A loose salute to the black market treasures of yesteryear
This may be heresy to every fanatical record collector out there – and I’m guessing many a Rock and Roll Globe reader – but I’ve turned the corner on bootlegs. That is, I’m not much of a bootleg guy. Or, I’ve become not much of bootleg guy. Once, I was a big bootleg guy.
To define the terms: I’m talking about the illegal or gray-market LPs of yore and the officially sanctioned LPs or CDs today – for example the endless rough demos, aborted sessions or out-takes collected on the six-disc More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series No. 14. That’d be music from September and December 1974, from which Dylan produced the stellar Blood on the Tracks LP.
I bought Blood on the Tracks in 1975 and I bought More Blood las year, spending $120 or something right when it came out. I love Blood on the Tracks. And I got real excited about it. Played some of it, shelved it.
Did the same – a little happy dance in my head – when Capitol sent me the “Good Vibrations” single – alternative versions/demos/out-takes/whatever on a CD back in the day. Played it all the way through, was sorta fascinated, then bored (too much Theremin!), then shelved it. And I love “Good Vibrations.”
These “officially” released boots – Neil Young, another of my faves, likes doing this a lot too – comprises music which keeps a segment of the boomer market ever-titillated and a little less heavy in the wallet. It makes completists even more nuts than they already are.
But I want to go back to the early-mid ‘70s, the days when the place you purchased these curios were from sketchy PO boxes found in small ads in the back of rock magazines.
I bought ‘em as a rock ‘n’ roll fan in high school. I would load up on rare, unsanctioned live and studio out-take albums by my favorite bands, the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, The Who. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Roxy Music and Sparks, among them.
Thankfully, I was never a Grateful Dead, so I saved a lot of money there.
But, sweet Jesus, they were expensive. You know, they were so “rare,” so “verboten,” I almost felt privileged to pay through the nose for ‘em. Some of them were – get this! – on green or gold vinyl, and this was before the punk rock boom exploded with these 45s.
But the live albums (and most were live albums) often sounded like they were recorded inside a cement mixer or from Mars. Tinny, faraway sound, indistinct everything. Not many from-the-mixing-board mixes, I’m afraid. Most (I guess) would come from a fan somewhere in the arena with a smuggled in a reel-to-reel tape deck. Oh, and the vinyl. Whatever its color it was uniformly crappy, sure to wear down quickly with repeated spins.
Although, there weren’t that many repeated spins either. Like many of us, I thought the Stones Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out and The Who’s Live at Leeds were the bees’ knees. There must be more music I can draw from that well, I thought. Even better versions of songs I loved to hear live.
There really wasn’t. I was not always – or, really, often – a satisfied customer. Yet, I continued to buy. You know that old adage about fooling me once and then fooling me twice. … Pete Townshend be damned, I could be fooled again and again. (Yes, by Pete Townshend, although presumably he wasn’t the one saying, “Hey, sucker, buy my bootlegs!”)
Then, I entered the business. By my sophomore year of college at the University of Maine, I became a bootlegger. Of sorts. On the periphery. That is, I began working with a bootleg retailer – let’s call him F.K. – who happened to live and work in my very own hometown. He owned a small, legit record shop and I quickly went from customer to employee to assistant manager. (I had LP ordering power!)
Not long after I started, I put one and one together: It seemed like that post office box/mail order outlet could be one of my bootleg purchasing sites, He admitted as much and asked me if I’d help.
My job was really just opening envelopes, shaking out the checks and prepping orders. I took virtually all of my pay in records, bought at wholesale. I was a kid in a candy store. Albums – in stock, in an attic – ready to be plucked.
What I treasured: A Who’s Zoo rarities-and-outtakes double album, the Stones record that had “Cocksucker Blues” on it, a Roxy Music BBC-and-live-TV recordings album called Champagne and Novocaine. Years after that, working as a Boston Globe rock writer, I interviewed former Roxy wizard Brian Eno about the latter album. He was delighted to hear about it, and asked me to make him a taped copy. He had played on the songs, and he didn’t even own the album.
We got scads of orders. But pretty soon the retail brick-and-mortar business over-whelmed his mail order business – not in volume, but in time consumption. (It failed eventually.) The boot biz fizzled and waned early on, a victim of extreme disorganization and under-staffing. Orders went unfilled. (I don’t believe F.K. ever cashed any of the checks from those unfilled orders. He wasn’t unscrupulous. It just went dead.)
Cut to 2019. Bootlegs are common currency these days. Both the illegal/gray-market kind and the legit company opening-up-the-vaults kind. For the right price, you can acquire many bits of formerly hard-to-find musical ephemera from the major labels, the very companies that once saw bootlegs as anathema. (Or, at least, nothing they wanted to involve themselves in.)
Some one-time boots – or live recordings that would have been boots – are now issued straight-up. As streaming has taken over, CD sales have dried up, record companies and bands are mining the archives to churn up old, rare tracks and bring them to the public with extravagant packaging and pricing.
But here’s what I’ve come to realize: I knew it at the time too, more so through the lens of time. I have found very few demos or out-takes that were better than the officially released version of a song. Yes, I still have a curiosity about how a song was assembled – the sausage-making if you will – and sometimes a revelation will bring a spark of “Huh!” to my brain. (Yes! I see why Townshend needed Daltrey to sing that! Paul really was a pretty good drummer, but Ringo is Ringo.)
The more frequent reality, though, is that these things are a slog for fans. (A pricey slog.) Maybe rock scholars (not an oxymoron?) gain crucial pieces of data for pending tomes I wouldn’t have the patience to read. And, sure, I know a lot of Grateful Dead fans can never have too much live Dead, and I truly wonder what the hell else they do with their lives. (Yeah, I know: Probably listen to Phish.)
I was recently talking to longtime friend Peter Prescott, who’s drummed for Mission of Burma and currently raises hell on keys and synths with his band minibeast.
He had some bootleg experiences as a teen, too. “They’ve gone through a lot of mutations,” Pete said. “I like the sound of a thing, the way the music results in a certain sound, and on that level bootlegs didn’t interest me. They weren’t about sound; they were about capturing a moment. I listened to my friends records and it was like listening to a bad concert tape.”
Face it, sometimes “the joy of discovery and exploration” can quickly turn into a chore and a bore. You find that killer live boot that looks so promising on the outside only to realize the extended songs don’t work as well as the shortened ones on albums. The stage patter isn’t that scintillating when you’re not there. You hear that demo or alternate take and you just miss what isn’t there or want to go back to what you first heard.
I’m not saying artists always make the right choice about which version to release or how best to tweak a song, but I’d say 99 % of the time they do. Not to say most wouldn’t want to go back for a fix; nearly every rocker I’ve talked to has expressed that thought if the topic comes up. Fix that bum note, tweak that tempo, sing a little more on key.
Except maybe Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. The two were helming Rockpile in 1980 and sat down for a chinwag with me after a Boston show. We were talking production.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Lowe said, “it’s ideas that are exciting. It’s not the marvelous synthesizer sound or the wonderful spread on the stereo. The average guy in the street doesn’t know anything about whether the bass drum pedal’s squeaking. All he knows is where there’s emotion coming out of the speakers.”
Edmunds concurred. “The premise, or the idea, takes about five seconds. How much time you put into it after that is . . . well, if you put too much time into it then you lose it.”