Rock history is littered with ‘lost’ albums, and in the next few weeks two more buried treasures will be unearthed: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and an aborted studio album from The Velvet Underground.
Dylan’s Basement Tapes, recorded with future members of The Band in Woodstock, NY, in 1967, first surfaced in 1975 in truncated form, and collectors have been clamouring to hear the unabridged version of the sessions ever since. They’ll get their wish with the arrival of The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol 11 on 4 Nov.
Whereas The Basement Tapes were never earmarked for official release as they were being recorded – they were more a way for Dylan to stockpile songs while having a little low-key fun with his friends after a motorcycle accident side-lined him - the Velvets’ fourth album was buried amid the band’s deteriorating relationship with its record label at the time. After releasing its self-titled third studio album in 1969, the Velvets went to work on a batch of songs that finally surfaced haphazardly through the years, notably on the final Velvets album, Loaded, and two 1980s archival collections, as well as Lou Reed solo releases. Those ’69 sessions finally will show up in one place as part of The Velvet Underground: 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition on 24 Nov.
Add both of those archival releases to the pile of musical holy grails resurrected in recent decades. These include the Beach Boys’ aborted Smile from the ‘60s; Big Star’s Sister Lovers, which was abandoned by the Memphis group in the ‘70s; and Prince’s The Black Album, originally planned as the much-anticipated follow-up to the singer’s Sign O’ the Times in 1987, but shelved when Prince changed his mind at the last minute.
Even as more prodigal albums turn up each year, every music fan undoubtedly has a long list of those that still haven’t. The one common question all of them have: What’s the hold-up? The answers can be elusive. Often record companies get the blame for quashing albums before they get to the public, but sometimes it’s the artist’s decision. Dylan, by all accounts, was in no hurry to get The Basement Tapes out the front door, and it was only after bootleggers began circulating illicit copies of the recordings that he gave the go-ahead.
The back story behind Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine is even more blurry. The album was originally produced by her friend and long-time collaborator Jon Brion, only to languish in limbo for a couple of years before it leaked on the internet. Apple got so frustrated with the process that she told her manager she was quitting the music business. But fans petitioned her label to release it, and Apple eventually re-recorded the songs with a new set of producers. The second version was finally released in 2005. Though the songs are the same, the production is markedly different, Brion’s lusher and more orchestrated approach replaced by the leaner tracks. Which is better? Apple cast her lot with the later one, but many fans still prefer the first, which still hasn’t been officially released but deserves to be heard.
Dave Matthews’ dusky, intimate Lillywhite Sessions, with producer Steve Lillywhite, were scrapped in favour of Everyday, a more pop-orientated release in 2002 helmed by Glen Ballard. Matthews got cold feet about the Lillywhite album when a record-label executive told him he was “not feeling this record as a fan,” which sounds like record-company double-talk for “I don’t hear any hits”. Whatever the explanation, Matthews and his label shelved an album that doesn’t sound quite like anything else in his discography, and by many fans’ estimation ranks with his best work.
Few artists have struggled more mightily with getting finished albums out in the last 15 years than Q-Tip, the voice of ground-breaking hip-hop crew A Tribe Called Quest. Q-Tip’s Kamaal/The Abstract, which broke from straight-up rapping to include sung vocals, languished for seven years before it was finally released in 2009. The even more adventurous Open, completed in 2004 with contributions from D’Angelo and André 3000, is still on the shelf.
Neil Young has had his share of run-ins with record companies, but it was Young himself who put the kibosh on the Homegrown album in the mid ‘70s. The singer played the album at a listening party for some friends alongside another newly recorded album, Tonight’s the Night, and canned Homegrown because it was too much of a downer. That’s saying something, given that Tonight’s the Night is among the darkest albums he ever released. But Homegrown is dark, too, albeit in a more low-key, reflective gear, as many of its songs deal with his collapsing relationship with then-wife Carrie Snodgress. Young has kept the album under wraps to this day.
Like Young, Prince is equally prolific at recording and then tabling albums. Besides the notorious Black Album from the mid ‘80s, he put together another collection under the pseudonym Camille, in honour of the higher-pitched voice he adopted for the tracks. That music then became part of a more wide-ranging three-album set, Crystal Ball, which was peeled back to the two-album Sign O’ the Times at the behest of his Warner Brothers record label. Crystal Ball resurfaced in drastically different form in the ‘90s after Prince parted ways with Warner, and Camille has still never been officially released.
Perhaps the most notorious album of the last 10 years has been the unofficial home recording that put Danger Mouse on the map, The Grey Album, which blended the music of The Beatles’ self-titled ‘White Album’ (1968) with Jay-Z’s Black Album (2003). Danger Mouse made a few copies for friends, which flourished online and made their way into record stores as unauthorised bootlegs. Though both Paul McCartney and Jay-Z endorsed the project, widely hailed as one of the era’s most fully realised mash-ups, The Beatles’ EMI label sent cease and desist letters to Danger Mouse, stores and web sites. This only increased demand for the album. More than 150 web sites staged "a day of coordinated civil disobedience" and offered the album for download, moving more than 1 million digital tracks in a day.
The Grey Album, like many ‘unreleased’ albums, lingers on the internet in a legal grey zone. There’s little doubt that their outlaw status revs up fans’ desire to hear them. Going all the way back to the original Basement Tapes, part of the allure was that it needed to be hunted down. Which may explain why the artists who created these collectibles aren’t necessarily in a hurry to make them officially available.
Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.
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