During his 40-year career as a solo artist and Who member, Pete Townshend has released musically steadily, if not prolifically. He has, it seems, written prolifically, whether it be fragments of songs, bad songs, or simply pieces without a home. While most artists might prefer to have these sorts of outtakes and false starts locked away or maybe sent to the dumpster, Townshend’s been glad to share them with his fans. Most notably, he’s compiled them in the Scoop series: Scoop (1983), Another Scoop (1987), and Scoop 3 (2001), plus a pairing-down compilation of these three double-disc sets into 2002’s Scooped Again. The original three Scoop discs have just been remastered and reissued, and while few people outside of completists and fanatics will need this material, it does provide some fascinating looks into the creative process of one of rock’s legendary songwriters.
It helps that Townshend has always been one of pop’s more self-reflective figures, always willing to share his thoughts on his own work and his band’s creations. In a recent interview with Murray Learner on the special edition The Who Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 DVD, Townshend explains that he’s not so much an artist as a craftsmen, having learned the requisite skills to produce the effects on his audience that they want. At the same time, he explains that ever since people wanted him to write more songs like “I Can’t Explain”, he’s felt like an artist with a commission. It’s not that Townshend’s consistent, but that he digs into himself persistently. He is, after all, a seeker.
It’s Townshend’s words and meditations that illuminate the tracks here. He provides the liner notes for each of the compilations, sharing insight into not only the technical side of the process (the Scoop notes contain a history of his home-recording advances), but also the artistic and thematic developments underpinning the music. Fittingly, for these scattershot collections, there is no master narrative. Townshend slaps together whatever songs he likes, in no particular order, tells us what we need to know (and sometimes more), and keeps on working.
While such lengthy notes are a boon, they’re also a disappointment, because no new material as been added to the reissues. Considering Townshend’s continual examination of his work, he’d surely have new thoughts on these tracks; at the very least, one of the Who faithful could have pulled something together. Given that the remastered sound isn’t especially striking (nor should it be for a set of demos and home recordings), the need to upgrade your old editions isn’t especially pressing (although for us younger fans, the ability to actually find the first volume on CD is nice — it beats trying to find and rip old vinyl copies).
The music, at least, deserves the re-visiting that the reissues offer. Listening to the Townshend demo versions of old Who classics suggest what a previous 15 years of solo projects might have sounded like. Without the Who “engine” turning Townshend’s melodies into brutal attacks, the music hall side comes out more. The effect isn’t necessarily negative (and certainly not shocking to those familiar with Empty Glass or All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes).
While the demos make clear exactly what his three bandmates brought to the final recordings, they also highlight Townshend’s skill not only as a songwriter and a guitarist, but also as an arranger and musician. Particularly interesting are his early takes on material intended for Quadrophenia. Emotionally, a different sort of vulnerability arises than that running through the album. Townshend’s tenor and sparser arrangements set protagonist Jimmy even more out in the open. The prime thematic revelation comes on the track originally titled “Can You See the Real Me” where an additional verse about the failings of rock ‘n’ roll appears. Musically, we see Townshend develop and re-work some of the various motifs that run throughout the album, most insistently on the piano in the case of the Scoop recordings.
That desire to work and re-work an idea does lead to one of the series’ flaws. Townshend’s instrumental piano pieces reveal an obsession with certain styles and ideas; Townshend, whose piano-playing isn’t strong enough to carry six discs of material, frequently toys with arpeggiated runs (cf “971104 Arpeggio Piano”), and the discs suggest that any time he sits down at the instrument, this sort of idea most play itself out. These recordings end up being repetitive as well as unenlightening.
The three collections are pretty even in quality, but the third comp drops off slightly in quality (after four discs of compilation at this point, it almost has to). It does, however, provide one of the set’s finest moments, with a completely different version of ’80s single “Eminence Front”. The version from It’s Hard, which continues to be a stadium rocker, sets a hard groove and maintains a rocker’s intensity. This 1995 take on it focuses on Townshend’s piano playing (with MIDI accompaniment), and slows the song down and softens it, making the front sound more like a sad necessity than a cynical trick.
None of the tracks on these six discs are essential; the nature of the set means it’s targeted with for a certain audience. That audience should be happy with the collection, and should be able to return to it on occasion for new insights into Townshend’s work, as well as simply for a pleasurable listening experience.