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Book Review: A Pig's Tale: The Underground Story of the Legendary Bootleg Record Label

by Dave Thompson
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A Pig's Tale: The Underground Story of the Legendary Bootleg Record Label

By Ralph Sutherland and Harold Sherrick

(Genius Books)

Amid all the anniversaries that rock’n’roll has celebrated over the last few years, there’s one that didn’t so much slip beneath the radar, as get completely ignored by the technical crew.

Such laxness is surprising. Fifty years should be a milestone no matter what it’s celebrating, and when the birthday babe is something that changed the face of rock’n’roll consumption for ever, then all the more reason to hang out the bunting.

But what if the arbiters of rock’n’roll consumption didn’t want it to be changed? What if the whole thing still lurks in the cupboard as something of an embarrassment? What if it’s bootlegs that are demanding your hurrahs?

All together now… Aaaaaaarrrrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhhhhh!

The story starts in 1969; in July of that year, in fact, on the morning that Dylan fans in the Los Angeles area awoke to discover a most peculiar thing - a new album by their hero, but one that was a million miles removed from the country-esque stylings that Bob had recently been indulging in.

No, this was the old Dylan - the struggling Dylan of pre-first album Minneapolis, the breaking Dylan of protest-era radio, the recuperating Dylan of post-motorbike accident Woodstock and, to bring it up to date, the duetting Dylan on the Johnny Cash Show. Nothing that hadn’t circulated on tape between collectors, of course, but this was different. It was vinyl (four sides of it), it was readily available from stores and mail order, and it was destined to drive Dylan’s record company crazy. It was called The Great White Wonder, and it birthed the bootleg business in rocking, rolling America,

Bootlegs had been around for years, of course - jazz collectors reading about this new LP probably yawned and complained that, once again, the rockers were just copying what the jazzers had been doing forever. Which was true. But different markets have different demands, and different expectations, too.

Within a couple of years, there were bootlegs for almost every major rock band you could mention, and a lot of lesser lights as well. Bands were releasing live albums and openly admitting that they were trying to beat the boot-ers. Major labels were using bootleg terminology to try and promote new artists - the Who’s Live at Leeds was sleeved in what amounted to a facsimile of a hundred other boots; Nils Lofgren, Graham Parker and Tom Petty were all given early career boosts by so-called “official bootlegs”; and, today, whenever a box set pops up with a host of “unreleased” live material on board, you can bet that a lot of it was originally taped by a bootlegger. In fact, just this month, Neil Young became the latest artist to literally bootleg the bootleggers, with the launch of his own “official bootleg series.”

Blame The Great White Wonder for all of it.

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There have been bootleg books before, ranging from the magisterial Hot Wacks series of catalogs, through to Clinton Heylin’s industry-spanning Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry. A Pig’s Tale is nothing like either of those.

For a start, it treats of one label alone, the Trademark of Quality outfit that was responsible for the Wonder in the first place, tracing it through its half-decade lifespan with forensic detail and anecdote-packed aplomb.

Secondly, this is no dense forest of words and wisdom. Although there’s plenty to read, and much to digest, the majority of its 336 pages are given over to full color photographs of the albums, the vinyl (TMQ loved colored wax), the original tapes from which the LPs were cut, magazine articles, ephemera… basically, it’s the kind of lavishly presented, lovingly designed, illustrated guide that every record label ought to have, but which precious few have ever delivered. In other words, once again, the bootleg world is showing the big boys how things should be done.

As a reading experience, it’s an exciting tale, full-on police and thieves, mobs and moles, the Keystone Kops meet the Rolling Stones fan club. True, there is a degree of repetition - if you’ve ever watched those cable documentaries where every advert break is followed by a quick reminder of what you’ve already been told, you’ll have some idea of what to expect. Though it’s tiresome, however, it’s not a deal breaker because the tale that its telling is drop-dead breakneck and, besides, some facts are so precious that they deserve re-stating.

Again, however, the reading is only part of what this book is about. If you love bootleg art, then this is the gallery you never thought you’d see. If you have a collection and you need facts and figures, there are detailed breakdowns of every TMQ album, and if you go to the publisher’s website, you can download those same pages to slip in with the records. And, while there’s been some online discussion about its price (the retail price is $75), the print and paper quality serve up bountiful bang for your buck.

Plus, it’s not a book for everyone. This is specialist arcana for the specialist archivist - meaning, it’s a must have for anyone who ever has cared about bootlegs, and how they came to be (there are some terrific tales from the trenches here), while everyone else will just pass it by, because why should they even care?

A lot like the bootlegs themselves, in fact. See you on the other side of Stealin’.