)
Now, five decades later, is the Who’s Next Life House collection; a 10-disc, single Blu-Ray box set that includes the remastered original album, demos, session outtakes, two concert recordings, liner notes, booklet, posters, and a 172-page graphic novel. In a word, immense. If this doesn’t celebrate and display Life House to the fullest, it’s hard to imagine what could.
As for the set, it is incredible. The remastered album, both on disc and vinyl, is a meticulous representation of the original masterwork. Who’s Next was always an album of and for the future, terrifically balanced and deftly avoiding the weighted boots of prog rock and the fantastical indulgences of heavy metal that were on either side of Townshend in 1971 Great Britain. Polished up- and remixed for the Blu-Ray by the agile and adept Steven Wilson- it sounds, at once, warm and piercing, still conveying the kind of immersive experience perfect for the life-suit.
The demos are especially fascinating- hearing the early ideas that would evolve or be discarded, (particularly gestational and entertaining is “Teenage Wasteland”), and all with Townshend’s lead and sole vocal; the difference in approach compared to Roger Daltrey’s finished version is not always so obvious, and a testament to Daltrey’s ability to make stellar choices in what to keep and what to change melodically.
The two live performances are contrasting and exhilarating. The early-in-the-process Young Vic shows in London feel like workouts designed to test the new repertoire, full of thrilling moments of uncertainty and development; the concert from San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium is raging with the proto-punk thrashes and looping synth syncopations that would only get tighter, more defining, and beloved as audiences became aware of the album’s impact.
Ultimately, that’s the takeaway for all that’s featured in this illustrious, reverent, and comprehensive set: The crater-like impact not only of the Who’s Next album as an immortal, stand-alone artistic achievement, but also- with the backstory, narrative, and music presented- a full-circle appreciation for the scope and prescience of the entire project. Even if, “it’s only teenage wasteland.”