Responding to the excesses of art rock and studio technology and to the fans’ penchant for rehearsal tapes, outtakes, and the like, popular musicians sometimes eschew modern studio techniques and/or release LPs whose contents weren’t even intended for public consumption. One evidence of this trend is Bruce Springsteen’s recent Nebraska, which he taped on a home cassette player as a guide for developing band arrangements and then decided to release as is. Another example is the new Scoop, a two-LP collection of 25 previously unavailable home-style recordings that the Who’s Pete Townshend began taping in 1965.
That Townshend would issue such material should surprise none of his followers. For years, he has been among popular music’s least secretive practitioners; besides reviewing albums and the state of rock in general, he has talked and even written at length about his own work, band, and creative development. Fortunately, his recordings with and without the Who have been worthy of such scrutiny, and Townshend has proven as pensive and fascinating as he has been loquacious.
The new album evidences no exception. Featuring the artist’s predictably extensive song-by-song liner notes, it puts studio gimmickry and big-budget recordings in their place by showing how much you can do with no more than an interesting voice and melody, an acoustic guitar, and a microphone. It also offers Who fans a rare glimpse of the inspirational flashes that evolved into polished hits like “Magic Bus” and “Behind Blue Eyes.”
Highlights abound. “So Sad About Us,” a version of which surfaced on the Who’s second album, provides a vocal that is as captivating as it is tentative; “Squeezebox,” meanwhile, delivers good plain fun, and the bitter “Cache Cache” eclipses the previously released rendition with strong, heartfelt singing. Also noteworthy are such tracks as “Bargain” and the Beach Boys-influenced “Goin’ Fishin’.”
As Townshend himself proclaims in the liner notes, tunes like these add up to a “fine example of how home recording produces moods and music, innocence and naivety that could be arrived at in no other way . . . Away from sophisticated studio techniques and repeated soul-destroying takes, the real joy I get from playing and writing comes through.”
Indeed it does and, while I wouldn’t want to hear every last Townshend experiment, I can’t help but cheer the news that he has “hundreds of such demos [demonstration tapes],” of which the release at hand is “just a scoop.”