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Friday, July 05, 2013

It’s The Journey As Much As The Destination

We tend to think of our favourite albums as something fixed and monumental, their genius-like qualities having arrived in the studios fully-formed and immutable.

Every beat and every note has been inextricably bound into our lives from the day we first heard it. There’s a feeling that these songs and tunes were always meant to be this way.

Of course it’s not like that. What we’re hearing is usually the result of painstaking rehearsals and run-throughs.

Having been lucky enough to work on a couple of re-issues of what I would regard as classic albums, I’ve heard hours and hours of alternate takes where the players are clearly after something else other beyond clinching the structural mechanics of a composition.

Hearing them makes you vividly aware that the moments you thought of as fixed and cast in tablets of stone - every beat and every note - are simply there as a result of how an artist or producer was feeling on the day it came to make a choice.

Take 13 might be just as good as Take 22 but it’s the latter that won out over the former, and that’s the version that gets to be hard-wired into your life.

Some regard the inclusion of alternate takes and outtakes in these reissues as a cynical attempt by the record company to wring more out of the wallets of long-exploited fan who has already bought the album several times in the past.

Others subscribe to the view that if we’d been meant to hear these things then they would’ve been on the finished record in the first place. 

Yet the further away from the original recording and release dates we get, these albums realign to become historical events. They invite a form of assessment and scrutiny that’s qualitatively different from the kind of critical evaluation they received when first making their way into our world.

Just as the letters of writers and politicians or the preliminary sketches of painters provide a glimpse behind the curtain into creative or judgmental processes, the inclusion of such outtakes don’t take away from the brilliance of the original work in question but tell us something about how they came to arrive there.

Back in the day, all we cared about was the destination. With hindsight we sometimes come to realise that the journey itself can be just as important.


Garuda said...

I once wrote a 'review' of Sgt Pepper that put forward the notion that it's a work that (at least to the older ones among us) has to be taken as a whole: Where Lucy in the Sky will always follow With a Little Help from My Friends. Digital culture now precludes the experience of listening to music in such a linear fashion, just as no one really watches TV according to the Radio Times any more. The truth, as always, lies in between. For a literature scholar a novel is a set number of words, chapters etc in a particular order, but the rough drafts and rejected chapters hold a fascination that goes beyond the average reader's scope of interest. Likewise for Crimson scholars (if we can pretentiously call ourselves that ;-)) outtakes and rehearsals will always be welcome. But over time how much of this stuff is actually LISTENED to? I hold Red's 40 or so minutes to be a perfect entity in itself (i always hated that terrible edited version of Starless!) - yet I recognise the value in unearthing the process that led to such wonder. Especially as it came at a time when RF was in such a personal spiritual crisis. Overall the music industry IS trying to squeeze extra revenue in most cases, out of a tired back catalogue. In many cases it IS inappropriate to the genre. Who REALLY wants to hear a 5 CD box set of the first Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers album? It was gloriously shambolic to start off with... Yet I, myself, have just helped put together a certain artist's back catalogue with 'extra' 'bonus' tracks etc. from the vault. Which makes me somewhat hypocritical! Ultimately, I think that if the demand is there (which in the case of, say, jazz or prog it IS. Look at Columbia's amazing Miles boxes!) it goes beyond mere venality.

Prog Dog said...

I look on these box sets which contain alternate versions as historical documents giving an overall picture of a certain place in time when these recordings were made. We have never had the opportunity till now to experience the process the musicians went through to give us the "final" version.
The Larks box had nearly everything that version of KC had recorded. Some of it was maybe of sub audiophile quality, but the important thing was the opportunity to experience the performance.
That record companies in the current climate are willing to spend time and money in producing these things is a positive thing.

maltjerry said...

@Guardia: I'm not sure digital culture (format) "precludes" linear listening, but it does make random access both tempting and simple.

I agree that jazz and prog do lend themselves well to this kind of archaeology. It's not just the format of the medium, but the nature of the "organic" way the music was created, no?

Even if the scratches too get hardwired.
Nice post, Sid!


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