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Article with some history of bootlegs, for those that remember the old days...

Dave Bidini | National Post | December 6, 2010

Record of the Month Club: With The Promise, Bruce Springsteen releases the best new 'old' album you've heard

There once was a time: sending blank tapes to a post office box somewhere in America, and occasionally the U.K. It was nefarious stuff, and seedy, too. The network revealed itself slowly, from mark to mark in whispered announcements at the back of long-gone music tabloids and handshakes over old record crates at album shows in the McDonald Room of the Best Western on Barber Green. The bootlegger would look both ways over their shoulder and bring you behind the table, pulling back a scrim to reveal a prism of recordings that no one — not the artist, nor the record company — wanted you to hear. I'd dig out whatever money I had leftover from whatever job I had in those days, and pay for the thrill of hearing music that only a handful of people had ever heard: the lost Smile tapes, U2 playing in some punk bar in 1978, Cheap Trick from a Boston radio broadcast, Springsteen's Murder Incorporated, Lennon's No More Pakistanis, and early Ramones demos, which sounded just like early Ramones albums, only worse. The bootleggers — many of whom were also collectors, archivists and music hounds — eventually eschewed badly pressed vinyl for cassettes. After awhile, bootleg albums were just so 1975.

It's 30 years later and nobody buys bootleg recordings anymore because nobody has to. Websites abound that are devoted to the delicious, and formerly secret, ephemera that once lurked beneath the world's officially sanctioned music. The modern age has produced even greater reductionist elements. Not only are home recordings and demos of your favourite artists available for easy download, but the rogue studio engineer has given way to an entirely new forensic: Keith Moon's Who Are You drum track solo'ed, Freddie Mercury's Killer Queen vocal, David Lee Roth singing Jump in an expensive studio somewhere, and Jimmy Page's multi-track guitar work disassembled part by part by part. Like anything that's abundant and free, the thrill is greatest when at the brink. After a while, clicks give way to ennui, which gives way to disinterest. It's easy for the music fan to think they've heard everything. Because, if you spend enough time trolling through the digital universe, you have.

Reacting to the freedom of this underground musical history suddenly pushed through the earth, record companies and recording artists have taken to shining the light on themselves. The Beatles Anthologies were among the first above-ground collections, and Led Zeppelin — the Knebworth shows — and Brian Wilson, himself, followed. Most of these formerly bootleg-scratched recordings were scrubbed and packaged, and those of us who'd heard them originally were disheartened by the opportunism of the releases, to say nothing of how they'd been made to sound like proper albums. One of the great things about, say, the bootleg Smile sessions, was listening to how the artist(s) got the music to where it had to be after repeatedly failed attempts. In The Beatles' case, you got a sense of the playfulness and humour through which they communicated, especially near the end, when no one was really talking to each other. Before starting Hey Jude on The David Frost Show, they warm up by playing a mock dance-hall number that clunks along like a Captain Beefheart outtake, Lennon singing a mock horn line and George Harrison doing his worst Zoot Horn Rollo impression. The music isn't gold, but the anthropology is. The listener feels like he's sharing in a private joke, and that the segment was dropped from the group's official release shows that the instincts of the obsessive archivist are almost always better than the record company.

Bruce Springsteen's "newest" release is called The Promise, the formerly hidden recording that was made in between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Tapes of this album have been around forever, and, when the record fell through my door slot, I anticipated the same measure of disappointment that I'd drawn from previously official "secret" releases. But Bruce being Bruce — as a record hound and magpie, he would have been down the same road as many of his tape-seeking fans — he understands the defeatedness of trying to coax what are essentially test recordings a little closer to modern standards. Because he's already produced what is more or less an album of demos — Nebraska — he understands that spit and shine and cheap gloss only exposes the hastiness and disregard behind such a gesture. It's for this reason that the original Promise tracks — seared on to tape in 1977 and 1978 — were reimagined — not re-recorded — by Bob Clearmountain with the conceit that, if the record had been finished then, this is how it would sound. The result is probably the best new "old" album you've heard in a long time, and maybe ever.

It's probably foolish — and a little cheeky — to suggest that The Promise is better than Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town, but it's never overwrought or cooked-too-long, as are some of those records' more bombastic moments. The songs boil large without ever spilling over the edges of the saucepan. One of Clearmountain's achievements is in being able to push something very large into something small. If the E Street Band's great heaving colossus can sometimes prove exhausting, or, at worst, narcissistic, here it's a more finely pointed and sleek arrow, and, in a way, less of a personality. Two things: there are fewer sax solos and hardly any strings. Because the sessions ended up being nothing more than an abandoned album exercise, the songs never reached the point when the producer and songwriter stopped to wonder how much more they could add before whatever it was they were recording burst apart at the seams. That is part of Born to Run's charm, of course, but trying to repeat its achievement would have been as foolish as trying to out-prosaic the tone and mood and sound of Nebraska. Because of these clear choices, The Promise stands ably on its own. The forensics aren't entirely fascinating — not much is revealed about Springsteen's genesis as an artist, nor the band's evolution as a musical powerhouse — but they're not meant to be. Instead, The Promise is just a very good album with very good songs. The old bootleggers will have nothing of it.


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I remember buying my frst Zep bootleg in 1974 from a little record store just off Carnaby St in London on my way back from a free rock festival in Windsor great park. It was Stairway to Heaven the recordings from the BBC playhouse theatre.

I got 2 more the following year when I went to Earls Court and went to the same shop.

I couldn't fine any stores locally to where I lived back then.

Still have them and many many more. B)

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Bruce was on Jimmy Fallon and had said the footage from Houston on this box set had never wound up in the hands of bootleggers. But what's cool about "Born to Run" and "Darkness" "making ofs" is allowing videotape to run during the recording sessions.

The journalist saying David Lee Roth sang in some expensive recording studio? It was Eddie Van Halen's 5150 studio which he had just built at the time, but I remember them saying it was put together with a bunch of old, borrowed equipment. It's more like a clubhouse.

"The Promise" should've been out 2 years ago, and it was always known for having all this material recorded, but I don't think it'll make anyone go "wow".

As soon as Brian Wilson put "Smile" out, all the bootleggers got to work on putting the Beach Boys original versions out in the same lineup.

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