Bootlicking

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.

Vaughan runs the gamut here--the disc includes B.B. King ("Treat Her Right") and Willie Dixon ("Shake & Bake") covers, a few familiar originals (an instrumental take of "Life Without You" and "So Excited"), and the ridiculous a cappella "Hang Nails and Boogers"--but the centerpiece is a 14-minute epic that finds Vaughan fusing "Little Wing" with "3rd Stone from the Sun." It begins quietly, beautifully, then suddenly grows into an extended free-jazz and feedback frenzy that unveils Vaughan as more than a mere Hendrix acolyte. It's an awesomely evocative piece, hinting both at his love for jazz improv and his understanding that the best rock and roll eventually finds its way back to the blues, even if it staggers along the way.

Lifehouse and Quadrophenia Demos, The Who. Pete Townshend was a one-man band, the original lo-fi rocker notorious for recording complete and detailed works in progress and then handing them over to Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle to mimic. Townshend's demos for various projects have already surfaced as the Scoop albums (the first of which features "Unused Piano," included here on the "Quadrophenia" disc), but these rare and mostly unheard pieces chronicle the entire conception and gestation of the Who's two finest records--Who's Next and the mod epic Quadrophenia.

Where those two works were overblown in some spots, rigorously produced in others, their counterparts here (recorded in 1970 and 1973) are intimate, fragile, stripped down, and perfect in a very offhanded way. When Townshend sings "Behind Blue Eyes" or "Love Reign O'er Me" or "Bargain," he infuses the songs with a vulnerability and off-key beauty Roger Daltrey could never muster from his macho, mangy arena-rock persona. In Daltrey's hands, Townshend's songs became anthems; Townshend approached his own work as though they were desperate and needful supplications.

Amazingly, Pete's "The Real Me" rings somehow more true in this almost bluesy, almost funky, totally sparse version that sounds as if it could have been recorded by Guided by Voices. Over an organ and a drum machine and bizarrely thin guitar riffs, Townshend growls that "rock and roll's gonna do me an evil wrong," and they now become the eerily prescient words that forever haunt him.

American Outtakes, Johnny Cash. There were allegedly 50 songs recorded for Johnny Cash's 1994 "comeback" American Recordings, produced by Rick Rubin--who is, at this very moment, recording Cash again for a follow-up. This is the very unofficial sequel, though, 15 more songs featuring Cash strumming an acoustic guitar and moaning his God-fearin' country-folk hymns in Rubin's living room in May 1993.

It's a startling and haunting record that's every bit as effective as American Recordings: Cash's voice is piercing and doom-saying as he sings of lonesome drifters and penitent sinners and battles between flesh and blood and God and the Devil. Particularly remarkable is Cash's take on the harrowing "I Witnessed a Crime," one of the only songs from the recording session to feature a guest musician--in this case ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on electric guitar, doing his best to do his worst Johnny Cash impression.

The Witmark Years: 1962-1964, Bob Dylan. This 41-song, two-disc collection ranks as one of the most astonishing and revelatory discoveries among existing bootlegs. Imagine those days before "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Masters of War," and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" became the stuff of legend and the property of those who would seek to make Dylan an unwilling spokesman; imagine a time before anyone outside of a few New York folkies even heard those songs, a moment when their words still packed an impact and bore a sting. That's when this set was recorded--in an office building, no less, Dylan strumming and singing into a tape recorder to an audience of none.

Stripped of production and myth--Dylan coughs during "Blowin' in the Wind," a door slams shut as he launches into "Masters of War"--the songs reclaim their meaning and their passion. Like Bruce Springsteen now standing before 3,000 people protected only by a guitar and a harmonica, Dylan is the country-bluesman who shouts and whispers and mumbles and groans with such intimacy he sounds like the old friend people always claimed he was. There's even a playfulness about these songs that's missing from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin': During "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," Dylan stops and tells someone who's walked into the room that the song's "a drag." He then laughs, adding, "I sang it so many times."

The Dylan/Cash Sessions, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Dylan's 1969 Nashville Skyline sessions bore an odd fruit, most of which was never released. With the exception of "Girl from the North Country," Dylan's duets with Johnny Cash were scrapped and forgotten about; they've become the stuff of legend in the process, which is often the case with the crap that goes unheard. Most of the 15 songs here are fascinating at best and laughable at worst: Dylan does his best to keep up with Cash as The Man in Black leads the Jewish cowboy from Minnesota through "Matchbox," "That's Alright Mama," "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "Blue Yodel No. 5," and a host of other traditional standards. Sloppy and often out of sync, Dylan and Cash (assisted by Carl Perkins, who must have lost a bet to ol' John) fight each other every step of the way; as Cash growls, Dylan takes his wacko stab at actually singing (think "Lay Lady Lay") and ends up forgetting the words so often, Cash actually asks him, "Which ones do you know, Bob?"

Aim to Please and Nashville and More, Elvis Costello. Many of Costello's demos, live outtakes, and B-sides, including a few selections from both of these bootlegs, have made it onto various Rykodisc reissues: The first of these boots features the early '70s demos Elvis recorded with his band Flip City, and the second contains unused tracks from Almost Blue, assorted Peel sessions, Letterman appearances, and live tracks.

Aim to Please presents Elvis as a pub-rocker infatuated with Van Morrison, his voice and even his lyrics containing little of the vitriol and sneer that would appear on My Aim is True; "Radio Soul" is almost affectionate compared to the song it would become, "Radio Radio," and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" builds a bridge to Dylan that Elvis would surely deny these days. Similarly, the relaxed and dashed-off Nashville and More gives E.C. more country credibility than its slicker counterpart ever did.

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