Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Age of Production

I was reorganising my CDs recently and surprised to find I've got 9 CDs by Nirvana. Not because I'm not a big Nirvana fan - I liked them from "Bleach" onwards, though they were never quite my favourite band, and I was devastated when Cobain died, he's undoubtedly one of our most missed talents - but because they only actually released 3 studio albums. The rest of my Nirvana collection includes 3 live albums, 2 outtakes albums and a Greatest Hits (which includes a track not available elsewhere.) Nirvana are one of those bands whose detritus is greater than their production. The Stone Roses and the late Jeff Buckley also come to mind.  And its not like I've got everything they did. The super deluxe "Nevermind" and the full outtakes box were for the mega-fan only.

I was thinking about this today at the annoucement that "Blur are to mark their 21st birthday with a 21 disc boxset." Now I'm not particularly a Blur fan, apart from "Park Life" and the odd single since then, I've always found them a little faux to me - and Damon's fauxness since then has continued unabated in the not unpleasant Gorrilaz as well as myriad side projects. But "a 21 disc boxset" for a band who released 7 albums? It seems overkill. After all, the "extras" on the "Nevermind" CD were hardly critical - and increasingly, in an age of deluxe editions, rather than the "deluxe" preference being reserved for the band's best album, its often trotted out for even minor releases. Its also a paradox, going back to the Beatles and "Let it Be" that the most outtakes can be found from the least interesting times of their careers. I've lost track of the times I've wished there was a live album of a band at the height of their powers, only to have to wait several years for some bloated "greatest hits" live album from long after they were interesting.

Of course the record industry can't be blamed for milking its golden cows. There's an audience for, say, a Pink Floyd boxset which doesn't necessarily exist for Bogshed. (But, to be fair, some of the best "boxes" I've got are far cult bands.) Yet is there also something of the "monument" building about this? Just as certain classic authors find their complete "scholarly" edition to far outnumber their key works (letters, articles etc.) so its coming to pass that the rock fan has 12 albums of dubious merit for every "Parallel Lines" or "Thriller."
As a perpetual archivist myself, of my own work in particular, it seems a bit rich to talk about "over production", yet I've always gone back to older work, whether music or writing, with a very specific aim, to remind myself of how I got "here" - of paths forgotten. Going through some 4-track cassettes last weekend I found 3 or 4 "unreleased" demos, two of which for songs that I don't even remember, from 1997. In 30 years of recording, I'm currently at 750 tracks - a number that would dwarf that Blur boxset! Thankfully I've only put a fraction online.

But product in itself is not a bad thing - I'm thinking of all of the nice books and boxsets I've picked up over the years. I've been very grateful that the Cure archived their near-forgotten "Carnage Visors" soundtrack on their "Faith" album; or that Bruce Chatwin's letters, so close to being first runs for his novels, were finally collected a couple of years ago; whilst as a Fall fan, the thirst for "material" seems unquenchable. However, for cult bands that doesn't seem so bad. Its not like there's one Fall album or one Zappa record that is a must have. Buy into the myth of those artists and you pretty much want everything. In a different way the "complete" sessions of jazz legends like Miles Davis and John Coltrane have been fantastically interesting.
As an artist, interested in the "creative" process, even the outtakes or alternative versions are interesting if the artist is interesting - and there's no doubt there are some people who would put Blur in that category. Perhaps, just as with Radiohead, I'd be almost interested in a more wayward version of the Blur story than the relentless Britpop hits of their greatest hits period?

It all begins to make the Dylan and Beatles industries look a bit restrained however. The sixties Beatles released pretty much everything good that they ever recorded, and so the brilliantly compiled anthology series were merely alternate histories of their fecund creativity - whilst the clamour for Dylan bootlegs hasn't died down even as the bootleg series heads for double figures. Bands like Pearl Jam and Fugazi have gone as far as making every show available as an audio souvenir - yet haven't released an entirely satisfactory live album. I'm pleased that I've got "The Name of this Band is Talking Heads" (compiled from a long period of recordings) and "Stop Making Sense" and don't really mind that I haven't got anymore live material to choose from. Yet last time I looked the fascinatingly rough document that is "The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl" wasn't available to buy. Pop acts are best experienced through a greatest hits or their biggest album, so I'd much rather listen to "Thriller" than Jackson's well-compiled boxset.

Perhaps its all one last flurry. Blur at least are a band we remember from picture sleeves - almost the last Smash Hits style pop act the country has had. That the marketing logic of the 90s insisted on 2 CD singles for every release means that bands like Blur, Oasis and Manic Street Preachers were quite prolific in what they released, though only Oasis is renowned for the quality of its B-sides. Does Adele or whoever record anything more than the dozen tracks that make the album that you buy or download? Are the "extra" tracks on iTunes special editions just the same thing but in a different age? There would seem something odd about downloading a deluxe edition - more to be looked at, than listened to - yet you can do so. I've often thought we'd be compiling our own books and albums now, through online tools, but the thing is, who has the time?
In the age of a virtual project I wonder to what extent we'll even think in terms of an album to reissue? Will a future Jessie J or Adele boxset be simply a collection of their most famous songs, like those pre-album acts like Elvis or Chuck Berry?

So what's the most inappropriate deluxe edition or boxset anyone's seen, where the product doesn't deserve all this kerfuffle?

1 comment:

john problem said...

I think there are 22 de luxe editions of 'The Marriage of Figaro'. That's a lot of listening...