For many years, me and my old buddy Gene would have this argument about the Pete Townshend records Empty Glass and All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. He favored the latter album. Me, I was an Empty Glass guy. This friendly argument came long before I "formalized" (if it can be called that) my ideas on music. Specifically, I pretty much stopped pitting one album against another. This record better than that record stopped making sense. Is Who Are You better than The Who By Numbers? Endless Wire better than It's Hard? I stopped caring. They're certainly different.
About a decade or so ago, in a short interview segment from the video We Live Here Live, guitarist Pat Metheny spoke of how he sometimes conceptualizes his group's music: one long song. A sort of river of music. This idea fit perfectly with how I had come to think about music. Songs, or collections of songs, need not be thought of as distinct items but as part of a long and evolving process. Parts of each song are influenced by what has come before. They're a part of our lives, too. A different kind of river.
For some artists, this concept may not be easily seen. For somebody like Pete Townshend, it's definitely more obvious. Not only does he take a musical theme and blend it in here and there within the span of a single record (Quadrophenia and Tommy come to mind), but motifs from previous albums will pop up in the present (Endless Wire taking from Who's Next, for instance).
Townshend's demo tape records, Scoop, Another Scoop, and Scoop 3 gave the Who completist an amazing view into Townshend's songwriting process. Songs were written and recorded at Pete's home studio and presented to his Who bandmates almost fully realized. While some songs ended up on Who records with more "rocked out" arrangements, it's fascinating to hear versions that were completely transformed during recording process. Sometimes, the transformation is post-release: there's a jazz version of "Eminence Front" recorded in 1995. Other surprises are "Magic Bus", given an almost music concrete treatment in its original form. This version of "Pictures of Lily" sounds like a collaboration with Brian Wilson. Yow.
Moving through all of this material, you can put together a picture of Townshend's parsing of the many musical ideas living in his head. Lifehouse, Who's Next, Quadrophenia, early Who records, and Pete's solo records. Truly, a river of music.
Oh, maybe you're wondering why I'm listening to Scooped, a compilation record? The guy not big on compilations, greatest hits packages, etc.? Well, for the exact same reason that I own a copy of Tom Waits' Used Songs. After unpacking my stuff at the start of vacation a couple of years ago, I discovered that I'd neglected to take any Pete Townshend CDs. No, no… I can't go two weeks without some Pete. So off to the record store I go. It seemed like the right thing to do. The river can't be stopped. Or the sea refuses no river. Or something.