The music business enjoyed a financial windfall when the compact disc was first unleashed, reissuing what seemed like every successful album ever made, mainly to the same people who'd bought them first time around, but for twice the price. Yet for all the promise of the indelible new format, many of the initial transfers from analogue to digital were conducted on the way to the bank, often without band members or producers being consulted, let alone involved, leaving whole back catalogues sounding dull and insipid on CD. Add in the labels' initial disinclination to offer bonus tracks, new artwork, or liner notes, and it's fair to say that those who bought into the initial CD boom were 'had.'
With sales slipping so drastically in the realm of new music, the industry appears to have learned that there is still a gold mine in old albums, but that the public wants (surprise!) quality and value. Almost any album released prior to the 1990s is now considered fair game for a new re-release, usually re-mastered, often remixed, almost always featuring bonus cuts (hopefully some of them previously unavailable), new or additional artwork and some sleeve notes into the bargain. And as the industry discovers that one of the few ways to contend with file-sharing is to package CDs with content that can't easily be copied, more of these reissues are coming with bonus DVDs. For the first time since the CD was invented, the consumer can consider replacing their worn-out old vinyl albums with the CD reissue, without feeling like they've been had.
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The Who's back catalogue is a classic (rock) case of poorly packaged first generation CDs, so poorly mastered they were in fact inferior to the original vinyl. Fortunately, an extensive reissue campaign undertaken in the late 1990s put things right one album at a time, including the 1996 single CD of Tommy, "remixed and digitally remastered" as it was. But Tommy is here, again, now in 5.1 Surround Sound. Let's face the inevitable : every time there's a new audio format, there'll be a new release of Tommy to cash in, I mean to embrace it.
If, like me, you don't have a 5.1 system, the new edition still trumps the 1996 reissue for the fact that, while "researching" this version, Pete Townshend finally unearthed the stereo masters from the 1969 album. (According to Richard Barnes' sleeve notes accompanying the 1996 reissue, producer/manager Kit Lambert "destroyed the tapes by ceremoniously burning them." Who mythology, eh?) The time and effort taken by producers Jon Astley and Andy MacPherson back in '96, remixing the original multi-tracks as closely as possible to the vinyl album, is now rendered null and void, as the newly unearthed masters do that job for them. Certainly, the difference in sound is pronounced. The new stereo version sparkles with a clarity missing from previous reissues. If you don't own Tommy on CD, this is a good time to catch up.
Just don't be unduly influenced by the Bonus CD: there's a reason it's labeled Out-Takes and Demos. Even the greatest of Who obsessives will find their patience sorely tested by four minutes of false starts on 'Miss Simpson.' And while the studio version of Mose Alison's 'Young Man Blues' has its merits, the jam 'Trying To Get Through' struggles to make its case as per its title. A newly mastered version of the surprisingly fiercesome 'Dogs (Part 2)' separates the 5.1 (and stereo) version of these Tommy cast-offs from stereo-only versions of another five familiar Tommy numbers, but it messes with the story's sequencing in the process. For an album we can also hear as a soundtrack and original cast recording, that we can see on film and read about in books and magazines, this represents one visit to the archives too many. A+ for the original album, B for the bonus disc. And at a RRP of $30, a B- for value.
In 1980, they were Britain's brightest hope; U2 were happy to ride their coat-tails with the occasional support slot. By 1983, they were Britain's biggest post-punk rock band. Come 1985, only The Smiths could draw more. Yet by 1988, they had fallen apart - while, paradoxically, successfully breaking America. Which makes it all the more disappointing that in recent weeks, I've met not one, but two savvy New York rock writers who confess to almost total ignorance when it comes to Echo And The Bunnymen's early catalogue. The box set Crystal Days (reviewed here) would be one way for them to find out what they've been missing. But now there's an even better opportunity to catch up, with low-price, re-mastered, bonus cuts versions of the four essential albums and the other one.
CROCODILES is the masterful debut, sounding no less auspicious now, almost 25 years on, that it did upon release in the summer of 1980. Post-punk revivalists of the 21st Century, this is what it was all about. Liverpool kids just out of their teens inventing their own psychedelia. Will Sergeant's irreverent garage guitar riffs. Ian McCulloch's voice, as big as his ego. Southern posh boy Pete de Freitas' remarkable drumming. And Les, taciturn Pattinson, playing the stolid Entwistle role. 'Rescue,' 'Stars Are Stars,' 'Pictures On My Wall,' and 'Do It Clean'. Three previously unissued versions of subsequent album tracks 'Villiers Terrace,' 'Pride' and 'Simple Stuff' and the live Shine So Hard EP in totality. Oh, and the first of those monumentally artistic cover shots that look so utterly pathetic reduced to a 5" CD cover, a whole other reason to mourn the demise of the vinyl LP. A for the original, A- for the bonus cuts.
HEAVEN UP HERE is the cult classic, aka the fan's favorite. Second albums often are. At the time (1981), to a Londoner like myself, it seemed dark and insular, ineffably 'northern', but here in the bright light of a new century, it explodes with the confidence and brashness of a band that knew precisely what it was doing as long as no one tried to explain it for them. 'Show Of Strength,' 'Over The Wall,' 'A Promise' and 'All My Colours.' Previously unreleased bonus tracks are purely for completists: a quartet of live offerings from the Manley Vale Hotel in Sydney, November 1981. But they help confirm that the Bunnymen at this juncture were indeed performing from on high. A- for the original album; B for the bonus cuts.
PORCUPINE is the breakthrough album, the one that lost some fans and gained many more. But it wasn't a fun album to make, as one can hear all too clearly after the initial euphoria of the opening hits, 'The Cutter' and 'The Back Of Love.' Were it not for the stupendous 'Heads Will Roll' half way through, the dour mood would dominate. As it is, Shankar's strings proved a vital component for an album that made the Bunnymen the band of the moment - and yet not before time.
With the Bunnymen's chart success secured (at least in the UK), the confidence returned. They played the Royal Albert Hall at a time when rock bands simply didn't do that sort of thing, and they were as good as any rock band could ever aspire to be, anywhere. That pair of shows accompanied the release of 'Never Stop,' arguably their finest 7" single, featured as a bonus here in elongated 'Discotheque version'. I'm not quite sure where the Alternate Version of 'The Cutter' was previously released; it's new to my collection. There's another four or five of these Alternate Versions; their value depends on how extensive your Bunnymen collection need be. B+ for the original album. A- for the bonus cuts.
OCEAN RAIN is the ambitious departure, the brilliant detour that sadly proved to be the artistic swansong. The Albert Hall and the use of string musicians had let the genie out of the bottle; Echo and The Bunnymen would not be constrained by something as formulated as rock music. Mac and Will switched to acoustic guitars, Pete laid down his sticks and picked up the brushes, and Les further refined his bass-ic melodies. After 'The Killing Moon' soared up the charts and set the agenda, the band decamped to Paris. And for all the farcical fact that the vocals were finally recorded back in Liverpool, Ocean Rain is distinctly Parisian. European. Continental. With the brief exception of 'Nocturnal Me', Ocean Rain rides a euphoric wave of discovery from start to finish. Manager Bill Drummond, more than merely a fifth member, promoted it with the bye-line 'The Greatest Album Ever Made' and then, rightly believing he'd steered perfect course to this point, jumped ship while it paused back in harbour. The Bunnymen would not realize how much they were to miss him until they set sail again.
Bonus cuts here depend on the extent of your Bunnymen collection: most hardcore have long owned the acoustic Life At Brian's recordings, and even with the addition of the previously unissued 'Silver' that performance hasn't aged so well. The band were on fine form when they performed the Crystal Days concert in conjunction with the album's release, but the previously unreleased versions of 'My Kingdom' and 'Ocean Rain' don't trump the album recordings. A+ for the original, B for additional tracks.
When you've scaled the highest peak, there's no where to go back down. At least there were bigger crowds awaiting the Bunnymen for a while, now they were perceived as conquering heroes. 'Bring On The Dancing Horses', recorded in a matter of mere months, symbolized a new Bunnymen, more luscious and lavishly produced for mid-80s American airplay, but neither as idiosyncratic nor as hungry as the Bunnies of yore. Pete left, went mad, came back again, and the ultimately eponymous ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN was recorded at the snail's pace for which producer Laurie Latham was sadly famous. Formulated rock music of the most radio-friendly variety, it wasn't a total artistic disaster, for as Mac points out in the sleeve notes, 'The Game,' 'Lips Like Sugar' and 'Bomber's Bay' have all aged well. But three songs do not an album make, and the rest of what's here sounds hollow at the core. The bonus cuts do their best to redress the balance: two versions of 'Dancing Horses', the original haunting rendition of 'Bedbugs and Ballyhoo' in addition to the soulless version on the album, and the brilliant Jesus and Mary Chain rip-off 'Over Your Shoulder.' Sadly, the energy casually amassed for throwaway b-sides was absent when it came to recording the Album for America. The lack of focus is apparent in the album sleeve; after four lavish Brian Griffin portraits, the band were deemed ready for their close-up and Anton Corbijn, official photographer for U2 (of all Bunnymen rivals), zooms in only to find no one home.
Mac also points out on the sleeve notes that the Grey Album, as it has retrospectively come to be known, sold more than the others (at least in America). But that's no excuse. In the UK, the fans made their disappointment well known and the good ship Bunnymen ran aground soon thereafter. The holes have been patched over many a time since, and the old boat is still occasionally put out to sail, but no one can mistake its current pleasure trips for the fantastic voyages of old. C+ for the original album, B+ for the bonus cuts.
But still. History here is rightly kind. Four classic albums. And the other one. All compiled with due care. A welcome clarity of sound. And enough bonus cuts to ensure the true fans shouldn't mind shelling out all over again. Max Bell's sleeve notes are appropriate chipper, though the inner designs leave much to be desired, especially in photographic reproduction. Am I quibbling? Not really. They claimed to be the greatest band in the world - and for a while they really were. They therefore deserve only the best for posterity. And this series does them proud. All for a mere recommended $12 a CD. If you were there or thereabouts, it's time to relive the magic. If, like those 20-something New Yorkers I've recently come across, you missed out entirely, here's your entry ticket.
WINE? Ocean Rain was recorded in Paris with much slurping of Beaujolais, and a good French bistro wine like the Paul Durdilly Beaujolais Nouveau 2003, or a 2002 Sancerre or Muscadet, may indeed get you in the mood. But the Bunnymen back catalogue is truly noble stuff. It merits an equally esteemed wine, one that drinks well on release, but like the best of the Bunnymen, will be just as good in a decade or two. It's time to splurge on a Châteauneuf du Pape. Try the Domaine Roger Perrin 2002.
Staton is best remembered for her 1976 disco standard 'Young Hearts Run Free', but that may only be because we haven't had opportunity to hear her late sixties soul belters on anything other than super-rare 7" singles and £300-a-pop vinyl copies of her 1972 Fame album. At a time when we're seeing some albums released on CD for at least the third time (hello, Tommy), it's hard to believe that these recordings are only now becoming available. Who's been holding out on us? At this juncture, who cares? Just jump in and enjoy.
As much as this 26-song compilation is about Candi's voice, which rivals Aretha's for sultry power and heartfelt intonation; as much as it's about the performances, which Snap, Crackle and Pop with the same sense of personality as rival southern label Stax's house band, this album is about range. There are straight up Motown-esque call and response R&B songs like 'Evidence' and 'I'll Drop Everything and Come Running,' there are piano-tickled ballads like 'Someone You Use' and 'Mr and Mrs Untrue' and there are country songs, versions of 'Stand By Your Man' and 'In The Ghetto' which indicate the cross-cultural attitude of that era down south. Whatever format Candi chooses, she sings it like she lived it. Given that she toured America in a child group ("We were like the Jackson 5 of Gospel," she recalls in the sleeve notes), ran off to Los Angeles to marry Lou Rawls at 17, then instead returned to Alabama where she got pregnant and ended up mothering four kids in an abusive relationship and all before she began her solo career in earnest there's no disputing that this is one soul singer who didn't have to fake it. Kudos to Honest Jon's for cutting through whatever red tape held this music from the masses these past 30 years. Solid A+.
This is the way to do it. Or at least so it would seem. Remix a classic album for Surround Sound, add in some b-sides and unreleased tracks, and then offer fans the chance of buying the Hybrid CD both with and without an accompanying DVD documentary on The Making Of The Album. But as with Tommy, fans who've already bought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on CD before may feel a little reluctant to splurge out again. Only the addition of the bonus tracks pushes this double vinyl album onto a second CD, and of those, only an acoustic version of 'Candle In The Wind' remains previously unreleased. As for the DVD, it was released separately in 2001 with fifteen minutes' more interviews.
Such, then, is the way of the modern re-release. For someone like myself who owns the album only on second-hand vinyl, the clear mixes and pristine presentation offer the chance to discover it all over again. And it's remarkably enduring. Four of the seventeen original songs are among Elton John's most varied hits: the title track, the aforementioned 'Candle In The Wind,' 'Bennie and The Jets' and 'Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting.' But even casual listeners will be surprised by how many of these songs they find they know: the opening instrumental 'Funeral For A Friend,' 'The Ballad Of Danny Bailey' and the finale 'Harmony.' The DVD, meanwhile, for all that it's been shown on TV and previously released, now has its ideal home. The quality of the package is let down only by John Tobler's sleeve notes, which spend too much time differentiating between American and British chart positions and which opens with the risible citation of Elvis Presley as an example of "erstwhile stars who have faded into relative obscurity." Huh? A for original album. A+ for overall packaging. At $40 with the DVD and $30 without, a mere B for QPR.
You don't have to wait for a Classic Album TV treatment to reissue your album with accompanying DVD, as The Flaming Lips have shown with this supposedly 'Limited Edition' version of their poll-topping 2002 album Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. In fact, given how easy it is these days to download contemporary hit albums off the web, the Flaming Lips package, though a particularly elaborate example, is quite likely the way of the future. The CD presents the album in 'Advanced Surround Sound 5.1' and 'Advanced Resolution Stereo'; I'm not sure I can tell the difference from the original release when listening on my computer or even my relatively hi-fi home stereo, but then the production hardly lacked for clarity first time around.
The accompanying DVD is a veritable treasure chest of family jewels. There are four versions of 'Do You Realize': two audio re-mixes and two full promo videos. Oh, and a Making of The Do You Realize video too. The title track comes in similarly multifarious versions and much as now happens with our Hollywood movie bonuses, there's even a Documentary on the Making of the Very DVD We're Watching.
I don't have time to sit and watch promo videos while listening to music like some do, but I do appreciate the opportunity. I like getting remixes. Our son likes the animated clips. The point, then, is proven: A 'sleeper' album reaches critical mass, and rather than lose further sales to file-sharers, the record company offers consumers a bumper package of audio-visual bonuses they can't get anywhere else. The RRP of $23 seems fair, too, especially up against the Who and Elton John re-issues. A for the original album, A for the new package.
As the Flaming Lips reissue proves, your album doesnt need to be old to warrant repackaging. And as the Bunnymen series proves, you don't need surround sound or visual content either: clear production and a handful of bonus cuts should do the job. Last Exit to Garageland was the promising, energetic 1997 full-length debut by a New Zealand band named after a Clash anthem, released independently, inspiring critical attention and inviting touring opportunities around the world, but falling through the American cracks due to those inevitable distribution issues. The re-release gathers the original album in all its ambitious down-under urgency: 'Nude Star' has a Mary Chain-like fuzz, and 'Come Back,' which starts out in fellow New Zealand natives' Chills territory, veers into a charged chorus akin to the Pixies. But for all Garageland's raw enthusiasm and melodic dexterity, Jeremy Eades' whine never appeases like The Chills' Martin Phillips, and the follow-up album Do What You Want failed to deliver on the debut's promise. It can't be easy, attempting to break out of a small (two) island nation that's 1,000 miles from its nearest music-loving neighbor (Australia), which may be why the eight bonus cuts include a particularly lively version of The Byrds' 'So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star.' And with the kind of coincidence we live for at this web site, the relatively unspectacular 'Struck' insists "Let's play 'Bennie & The Jets.'"
Finally, if nobody has made an offer to release your old album, and you own the rights, you can simply give the thing away online, as Billy Franks has done. (Though he does ask for contributions.) Franks fronted Faith Brothers in the mid-1980s; after a promising beginning with the brassy 'Country of The Blind' and emotive 'Stranger On Home Ground,' the group succumbed to over-production and the debut album Eventide lacked the hunger of original demos and energy of live gigs. (Full disclosure: I managed Faith Brothers for about five months in the midst of all this.) But it's hard to kill a good song completely, especially when Franks is singing, and if you weren't privy to earlier versions, 'The Trademan's Entrance' and 'A Daydreamer's Philosophy' are still haunting in their idealism. B+
In a recent e-mail, Franks wrote me, "The fans always took to Eventide, I think mainly for its fiery quality. But I always was happier with A Human Sound because of the craftsmanship." Fair comment: A Human Sound is more soulful, less in conflict with the production techniques, and taken in isolation, it works. But the songs don't hold up so well, the lyrics are less inspiring, and at only 30 minutes, it feels desperately short. Then again, at these prices, who's complaining?B-
And don't forget to check Billy's latest uploads, 'Live' and B-sides. The live rendition of Peter Gabriel's 'Biko' and the group's own cause celebre, their council estate 'Fulham Court', still send shivers down the spine. As for 'Easter Parade,' available here in far superior b-side version (in comparison to the disappointing Eventide rendition), it remains one of the greatest anti-war ballads ever written, right up there with Elvis Costello's 'Shipbuilding' from the same Falklands-inspired era. A-