Second Time Around: Classic Artists and the Flood of “Official Bootlegs”

Music Features

Once considered a fringe market for obsessive collectors, over the last few years a rush of “official bootlegs” has entered the mainstream. As Baby Boomer musicians age and they spend less time on the road and in the studio, labels have responded to the demand for new material from their most enduring artists by releasing a deluge of classic concerts and “vault recordings” that recall the most popular phases of their careers. In recent months, The Rolling Stones, U2 and Bruce Springsteen have joined “bootleg” stalwarts like The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and Bob Dylan with plans for archival releases of their own. One has to wonder if the trend reflects a cynical last grab for the cash of Baby Boomers hoping to relive their glory days, a race to beat copyright laws, or if it’s simply that today’s music hasn’t captured the imaginations of older rock fans.

When asked about pirated recordings of his work, Bob Dylan remarked that most of them sounded as if they’d been recorded in a phone booth and he couldn’t imagine who would want to spend good money on them. Lots of people, it turns out. The music business—like nature—abhors a vacuum, so when Dylan took some time away from the road and the recording studio after his motorcycle accident in 1966, bootleggers stepped in to fill the void with Great White Wonder, the first widely distributed version of his basement tapes recorded the summer of 1967. In the absence of new product from Dylan, there was a point where Great White Wonder was selling more copies than his official records on the Columbia label. Clearly this was a situation that had to be dealt with.

It wasn’t as if Dylan was the first artist that anyone ever bootlegged. From the dawn of recording technology, there have always been hobbyists and “songcatchers” like Jesse Fewkes, who made the first field recordings on wax cylinders in 1890. Without John and Alan Lomax’s recordings of the work songs of Southern cotton pickers and prisoners, crucial North American musical and cultural history would have been lost. We’d never have heard of Leadbelly or Elizabeth Cotton and Woody Guthrie may have remained a regional artist. If the Italian saxophone player Dean Benedetti had not recorded all of Charlie Parker’s solos from the two-week concert stint that Bendetti’s band opened for, our understanding of his artistry would have been severely limited. I can’t remember how many great amateur recordings of Ravi Shankar, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash I’ve heard from the early ‘60s. In short, we owe sound recordists a lot, and as time passes, the work they’ve preserved for posterity will be of far more significance than the copyright violations for which they have been found guilty.

There’s the problem. When art and commerce get their wires crossed, music ceases to be entertainment or expression and becomes a commodity. It’s an understandable situation. Musicians work hard. No one likes being robbed, and without control of one’s “product,” it’s easy to be misrepresented or have work that was not released for a reason suddenly become available for the whole world to hear. By the time I was a teenager in the ‘70s, bootlegging had become a huge industry, and even in Vancouver, which was a mid-sized Canadian city at the time, there were two busy record stores that sold nothing but pirated recordings. For a few years before these shops were shut down, a steady stream of Rolling Stones, Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan bootlegs flowed out the door all day long and the artists didn’t make a penny.

One of the ways that the music industry countered this flood of pirated records was to release official live albums from their most popular artists. The idea was that if concert albums were easily available, no one would bother with poorly recorded and pressed bootlegs. To a large extent the idea worked and exceeded expectations. Artists like KISS, Peter Frampton and Bob Marley released live albums that were far more popular than any of their studio recordings. They were able to use these concert snapshots to exploit another aspect of their artistry that hadn’t always been evident in their conventional work. Realizing this, concert albums suddenly became very important marketing tools for the record labels, and eventually this impacted what listeners heard when they purchased them. In the past, the concert albums that were released, such as Who Live at Leeds or Woodstock were truly “live” and featured warts-and-all performances, off-key vocals and feedback that captured what it was actually like to be at the concert. Somewhere along the way that changed, and live albums became more than live albums. The Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72, a triple live album that captured highlights from the tour, featured additional background vocals and instrumentation to make up for problems with the on-site recording. Paul McCartney’s souvenir recording of Wings’ 1975 tour, Wings Over America, was so extensively edited, with several performances of a single song spliced together, that it’s hard to consider it a live album in the conventional sense. Many studio albums received less tinkering and fuss than Wings Over America did.

For some artists like John Prine or Tom Waits who are renowned for their storytelling, a live album gives fans a record of the jokes and between-song banter that’s missing from the studio versions of the same material. But, as performers like Prine and Waits often tell the same stories every night, demand for a whole tour’s worth of material or bootlegs that don’t vary from official live albums has never been very high. The same is true of many acts that never change their material. Differences between nights on a tour are negligible, and a single live album is enough to satisfy almost everyone. Some artists’ management teams have realized this, and some have not. Bob Marley, for example, is a musician whose work has been heavily bootlegged, but for the most part, the executors of his estate have released archival material slowly and in a judicious manner. Marley was a careful artist who did not vary his set list from night to night on a tour, so his estate’s decision to release CDs of carefully selected live concerts that feature a variety of songs performed on different tours—with little repetition—has respected his legacy by not flooding the market with repetitive material. The same cannot be said for Jimi Hendrix’s estate which has pumped so much nearly identical product onto the market in the last decade that I still have a small box full of unopened CDs of his, waiting to be listened to on a rainy day some time in the future.

The best of the new “vault recordings” are the ones that offer the listener something they haven’t heard before. Musicians like The Grateful Dead and Miles Davis—who rivals the Dead in sheer number and quality of archival releases—were at their best when performing in front of audiences and not locked away in the recording studio. This is something that The Grateful Dead’s fans have long been aware of, and that their label has acknowledged to such an extent that there are over 100 live sets from the band currently available. Three series of archival releases—Dick’s Picks, Road Trips and Dave’s Picks—have been astonishingly popular as their fans believe that every tour was different, so that no matter how many versions of a particular song you’ve heard and collected, every one is somehow unique and worth possessing. Miles Davis’ fans are obviously of a similar mindset as over the past few years Davis obsessives have been able to pick from several box sets from the ‘60s and ‘70s—with more than 10 discs focusing on the Bitch’s Brew tour from 1969-1970. The kind of collecting and close analysis of individual performances that the Dead and Davis have inspired has always been rampant in the jam band scene with groups like The Allman Brothers, String Cheese Incident and Phish releasing huge numbers of archival concerts on their own labels.

For most music fans, this kind of obsession must seem really intense and intimidating. Really, how many of us have time to listen to every concert from Bob Dylan’s 1989 tour in support of Oh Mercy? For those of us who just kind of like a band, do these “official bootlegs” have any appeal? After all, U2, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones already have lots of live albums, so why would anyone want to hear the same old songs over and over again on new archival sets? It’s not like they change their set lists or the way they perform the songs every night like Dylan and the Dead do.

With these thoughts in mind, I recently spent a few days listening and watching through the first two releases of The Rolling Stones From The Vault series. It’d been years since I’d really given the band a lot of attention. Like a lot of people of my generation, I grew up with the Stones and over the years they’ve become so ubiquitous and commoditized that it’s almost impossible to hear them with fresh ears. The first, L.A. Forum (Live in 1975) is presented as a 2 CD/1 DVD set, and contrary to my expectations, I was riveted from the opening notes of “Honky Tonk Women” to the last primal howl of “Sympathy for the Devil” (a song I never thought I needed to hear again. I was wrong). A truly dynamic 18-minute version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” puts to rest any doubts that The Rolling Stones were once an amazing live act, and ripping takes of “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Gimme Shelter” remind us that the Glimmer Twins were rock’s original badasses. By the time they played the Hampton Coliseum (Live in 1981) concert, Keith Richards had quit heroin, their latest album, Tattoo You, was a hit and the Stones hit the road for what became the highest grossing tour in history. At the time, I was into new bands like The Clash and remember thinking that the Stones had sold out, but watching the video from a distance of 30 years, I couldn’t help but be pulled in and fall under the spell of the group’s exhuberant energy. Is it simply nostalgia? Sure. But is there anything wrong with wanting to relive certain eras in a favorite band’s history? When I think about it, how many people would want to hear a live Rolling Stones album from their latest tour when they could choose one from their heydays in 1975 and 1981 instead?

It’s not only unreleased live shows that are sought after by collectors. Some fans are hard to satisfy, and they won’t accept simply listening to official versions of their favorite songs. They want to hear rehearsals, demos, basement tapes and songs that never made it onto an album. They want to hear the original versions of all the songs on Blood On The Tracks even if the ones that were finally released are much better. Sometimes, these records hold real treasures like the wonderful Another Self-Portrait from 2013 that resuscitated and recast 1970’s Self-Portrait—the most universally vilified of Dylan’s albums—in a far more sympathetic light. Some releases like Brian Wilson’s Smile or Dylan’s Basement Tapes came out only under duress. After so many incomplete, poor quality or misleading versions of these albums began to circulate, Dylan and Wilson may have felt compelled to let out songs that they may have preferred remained unheard by the general public.

The Beatles have always had a very intense and obsessive core of fans, so it’s not surprising that their work has been extensively bootlegged. After years of ignoring the issue, The Beatles’ record label, Apple, began releasing vault recordings of their own, beginning in the late ‘70s with The Beatles Live At Hollywood Bowl and a Rarities series of vinyl releases that were very well-received by collectors. In the past few years, they’ve followed this up with recordings from old BBC studio live radio shows and outtakes. After the success of last year’s official bootlegs from 1963, Universal Music has hinted that several live shows from 1964 may be released in a digital format later this year. How many people will want to hear multiple concerts with identical set lists remains to be seen. Still, the Beatles were never as prolific as Bob Dylan was and for most of their fans, the new releases don’t offer much of interest. There aren’t hundreds of unreleased Beatles songs and performances in the vaults, and most of the appeal of these “bootlegs” comes from the chance to hear the band joke with and play off of each other in an informal setting. To my mind, the only Beatles “vault release” that could be considered essential for anyone except for a true obsessive is Let It Be…Naked a single CD that presented all of the songs from the original Let It Be album without Phil Spector’s overdubs and wall-of-sound production.

Whether the current glut of vault recordings and classic concerts that are being prepared for the market is a temporary fad remains to be seen. So far, most of the artists who have been featured in these kinds of releases are classic rock and jazz artists who have older fan bases. It’s understandable that past a certain age, people get stuck in musical ruts. Or, is it maybe that music was better in the past? Leaving that aside, music resonates memories and associations more than any other form of creative expression. For a lot of people listening to an old Grateful Dead or Bob Marley concert recording is like going through old photo albums or high-school yearbooks. The new vault recordings cater to this need by giving people new ways to hear songs they’ve always loved, but heard a million times before.

Still, I am troubled by the fact that there must be lot of new music out there that older people still stuck on the Stones and Dylan would find worth hearing. But, it often gets buried in the same way that new ideas in films are buried beneath the latest, bloodless reboots of old Marvel comics characters that were created in same decade as The Beatles and The Beach Boys. If that music’s out there, I don’t know how many Boomers will ever hear it; new songs on the radio can’t surprise us like they used to because all the stations have broken into tribal groupings that only play a very narrow range of music. Perhaps the fact that the digital world has made so much available has overwhelmed us. There’s so much out there that we’ve retreated back to the guaranteed and familiar.

Are these newly released old recordings so popular only because there is little risk involved? I’ll get back to you once I figure it out. In the meantime, it’s a rainy day and I’m spending the morning listening to The Rolling Stones L.A. Forum (Live in 75) with snatches of Bob Marley Live Forever and the latest Grateful Dead archive release from ’77 in Hampton. I probably won’t have time to get around to the stack of indie CDs from new artists that are sitting on my desk. No matter how good they are. And I’m starting to think that’s a shame.

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