Bootlegging (2)

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A few more thoughts on Clinton Heylin’s book Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry, of which I’ve now finished two-thirds.

Dylan, obviously, has lost his centrality to this particular narrative. Probably the most interesting chapter, in many ways, is the one about early punk and new wave, particularly focusing on The Sex Pistols live recordings and EMI sessions (released as Spunk) and The Buzzcocks. Heylin’s argument that bootlegs were the best advertising for a music scene that only the hippest of the hip initially cottoned on to (recall, only about 70 people saw the Sex Pistol’s first show in Manchester, and about half of them immediately started their own bands) is quite compelling. The bootlegs recorded versions of bands that were no longer extant (like the Devoto/Shelley version of The Buzzcocks) became important documents of a music scene that imploded quickly upon itself.

Much of Heylin’s book revolves around recording technologies – pressing vinyl, then home-taping and tape-trading brought about by the cassette tape and Sony Walkman, then DAT, and then the CD. The effects of home-taping on the bootleg industry (“Home taping is killing the piracy industry”…) are interesting, particularly given my own age and the point where I entered the scene, which was at the tail end of vinyl bootlegging. The chapter about the crusade against DAT is now a familiar song, and it will be replayed against recordable CD-Rs and the copying of MP3s.

Heylin sheds considerable insight into two of the major Dylan bootlegs. The first of these is Zimmerman: Ten of Swords, the mega-bootleg that I bought as a teenager. First of all, Heylin is very dismissive of its quality, which I found surprising since I thought it was great. More importantly, he goes into a great deal of detail about the problems that this caused with Columbia in 1985 when the box set was released at the same time as Biograph, only it contained a far greater amount of unreleased material. Cameron Crowe, not yet filmmaker Cameron Crowe, wrote the liner notes for Biograph but also praised Ten of Swords, and Rolling Stone ran a rave review of it, which caused Columbia to pull their ads from that magazine in a fit of pique.

Apparently, Columbia went after the bootlegger to make an example of him, but because the discs had been printed in multiple locations (to save time), no record pressing shop knew that they had done the “ten album set” that the FBI was asking about. Heylin notes that had the FBI put any thought into it, they could have tracked down the producer by going after the printer of the boxes. But that didn’t happen.

Ten of Swords also had an unexpected knock-on Dylan bootleg effect. A man wishing to order a copy for himself happened into a northwest store that was ordering them, and as thanks for acquiring it, provided the store with tapes from 1967 at Big Pink. The man was, apparently, a roadie from Dylan’s 1974 tour and had these things sitting in a box. These reels were The Basment Tapes material that wasn’t released on Great White Wonder. This is a substantial amount of material – dozens and dozens of songs, mostly traditional, that Dylan and The Band were dredging out of their collective unconscious. These were provided to the producers of Ten of Swords, but were not a big hit in the way that the material from Great White Wonder (and the official Columbia version of The Basement Tapes) were, nor as big as Ten of Swords.

Heylin sounds surprised at this, but I can tell you I’ve been listening to this material for about five days and it is grating on me. So much of it is just not good. The version I have is A Tree With Roots: The Genuine Basement Tapes. I’m still building up to talking about this one, as it is a key piece of Dylanology, but I have to say that I’m looking for the way into it all. In comparison to Ten of Swords and the other early 1960s recordings, it just doesn’t grab me. I’m hoping that Greil Marcus will be able to sell me, but that’s for another day.

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