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Complete Collector: Celebrate the birth of the bootleg

Although it hasn’t been trumpeted elsewhere in the media, we are fast approaching the 40th anniversary of the birth of the rock bootleg.

Although it hasn’t been trumpeted elsewhere in the media, we are fast approaching the 40th anniversary of the birth of the rock bootleg, and the day a couple of Los Angeles-based Dylan fans found themselves feeling inspired, on the one hand, by the rash of unreleased Zimmersongs being covered by sundry British bands (“This Wheel’s On Fire”; “Mighty Quinn”); on the other, by tapes of a 14-song acetate of publishers’ demos which were then in circulation.

Combining seven of these songs with a mishmash of other unreleased Dylan material, finding a No Questions Asked pressing plant willing to produce 2,000 copies of the ensuing double album, slipping the two discs into a plain white sleeve — it all seemed so easy.

Dylan’s own, official, new album, Nashville Skyline, had just been released to poor sales and poorer reviews, but among Dylan’s most fanatical acolytes, that didn’t matter. The Great White Wonder made up for the disappointment.

“Official” response to this first bootleg was muted. Certainly the illegalities of the matter didn’t enter into it (and besides, at that time, nobody was sure precisely what they were).

From every conceivable angle, The Great White Wonder represented an hitherto unprecedented opportunity for fans to hear music which neither artist nor record company had seen fit to release, a notion that inspired effusive reviews from Rolling Stone to the Wall Street Journal, and sent some publications even deeper into rapture.

Entertainment World went so far as to prophesy a day when the record’s success might inspire real labels “to look to their vaults, so that significant material such as this will be more readily and legally available to the consumer.” And they were correct. With The Great White Wonder picking up as much radio airplay as the bulk of Nashville Skyline had mustered, Dylan’s label, Columbia, prepared Self Portrait, a collection of off cuts drawn likewise from a variety of live and abandoned studio sources and, presumably, evidencing Dylan’s own idea of what a bootleg should be.

By 1970, both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles had joined Dylan in the ranks of the bootlegged few, but if any single event confirmed the ascendancy of the newborn boom, it was the release of John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band’s official Live Peace In Toronto album.

Documenting the group’s concert debut, at the Toronto Peace Festival in September 1969, Apple Records issued the album solely to suppress a bootleg of the same event, which hit the shelves within weeks of the show. The official release’s utilitarian sleeve, an Yves Klein painting of clouds against a blue sky, testifies to the speed with which the record was conceived (it was in the stores less than three months after the concert); the record’s very existence, however, indicates the potential power of bootlegs.

Before then, bootlegs struck most people as ephemeral oddities, eccentric adjuncts to the main attraction, bearing music that had no chance — and maybe no business — appearing on a mainstream release. Live Peace In Toronto proved otherwise, and its headlong rush into the Top 10 only confirmed that. Bootlegs were NOT big business; most existed in quantities of a couple of thousand at the most. But, if their contents could be harnessed to official releases, the sky was the limit.