Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Trolling the Studio: The Who, vol.1 - Lifehouse
In the last exciting installment of TtS I talked about demo recordings, which are the "test recording" that artists will make of new songs in order to sell them to the record company and show them to other members of the band. These are much more available than unreleased albums, simply by virtue of numbers. In fact, I don't know why I don't see more of them than I do. For every record released, there are a set of demo recordings. You don't get too big to do demos - at least that's what my copy of Pink Floyd's Final Cut demos tells me.
Demos range from raw solo cuts tweaked out on a piano or guitar to fully polished works that might be almost identical to the finished product. The latter are the ones you won't be hearing here. What would be the point?
The Who's songs, unlike many other bands', were never collaborative in the beginning. Pete Townshend laid down the ideas and music for most of their work, especially the operas. Since he was writing the songs, and since he was able to play the guitar and sing well while doing a competent job on bass and drums, he would do the demos, and very fine demos he would do. In fact, no one else has commercially released as many demos as Pete has, to my knowledge. They are, in many cases, legitimate alternative versions of the songs, not just unfinished skeletons. It also seems that few have made as many, also, because while he's released a lot of them, the underground coughs up even more, allowing me to take this album by album.
Who's Next has always been one of my favorite rock albums. I consider it a necessity to a rock collection. Even if you don't think you know the Who, if you've listened to rock radio and you're not too old, you know half of this album. I have long known that it grew from the wreckage of an unrealized project called Lifehouse, but I never knew the story until I looked it up recently while listening to these demos.
Lifehouse was to be the follow up to the very successful Tommy. It was a science fiction story that sounds very much like a popular movie from the 1990s. Pete Townshend had the idea in 1970, however. He got started and did a lot of recording, but the complexity of the project grew, involving film and audience participation over an open-ended period of time. The audience participation part involved the programming of data about a person - physical attributes, personality traits, etc. - into a computer program which would then create a piece of music based on and reflecting that info. The project ultimately failed because it snowballed out of Townshend's control, largely because he couldn't get anyone else to fully grasp his idea. The full story is told pretty well here, and here's a less detailed version that also includes a song list and some interpretations of those songs. It's very interesting reading. Pete was really thinking ahead of his time and outside the box.
At any rate, while the project collapsed, it became more condensed and turned into a conventional rock album, Who's Next, with a couple bits also popping up on the Who Are You album and elsewhere. There are still projects afoot that deal with this concept, and I'll write about that soon.
For now, I'm going to show you a few aspects to this music you've most likely never imagined. First up is the demo version of Baba O'Reilly (If you don't recognize that title, you might think the song is called Teenage Wasteland.) This differs from the FM classic in a few ways. First, it is more than twice as long, clocking in at a little over 13 minutes. It's instrumental. In fact, the length and structure of the piece suggests to me that this was meant to be the overture of the Lifehouse project. While parts of it are identical to what you know, others are completely new (one sounding somewhat like an electronic polka), and others are familiar but different because they are played by Pete instead of the band. Yet despite the vast differences, it begins and ends just like the one you know. I'll be interested to know what you think of it - it's right here.
The second offering is the other FM mainstay from the Who's Next album, Won't Get Fooled Again. This song is arranged just like the finished version. It still sounds completely different. This cut truly points out what a difference the musicians themselves make, and how the Who weren't just taking orders from Pete. It's very cool to listen to, though. Where the finished cut is raw and hard, this version, while still energetic, has a sound much closer to country rock. In fact, I easily closed my eyes and imagined Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young playing while Pete sang. Not only does Pete's drumming remind me of Dallas Taylor, but the overall approach has that unique blend of pissed-off and laid-back that CSNY can reach on a good live Southern Man. It's right here - you can tell me if you hear that same thing, or if you think I'm nuts.
The third and last cut is the demo of one of their more obscure tunes, and one of my favorites, called Relay. Relay is a powerhouse electronic tune about government control and the inevitable underground it breeds. I think I heard it on Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy originally, but I'm sure it's on a CD as a bonus song by now. The one time I heard it on the radio I was stunned.
Once again, this shows the difference between Pete and The Who. It isn't a lesser song by any means - this could be released. It's just wildly different in a wild way. Rather than reminding me of the Who or CSNY, this version of Relay invokes Dr. John more than anyone else. I mean Pete is really laying down the funk right here, at least as much as a skinny white guy from England is going to. It's an amazing new perspective on this song. Once again- listen here and tell me if you hear something different.
I have demos for several more Who albums, but I'll take my time. There's plenty in the studio for me to troll, believe me. We'll not get bored.
This is now my favorite Who photo. I've never seen one that sums them up better. John Entwistle was a rock.