Sunday, March 7, 2010

Of Bootlegs and Blogging

I'm lucky to have lived through the birth and early growth of Rock Music's bootleg records--1967 to 1980, approximately--back when the Mafia hadn't yet muscled in to press counterfeit copies of real albums, and the artists themselves were often amazed and flattered and happy to cooperate somewhat in the release of such collectable stuff.

Back then, it was understood that any bootleg collector was also a big fan who'd buy anything the artist recorded, whether released as an industry product or a private label swipe. The records were pressed in limited numbers and sold openly in certain alternative-style, hippie-driven stores, and there weren't that many releases at first.

If we ignore the Forties/Fifties tradition of beyond-legal (re)issues of unavailable Early Jazz discs (at first still as 78s, then later gathered on 12" LPs), the first Rock era bootleg was a two-record set issued in 1969 in a plain white jacket completely devoid of text, with blank white labels as well. The set was loosely identified as Great White Wonder, and playing it revealed four sides of previously unissued tracks and unknown songs by Bob Dylan: a variety of studio outtakes, hotel room tapes, live-in-club performances, and demos of tunes offered to other artists, two dozen numbers ranging from "Dink's Song" and "Ramblin' Around" to "Tears of Rage" and "The Mighty Quinn." The tracks weren't uniformly excellent, and sound quality varied widely, but to have them issued at all was both feat and treat, offering splendid fare for collectors and Dylan fans.

I guess the set must have sold well because soon other (and better) Dylan albums appeared, and then other artists showed up too--the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin--and in no time the levees were breached and the floodgates broken wide: live concert tapes and obscurities galore by the Who, Neil Young, David Bowie, the Dead, and other Sixties faves, followed soon by a whole new branch devoted to Bruce Springsteen alone, and then Jackson Browne, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, the new Fleetwood Mac, the Clash and the Sex Pistols, on and on.

There were a couple of excellent underground companies like "Trademark of Quality" (with its pig symbol and jacket covers featuring artwork by brilliant comics artist William Stout); but there were also crappy fly-by-nighters who just bootlegged, poorly, other labels' boots, and--still later--legitimate above-ground industry careers for one or two of the ever-anonymous master 'leggers!

Several major artists actually climbed on board, allowing high-quality tapes to slip out to the "fans," and a few even issued their own official boots. (Decades later came the legal Dylan series that continues today on CDs.) Bootleg album packaging kept getting fancier and fancier, until a buyer could easily be fooled into thinking s/he was purchasing a legitimate release.

But, really, what had begun as a service to fans, and a relatively harmless promotion for the performers, somehow had grown immense and become a giant sub rosa industry involving a few thousand different albums and hundreds of thousands of dollars--worrisome revenue totals not going to the bypassed record labels and original artists. Investigations were launched, warehouses and pressing plants raided, serious fines and jail terms slapped on anyone caught selling any sort of bootleg. (Elvis Presley, meaning Colonel Parker, and RCA were especially virulent and aggressive; one bigtime bootlegger, based in Florida as I recall, got 20 years.)

The fun went out of the game. Too much grief awaiting buyers and sellers. Too much shoddy product. Too many choices with no open discussion possible to help determine which discs were worth owning.

Like many others I stopped buying... until CDs came along and revived the whole thing all over again, resulting in new high-quality discs, more serious collector material unearthed, and many stores again selling them almost openly--for example, major stuff appeared from the always-indefatigable Dylan, including a five- or six-CD set offering the complete Basement Tapes of Bob and the Band, which shamed Columbia's mid-Seventies two-record sampling... I've succumbed to a few of these new-era issues, but I'm cautious.

Who wants the hassle? Let the younger fans track down boots of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Throbbing Gristle and REM or whoever. The collector fun's pretty much gone for me. I guess I'll just stick with the now-historical gems I was able to accumulate 40 years ago--samples of which are illustrating this very pictorial post.

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