Lifehouse: Pete Townshend

BBC Radio 3: Sunday Play

Broadcast: Sunday 5th December 1999 @ 7:30 p.m.

A man decides to leave his rural hideaway but is drawn back by the voice of a pirate DJ to the Lifehouse, back to the music that once gave his life meaning.

Adapted for radio by Jeff Young.

With David Threlfall [Ray], Phillip Dowling [Ray Boy], Geraldine James [Sally], Kelly Macdonald [Mary], Shaun Parkes [The Hacker], and Charles Dale [The Caretaker]

Technical presentation was by Steve Brooke.

Music and Introduction by Pete Townshend

Directed by Kate Rowland.

115 min.

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An Introduction to 'Lifehouse'

A feature article by Pete Townshend

For twenty-nine years I have been entangled in this thing called lifehouse. I blamed the frustration it caused me on its innate simplicity and my innate verbosity; one cancelled out the other. The story contained ideas that were once regarded as overly ambitious. I felt like a jungle explorer who had stumbled upon an Inca temple of solid gold and become impeded by roots and vines in a knot of undergrowth, only yards from civilisation. One day I would emerge crying aloud that I'd discovered something marvellous, but would be patted on the head and indulged in my triumphant ranting. The playscript is the result of this awkward, though not particularly heroic, journey. I have come to the end of a creative adventure in which I struggled as much to overcome my own impatience as obstacles in my path.

My allies in this satisfactory moment are many, but chiefly here I look to Jeff Young who adapted the story as a play for radio during our many creative brainstorms, and my BBC producer Kate Rowland who contributed so much more than a commission and - by my standards - some rather modest BBC money to contrast the rest of the magnificent traditional BBC resources provided. My creative facilitator and co-producer Tom Critchley was also vital to the process. I should also thank my old friend John Fletcher who worked with me on a substantial earlier draft for this BBC play, eventually retiring in frustration, telling me that I kept changing my mind. I simply enjoyed what had become a habitual process of exploration. I certainly enjoyed his company. One thing John did deliver for me was my sense of myself as a complete composer. At one time he compared me to Purcell, because of my quintessential Englishness rather than my skill with choristers, but it gave me the confidence to pursue the chamber orchestral drafts which were completed by Sara Loewenthal and Rachel Fuller and appear in the play - my first orchestral composition. Everyone in this creative team worked tirelessly and successfully to unravel the chief enigma presented by my original naive film script, which is whether the story is about anything interesting, or just about someone who used to be a really big rock star called Pete Townshend.

Because the script I wrote for Universal Pictures in 1971 was never realised as a film, or any kind of theatrical narrative drama, I have often found myself telling and retelling the story of lifehouse, usually in conversation with interested journalists. John Fletcher believes it has evolved too much and become confused over the years purely because I have a needy celebrity's need to keep journalists engaged. But because the story itself is about a highly technological media corrupted by myopic conglomerates, many writers - working for 'the media Man' - have identified with my phobias about the future.

Briefly, the story of lifehouse as it was presented to The Who in 1971.

A self-sufficient, drop-out family group farming in a remote part of Scotland decide to return South to investigate rumours of a subversive concert event that promises to shake and wake up apathetic, fearful British society. Ray is married to Sally, they hope to link up with their daughter Mary who has run away from home to attend the concert. They travel through the scarred wasteland of middle England in a motor caravan, running an air-conditioner they hope will protect them from pollution. They listen, furtively, to old rock records which they call 'Trad'. Up to this time they have survived as farmers, tolerated by the government who are glad to buy most of their produce. Those who have remained in urban areas suffer repressive curfews and are more-or-less forced to survive in special suits, like space-suits, to avoid the extremes of pollution that the government reports.

These suits are interconnected in a universal grid, a little like the modern Internet, but combined with gas-company pipelines and cable-television-company wiring. The grid is operated by an imperious media conglomerate headed by a dictatorial figure called Jumbo who appears to be more powerful than the government that first appointed him. The grid delivers its clients' food, medicine and sleeping gas. But it also keeps them entertained with lavish programming so highly compressed that the subject can 'live out' thousands of virtual lifetimes in a short space of time. The effect of this dense exposure to the myriad dreamlike experiences provided by the controllers of the grid is that certain subjects begin to fall apart emotionally. Either they believe they have become spiritually advanced, or they feel suffocated by what feels like the shallowness of the programming, or its repetitiveness. A vital side-issue is that the producers responsible for the programming have ended up concentrating almost entirely on the story-driven narrative form, ignoring all the arts unrestrained by 'plot' as too complex and unpredictable, especially music. Effectively, these arts appear to be banned. In fact, they are merely proscribed, ignored, forgotten, no longer of use.

A young composer called Bobby hacks into the grid and offers a festival-like music concert - called The lifehouse - which he hopes will impel the audience to throw off their suits (which are in fact no longer necessary for physical survival) and attend in person. 'Come to the lifehouse, your song is here'.

The family arrive at the concert venue early and take part in an experiment Bobby conducts in which each participant is both blueprint and inspiration for a unique piece of music or song which will feature largely in the first event to be hacked onto the grid.

When the day of the concert arrives a small army force gathers to try to stop the show. They are prevented from entering for a while, the concert begins, and indeed many of those 'watching at home' are inspired to leave their suits. But eventually the army break in. As they do so, Bobby's musical experiment reaches its zenith and everyone in the building, dancing in a huge dervish circle, suddenly disappears. It emerges that many of the audience at home, participating in their suits, have also disappeared.

There is no dramatic corollary. I didn't try to explain where they may have gone, or whether they were meant to be dead or alive. I simply wanted to demonstrate my belief that music could set the soul free, both of the restrictions of the body, and the isolating impediments and encumbrances of the modern world.

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