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(Credit: Heinrich Klaffs)

Music

The album that almost broke The Who

@TylerGolsen

The Who were always a volatile entity. From their very earliest days in the burgeoning London mod scene in the mid-1960s to the very final days of their original incarnation and beyond, the internal conflicts, constant destruction, and creative differences made The Who a ticking time bomb. The fact that they were able to last nearly a decade and a half together is astounding, and the notion that they were able to carry on even after critical deaths within the group is unfathomable.

Although they struggled to stay together through the explosive antics of Keith Moon and the domineering attitudes of both Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, The Who were one of the biggest rock bands in the world by the start of the 1970s. Sheer musical chemistry bonded them together, even as their differences continued to be pronounced. It was then that Townshend announced his concept for their next project: an interactive album/concert/film under the name Lifehouse, where the audience would be active participants in the music.

Townshend’s ambitions had been increasing as The Who’s profile rose. Initial dalliances with thematic concepts had blossomed into the nearly ten-minute ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’, the band’s first mini-opera. Soon, a full-length rock opera, Tommy, had come to the fore, and the band spent nearly two years performing the album live. But Townshend felt that audiences deserved new music – perhaps even music that they could make themselves.

Townshend’s bandmates were confused by the concept, but as Townshend explored the possibilities of renting out the Young Vic Theatre to bring in an audience to feed off of, the Lighthouse project was already under way. A series of shows at the Young Vic and recording sessions in New York City at Record Plant Studios followed, but the results weren’t up to Townshend’s expectations. A permanent break with manager Kit Lambert was the final straw, and as Townshend neared the edge of a nervous breakdown, Lifehouse was shelved.

In the book Anyway Anyhow Anywhere – The Complete Chronicle of The Who, Daltrey shared that The Who “were never nearer to breaking up” than they were after the Lifehouse project ended. Despite the failure, The Who still needed a new album: Tommy was now two years old and their most recent album, Live at Leeds, was over a year old. In the early 1970s record industry, that was the equivalent of a spending a lifetime out of the spotlight.

With the help of engineer Glyn Johns, The Who decided to abandon the concept and simply collect the material that had been formed up to that point for a new LP. No overarching narrative, no audience participation, and no grand scale – just The Who playing their signature brand of hard rock. Eight tracks from the Lifehouse project were assembled, along with a new song from John Entwistle titled ‘My Wife’, to form their next album Who’s Next.

With the success of Who’s Next, The Who were able to continue to be one of rock’s biggest and most reliable bands. Townshend returned to the rock opera with 1973’s Quadrophenia, but it would turn out to be The Who’s final album in the form. Continuing conflicts still surrounded the band, but they managed to whether any storm that came their way. It seemed that nothing could stop The Who, but that notion was tragically dispelled upon Moon’s death in 1978.