Seen from a certain angle, the career of Pete Townshend has been one long conceptual crash-and-burn, an inherently doomed, highly wasteful process of which all the amazing music is just a by-product. Is this the naughty secret of his muse, to distract him with excessive ideas so that the songs may be allowed to write themselves, in peace? Here are a few of Townshend’s grandest follies:
1 | Tommy | The world-famous 1969 rock opera, in its original form, made no sense at all. As Ken Russell, who was obliged to turn it into a film with a plot, noted: “There were huge gaps in the story. . . . You never knew exactly who his father was, why the father was killed or why the boy went blind, deaf and dumb. It’s almost as though the album started halfway through the story and the first half was in his mind but had never been written.”
2 | Lifehouse | The very definition of half-baked, this unachieved 1971 project almost drove Townshend over the edge. Here’s how he described the “story” at the time: “The heroes of the thing are the scum on the surface which is meant to be the lower classes and the people in the experience suits. The Festival Hall in London is taken over and various experiences take place like . . . orgies and football matches and everything you can conceive of. But this has become a kind of theatre — like an art form in itself — to provide good experiences for the people in the experience suits. Art is taken way, way beyond what it is now, that is, something to be appreciated, for it is life, it’s what you get.” All clear?
3 | Quadrophenia | Mod opera 1973. Not to gainsay the glory of “5.15” (“Girls of fif-teen/Sexually knowing! . . . Out of my brain on a train!”) but Pete’s original plan for this was a clunker: “The theme is a mixture of the history of the group and the story of a kid who’s going through adolescence. . . . He doesn’t suffer from schizophrenia but from quadrophonia. The album will be quadrophonic and each different part of the guy’s character will be a reflection of one member of the group.” Fortunately, the necessary quadrophonic technology was not available at the time, and the idea of the combative, barely together Who as four-persons-in-one never caught on — to the surprise of no one.
4 | Psychoderelict | 1993 — we’re deep in solo Pete here, with an album/play about the ruined rock star Ray High (later to appear in the epically convoluted 2005 blog novella The Boy Who Heard Music) and his attempts to revive an abandoned ’70s project of his called “Gridlife.” From the Townshend-authored press kit: “Gridlife is a futuristic musical about a global Virtual Reality system which provides its subscribers with entire lifetimes of karmically tailored experience. ATHENA, the controller of the Grid, uses a jingle to promote her Gridsuits as safe havens from the heavily polluted atmosphere. But the young hero, SPINNER, is concerned that Athena has too much power and is distorting the truth. He plans to expose her and lead a rebellion.” Exactly.
: Music Features
, Pete Townshend, Lifehouse, Ken Russell