Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Bootleg

Bootlegs have always occupied a unique niche in the music world. Fans craved them. Record companies despised them. Their late-sixties, underground origins appealed to fans of a music which was far outside the mainstream.

We hear rock music everywhere nowadays. But you didn’t stand a chance of hearing Cat Stevens, much less Cream, when you turned on a TV, stepped in an elevator or went to the supermarket in 1970.

And what better way to show your contempt for The Man than to buy a record that completely bypassed established business channels?

Many bootlegs became legendary. Liver Than You’ll Ever Be, an audience recording of a 1969 Rolling Stones show in Oakland, was one. The Great White Wonder, a collection of studio recordings made by Bob Dylan after his supposed motorcycle crash in 1966 was another.

It's possible Liver Than You'll Ever Be provoked the officially-released Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! in an attempt to re-direct the revenue going to Liver back into record company (and band) pockets. Conveniently, it just happened to be a pretty good live album as well.

The Great White Wonder brought a wealth of unpublished Dylan songs to the public at a time when his profile was low, and probably did more to keep his name in front of his audience than either Dylan or his record company would care to admit. 

Ironically, bootlegs became so popular record companies attempted to capitalize on the buzz, as was the case with Nils Lofgren’s live album. And record labels for Tom Petty and John Hiatt even issued promotional live albums which mimicked bootleg's cover art.

Aerosmith went them one better and named their 1978 live LP Live! Bootleg, complete with inaccurate track listing. Someone was paying attention.

And while bootlegs didn’t technically represent copyright violations, record companies viewed them as an infringement—at least when they weren’t inspiring marketing ploys.

In record company eyes, fans wanting to purchase the version of “Stairway to Heaven” they heard on the radio would confuse Live on Blueberry Hill for Led Zeppelin IV, and being disappointed at the quality of the recording, would never buy another Led Zeppelin album again.

Of course, the reality was quite different. Fans (which we need to remember is short for fanatic) who purchased Live on Blueberry Hill already owned Led Zeppelin IV.

What record companies hadn’t yet realized was that consumers of bootlegs were insatiable. They possessed every Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones album and wanted more.

Musicians were more ambivalent. They recognized the offhand tribute bootlegs represented. On a 1978 tour stop in Los Angeles, Bruce Springsteen even began a concert broadcast with the greeting “Bootleggers! Roll your tapes!”

Being bootlegged had become a status symbol. People weren’t risking arrest to capture an Olivia Newton-John show on tape. It was Neil Young. The Who. And Pink Floyd. Big-time heavyweights who inspired intense passion in their fans.

But bootlegging wasn’t anything new. As far back as the late-nineteen-forties, jazz fans were covertly recording Charlie Parker gigs, and in perhaps the ultimate tribute ever accorded a musician, transferred only his solos to 78s and LPs.

But the profit motive always muddied the water. Fans were gouged by unscrupulous folk who didn’t always deliver on their promise. I’ll never forget the bootleg cassette I bought which presumably contained a concert of a favorite band of mine.

After discovering it contained only three poorly-recorded songs and part of a fourth, I was miffed. But what was I going to do? Call the Better Business Bureau? The Attorney General? The police?

This is where the computer comes in. If digital technology hasn’t completely legitimized the bootleg, it’s at least taken them from shadowy gas station parking lots to the bright light of the Internet.

Fans can upload a show and share it with other fans free of charge. No dodgy-type dudes selling stuff out of their trunks, or having to be privy to which stores are selling. It’s by fans for fans—which is how it should have been from the beginning. A complete delete of the profit component.

And bootlegs sound so much better, too. Concert recording has evolved from holding a hand-held mic connected to a portable cassette tape recorder to digital devices which intercept IEM signals.

Many bands actually accommodate tapers, correctly figuring it’s another avenue to get the word out. My Morning Jacket, the Drive-By Truckers and Gomez are just a few of the bands following in the Grateful Dead’s footsteps.

Concerts are special events; they place you at the point of creation, not unlike the big bang that created the universe. Hearing a special band on a hot night without the filter of commerce is a thrilling and wonderful thing.

Bootlegs are honest and genuine in a way a commercial release could never be. You’d be shocked at the amount of studio sweetening (called overdubbing) that goes into a typical live album.

Just as acidic vineyard soil produces the sweetest grape, a bootleg’s less-than-pristine sound quality can actually deepen the listening experience. You have to listen “harder”. You have to meet a bootleg halfway.

It's a medium that prizes performance, not production. All of this can make for a demanding, but rewarding, listen.

Ascoltare felice!

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