12 - The Parallel World of Beatle Bootlegs
12 - The Parallel World of Beatle Bootlegs
The Beatles’ bootleg recordings are performances by The Beatles that have been circulated to the public without the consent of The Beatles or EMI.
In many ways, these “bootlegs” are even more interesting to listen to than the officially released versions. Not better, but definitely more interesting.
In fact, they represent a “parallel universe” where The Beatles exist in a much different form than we are used to hearing on their issued albums.
The term “Beatle bootlegs” most often refers to audio recordings, but also includes video performances. From the earliest Beatles bootlegs, in the late 1960s, the group has been one of the most bootlegged artists.
Bootleg recordings arise from a multitude of sources, including broadcast performances, recordings of live shows, test discs, privately distributed copies of demos, and covertly copied studio session tapes. The largest single source of Beatles bootleg material is the set of Nagra
audio tapes from the 1969 filming of the Get Back/Let It Be rehearsal and recording sessions. Performances for the BBC, stage and concert recordings, and studio outtakes have also been extensive sources of Beatles bootlegs.
The first popular Beatles bootleg was “Kum Back”, available around September 1969 in a plain white sleeve with no mention of a record company. The vinyl bootleg was based on an acetate of one of the early rough mixes of the Get Back album (which would later become Let It Be).
Other notable bootlegs to appear in the early 1970s were Yellow Matter Custard, containing 14 BBC Radio performances from 1963, and Sweet Apple Trax, a double album of songs and jams from the Get Back rehearsal sessions.
In 1978, a copy of The Beatles’ Decca audition tape was bought by bootleggers who released the songs over a series of 45 rpm singles. Bootleggers of this era often copied and repackaged each other’s releases, so popular titles often appeared from more than one bootleg label. The biggest labels for Beatles material in the 1970s were Kornyfone (TAKRL), ContraBand, Trademark of Quality, and Wizardo.
In 1988 EMI planned to release an album of alternate takes and previously unreleased songs called “Sessions”, but The Beatles objected after it had been compiled. By the end of the year bootleg copies were widely available.
During the cataloging and review of the EMI archives in preparation for that album and a multimedia show given at Abbey Road Studios, it’s suspected that high quality copies of some of the material were surreptitiously made.
This may have been the source of the “Ultra Rare Trax” CD series, produced by Swingin’ Pig, that started appearing in 1988. This publication provided takes never previously bootlegged in clarity that rivaled official releases.
The Internet eliminated the need for bootlegs
The availability of high-speed Internet has transformed the bootlegging industry. Richie Unterberger, author of the 2006 book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, says that it is now theoretically possible to assemble a complete collection of the circulating unreleased Beatles recordings without ever buying a bootleg.
As digital technology progressed since the CD releases of The Beatles’ studio albums in 1987, audiophiles became increasingly disappointed with the sound quality of the official CDs. Several bootleggers undertook their own re-masterings of the entire Beatles catalogue, of both mono and stereo original releases, typically using premium vinyl pressings played and digitized with high-end audio equipment. While these unauthorized copies are not bootlegs as commonly defined, their creation and distribution channels overlap with bootleg products.
Some of the widely distributed collections are the “Millennium Re-masters” series and The Beatles’ Re-masters on “DLH Records”, in addition to the series by the bootlegger known as “Dr. Ebbetts”. Several other bootleggers have created their own collections of re-masters distributed solely in the form of digital downloads, including “Purple Chick,” which supplements the re-mastered albums with related outtakes.
The official re-mastering of The Beatles’ catalogue in stereo and mono released in September 2009 may have made bootleg re-masters obsolete. The Beatles’ official catalogue of their original stereo studio albums has since been issued via digital download through iTunes.
A considerable amount of additional uncirculated Beatles material is believed to exist, either in private possession or studio vaults, as mentioned in documents and recollections.
The set of tapes that generates the most interest are those owned by the estate of George Harrison. They were recorded in Harrison’s home – not Abbey Road studios – and thus are the legal property of Harrison’s heirs, not EMI.
In May 1968 The Beatles met at Kinfauns, the Esher home of George Harrison. Twenty-seven songs, mostly acoustic, were made public from this session. Of the twenty demo songs not officially released, fifteen would be recorded and released on The White Album.
Why are these tapes so interesting and important?
The reason- says Unterberger, is because there really isn’t any other parallel in the unreleased Beatles catalog for the 27 known recordings that resulted. At no other time, to our knowledge, did The Beatles so methodically rehearse and make demos for an upcoming album outside of EMI’s studios. And there’s no other set of tapes that show The Beatles, as a group, making demos for a large batch of songs in a mostly acoustic setup.”
He adds that whatever the state of The Beatles’ nerves when they recorded their demos on Harrison’s Ampex 4-track machine, they certainly do not sound anxious or distracted. After studying them in detail, he reports that in fact, the performances have a remarkably carefree, jolly quality. Almost as if it is a campfire sing-along and song-swapping session, rather than the initial work on the most eagerly anticipated album of 1968.
“Unpredictable, joyous whoops punctuate the proceedings, as well as ensemble backup vocals and all manners of crack-up asides and spontaneous scatting, often but not always from the mouth of John Lennon. Far from just laying down the tapes as a work aid, The Beatles
are quite obviously having fun – having a blast, actually. Maybe the group, and particularly Lennon, welcomed these quasi-sessions as a safe haven of sorts from the hassles of the outside world, their music being the one thing they always guarded as inviolable.”
Why Beatle bootlegs are enjoyable to listen to
Unterberger says the reason the subject of Beatle bootlegs is so important is that it relates to the subject that made them famous in the first place: the music. He adds:
“With a group so compellingly human and utterly enjoyable as The Beatles, that always seemed to be the first, and primary, side of their art.”
He believes there is a lot of good to great music that the group never put out during their lifetime, which is very easy to enjoy, regardless of whether you care about when it was produced or why it did not come out.
“Hearing different versions of the same songs we have come to love is fun and interesting – even if they’re not quite as hi-fi as the tracks you’ll find on Beatles CDs in the chain stores. In addition to being valuable from a historical perspective, this material is essential for a full appreciation of the group’s evolution, influences, and creative processes.”
The veteran music critic admits that every time he hears these recordings they are different, changing – just as The Beatles had.
“There are always unsuspected surprises, hidden connections to be made, and small to significant revelations as to what was going on behind the scenes. I was always taken aback at the sharp turns they made, always marveling at their mastery of continuing to evolve while maintaining the identifiable qualities that had made them so appealing.
The unreleased music and film tapes give us another side of them to put it into better perspective.”
What we can learn from the bootlegs
The New York Times music critic Allan Kozinn wrote in 1994 that after the band split up and its legacy was undergoing serious examination, it became clear that America had seen only part of the picture.
“Imported records showed that the early American albums were truncated distortions of the British originals. And bootleg recordings of British radio shows brought even hotter news.”
Kozinn explains that these pirated disks revealed that while Americans were hanging by their radios awaiting the hits, British listeners regularly heard The Beatles performing live on the BBC. Between 1962 and 1965, the band played 88 songs on British radio, most in multiple versions, for a total of more than 280 performances. Included were 36 songs the group never recorded. In the brief period these recordings cover, The Beatles evolved from a high-energy
provincial dance band into polished performers and sophisticated songwriters.
Live at the BBC was released worldwide in 1994 as a compilation album featuring performances by The Beatles that were originally broadcast on various BBC Light Programme radio shows from 1963 through 1965.
“These radio recordings add significantly to our knowledge of what made The Beatles tick: even the familiar songs were played in arrangements that were harder-edged than the fussed-over studio versions.”
He points to I’ll Be on My Way, a Lennon-McCartney song The Beatles never recorded for EMI, and a magnificent cover of Arthur Alexander’s Soldier of Love. Among the familiar songs are a supple version of Baby It’s You and hard-rocking takes of I Saw Her Standing
There, I Wanna Be Your Man, Thank You Girl and Long Tall Sally that blow away the studio versions by every measure except sound quality.
How many tapes and recordings are still in the vaults?
Apple’s subsequent release of another six discs of unreleased material in the Anthologies project still leaves an enormous amount of material owned by EMI. The question is whether Apple and EMI will recognize the public’s ferocious appetite to hear The Beatles’ music –
warts and all.
It’s understandable that until now, The Beatles have hesitated to issue more albums, as it would cannibalize their existing catalogue. It’s not clear how well the market would be able to absorb the newly-issued releases and still maintain sales of the already-issued albums.
For Kozinn, the fact that so much music remains unreleased means that Beatles fans and scholars are being prevented from understanding what it took to get these songs to where they are when we hear them on the record. People who want to study The Beatles’ music would find it useful at this point to receive longer sections of the session tapes.
“A student of The Beatles’ work can understand exactly how the performances that were eventually released fell into place. For instance, you can hear, in the series unreleased edit pieces of the intro, that they tried all kinds of approaches: humming the melody, singing it, singing it with one voice in a falsetto, an octave higher, and playing it on guitar and on harmonica. Hearing all the outtakes of I Saw Her Standing There, you learn a lot about the early recording process: that, for example, they would record a full performance live, then overdub handclaps using what now seems a weirdly complex process involving two recording decks (since they did not have multi-track recording), and experimented with edit pieces for the guitar.”
Kozinn says that later on in their studio work it gets more complicated since the availability of multi-track technology meant that they erased tracks as they were working, and built their songs from the ground up rather than take by take. Consequently, the rejections are often no longer available.
Kozinn is hopeful that despite the tendency of Apple to exploit Beatles music via RockBand or on ITunes, rather than looking at the unreleased material, the company’s current president Jeff Jones might change that.
“He has a history at Sony Legacy of digging out and releasing unissued tracks, as ways of making reissues of classic albums more interesting to buyers who have already bought them several times, as well as to new buyers.”