Some of the best records are the ones never released

Record-industry executives and musicians insist bootleg recordings are the bane of their business, the product of plunderers and profiteers who have little regard for the music itself. With the assistance of the Recording Industry Association of America, those very same musicians and executives have tried for years to outlaw bootlegs, the costly illegal and often ill-gotten recordings taken from studio vaults and concert arenas. They have levied tariffs against those countries that import such CDs (namely China and Italy), sent out agents to fine and even arrest store owners and fanatic collectors who sell bootlegs, threatened and cajoled those who would buy such illicit material.

Yet three decades after Bob Dylan's Great White Hope bootleg (finally released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes with The Band) brought the subject to prominence, the bootleg industry survives and thrives. For every Who, Bob Dylan, Beatles, Velvet Underground, Beach Boy, or Tom Petty boxed set released featuring forgotten outtakes, alternate versions, and live tracks, there are still those essential unheard albums sitting in the bootleg bins. They are the albums containing the lost burps and farts of legends, the scribblings and the sketches before they took shape in the recording studio, the fledgling ideas that never proceeded any further than the demo stage.

Live recordings still make up a bulk of the bootleg business, but they are usually the tarnished rewards of audience members who smuggled their pocket recorders into a show and half-captured some band's off night. There are the rare exceptions, the straight-from-the-soundboard gems smuggled out by employees that excise the audience and highlight the performances. Nirvana's Roma CD (recorded hours before Kurt Cobain's first suicide attempt) and R.E.M.'s From the Borderline (intimate acoustic sets taken from two March 1991 shows inEurope and featuring Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock) are two of the rare live must-haves. The new Paul McCartney-Elvis Costello A Royal Performance--on which the two perform "One After 909" and "Mistress and Maid"together followed by McCartney and the Brodsky Quartet doing a handful of Beatles songs, including "Yesterday"--is particurlarly special. But demos and studio outtakes are a different matter altogether, the hidden gems there to be excavated after years of being buried beneath dust and ego.

There are still those legendary lost records out there, records like the Beach Boys' Smile, the Beatles' Get Back (Let it Be in its original form), and Prince's Camille that have become more famous in absentia than if they had been released. But the best of the boots are those records that reveal the obscured brilliance and lift the shroud on budding geniuses; they provide new insights and offer profound and unexpected revelations, whispering their illicit secrets at $25 a pop. Some, like Mick Jagger's unreleased blues record The Nature of My Game (see "Street Beat," Page 67), can remind you the old men haven't yet run out of stories to tell.

Here, then, are some of the best albums you've never heard--the record Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan didn't want you to hear, the lo-fi demos Pete Townshend handed over to Roger Daltrey to imitate, the BBC recordings of the Beatles that Capitol didn't hand over, the Stevie Ray Vaughan outtakes Jimmie still holds onto. There's the Elvis Costello demos that got him signed to Columbia and the Nashville sessions he didn't use for Almost Blue, and Dylan's first demos, recorded in an office building before he had a record deal.

They're the sounds of brilliant musicians working in private, the uncensored musings set to tape without the intrusion of producers or A&R men. And there's not a Grateful Dead live album in the bunch.

The Complete BBC Sessions, The Beatles. Capitol Records' two-disc Live at the BBC, released in 1994, didn't even scratch the surface of the recordings the Beatles did for British radio in the early 1960s. This gorgeous and garish nine-disc, 220-plus-song box, considered among the top bootlegs ever released by collectors and something of a Holy Grail, fills in the considerable blanks: Beginning with a March 8, 1962, performance (featuring Pete Best on drums) that includes the band's only recorded performance of Roy Orbison's "Dream Baby," and concluding with a July 7, 1965, taping, the box features complete performances from start to finish--interview sessions, dedications, requests, giddy small talk and all.

Unlike the imperfect Capitol collection, there's no cross-fading and no intrusive editing, but the masters have been impressively cleaned up (the sound quality varies from shoddy to, in most instances, damned near perfect). The box showcases the band at its live best, mixing the dozens of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Motown covers into a set list that featured almost every song they recorded before Revolver.

And there's a passion in the performances that could never be attained on the studio records, a deliriousness to the music found only when a band performs for an audience of millions instead of for themselves and an engineer. The box also features the band's only recorded versions of "That's Alright Mama" and the oddball Australian hit "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," which is probably just as well.

Touch the Sky Studio Sessions, Stevie Ray Vaughan. There's allegedly an 11-CD box featuring hours and hours of outtakes from the exhausting 1984-'85 Soul to Soul sessions, which were held here and in New York--a prospect that's intimidating even to the obsessed and downright frightening to the casual fan. But this 15-song disc, from which Jimmie Vaughan and Epic Records would lift "The Sky is Crying" and a cover of Hendrix's "Little Wing" for the posthumous odds-and-sods disc in 1991, is a revelatory addition to the few CDs Stevie actually released in his lifetime.

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