By Dave Thompson
Take a poll of any sizeable grouping of “serious” music fans, and few issues raise so many emotions as bootlegging, the art of acquiring unreleased live and/or studio material by whatever band takes your fancy, and making it available to a fanatical underground of collectors, fans and anal retentives.
Legally, morally and ethically, the subject is unquestionably the most inflammatory issue in the hobby, with even supporters of bootlegging divided over where the advantages end and the problems begin. No less an authority than the New York Times once described bootleggers as “cultural heroes,” for liberating music that, under normal circumstances, might never have been heard. Today, it is more likely to report on them being sent to prison for the unpardonable crime of copyright infringement.
The fact is, however, that bootlegs exist, and they are collected. Whether the individual cares to indulge in this forbidden fruit is entirely his own decision.
The popular history of bootlegs dates back to the mid-1950s and the advent of the first generally available reel-to-reel tape recorders. Live recordings of blues, jazz and opera performances were the staples of the field, with both tapes and limited-edition vinyl pressings circulating in an underground that was small, but astonishingly fertile.
Even before that, however, privileged enthusiasts were able to make recordings of live events. As far back as 1901, a Mr. Mapleson, the librarian at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was using a cylinder recorder provided by inventor Thomas Edison to capture snatches of performances on the Opera stage. None were more than a few minutes in length, but still they offer a unique documentary of their subjects, one that a regular record company would never have deemed worthy of preserving. It is this historical record keeping which, in many collectors’ eyes, justifies the very existence of bootlegs.
Bootlegging entered rock and pop music in 1969, with the release of Bob Dylan’s “Great White Wonder.” A 2-LP set, it compiled of hitherto unreleased material from three basic sources — a tape of home recordings that Dylan made in Minneapolis in 1961; a smattering of studio outtakes that had themselves leaked into the collector’s market over the years; and an acetate circulated during 1967 by Dylan’s music publishers, soliciting cover versions of material that Dylan himself had apparently abandoned. (Hit versions of “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “The Mighty Quinn” and so on were developed from this tape).
Popularly known as “The Basement Tapes” (because they were recorded in one), these recordings frequently were aired on the radio and were inevitably recorded by fans and collectors. Less inevitably — simply because, to reiterate the fact, it had never happened before — somebody pressed these recordings on vinyl and marketed it.
Response was immediate. Private tape (primarily reel-to-reel) collectors had long existed in rock circles, trading among themselves as new material somehow slipped out of record company vaults or concert halls, but rarely making waves beyond their own immediate circle. The “Great White Wonder,” on the other hand, seemed miraculously available to anybody who wanted it. Reviews and features discussing the album appeared as far afield as Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal; radio aired its contents with impunity. The legality of the issue was of no apparent concern — it was the music that mattered.
By the standards of many subsequent bootlegs, “Great White Wonder” was a primitive offering. The discs bore blank labels, the sleeve itself was a plain white gatefold with the title GWW hand stamped on it. No more than 2,000 copies of this original issue made it out; within weeks, however, other enterprising entrepreneurs had stepped in to duplicate it —bootlegging a bootleg — and, though Dylan’s record label, Columbia, moved swiftly to injunct whichever manufacturers they could locate, the genie was out of the bottle.
A second Dylan bootleg, “Flower” (so named for the hand-drawn picture on each sleeve) brought further Basement Tapes into circulation; a third, “Troubled Troubadour,” unveiled even more. It would be as late as 1971 before the entire original Basement Tapes acetate was compiled onto one disc, “Waters Of Oblivion.” In the meantime, however, the songs just kept trickling out.
Radio, meanwhile, had moved onto another exclusive clutch of songs. In 1969, while The Beatles argued with themselves regarding the final form of their next (and final) LP, “Let It Be,” test pressing copies of its provisional contents were made by producer George Martin for circulation around sundry interested parties. At least one of these somehow made its way onto American radio, where it was played in its entirety — and appeared on the streets just weeks later as the bootleg “Get Back and 12 other Songs.”
Produced and sequenced by George Martin in the period before Phil Spector was invited into sprinkle his magic over the proceedings, “Get Back And 12 Other Songs” would subsequently become one of the highest selling bootlegs of all time and is certainly one of the best known. Neither did the arrival of the “real” next Beatles album a few months after “Get Back” damage its standing in the slightest. Indeed, if anything, the substantially remixed and re-jigged “Let It Be” only increased demand for the original, un-beautified, recordings.
By the end of 1969, bootlegs were firmly established as a serious irritant to the music industry. Utilizing both conventional pressing plants (who either didn’t know or care what they were producing), or reconfiguring discarded 78 RPM presses and doing it themselves (producing easily identifiable discs, up to twice the thickness of a regular LP), bootleggers were moving into action across the country.
In late 1969, John Lennon was moved to rush-release a live recording of the first-ever Plastic Ono Band concert, at the Toronto Peace Festival, to quash a bootleg of the same performance. In the new year, both The Rolling Stones (“Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out”) and The Who (“Live at Leeds”) acted against bootlegs of their own recent tours. Both groups hoped that fans who might otherwise have purchased the bootleg would instead buy the “real thing” — in fact, they probably purchased both. But neither would deny the bootleggers’ impact. The Stones sold a million albums, and The Who went double platinum with recordings they might never have released without bootlegs to force their hand.
There was a certain pride in being bootlegged, too, admittance into what was — at least in the early days — an exclusive club of superstars whose appeal and audience extended beyond even the most generous record company’s boundaries. Bootlegs themselves became legends. When Columbia, in 1974, chose to give an official release to Dylan’s “Basement Tapes,” what better title for the ensuing double album than that which the bootleggers had long since passed into common circulation? And, 25 years later, another fabled Dylan bootleg was not only released under its most commonly employed title, it appeared thus, despite the fact that the bootleg title was wrong!
The tape that comprised Dylan’s “Live 1965” album had been circulating on bootleg since the early 1970s, and immortalized a concert taped in Manchester, England. The original bootleg, however, relocated the show to London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the error proved so adhesive that, not only did every subsequent bootleg perpetuate it, but Sony, too, felt obliged to subtitle the official release The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert — not to mislead purchasers, but to assure them that they were indeed receiving the same performance they knew and loved from years of bootleg listening. A stronger endorsement of bootlegs and the role they serve in the musical community could scarcely be imagined.
With these examples in mind, it can be argued that, in many ways, bootlegs strong-armed artists and labels into releasing material they might otherwise never have deemed fit for public consumption. Along with the undeniable infringements of copyright and flouting of artistic freedom, this is the most frequently voiced of all cases against bootlegs. However, frequently overlooked in the scramble for ethical sanctuary is the fact that bootlegging is not a one-way street. Bootleggers profit from bands, but bands profit from bootlegs, and in more important ways than mere financial concerns.
Bootlegs — or, at least, that community of illicit tapers and hoarders who might be described as bootleggers — have unquestionably provided the modern, collector-oriented music industry with any number of now much-valued recordings, each one effortlessly puncturing the popular record company insistence that bootlegs are low-fidelity, poor-quality cast-offs and throwaways that rip off even the most aurally insensitive consumer.
Jon Astley and Chris Charlesworth, compilers of MCA’s universally applauded series of Who remasters (The Who’s remastered “Live At Leeds,” fittingly, was the first in the series), turned on several occasions to the bootleg industry in search of certain rarities, having completely exhausted both official archives and the band members’ own collections, and they are not alone. Almost any artist who has gifted fans with any kind of far-reaching archive project has, at some point, turned to the bootlegs for the rarest bits.
Yes, bootleggers do make an unauthorized profit from selling other people’s work. But the trade-off is, if they had not recorded that work in the first place (this applies principally to live and occasional on-air performances), or arranged for it to be illicitly borrowed from a record label or radio station vault, it might no longer even exist today.
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