Breaking Up With a Radio Sweetheart

We know musicians through a finite, bounded set of experiences. Primary are the artifacts, the recordings. Secondarily, there are the live performances that we attend. Although the attendance at a concert is more immediate and arguably more compelling than the playing of a disc, I’d like to suggest that the disc is primary because one has the opportunity to return to it again and again; a live performance, no matter how moving, exists as a memory trace that becomes fainter and fainter with time, as it is obscured by other experiences that we’ve had since the musical event.

The recording that we obtain is something that has been carefully vetted, selected, and certified (regardless of how raw it may sound). A set of people made a decision that defines (1) what the collection of compositions grouped is and (2) what version of the performance of those compositions will be released. In other words, if musicians were to perform 12 compositions in a studio, there is a decision made of, say, which two need to be left off for commercial (e.g., deemed to be not as good as the others) or technological (i.e., the density of the recording medium is limited in terms of the amount of data it can hold) constraints. What’s more, it is likely that there isn’t a single take of all 12 compositions, that the musicians have done several versions of each. In some cases, the attempt is made to improve upon a given rendering (i.e., to eliminate a flub from a previous take; to add some instrumentation for a better sound). In other cases, there are variant versions of a given composition (e.g., acoustic and electric; a capella and instrumental). Decisions are made as to how the musicians will be presented to us and so we come to know the musicians (or, more precisely, their sound) as a result.

So we play the discs, over and over. We understand the pattern of sounds that make up particular segments, segments combined into songs, songs combined into albums. A pattern of expectations is established. One of the reasons why covers tend to fall on deaf ears so far as the fans of the original are concerned is because there is a sufficient deviation from the established pattern, the pattern that is deemed to be authentic.

Recently, there is the phenomenon of companies like Rhino Records re-presenting previously released recordings that are substantially supplemented by additional, previously unreleased material. Heretofore, the release of unheard material tended to be limited to those artists who had died: Think, for example, how the Jimi Hendrix catalog increased after Hendrix had departed the third planet from the sun. There are, of course, a variety of reasons why still-living and still-creating performers (e.g., Elvis Costello) are getting the supplemental treatment. For one thing, the additional material provides a reason for fans who probably own the original material to buy the same primary disc again so that they can obtain the secondary material. For another, given that the recordings exist, and that the artists in question have a certain amount of commercial relevance, the notion is probably that it is better to get it out into the market while the market is still interested.

One of the questions that is potentially interesting is whether it is possible that a fan may become turned off to a performer as a result of listening to the supplemental material. That is, given that the original recording is something that was, as previously described, vetted from a number of perspectives, the numbers that didn’t even qualify as B-sides may not merely be not up to par, but sufficiently disturbing so as to cause the listener to be unimpressed. Sure, we all like to hear different takes or the “candid” chatter or the other elements of certain numbers, but just as hearing a set of songs has caused us to like the musicians in the first place, there is the potential that hearing a different set of songs by the same performer could cause us to lose respect. It may become evident that what we heard as virtuosity becomes nothing more than mediocrity. So, what might seem as an unalloyed good (more tunes previously unheard) may actually have the consequence of causing us to have severely diminished appreciation. Which then, of course, would mean that we’d have to go in search of new music to sate our audio interests.

6 thoughts on “Breaking Up With a Radio Sweetheart”

  1. This may flip the foregoing argument, but consider this: Would it be possible to dislike a band through the officially and contemporaneously released recordings and then to hear, say, one of the multitudinous “unheard” cuts from the Monkees collection or versions 4 and 12 of “Herion,” and then come to the conclusion that the bands really are damn good? (Of course, the likelihood that you’d ever listen to anything with any sense of sympathy–i.e., if you were at a party and someone said, “Hey, listen to this Monkees’ cut,” and you didn’t like the Monkees, you’d probably be instantaneously negative–is approximately zero.)

  2. Mac, you just have to sneak it onto a mix tape and don’t give them the track listing until later! I’m trying to think of rare songs by groups I hate that I’ve unexpectedly heard and liked — I know there are tons — but all I can think of is Sha Na Na’s live version of “At the Hop” from the Woodstock sounndtrack, which I still say is punk rock.

  3. There used to be this band called The Microtones from Traverse City, Michigan, that did great punk/ska covers of Monkees tunes. Their punked-out version of ‘Steppin’ Stone’ kicked ass.

  4. I tend to find that the supplemental material is pretty good and usually can’t be stopped from buying a re-release if it’s got enough stuff riding along. Sometimes it’s better than the original BECAUSE it’s been less tampered with than engineers and who-knows-who. The VU Loaded 2-disc set was cool because they had a whole alternate version of the album (not as good as the orig, but I had almost played Loaded out and it was a welcome change). It seems unlikely that I could be turned off by material that a band did when they were feeling loose or they thought the tape wasn’t running. Live bootlegs sometimes though, make you realize some bands should stay in the studio (and of course the opposite is true).

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