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Reference Library: Beatles and Bootlegs

From: The Bootleg Reader <>
Subject: Kozzin NY Times boot article
Date: Tue, 09 Dec 1997 20:42:52 -0500

Bootlegging as a public service: no, this isn't a joke
by Allan Kozinn. The New York Times Oct 8, 1997
v147 n281 pB2(N) pE2(L) col 3 (26 col in)

About a year ago, the police raided two shops in Greenwich Village that sold bootleg CD's, the unauthorized recordings of concerts, radio broadcasts and studio outtakes that collectors prize because they give a broader perspective on a musician's work than can be had by listening solely to commercially released recordings. Bootlegs cover the waterfront, from jazz to symphony and opera: wherever there is a devoted audience, there are bootleggers.

Record companies loathe bootlegs, of course, as do some (but by no means all) musicians. Bootleggers do remove certain creative prerogatives from musicians' hands -- what to release and what not to -- and they generally don't pay royalties or studio fees. Yet some musicians secretly love them: owners of several Greenwich Village shops say touring rock bands are avid collectors. Paul McCartney once told me, "I have no problem with bootlegs, although every time I say that, my lawyer says, 'Oh yes you do.'"

Bootlegging has been a felony in New York State since 1995, and selling bootlegs has long been illegal everywhere. Last summer's raids turned out to be the opening salvo of a record industry war in several states. In Greenwich Village, Dennis C. Vacco, the State Attorney General, posed for news cameras, disks in hand, and declared: "People are being ripped off by the people running this shop. They are paying top dollar for these knockoffs, but they are not getting top quality."

It was clear to all serious record collectors that Mr. Vacco was not one. By speaking of bootlegs as if they were pirated recordings -- copies of commercially available disks -- he was blurring an important distinction. He was incorrect on purely technical grounds: collectors who seek these hard-to-find disks attest that many bootlegs offer sound quality and packaging far superior to commercial labels. This is not a consumer protection issue.

Bootlegging involves a complex web of personal, artistic and commercial rights and ethical issues. Most collectors would be happier buying this material from legitimate sources. But from a broader cultural perspective, bootleggers are doing something critically important.

Perhaps their most significant contribution is preserving recordings that would not otherwise have been kept, including material taped from radio. A spectacular illustration of this is "New York Philharmonic: The Historic Broadcast 1923 to 1987," a 10-CD set that the orchestra is releasing this week in a private edition that will be sold for $185 through the Internet ( and by telephone (800-557-8268).

For connoisseurs of this century's great conductors, this is an incredible compendium. It includes Toscanini, Reiner, Klemperer, Stokowski, Walter, Stravinski and Bernstein performing works that they never recorded commercially, as well as collaborations between soloists and conductors that are not otherwise preserved on disk. Because these are live recordings, they capture an electricity that more pristine studio recordings lack. They also let a listener track changes in taste and performance style over the decades and changes in the orchestra's response to different conductors.

If not for home recording, though, much of this set would not exist. Until the Philharmonic established its own archives in the 1960's, it did not save its broadcasts. Devoted collectors, however, recorded the broadcasts, at first on 78 r.p.m. disks. In some cases, the only surviving source was a single battered disk. In others, bootlegged copies helped the set's producer and engineer trace the best sources.

There are similar tales in pop. In 1982, Kevin Howlett, a BBC producer to assemble a program of recordings the Beatles made in the BBC's studios, including about three dozen otherwise unreleased songs. When he discovered, to his horror, that the BBC had discarded virtually all the original tapes, he advertised in a music magazine, imploring listeners who had defied BBC's admonitions about the illegality of taping broadcasts to lend him their tapes. He also drew freely from bootlegs, as did EMI when it released its official "Beatles at the Beeb" set in 1994.

The obvious thirst for bootlegs, moreover, has helped legitimate companies identify a fresh market. In 1975, six years after bootleggers compiled some of Bob Dylan's private rehearsal tapes under the title "Great White Wonder," Columbia released "The Basement Tapes," with similar material. In 1991, Mr. Dylan issued "The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1," with a broader expanse on unreleased work, much of it revelatory, some of it never bootlegged.

Frank Zappa, irritated by the multitude of bootlegs devoted to his work, made his own pressings of 20 classic bootlegs and released them in two boxed sets called "Beat the Boots." And Mr. McCartney, realizing that his appearance on MTV's "Unplugged" show would inevitably be bootlegged, released it himself as "Unplugged (The Official Bootleg)."

Virtually all these releases, official or bootleg, illuminate the creative process. Mr. Dylan's version of "Like a Rolling Stone" in three-quarter time and the Beatles' first take of "Strawberry Fields Forever," with its different instrumentation and verse order, show how composing choices are made. The Philharmonic's live recording of Arthur Rubinstein playing the Chopin First Concerto with Bruno Walter conducting captures an otherwise undocumented chemistry.

It is argued that creative artists should maintain absolute control over their work and that recordings they have not approved should not bear public scrutiny. But perhaps that notion is flawed. The best artists, after all, are severely, self- critical. They are also, naturally, more interested in current projects than in examining their own processes.

The Beatles proved this when they produced their six-disk "anthology," packed with unreleased tracks, many of them longtime bootleg favorites. For years they had insisted that their unreleased work was not up to their standard. But as they sorted through session tapes in 1995, they found themselves as charmed and surprised by some of their abandoned work as bootleg collectors have always been.

Musicians tend to regard their discards as discards, not as avenues of study. Brahms, for example, was certainly within his rights when he burned his unfinished manuscripts shortly before his death in 1893. Yet it is difficult not to regard that as an act of cultural vandalism. By comparison, the bootleggers who preserve our musical heritage should be regarded as cultural heroes, not as criminals.


From: (Kozinn)
Date: 5 Jul 1996 17:06:00 -0400

I wrote:

Drag about Revolver, isn't it?

...and Joseph Nagarya responded:

Imagine that: a writer for the NY Times considers the prosecution of theft a "drag". Does Kozinn have the same protective feelings toward muggers?

Paul McCartney told me -- and I have it on tape -- that he has no problem with bootlegs. Ringo doesn't seem to care about them either: I've given him plenty of tapes, and he's never said, "hey I don't approve of you having these." Lennon was an avid collector of bootlegs: he spoke about them in interviews as well. And Harrison has discussed bootlegs in interviews as well, with an attitude closer to amusement than condemnation. It's their work, and if it doesn't bother them for collectors like us to have them, that's fine with me.

Allan [kozinn@aol]

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