Three Easy Pieces

Notorious bootleg albums

By Rev. Adam McKinney on August 2, 2018

This is Three Easy Pieces, the column where I examine a bit of pop culture from its birth to today, hoping to give you just a bit of an edge at your next bar trivia night. This month, we're talking bootleg albums. For anyone too young to understand, bootlegs denote recordings that were obtained and/or distributed without the permission of the artist or the record label. Because of the increasing ease of recording technology, and the sheer deluge of bootlegs and their subsequent (and inevitable) legitimate release, this is not only a witheringly small sample of bootlegs, but a chronologically complicated one. But what are you gonna do? Look this up yourself?

BIRTH: Great White Wonder (Bob Dylan)
Honorable mention: Smile (Beach Boys), Live'r Than You'll Ever Be (the Rolling Stones), The Troggs Tapes (The Troggs)

For the purposes of this column, the term "bootleg" encapsulates both surreptitiously captured live recordings and studio recordings that were never meant to see the light of day. Some people point to the Rolling Stones' Live'r Than You'll Ever Be as the first-ever live rock bootleg, and it certainly deserves consideration. The problem is, as exalted as this album is, it's just a really good set from a band that's known to do great live performances. When it comes to recordings that were never meant to survive, then spread amongst the fans, we must turn to Great White Wonder, a collection of unreleased Bob Dylan tracks that were recorded over the course of the ‘60s.

Assembled from radio performances, studio outtakes, and "basement tapes," Great White Wonder delivered a full picture of Dylan and his development through the formative years of the ‘60s. The release of Great White Wonder on Trademark of Quality -- a label that specialized in bootlegs -- set a precedent for years of subsequent bootleg proliferation. This album also inspired a silly hoax from Rolling Stone, where they alleged that Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney recorded together as the Masked Marauders.

DEVELOPMENT: A Toot and a Snore in ‘74 (Lennon, McCartney, Nilsson, Wonder)
Honorable mention: Devil's Charm (The Smiths), Time's Up (The Buzzcocks), The Black Album (Prince)

Speaking of bizarre assemblages of rock legends, we now have A Toot and a Snore in ‘74. Eventually released in the ‘90s, this album is a messy, weird, and utterly fascinating record of a specific moment in time: not only is this the last known incident of Lennon and McCartney performing together, but Harry Nilsson and Stevie Wonder are also present. While this sounds inarguably awesome, the album itself is a bit of a slog. These are all fantastic artists, but this was a late-night jam session that was never meant to be released. Everyone is high out of their minds (which you can hear when Lennon offers Wonder some drugs), and this was only meant to be a laid-back after-party following Nilsson's Lennon-produced recording session.

For Beatles fans, it's interesting just to hear Lennon and McCartney being friendly with each other in 1974, several years after their famously acrimonious break-up.

TODAY: The Grey Album (Danger Mouse)
Honorable mention: 20:20 (Ryan Adams), American Edit (Dean Gray)

This is on the fence, as far as what is considered to be a bootleg. That's a side effect, though, of the Internet's effect on just about everything. The Grey Album, released in 2004, is Danger Mouse's acclaimed mashup of the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album. What was intended as a sort of lark, by Danger Mouse, soon turned into a legal battle that resulted in masses of music fans staging protests that involved everyone illegally downloading the album at once. While the surviving members of the Beatles and Jay-Z all approved of the mashup album, record label titans EMI sought to stop its distribution.

What could have been received as a cool way of updating the Beatles was instead bombarded with the Streisand Effect, causing masses of people to share the album online, making it one of the most talked-about remixes of all time. Its legacy, along with the ease of file-sharing, and labels' reluctance to fight the release of rarities, effectively ended the age of bootlegs.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Superior Movie Remakes.