The Who Sell Out--Really

Pete Townshend repackages the Who and goes on tour--again

As far as Who fans go, I'm a total wuss. How else to explain my fascination with the most macho of all the sensitive boy bands, which comes not from the group's legendary adolescent power, but rather from a single Pete Townshend song, replete with orchestral strings? "Brooklyn Kids" is a ballad of loneliness and despair that features one of the finest melodies and the most plaintive lyrics the old geezer ever cooked up. The song comes from Townshend's "nasty vision" of a white girl's rape by a black boy--but even so, it's about as far from cock rock as Townshend ever got.

When I first heard the tune, as a late bloomer finally consigned to the confusion of puberty, it was a revelation: Even the most beautiful, unattainable girls are lonely, too. The rape scenario--never explicit in the song--hadn't occurred to me. Rather, the haunting refrain ("There might as well be an ocean between them") captured my stumbling through endless awkward "romantic" moments. The punk hostility of "My Generation" had yet to rise up in me. But this here, with what seemed like a simple tune of elusive love, made me ache just right.

The song surfaced first on 1987's Another Scoop, a collection of outtakes, demos, and never-released tracks. (The first in the series was 1983's Scoop, and a third collection, Scoop 3, came out last year.) Now "Brooklyn Kids," recorded in 1978, has returned to haunt me again on the mostly unnecessary two-CD compilation of the three Scoop releases, imaginatively titled Scooped (Eel Pie/Redline).

The collection kicks off with "Recorders," a roughly minute-long sound collage of seagulls and synth leftover from 1973's Quadrophenia, before launching into a gutty acoustic and electric guitar demo of "Pinball Wizard," the stale dinosaur from Tommy. But despite starting with two remnants related to the Who's much-lauded rock operas, Scooped soon sets off on a rather random sequence, and so much the better. Townshend's obsession with narrative arc on Who records always became muddled and nearly irrelevant. To hear his song hodge-podge is to understand the massive scope of his work.

Disc two features a cover of the standard "Begin the Beguine," along with "Football Fugue," another orchestral piece from 1978, and a wonderful drum-machine-driven toss-off called "Holly Like Ivy." (All of these, and the identical liner notes, appeared on Another Scoop.) There are, of course, the obligatory Who songs in different incarnations ("Pictures of Lily," "Substitute," "Behind Blue Eyes," etc.), but the purpose here is to showcase old Pete.

All of which raises the question: Who's going to buy this? No doubt there's nice work here, but Who aficionados probably already own several versions of these songs, if not the entire Scoop series. Casual fans would likely plunk down some change on one of the several greatest-hits packages already out there. Unlike, say, the Beatles' Anthology series--the three double-CD sets released consecutively in the mid-1990s--there's nothing new here.

Ah, yes, the Beatles. Maybe that's Pete's problem: The Fab Four have managed to maintain their cultural and commercial dominance over time, most recently with 1, a collection of chart-toppers from two years ago. McCartney, Jagger, Bowie, and Dylan have all put out new records--albeit some of them lame--in the last year. But what has Pete been up to? Mostly revisiting his past. His solo albums fall entirely on deaf ears, and he hasn't written a decent song for 20 years.

Townshend seems desperate to etch his rightful place in history. Or maybe it's just the money: He'll decry the crass commercialism of today's music industry while handing any number of songs over to sell computers, cars, or allergy medicine. And he often speaks with disdain of Roger Daltrey, his trusty lead singer all these years, though the two of them are locked into a tour as the Who right now.

Oh, did I mention that the Who are on tour? Roger and Pete are all that's left of the Who: Original drummer Keith Moon croaked in 1978, and bassist John Entwistle died in June at the age of 57 (same age as Pete) just as the group was set to head out one more time. Most doubted that the tour would go forward, but Townshend quickly decided to press on.

The tour has been dedicated to their old pal Entwistle, and by the looks of some footage, Pete has come out like an old man who has something to prove. And he does: Ticket sales have been sluggish, and even the most ardent Who fans I know couldn't care less about seeing what's left of the band, derisively referred to as "the Two."

I've never seen the Who, and I know now that I'll never really be able to say I have. But I'm going anyway, and somehow it's all because of "Brooklyn Kids." Who knows? Maybe some confused 16-year-old wuss who just happened across Scooped will be there right next to me.

 
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