Friday, January 6, 2012

Where have all the Bootlegs gone?

News of the surfacing of an early recording of the Stones’ ‘As Tears Go By’ secreteed from London’s Regent Sound Studio, evokes nostalgia for the old-fashioned vinyl or cassette bootleg where such illicit material often surfaced in the past. ‘Bootlegs’, by way of explanation for the younger rock fan, were unofficial releases; concert recordings or demos that, like this new Stones gem, somehow escaped the studio, were pirated, and found their way into twilight distribution channels where a lucky soul might chance upon them before the police did.

‘Lucky’ is a term to be used loosely here. In truth, the recording quality of a bootleg was often rubbish; most were taken from hand-held cassettes smuggled in past security. But some came off the mixing desk, or the artists own personal tape machines, and these became legendary and much sought-after. Certain acts were more prone to the bootlegger than others; usually those whose official output was a trifle sporadic, or whose canon failed to include ‘live’ performances when the band had a reputation for playing great live shows. The holy grails were those ‘legendary’ gigs or super-jams that were rumoured to have taken place with a tape machine left running - like the early Hendrix jams in London basement clubs with the likes of Traffic, Eric Burdon and Alexis Korner.

I remember the thrill of first discovering ‘Led Zep at the Royal Albert Hall 1970’ and ‘Hendrix at the Winterland Ballroom’. A particular prize in my collection is an anonymously-packaged, orange vinyl of Rod Stewart and the Faces. There were no liner notes, not even a track listing, so where and when this gem was recorded remains a mystery. A couple of other prized items include a range of tapes taken from the mixing desk at London’s ‘Half Moon’ pub venue. Discretion (and the fear of retribution!) prohibits a fuller explanation but suffice it say that I treasure performances from the likes of Guy Clarke and John Stewart. A similar mixing desk-sourced performance is of Julian Cope in Leicester.

Naturally, some artists fought back. The Grateful Dead allowed everyone to take in their recorders with the result that you’d see a forest of raised arms or cassettes atop of posts stretching before you. Frank Zappa took another route to ‘beat the boots’ and simply issued a zillion live albums. The quality was always excellent as you’d expect from the great man. And Dylan of course did the same by releasing the famed ‘Basement Tapes’.

It’s all too easy now. A quick trawl through the internet and you can download almost anything, and free. Pearls are truly being cast before the swine.

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