Vinyl’s most sought-after bootlegs
Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s duets album. The Who’s TV special soundtrack. Rare new music by George Michael and Kraftwerk… The history of officially unreleased albums offers a fascinating glimpse into an alternative universe. John Earls bravely ventures into the deepest valleys of cratedigging to tell the stories of vinyl’s most sought-after bootlegs.
One of the reasons the 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles, aka The White Album, was named Long Live Vinyl’s Best Reissue last year was because it finally gave an official release to the Esher Demos. Recorded at George Harrison’s Surrey mansion in Esher, these early versions of The Beatles’ songs allowed fans to hear how classics such as While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Back In The USSR developed, often glimpsing wildly differing versions to the established end results. The expanded The Beatles was a great example of how to release an official version of a widely circulated bootleg, helping fans discover ‘new’ Beatles music they never knew existed.
Many audiophiles will own a sneaky copy of their own favourite bootleg, the studio recordings of a favourite artist who has quietly airbrushed their unreleased masterwork off their CV; the dodgy disco album the record label wisely rejected; a disastrous three-month session with the hot producer who turned out to have an even bigger ego; the songs lost to copyright disputes when the band changed record labels… all these have contributed to the great unreleased album.
Many of these are bootlegged in a quality which makes the artist despair. An important factor in the respect for Esher Demos is how superior it sounded compared to the bootlegs which had circulated among Beatles fans for decades. Anyone with a passing knowledge of audio knows how distorted a recording becomes once it gets beyond a first-generation copy, and the Esher Demos’ release brought that reality home. As The Beatles’ remastering engineer Miles Showell told Long Live Vinyl: “The Esher Demos bootlegs that turned up among fans were terrible copies – they played at the wrong speed and sounded awful.” Harrison was The Beatles’ in-house cataloguist, with the original four-track Esher Demos recordings kept in pristine condition by his widow Olivia. “To get demos of that good quality from 1968 is frankly incredible,” says Showell.
Another cautionary factor is how disappointing the reality of those lost songs can be. The rarer a recording, the more mythical its status, which can quickly be punctured once it’s heard beyond devotees. Runner-up to The Beatles as 2018’s best reissue was The Beta Band’s lovingly packaged The Three EPs. Another excellent Beta Band reissue last year was of their 1999 self-titled full debut album. The Beta Band was packaged with the first official release of The Hut, an album comprising two lengthy jams around the theme of making the happiest music possible.
Former Beta Band singer Steve Mason is ambivalent about giving The Hut official status, telling Long Live Vinyl: “The Hut is shit. For me, there’s no such thing as an amazing unreleased album. Unless the artist’s life has been cut short, then if it’s good it’ll get put out. People always ask me, ‘Is there any great unreleased Beta Band music?’ and there really isn’t. Most bands would get half an album out of the ideas the four of us would put into one song. It was so hard to write for The Beta Band that if we had any great songs lying around they’d have been released – it would have saved us the difficulty of writing more songs.”
Mason’s logic is hard to argue with, but there are great lost treasures out there. What follows are the 20 most desirable unofficial releases that would soon be regarded as among their makers’ finest work if they get released. Probably…
20 JAY-Z AND NOTORIOUS B.I.G.
Long before Jay-Z teamed with Kanye West for Watch The Throne, he and Notorious B.I.G. talked about a supergroup. The Commission would also star Puff Daddy, Charli Baltimore, Lil’ Cease and producer Lance Rivera. In 2005, producers DJ Cinema and Mello released a mixtape entitled The Commission, which they claimed was to have been the group’s debut. There’s a Jay-Z and Biggie duet, Whatchu Want, but Lil’ Cease confirmed in a 2017 radio interview that The Commission never got off the ground. Notorious B.I.G. was too busy making Life After Death and his killing in 1997 ended the collective.
19 APHEX TWIN
Just like Prince, unreleased Richard D James’ albums almost outweigh his official output. In the aftermath of Selected Ambient Works Vol 1, James appeared unusually prone to wanting to live up to hype: Caustic Window is far from his best work, with only three of its 15 tracks salvaged later. It’s the scarceness that appeals, with just five test pressings made. An ingenious 2014 Kickstarter campaign allowed everyone who contributed to get a digital copy. After raising $47,000, the physical vinyl was then sold on eBay, where it was bought by Minecraft creator Markus Persson for $46,300.
18 JUNGLE BROTHERS
The crossover between dance and hip-hop is so well established now, it’s largely forgotten that Jungle Brothers were its pioneers. Following their hit I’ll House You, the trio worked with jazz producer Bill Laswell on deepening their sound. What happened next is murky, with the tapes lost, but not before being heavily bootlegged. By the commercial release of the album under new name J Beez Wit The Remedy in 1993, Laswell’s production was nowhere to be seen. However, in 1999 10″ EP The Payback, credited to Crazy Wisdom Masters, eventually gave four of Laswell’s versions a semi-official release.
17 THE SISTERS OF MERCY
The Sisters Of Mercy’s most recent album, Vision Thing, was released back in 1990. Andrew Eldritch believes he’d only lose money if he went into the studio, though in 2016 he perversely promised to make a new album if Donald Trump was elected US President. We’re still waiting. In the meantime, the Sisters have consistently added new songs to their live show and Sisters Now does a decent job of rounding them up. Susanne and Summer have the dark power familiar from Floodland. Until someone explains the concept of crowdfunding to lure Eldritch into making album four, this seems as close to ending a 29-year wait as fans will get.
16 PAUL McCARTNEY
In the 1970s, Paul McCartney and then Wings released several standalone singles including Hi, Hi, Hi, C Moon and Junior’s Farm. In 1975, Macca intended compiling these alongside unreleased tracks from album sessions. Columbia weren’t keen on the idea of an album of out-takes, but McCartney revisited the idea in 1986 with further singles and out-takes now added to the tracklisting. Once a bootleg appeared in 1987, McCartney again shelved the plan. Recent deluxe editions of McCartney and Wings albums means virtually all of Cold Cuts’ intended songs have now been given official status – feel free to compile your own version.
15 AMY WINEHOUSE
Shortly before her death in 2011, Amy Winehouse had finished writing the follow-up to Back To Black and had planned studio sessions with that album’s producers, Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson. According to Remi: “We had 14 songs, whatever we needed to happen, we had it right there.” In 2015, Universal boss David Joseph revealed he’d destroyed those demos, so that no cash-in posthumous album could be released. However, there are bootlegs of a dozen unreleased Winehouse songs in circulation.Written after Frank, the standout track Procrastination is a brassy, self-mocking shuffle about Winehouse’s inability to finish writing songs.
14 THE TROGGS
THE TROGGS TAPES
The magnificently sweary The Troggs Tapes is so widely known since first leaking in 1972 that it’s bizarre it’s never become official: Reg Presley and drummer Ronnie Bond gave it their blessing before their deaths, with Presley saying his invective was how he and Bond always spoke in the studio. Presley’s 11-minute rant at Bond over the recording of the (ironically titled) song Tranquility inspired argument scenes in This Is Spinal Tap and Father Ted, as well as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Derek And Clive. Wibbling Rivalry, Noel and Liam Gallagher’s 14-minute row about the importance of bad behaviour in rock, is equally entertaining. That was given an official release by Fierce Panda, reaching No.52 in 1995.
13 THE BEATLES
THE GET BACK JOURNALS
With The Beatles rehearsing at Twickenham Studios for a fortnight in January 1969, they played endless covers, from childhood favourites such as Lonnie Donegan and Carl Perkins to The Band and Marvin Gaye. Initially dribbling out on individual bootlegs such as the infamous The Black Album, the most comprehensive collection is the mammoth 11LP The Get Back Journals from 1988, though that suffers from poor pressing quality. Given Apple’s preference for limiting the majority of Sgt. Pepper’s… and The Beatles out-takes to CD and streaming, even if the 50th anniversary means 2019 would be the perfect time to see the collection become official, will we ever see an official release for The Beatles’ versions of The House Of The Rising Sun or All Shook Up?
Dissatisfied with how Geffen handled the release of Whiskeytown’s second album Strangers Almanac, Ryan Adams set the band a challenge. According to drummer Skillet Gilmore: “Ryan wanted to make a record without the label knowing about it. And so we did.” The result, with Ben Folds on piano, was recorded in a week in December 1997. Trouble was, if Geffen weren’t to know Forever Valentine existed, how would it get released? The resultant copyright dispute means it’s still gathering dust. Whiskeytown didn’t make third album Pneumonia until 2001, by when Adams was an established solo star, and it proved their farewell.
11 TALKING HEADS
Considering that Talking Heads have always been credited with helping to create post-punk when debut album 77 was released in (funnily enough) 1977, it’s bizarre just how many of their songs actually existed way before punk, as these demos for CBS from 1975 demonstrate. Recorded before keyboardist Jerry Harrison joined the band, the 14 songs include future 45s Psycho Killer and Love Goes To Building On Fire, with only I Want To Live not later featuring on their first two albums. 1975 made a brief appearance in 2010 both on vinyl and YouTube, claiming to be a Talking Heads fanclub release, the only problem with that being that the band didn’t have an official fanclub.
10 DURAN DURAN
As soon as Duran Duran finished touring 2004’s reunion album Astronaut they headed to the studio with Beck producer Michael Patterson. They returned to their club roots, but Sony rejected the album, claiming it lacked hits. Sessions with new producer Timbaland were booked, but guitarist Andy Taylor quit, saying the band lacked direction. The grittier course taken with Timbaland jarred with the Reportage songs, which were scrapped in favour of what became 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre. Nick Rhodes told this writer in 2015: “I hope Reportage gets released. It needs mixing, but only one or two songs need finishing. There’d be legal issues with Andy, but he’d probably like
it released too, as he plays some amazing stuff on it.”
9 DANGER MOUSE
THE GREY ALBUM
At the height of the mash-up craze, which also begat 2 Many DJ’s’ incendiary mix album As Heard On Radio Soulwax, the idea of mixing the vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with the music from The Beatles’ The Beatles (The White Album) initially seemed a jokey gimmick. In Danger Mouse’s hands, it was a psychedelic classic. Promo CDs were sent to journalists, before The Beatles’ team inevitably quashed the official release. It didn’t do Danger Mouse any harm though, as he went from being an obscure underground name to producing U2, Gorillaz, Beck, A$AP Rocky and Adele. The Grey Album was so heavily available before it got legalled that it continues to flourish just below the surface.
8 NEIL YOUNG
On tour in 1974, Neil Young debuted 17 new songs, documenting the break-up of his relationship with actor Carrie Snodgress. It’s that raw intimacy which made Young decide against releasing Homegrown, calling it “a little too personal” and “a very down album”. Instead, Young released Tonight’s The Night, not exactly everybody’s idea of an ‘up’ album, recorded two years previously. Although Homegrown’s intended floral cover art is known, no two bootlegs can agree on a definitive 10-song tracklist. Half-a-dozen songs have since been released on other albums, while others have been played live. Despite vowing in 2010 to release Homegrown as part of his Archives project, Young has yet to give it the official nod.
7 ADAM ANT
Although Adam Ant’s single Room At The Top charted both sides of the Atlantic in 1990, MCA steadfastly rejected follow-up album Persuasion and have since refused to re-license it. An optismistic Adam told this writer in 2013 that he was hoping to finally release it soon, with artwork created by Gorillaz’s Jamie Hewlett. That he hasn’t as yet been able to is frustrating for him and fans alike. The production by Chic’s Bernard Edwards is predictably slick, and the album also reunites Adam with original Ants bassist Leigh Gorman. Marco Pirroni’s guitars were rarely heavier, while the sweet Obsession is a rare Adam Ant ballad.
6 KATE BUSH
THE EARLY YEARS
A 10-song collection of Kate Bush demos from 1973 and 1976, including future Army Dreamers B-side Passing Through Air, were bought by a German indie label in 1986. They sold them to the German arm of EMI, who prepared The Early Years’ release without bothering to tell Bush. Because she’s famously easy-going about what she releases, right? Bush blocked the compilation instantly, but not before a handful of test pressings escaped. You can see why she refused the release; there’s a naivety you’d expect from a 15-year-old who thinks these demos will never be heard. But anyone with a more carefree ego would be happy to show how outrageously talented they were from the start.
5 JIMI HENDRIX AND TRAFFIC
Jimi Hendrix was so enamoured of Steve Winwood after he played on Voodoo Chile, he asked the keyboardist to join Band Of Gypsys. Before that, Hendrix and Traffic jammed backstage at Swiss stadium Hallenstadion following their performances at Monsterkonzert festival in May 1968. Their eight instrumental jams ran for 71 minutes, with two of them on evergreen 1990 bootleg A Session. The full Jams Tape is rarer – even the cover is hard to find online. It demonstrates two artists at their peak, with flautist Chris Wood duelling brilliantly with Hendrix. It’s certainly better than some posthumous Hendrix releases, and will hopefully one day join their ranks.
Of Prince’s many unreleased albums, his ‘self-titled’ LP by female alter-ego Camille came the closest to making the racks: test pressings were made before (s)he scrapped it weeks before release. Inspired by the 1985 film Mystère Alexina about 19th century inter-sex person Herculine Barbin, Prince experimented with artificially pitching his voice to be more feminine. He told Warner that he would refuse to confirm Camille’s identity publicly, and their frustration is believed to be behind the album’s axing. Both If I Was Your Girlfriend and Housequake became future Prince classics and, of Camille’s eight songs, only Rebirth Of The Flesh remains unreleased.
Ralf Hutter briefly left Kraftwerk after their self-titled 1970 debut album. The remaining trio of Florian Schneider, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger didn’t officially release anything before Hutter rejoined for 1972’s Kraftwerk 2.
By then, guitarist Rother and drummer Dinger had left to form Neu! A stunning 70-minute session recorded in June 1971 for German radio show Bondel Kino is evidence of a parallel universe where Kraftwerk’s electronics take a back seat. The five songs comprise a glam-rock Stratovarius and a 20-minute Ruckzuck plus three unreleased tracks. Forget every standard automaton image of Kraftwerk: on Radio Bremen they’re living, breathing, sweaty rock gods.
2 DAVID BOWIE
Toy is a mix of then-new songs (some released later on Heathen) and reworked versions of Bowie’s earliest mid-60s tunes, updated in the experimental style perfected on Hours. A combination of fatherhood to daughter Lexi in 2000 and Virgin’s delayed release schedule meant Toy drifted into irrelevance in Bowie’s ever-restless mind. Long Live Vinyl learned in researching this article that the tracklisting on the bootleg leaked in 2011 is “100% wrong” and that Toy’s artwork would have been Bowie’s face superimposed onto a baby. Unreleased 1975 Bowie album The Gouster was finally out as part of 2016 boxset Who Can I Be Now? At the current boxset release rate, theToy mystery should be solved around 2023.
1 BOB DYLAN AND JOHNNY CASH
THE DYLAN/CASH SESSION
The Dylan/Cash Session originates from the 48 hours the two of them spent recording together for Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album in February 1969. Of the dozen songs cut, only Girl From The North Country made the grade. They also attempted One Too Many Mornings, with the rest Cash songs alongside rockabilly takes of Sun Records’ staples That’s Alright Mama and Matchbox. Considering the sessions were supposedly for Dylan’s album, Cash sounds the far more enthused of the two, to the extent he often has to remind Dylan of the lyrics. There are amiable versions of Big River and Guess Things Happen That Way, but in truth Girl From The North Country really is the standout.