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Cover Story: Lost Albums

| February 1, 2006 | 4 Comments

Release Me

The releases of Brian Wilson’s Smile and one head of Fiona Apple’s bi-cephaloid Extraordinary Machine spotlighted artistic endeavors that had, until then, been considered lost. Both were hailed as masterpieces — Wilson’s for 37 years — before their formal introductions, only two items in a whole world of aborted projects. What’s interesting is how the acquiescence by both creators and distributors seems to validate and intensify the public’s desire for such abandoned works, perpetuating a market that has existed at least since the post-Big Band jazz age.

Historians will likely point to the 29 sides blues legend Robert Johnson cut before his death in 1933 as the source of our infatuation with the unreleased, as blatant evidence there is of the “what you can’t have, you want” truism. For the most part, box sets have sated this seemingly primitive need to collect, and where they’ve failed we’ve found import singles, bootleg concerts, and, in the case of select sessions, entire aborted albums appearing posthumously — e.g. Jimi Hendrix, Tupac Shakur, Elliott Smith.

Material that was never sanctioned for commercial release proliferated annually, and such things continue to pile up. Why? If the industry were as bottom-line driven as the public agrees, shouldn’t any and everything committed to tape land on the wire contraptions that are the shelves at your local Best Buy? Once Hendrix’s official output was succeeded by his posthumous recordings, shouldn’t some edict have been handed down demanding a cleansing of the archives? Given the treatment of the Miles Davis library, my Macintosh Tiger’s Dashboard should update me on what Radiohead will be setting aside a week from now. Every time an artist tells us 30 songs need to be whittled down to 15 for an album, we’d check the iTunes store with the feverish proclivity of an inside trader anticipating a takeover.

If it were only so easy. Up against the archivists, official and otherwise, stands a system of artists, A&R representatives, publicists, managers, vindictive widows, and cons waiting to bilk you of your cash if you’d only give them the chance. There are also unmitigated circumstances, acts of a higher power, retail trends, and legal tape keeping us from gnashing our teeth into (Fiona) apples from the tree of life.

So who’s perpetuating this quagmire? Showing all the prejudice of Fort Knox’ security detail, forces relegate recordings as unlistenable (Wilco’s bout with Reprise Records over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), unsuitable (La’s frontman Lee Mavers standing by “There She Goes” and nothing else), and unconscionable (The Who’s manager, Kit Lambert, going for the divination of Tommy over Lifehouse). But it’s never that easy.

The advertising archives of this very magazine boast the MobFest signing of Assassins by MCA Records, yet no album has been fruit of this deal. We reported on it for our March 2003 cover story, and no band members would respond to this article for comment. You have it right: A local band, with a major label deal, has never released an album.

Texas quartet I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness — voted best band name by more than one national publication — released an EP in November 2003 and followed it with silence. Chicago dates — some canceled — have come and gone before the slated February 21st 2006 date for their debut.

According to bassist Edward Robert, “In addition to having very busy lives outside the band, we were willing to wait until we found a situation that would allow us to make the record we really wanted to. The amount of time it took to do that didn’t concern us.”

It’s a luxury most bands don’t point to. Self-imposed restrictions might reap bounties for listeners overloaded with subpar material, but it hardly fulfills the demands of instant gratification: “It’s sad to hear, Mr. Wilson, your soul was torn apart when recording Smile in the ’60s. But, if you don’t mind, we’d like to hear it!”

Reality often provides marvelous scenarios that outstrip fantasy. Former Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli had successfully began a “solo” career fronting The Twilight Singers when tragedy befell his second album, even though an integral band member wasn’t involved.

“What was once my favorite thing to do became kind of a drag,” he says. “So I quit for a couple years.” Turns out his partner in crime, film director Ted Demme, would provide too detailed a mirror. “I made a record and then my friend died. My life was completely different the second I heard about him dying; he died very suddenly. I just . . . I couldn’t in good conscience put out the record that I had. There’s nothing wrong with the record; it will come out someday [and did as Greg Dulli’s Amber Headlights]. It wouldn’t have represented who I was at that time. His death crushed me. I had to make sense of what it meant and what he meant to me. So, putting out a record and going on tour with something about which had happened before he died, it didn’t make any sense. It was not honorable.”

But, as is becoming a rather robust sign of the digital times, the tracks were employable and far from unwieldy. Send off a zip file and whoosh, album ready. “I started 4-tracking when I was a teenager,” Dulli says. “It’s no different now, it’s just on a computer. When I’m ready for sure, I go in and get a fat tape sound for the bass and drums ’cause I don’t want ’em all digital. I like the warmer feel. So, when I do the definitive bass and drums I go into a real studio. But at that point I’ve got it all mapped out and it’s just, it’s easy to lay it down and get the warmth.

“[Tracks for Amber Headlights] were done and if they were unfinished that would have been one thing. But they were finished so, when something’s finished it’s not going to creep back because it’s done.”

Yet “done” never guarantees the security in its connotation. Los Angeles’ Living Things, hailed by many as the second (or eighth) coming of The MC5, were more than done. Their contract with Dreamworks was the kind of thing major labels don’t just hand out — ungoverned content on a debut album, options out the ass — but became subjected to the unforeseen: a takeover.


According to frontman Lillian Berlin, “Dreamworks was one of the best record companies around. They were going on the old school way of thinking about how to sign a band and career develop a band. When we met with them and signed, it was totally not about ‘You’re gonna do this record and it better blow up on alternative radio or it’s over with.’ They laid out a plan of doing EPs and doing a first and second record quick, back-to-back. One of the A&R people there who was an older man had worked with The Doors at Elektra and he saw doing our career [as] putting out a record every eight months.”

But then Dreamworks, which had mailed advance copies of the album to the press, met the world of finance, couldn’t right the ship, and was sold to Universal/Interscope. The band landed on Interscope subsidiary Geffen Records.

Initially, Living Things were worried Interscope’s preference of pop bands would shut them out. “When we [first] got record deal offers, we got five or six and one of them was Interscope Records, and I blatantly said, ‘There’s no way I’m signing with that record company.’ I had no interest signing with them. Every record company’s got tons of pop and R&B and stuff, but Interscope’s got so much of it they sign all these rock bands and make them sit and wait and maybe two or three rock bands eek through the system. I’ve had friends who have signed deals with Interscope and just sat around forever waiting for their shit to come out. I was like, ‘This is gonna be hell.'”

To his surprise, Geffen gave them a chance. “We got on the label and the record company instantly set us off on tour and scheduled the record for November [2004] and we were on tour with Velvet Revolver doing what we always do — where I come from inspiration-wise is more political/social awareness — and with Dreamworks that was half the reason they signed us: They wanted a young band with a voice on their label. And the heads of Geffen came and saw what we were doing,” and the other shoe dropped. “With an election during that year — I don’t know if it was weird pressure from outside sources [or] within the entertainment industry — but basically it was this thing of total, absolute censorship. They said we had to drop every political slant from our stage presence.”

In essence, Geffen wanted a rock band, but a rock band who played ball. “Whatever we do from the stage or promote in the clubs — we would have people come to the clubs and pass out pamphlets about Prozac and Ritalin and being aware of what the military’s about and not what the recruiters tell you — we had a whole system going on and Geffen wanted us to drop all of that from what we do. It first started when the president came down to a show, we were opening for Velvet Revolver, and she was just like, ‘Whoa, what the hell’s going on? What are you guys doing?’ And I’m like, ‘Have you listened to the lyrics in our music? This is what we’re about.’ She was just sort of taken aback. The day after that we got a letter sent to us and a meeting set up with the record company — we were in New York at the time — and before we come to the meeting, ‘These are the things we’re going to talk about,’ and it was kind of 10 points, and they were all basically about dropping anything political or socially aware from stage, interviews, everything.” [Geffen/Interscope did not respond to messages left by Illinois Entertainer for comment.]

“So we had a meeting with the record company and they told us, ‘This is the ultimatum: you guys are gonna do this way of thinking or we’re not gonna have room for you on our label.’ Wisely, when we signed with Dreamworks the lawyer we had, bless his heart, [drafted] a three-record deal where if something happened with the first album getting out, they had to pay us for albums two and three the amount equal to our master. So we could either get our money or take the master back, so we took the master, went over to Jive [Records], and we’re debt free.” Aided by the free publicity afforded the record company controversy, a retitled Living Things debut, Ahead Of The Lions, finally arrived in fall 2005.

Not all stories have happy endings, however. One of the most popular Chicago bands of the late ’80s, The Insiders, never got to see a supposed “long relationship” with Epic Records mature beyond two years. Already having to battle the label to self-produce 1987’s Ghost On The Beach, their attempts at a second album were squashed entirely. Epic, Jay O’Rourke and Gary Yerkins told us in 1992, wanted more love songs and went so far as shoving outside songwriters in their faces to get some. Demos called Not For Sale eventually appeared on the band’s own label, though O’Rourke told us last year, “The record that we did for Epic that was never released? We burned a bunch of copies and we’re selling them at these shows and they’re selling like crazy. I think after all these years we can do anything we want. I don’t know the legality of it or whatever.”

A defiant young band is one thing for a label to leave high and dry, but sometimes they flat-out make mistakes. In 1998, the Wylde Ratttz (an all-star band of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt, The Stooges’ Ron Asheton, Sean Lennon, and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm) convened to record The Stooges’ “TV Eye” for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack on Polygram Records. According to Watt, it was intended to be mimed by actor Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, young Obi-Wan) who was based on the “Kurt Cobain/Iggy [Pop] character. And there’s kind of a Bowie character and a Iggy/Kurt — I don’t know why Kurt. It’s sort of like how Bowie took a lot of stuff. Iggy . . . whatever. I guess it’s kind of glam. It’s based on a writer’s life. He’s thinking back. A rock critic thinking back on those days. Ends up with him gettin’ schtupped on a roof by the Iggy/Kurt character.”

Steve Forstneger

To read the rest of Mike Watt’s tale, pick up the February issue of Illinois Entertainer throughout Chicagoland.

Category: Features, Monthly

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Comments (4)

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  1. Jim Schiller says:

    I wish I had released all the albums that I’m on for the last 30 years. But, when you have a contract with a label, they litterly have you by the -well you know- until the contract runs and you can buy back all your masters (usually means giving them back everything they put out and then some, but what the heck, you now own your own work.) Ask Tom Fogerty about that point, but probably stand back a bit so you don’t get decked, although I hear he is a nice guy.

    Anyway, The reasons for being shelved are as many as the business of making records for profit. That’s really the point, profit. For example, if a company has a group that sounds sort of like yours, or even worse, you are the next thing, they may put you on the shelf until they see what their current “Top Dogs” do. Maybe, you end up opening for them. If you go over or heavens forbid, skunk the “Headliner” maybe they start opening for you. It could happen!!

  2. Sean Kessler says:

    (RE: Above comment; Tom Fogerty? Didn’t he die about 20 years ago? Whereas John Fogerty is now back on the original CCR label with a new group/solo compilation)
    Anyway, back to great lost albums: CHICAGO-STONE OF SISYPHUS. Followed Chicago 21 and was rejected by WB for being “too adventurous.” It’s a great album that’s leaner & meaner than most popular Chicago albums – more AOR instead of AC – but it’s a hard-to-find bootleg.

  3. Katie says:

    Arg. Post the rest of this article here please. We can’t get the old issues anymore, ya know.

  4. Lynn says:

    I run a small indie label specifically for mature artists and my aim is to release everything my artists produce, and keep it on sale for the length of the copyright.

    I hate it when record companies delete so much material. These days, they have absolutely no good reason to do so. Pressing and distributing vinyl was an expensive business, but keeping an mp3 on a server costs next to nothing.

    Our releases are MP3 or FLAC and have no DRM attached. We allow sharing between close friends & family and personal copying onto PC’s and other devices. All downloads are guaranteed for life. The only things we disallow, are sharing via P2P or a website. (Not that you can stop that kind of thing! .. but we like to trust our customers to do what is best for our artists so that they can afford to continue to produce good music.)

    Also, all my artists are independent and can sign with anyone else at any time. They own their own publishing rights. My company just owns the recordings.

    …Now I just need to sign a few more artists!

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