A Review of Pete Townshend’s Life House

Alexander Glass on an original graphic novel adaptation of an unproduced follow-up to The Who’s rock opera Tommy

Life House (Image Comics, 2023) has a complicated history. Born as an idea by Pete Townshend for a follow-up to The Who’s rock opera Tommy, it began life as an ambitious multi-media project incorporating live performance, audience interaction and scripted filmed footage. Early studio recordings were an unhappy affair, with manager Kit Lambert distracted by drug use and Townshend frustrated. Early live shows found audiences less interested in experimental interaction than in hearing ‘My Generation’ and seeing Townshend smash up his guitar.

The band set the project aside, and quickly turned to recording another album. Nine of the songs ended up on that album, 1971’s Who’s Next. Others would emerge later, some in Townshend’s 1993 solo album Psychoderelict. But Townshend never gave up on the original concept. He wrote more than one screenplay based on it, as well as a script for a radio drama broadcast by the BBC in 1999. The year after that he put out The Lifehouse Chronicles – six CDs, plus the radio script and other material.

In 2021, fifty years after the idea was born, Townshend announced a graphic novel adaptation. Co-written by James Harvey (Doom Patrol) and David Hine (Spider-Man Noir), with art by Harvey and Max Prentis, the result is fascinating, endearing, and deeply flawed.

The story is not easy to summarise; one understands why Townshend originally had difficulty explaining it to collaborators. It begins with a ban on popular music in 1977 (due, we are told, to a startled reaction by the authorities to Woodstock eight years earlier). Two hundred years later the world is degraded and toxic, the air barely breathable. People spend most of their lives in environmental life suits, hooked up to a grid, and sleep for most of each day with dreams fed to them by the state. The central story concerns Mary, a young woman who breaks out of ‘grid sleep’ and sets out to find a tower of light that had been in her dream; Jumbo Seven, the autocratic ruler awaiting the arrival of the ‘silver child,’ whose consciousness has evolved in grid sleep; and Bobby, the ‘caretaker,’ formerly chief engineer of the grid, now planning to free everyone from it.

These ideas would have been fresh, prescient, in 1971. Some elements carry echoes of the New Wave – Bobby is hoping to identify the music in each person to create the ‘one note’ – ‘the universal chord that will restore humanity to its original state of bliss.’ Combined with the anti-authoritarianism, this would not have been out of place in one of the many variations of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius.

By 1999, the year the radio drama was released, similar ideas had been explored repeatedly elsewhere. Most obviously, some of them underpinned The Matrix. The grid foreshadowed the internet, and grid sleep resembles the virtual reality of the Matrix itself – with the grim twist that in Life House the dreamers know their dreams are not real, but are resigned to their fate.

It is not clear whether the Wachowskis were aware of any of the iterations of Life House when scripting The Matrix. Interestingly, however, they later made significant use of one of the songs – ‘Baba O’Riley,’ which became the opening track from Who’s Next – in their astonishing later project Sense8.

Harvey and Prentis’s art is reliably gorgeous, and the format is fun – 12.25″ × 12.25″, or vinyl album cover size. The dimensions are ultimately a gimmick – they do no harm to the art, but nor do they particularly add anything, and the opportunity for bold full-page images is little used.

Harvey and Hine’s script works well, but has to operate within the limitations of the source material, and herein lies the flaw. Neither the characters nor the story have enough room here to develop much depth. Life House is not overly short – the equivalent of perhaps a six-issue miniseries had it been in standard US comic book format – but the ideas spill haphazardly on to the page rather than growing naturally. Exposition takes place mainly by way of characters explaining things to one another, abruptly, didactically. The characters themselves are either flat or unsympathetic, so that their fates are of little real interest.

Perhaps this would not have mattered much in a live, or even a filmed, rock opera. In that format, characters could express themselves in song, and no one would mind; and music would supply the depth and nuance of character that seems lacking here.

This is a shame, because there are many clever and beautiful details. The visual representation of sound waves is perfect. In a clever throwaway gag, it is revealed that buskers are considered an urban myth. We learn that music is the fundamental building block of the universe (an idea reminiscent of the ‘Decreator’ storyline in Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, but no worse for that).

Elsewhere, four people who had chosen to be cryonically frozen in response to the ban on music are about to be woken. These and other references to The Who are inevitable, but far from unwelcome. The song playing in flashback to when popular music was banned is ‘The Song is Over’. The first song Mary hears after breaking free of the grid is ‘Join Together’. When the band appear, their long period in cryosleep has necessitated some changes – Townshend, for example, has bionic fingers and ears. All of this is fun for fans, without detracting from the main story.

More things, though, are left under-examined and under-developed. The nature of the dictatorship, and in particular people’s acquiescence to it; the history and fates of too many minor characters; the tantalising instances of synaesthesia and of Mary finding music in the world (birdsong, running water, machinery); the fact that a human lifespan is now two hundred years, but that in the grid two hundred years equates to four hundred thousand lifetimes of experience. The consequences of grid sleep are hinted at but could have borne more exploration; at one point a technician says: ‘Once someone is trapped in a negative state of mind, their grid suit can only produce negative programs.’

Life House is not only for Townshend completists, but it is hard not to feel that it might have been a better work at twice the length. Like the original project fifty years before, it is a tantalising glimpse of something that really needed more space to breathe. ∎

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in InterzoneThe Third AlternativeBlack StaticAsimov’s Science FictionWeird Horror, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital, and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, in Interzone #296.

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