Saturday, June 18, 2011

Richie Unterberger's new book on The Who's Lifehouse and Quadrophena rock operas is a bargain, the best I ever had

by Pat Thomas

I don’t have the old issue of Mojo in front of me, but several years ago, The Who reissued (for about the 3rd time or so) an expanded version of Who’s Next (not just my favorite Who album, but my favorite album of all time – I also own it on reel to reel and 8-track – along with countless vinyl pressings (180 gram, original UK and US pressings, Japanese pressings) and several different CD versions (including the Canadian pressing which many experts claim is the only CD version taken from the original master tapes). For that matter, my original relationship with Who’s Next started in the early 70’s with a pre-recorded cassette version, which I eventually wore out and lost.

Anyway, this particular expanded edition of Who’s Next was a two-disc set and it was reviewed in Mojo by Richie Unterberger. When I first read Richie’s review – I remember being vaguely annoyed by his review – as he wasn’t ecstatic about the expanded version. I thought, hey, the bonus disc is a previously unreleased Who show from 1971 which focuses on Who’s Next material – what’s not to like? And yet, I found myself disappointed by the 1971 show – it seemed to be lacking something but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Several months later, I re-read Richie’s review and I got his point – (in fact, I remember calling him to discuss it) – what his point was (from memory) was that this expanded Who’s Next CD was NOT what it could be – which would be to finally give us Townshend’s “Lifehouse” rock opera as it was originally intended (as recorded by The Who, vs. Townshend’s demo versions which he kindly already released) (or least as close as possible given whatever songs, sessions, demos, and out-takes were available). Again, if I remember correctly, Richie pointed out – that this was a lost opportunity. I agreed.

A couple of weeks ago, I dug out that 2 CD version of Who’s Next – and I went through and ‘removed’ all the non-Who’s Next and non-Lifehouse songs – then I coupled this with a couple of other random Who CDs (Who’s Missing and Two’s Missing) that included Who’s Next era live material (and then grabbed “The Naked Eye” and “I Don’t Even Know Myself”) from the 1970 ‘Isle of Wight’ Live album.

As I played back my CD-R, I had an epiphany! the live material recorded at the Old Vic Theatre in 1971 was shit hot!

I had finally figured out what the problem was, it was the non-Who’s Next/Lifehouse material which was bringing that overall performance down. It was like someone handing me ‘the holy grail’, The Who live on stage in 1971 performing “Lifehouse” like the crazed mad-men we’ve always known they were. The energy and performances rival “Live at Leeds” at times, but the comparison is foolish as the material and the way it’s approached is so different. Anyway, I’m very happy with my ‘new’ vintage Who live disc.

Richie Unterberger has recently published a book titled “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on Jawbone Press which documents as best as humanly possible – the rise and fall of the Lifehouse rock opera. There are countless Pete Townshend interviews to draw from (that era and beyond) – where it’s obvious that Pete changed his mind about every 20 minutes what the opera was about and what form it should take.

While Unterberger didn’t have access to Pete himself (which frankly wouldn’t have mattered much in the sense, that in 2011, Pete would have yet ANOTHER different view of the project) which would conflict with whatever he was thinking in 1971.

Anyway, Richie has down his usual stellar job of research (if you’ve read his Velvet Underground bible, then you know what I mean!) – he’s not only distilled down those countless interviews – he’s found all kinds of other interesting nuggets of info, some of which comes from fresh interviews that he did with people in one way or another connected to the project or just general ‘experts’ in the field….

There will always be speculation as to what Lifehouse might have been (there were plans for a film as well as a double album) - Who manager/producer Kit Lambert was pushing towards a film of “Tommy” instead – and hey, we did get to see the luscious Ann-Margret swimming in baked beans which would not have happened in the Lifehouse film.

Richie’s Lifehouse book is best enjoyed with all those extra songs at your finger-tips (and for the casual fan) grab Who’s Next and (parts of) Odds & Sods and you’re almost all the way there.

The second part of Richie’s book concerns the making of Quadrophenia – this for me is less exciting. Not because of a lack of anything on Richie’s behalf, but because we know how this story ends – the album got made as intended and the American tour that introduced it was a disaster. One infamous Townshend story involves him pulling soundman Bobby Pridden across the soundboard, onto the stage and punching him in front of an assembled crowd of thousands triggered by the frustration that the backing tapes of horns, keyboards, sound-effects, etc – was not properly ‘synching’ up to the assembled 4 piece live Who band.

Anyway, Quadrophenia is, for me, another masterwork. Recently a noted Who ‘expert’ told me that the album was ‘bombastic’ and an inferior Townshend work in general. Bullshit. Quadrophenia is the sound-track to teenage fucking, drugs, and alcohol (or the lack there of). Townshend not only captured the ‘Black and White’ era of the UK in the 1960’s (not- ‘colorful’ swinging London, which was something else entirely), he got deep inside the mind of a teenager – and yet it’s timeless – all that angst and ‘inferiority complex’ stays with us well into middle age – we just learn to mask it or become a basket case in the long run.

Suicide is a thread that connects Lifehouse and Quadrophenia together. In the case of Lifehouse, it’s literal; discouraged by the lack of progress on getting the Lifehouse film made and the double LP recorded (not the least of which was convincing the rest of The Who on the overall validity of the concept), one day Townshend began suffering from an anxiety attack – he slowly moved closer to an open 10th floor Manhattan hotel window with the intention of jumping out. Kit Lambert’s assistant grabbed his arm. In Pete’s words, “There is no question in my mind that she saved my life. I was, by that time, a kook.” In case of Quadrophena, suicide is a narrative theme, culminating with the main character Jimmy either drifting off to sea or riding his scooter off a cliff – depending on whether you go with the LP or the film version. On that note, here’s a message to friends and family, if I ever see through on my long suppressed desire to throw myself off the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, please play “Drowned” at my funeral.

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