Before the Internet made almost everything available on-line, bootleg recordings were expensive and very hard to find, especially in Australia. I must have trawled through countless dodgy stores all over the world to find rare gems like the Beatles’ White Album demos (New York), or Springsteen’s first Columbia sessions (Singapore) — big Asian cities were always a safe bet back in the day, and I must of spent a fucking fortune on records, CDs and tapes that I hardly listen to anymore. For the most part, the recordings themselves were of poor quality — excessive tape hiss always detracted from the pleasure of hearing something unique, and slightly illicit, which is why my extensive collection of boots is bound for the junkyard. Yet the allure of the bootleg remains — it’s a kind of Holy Grail, a badge of honor testifying to the serious fan’s devotion to the pantheon of musical gods (or possibly just testifying to neurotic obsessive-compulsive tendencies).
Today, the best shit is just a click or two away. Not only is this stuff free, but the sound quality is usually good, and, if you can suspend the nagging feeling that you’re a low down thief, depriving multimillionaire rock gods of their filthy lucre, there’s a lot of fun to be had. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite recent discoveries. There are no live recordings on this page. This is because I generally find the aborted album, or studio demos more listening, and far more interesting (The Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City excepted, but that’s no longer a bootleg). Anyway, you’ll need to do a bit of digging around to find these gems, but the effort will be worth it. Trust me, folks.
Prince, The Undertaker (1994)
Prince is prolific. He’s recorded far more stuff than he can actually release without producing a glut. No doubt, his output is of variable quality, and let’s face it, the man hasn’t had a genuine hit in a very long time, so his reputation rests on his impressive back catalogue. Anyway, The little purple master recorded The Undertaker for a guitar magazine in 1994, and the word is that his record company prevented its distribution because they couldn’t tolerate the prospect of giving the fans something for nothing.
The Undertaker sees Prince shine as a guitar god, fronting a potent power trio. He’s no Hendrix, but he’s the master of tone, and he really let’s rip on 7 gut busting tracks, which include a suitably sexy take on the Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman. The entire album was recorded live in one long take, which is no mean feat given the quality of the material on offer. It’s refreshing to hear Prince rock out with minimal backing. The sound quality is superb, by the way. The man can really wail, and he wields his axe with the attitude of a sexy muthafucker. Outstanding shit! I’m astounded that he left this in the can.
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1974) — the complete New York Sessions
Dylan almost single-handedly created the bootleg record industry. His Little White Wonder collection is legendary, and deservedly occupies the place it holds in rock and roll mythology. I have a ton of Dylan boots, but the only one I play with any degree of regularity is the New York version of Blood on the Tracks, which, in its legitimately released form, is possibly the finest album in Dylan’s illustrious career. Let me make this clear, the official release is a masterpiece, and I think Dylan, for once, made a very astute call when he decided to re-record half the record in his home town, with a bunch of local musicians (who scandalously weren’t given credit for their outstanding contribution to the album). Andy Gill has written a compelling book about the sessions, which you can find here.
Dylan was unhappy with half the songs he recorded in New York, but none of these tunes remained in the vault for too long. They began circulating amongst hard-core fans almost immediately, and Columbia have released some of the rejected numbers as part of Dylan’s bootleg series. However, the entire New York version of the album has never appeared as an official collection, although this might change in the not too distant future.
While the New York rejects lack the passion and sparkle of their Minnesota counterparts, they do possess a unique charm. They all sound like they’re in the same tuning, if not the same key, and Dylan’s guitar drones like an Indian tamboura, which lends a certain melancholy tone to proceedings. He sounds, depressed, and resigned to the enduring pain of heartbreak and despair. The arrangements are sparse, and the mostly acoustic instrumentation creates an intimate atmosphere, which permeates the entire album. If you listen to the entire New York album in sequence, it sounds like it comes from a parallel universe. Once again, the sound quality is astonishingly good.
Keith Richards, Toronto, 1977
Down and out in Toronto, Canada, after his infamous drug bust for heroin possession, Richards took solace in music, baring his soul through a collection of country classics, and early rock and roll hits. He croaks and croons his way through songs like ‘All I Have to Do is Dream’ and George Jones’ ‘Say It’s Not You’ with the candor of a man who is about to make one last desperate plea for freedom before a hanging judge. He conjures some of Gram Parsons’ soulfulness in this assortment of semi-nostalgic odds and ends. Mostly accompanied by his own piano, which he plays with a kind of clunky grace, Keith’s unique voice takes center stage. Clearly, his piano chops are primitive, and his vocals depend exclusively on feel and emotion, yet he pulls the listener into his hazy, crazy universe, and displays a poignant vulnerability that is mostly absent from his cocky, swaggering pirate act that defined his image all those years ago. I doubt this shit will ever see an official release, so seek, and ye shall be rewarded, friends.
The Sex Pistols, Spunk, 1977
The surviving members of the Sex Pistols agree that Sid Viscous wasn’t much of a bass player. Guitarist Steve Jones played most of the bass parts on the Pistol’s iconic album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The album was preceded by a semi-underground bootleg that has Glen Matlock on bass, and while his presence doesn’t really improve on Jones’ simple root note approach to the instrument, it does demonstrate how the band originally sounded. You can find a more expansive account of this recording here. Nuff said!