Review: The Reissue of ‘Who’s Next’/’Life House’ Should Satisfy the Most Fervent Who Fans

The Who
Who’s Next/Life House-Super Deluxe Edition
(Ume/Polydor)
5 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Essential historical document? Vault clearing overkill? Cash generator? All those and plenty more descriptions define this lavish ten CD, one Blu-ray, monster that weighs in at a back-straining 10 1/2 pounds. By any measure, it’s an enormous and impressive undertaking; one that, in its “super deluxe” edition, will lighten your bank account to the tune of over $250. Only the most dedicated of Who followers will have the desire and means to splurge on this beautifully crafted extravagance, but for them, it will likely be worth it.

The abbreviated backstory behind the once-aborted Life House album is well known. Songwriter/visionary/auteur Pete Townshend meant it as the follow-up to the 1969 rock opera-styled Tommy. In order to buy some time, The Who delivered the 1970 Live at Leeds, considered by many to be one of the finest concert recordings of the era. But Townshend got mired in the complex, convoluted sci-fi Life House tale resulting in a nervous breakdown. Additionally, the rest of the players never fully understood or bought into Townshend’s intricate designs that involved rock music saving society, infused with spiritual teachings from Meher Baba and the Sufi religion. Or, as Townshend partially explains in the notes, “a portentous polemic about the coming of a nation beaten down by climate issues and pollution.”

He abandoned the project, but not before recording dozens of home demos. The Who cherry-picked nine of those to flesh out for Who’s Next (1971).  That became a classic rock set, ultimately the band’s biggest seller and its most radio-friendly title whose re-imagined music discarded any connecting threads approaching the elaborate Life House concepts.

Townshend never discarded the Life House ideas and recordings though, releasing dribs and drabs of his demos over the decades on various Scoop compilations, Who Came First (1972), and particularly Lifehouse Chronicles (2000). To clarify the title’s spacing inconsistency, the venture was initially dubbed Lifehouse (no space) and is now officially Life House.

This brings us to the last word on Life House. It collects all of Townshend’s remarkably well-recorded home demos (on discs two and three). It’s highlighted by 13 minutes of “Baba O’Riley,” the March 1971 and 1972 Who sessions from studios in New York and London—many of them remixed for this version (discs four and five)—another one of stray singles and some unedited takes (with a killer four-minute run through of “The Seeker”) and four more platters reproducing previously unissued live shows from April and December 1971, which mix Who’s Next songs with Tommy and older hits. The Blu-ray audio disc delivers a Steven Wilson Dolby Atmos remix of Who’s Next and 14 more gems. Then there’s the 100-page book with Townshend’s scholarly, comprehensive notes on each track, a 170-page graphic novel that helps explain the Life House story, and various posters, photos, concert programs, etc.

Phew.

The sum total will subtract nearly eleven hours from your life just listening to the sheer volume of mostly engaging music, and even more time digesting and absorbing the written and visual material (shorter, cheaper, and less inclusive packages are also available). Even the most fervent fans, whom this is clearly geared towards, will find it a heavy lift, physically and philosophically. Although much has already been available either through bootlegs or official releases (often in less sonically superior forms), gathering it into one cohesive bundle with all the doo-dads adds to the appeal.  

The concerts capture The Who at peak power, the often raw blueprints of the songs are a fascinating look behind the curtain of Townshend’s creativity and the exhaustive notes provide the final word on this musically enthralling if somewhat abstract and problematic milestone in rock history.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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