No one in rock & roll has spent more time revealing the motivations for making music, the private energies and obsessions that drive one to it or the intimate details of the process than Pete Townshend. For that reason alone, Scoop — a two-record set of previously unissued home and studio demo recordings stretching back to 1965 — is essential Townshend, the ultimate unburdening of a chronic confessor. A logical extension of the passionate searching and naked, rock-star, menopausal fear displayed on All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes and his earnest elder-punk-statesman soapboxing on the Who’s It’s Hard, this album is an open invitation into the root experience of songwriting, a rare glimpse of those secret explosions when words first collide with music.
Scoop, of course, is more than just a chance to hear gritty pre-Who versions of “Magic Bus,” “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” Like Bruce Springsteen’s stark cassette-recorded Nebraska and Phil Collins’ subtle integration of home demo tracks on his recent solo LPs, it is a stirring celebration of the do-it-yourself ethic, a lesson in how little (tape machine, acoustic guitar, a wobbly but intimate vocal) can achieve so much (the brief, exquisite 1966 sketch of the glowing ballad “So Sad about Us,” later cut for the Who’s Happy Jack).
Scoop also provides a panoramic view of Townshend’s ambitions as a songwriter, from the moody, adolescent clump of the “My Generation”-era “Circles” to the epic pleading of Quadrophenia‘s “Love Reign O’er Me” and the 1967 moddish Motown pump of “Politician,” one of the album’s eighteen newly unearthed Townshend originals.
But what makes this artfully programmed collection of home demo antiques and studio curios one of the best Who-related records since Who’s Next is that it presents a pure, expressive Pete Townshend free of the responsibilities of being the Pete Townshend, communing with his muse away from his image and the emotional politics of the Who. A pre-Tommy track never cut by the band, “Melancholia” captures in his solitary whine and the whirlpool sigh of his tape-phasing treatment of the guitars and drums an acute solitary sadness that the Who would have turned into an angry punch out.
The more polished demo of Face Dances‘ “Cache, Cache” goes the other way. An articulate blast of resentment and sarcasm brought on by posttour freakout, the song lost its argumentative rage and barbed conviction (“Did you ever lay on ice and grit…did you ever dream of a suicide pill?”) in the album’s dull production and Townshend’s colorless, forgiving vocal. As he explains in Scoop‘s extensive liner notes, “When I sang this demo I meant it,” and you can hear it clearly in his biting pronunciation and the cynical singsong whisper of the chorus.
Comparing some of these Scoop tapes with their later Who versions is a fascinating measure of inspiration against interpretation. Unlike the ferocious bravado of Roger Daltrey’s vocal on the Who’s Next recording of “Bargain,” there is a sense of desperate desire in the nervous, reedy quality of Townshend’s singing on this quietly evocative take, heightened by the somber curves of the lone synth hook and the smoldering shuffle rhythms. And whereas “The Magic Bus” demo is even more loopy than the record, with the rattling percussion reverberating back through a superdub echo past a vocal chorus that sounds like a bunch of sleepy drunks, the subdued acoustic tone of “Behind Blue Eyes” gently colors the pain and confusion at the heart of that song.
Even though dedicated Who bootleggers have been circulating selections from Townshend’s private tape stash for years, there is still a thrill of discovery about Scoop, of being privy to art in progress. And that makes listening to this record a very singular experience.