Rock Music Bootlegs

b_torontoMy first experience with a bootleg album was when I copied my sister’s boyfriend’s Dylan bootleg “Great White Wonder” to cassette. This was the recording that started the whole rock bootleg industry. Before this time bootlegs were known to jazz aficionados and, believe it or not, classical music lovers, but not your average rock or folk listener.

To get the sense of how monumental this album was you have to remember how hungry Dylan fans were for new material at the time. Bob had not been seen publicly since his motorcycle accident in 1966. His 1968 release John Wesley Harding was interesting but, at the time, was not seen as being on par with his previous output. And then, he comes out with the (then) critically panned Nashville Skyline. Imagine how it felt to suddenly have a double album of unreleased Dylan mostly from the period between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding.

A similar situation obtained when I purchased my first bootleg in early 1970. I had read in the rock press the year before that the Beatles were recording an LP to be titled Get Back which would return them to their roots. It was recorded in the raw, immediate style of their early albums, without overdubs (actually, some of the early Beatles albums had overdubs, edits and other studio magic, as did all pop music of the time). At the time, the rock and roll revival movement was taking hold. Critics then believed that the rock music of the 1950’s was more authentic than the professionally produced fare of the day. The Stones had just delivered Let it Bleed (the title itself a parody of a Beatles song we hadn’t heard yet) and they were, indeed, getting raw and rootsy. So, we were all waiting for this return to the roots from the Beatles.

I walked into to Scott’s Drug Store, which had only recently started to sell records, and I noticed a very strange album. The cover was a black and white photo of the Peace Bridge, tinted blue, with a large peace sign and the words “Get Back to Toronto“. It purported to be by the Beatles and had song titles I was unfamiliar with – so, I just had to buy it. I wasn’t even sure if it was real or a rip-off but since albums were pretty cheap back then I took a chance.

This was essentially a good part of the Glyn Johns mix of Let It Be with an odd bit of John and Yoko and a Beatles fan club Christmas message. It also contains an early version of McCartney’s Teddy Boy and a short cover of Jimmy McCracklin’s The Walk. Most fans would wait until May to buy the official release of Let It Be, and what a let-down it was. I took a pass on it. I had already heard the best version, without Phil Spector’s wall of mush (although, I must say, he redeemed himself with his production of Instant Karma and Lennon’s first two albums, as well as his wall of sound reprise with Harrison’s All Things Must Pass).

I next heard Zeppelin’s first bootleg, Live on Blueberry Hill, at a late night party at a friend’s house. While it was fun to hear Robert Plant channeling his inner Elvis on old rock and roll standards, the album had muddy, boomy sound, like it had been recorded on the moon. It was clearly not up to the standards of Great White Wonder or the Get Back sessions.

Yet, despite a few Low-Fi examples, bootlegs were now challenging the product quality of the record companies. The Stones official live release Get Your Ya Ya’s Out was negatively compared in the press to the bootleg Liv’r Than You’ll Ever Be. And official releases were now teasingly imitating the boots. Take a look at The Who Live At Leeds; The packaging is made to look like a manila sleeve with an ink stamp, just like the bootlegs of the time. Nevertheless, official releases of once bootlegged material, such as Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, still left something to be desired, for example, by mixing stereo recordings into mono for effect and including unrelated material by The Band. Only Frank Zappa’s “Beat the Boots” series provided the real thing to fans.

According to Clinton Heylin’s book Bootleg, reaction among the bootlegged artists to this trend was mixed: Dylan was somewhat paranoid (understandably so, since he had people actually going through his garbage looking for insight into his songs), Lennon collected his own bootlegs, while McCartney fought against unauthorized copying, and Pete Townshend thought they provided good publicity.

However, the most pro bootleg band ever was The Grateful Dead. They not only didn’t object to the practice, they encouraged it. They taped all of their shows and audience tapes of Dead concerts date back to 1966. Eventually, they provided tapers with a special section of seats at concerts. The rock magazine Relix (originally Dead Relix) began in 1974 as a forum for Dead Head tapers and tape traders. It was like an early version of Internet file sharing. When file sharing actually began, the Dead gave their blessing to it. They later clarified their position to sanctioning trading of audience tapes but not official or soundboard recordings.

What was your experience with rock bootlegs? Do you have any favorites?

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