Friday, April 24, 2009

Reissue! Repackage! Repackage!

Today’s recommendation: a moratorium on musical revisionism.

Before going into this post, I need to get this off my chest: I am an old fashioned, album kind of guy. I suppose in that sense, I have never really fully bought into the digital age. I mean, yes, I own an iPod, and I occasionally will use the shuffle all songs feature when I’m in the car. For the most part, though, if I am listening to music – not just putting music on in the background, but actually listening to it, which is an activity that I am not convinced more than 25% of the populace actually engages in,, but that is the subject for another post – I likely know what it is that I want to listen to, and so that is what I will listen to. Perhaps I am feeling nostalgic, and I want to listen to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. I will not just put on “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Idiot Wind” and move on, I will listen to the entire album. It doesn’t matter that I really, really hate “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” and that that song prevents this from being a perfect album (again, another post) – it is part of the album, and therefore when I listen to Blood on the Tracks, I listen to it.

The whole concept of skipping tracks on an album has always been somewhat alien to me. Perhaps it is due to my musical taste usually lying outside of the sphere of manufactured pop, where only three singles are needed to make an album, and the rest is filler. A lot of the bands that I listen to seem to have more of an album-based aesthetic rather than a singles-based aesthetic, and the albums seem designed to be enjoyed as a whole (otherwise, I would only purchase the singles). Even if I hate one or two of the songs, it is part of the artist’s original vision and who am I to second-guess that?

But second-guessing seems to be done all too often these days. I shouldn’t say “these days,” really – this has been going on at least since the ‘60s, when the UK and US versions of Beatles and Stones records carried completely different tracklistings (and, in almost every case, the original UK version was superior – even in the case of the Stones’s Aftermath, “Paint It, Black” be damned). Now, though, there just seems to be a more malicious edge to it. Then, as now, the rationale came down to money – the UK albums eschewed singles, assuming that the fans already owned the singles. Singles and albums were viewed as entirely different beasts. When the US version of the album would be issued, The singles that had been released prior to that album would be inserted into the tracklisting, at the expense of some album tracks. Under this philosophy, the single was seen as a way of selling the album, the assumption (probably not entirely incorrect, granted) being that if the American record-buying public did not have the instant gratification of a recognizable hit single, they would not purchase the album.

(N.B.: I have not researched this, so this description may be entirely composed of naïve simplifications and misunderstandings, and may in fact be entirely inaccurate. If this is the case, then I want you to please feel free to just turn your head the other way and ignore it; this is not meant to be academic writing, after all!)

This trend seems to have abated quite a bit by the time the 70s rolled around, though it still reared its head every now and then, most famously in the case of the first album by The Clash (do you want to guess how I have that one tracked in my iTunes?) After CDs had been around on the consumer market long enough to feel safe and established (probably the early to mid 1990s), we began to enter a long age of revisionist reissues that is still raging on.

One of the most egregious examples of recent revisionism is The Cure. Their debut single was called “Killing an Arab,” and was based on the novel, The Stranger, by Albert Camus. It is pretty much a narrative clone of that novel, in fact; there really seems to be no racial hatred involved in the title; the novel just happens to be set in Algeria, and the man the narrator shows is, indeed, an Arab. In any case, when the collection Staring at the Sea: The Singles was released in 1986, the band and label were pressured into placing a disclaimer sticker on the album stating that it was based on a novel and that The Cure neither endorse nor condone racial prejudice or violence. Silly, but fair enough.

The real revisionism began with the issue of The Cure’s Greatest Hits CD in November of 2001. “Killing an Arab” was conspicuously absent from this disc. Fair enough, I thought at the time; after all, it wasn’t a big radio hit, even if its status as a fan favorite would likely be enough to warrant its inclusion here. Then, in 2004, The Cure began their reissue campaign of the old albums. When they reissued their first album, Three Imaginary Boys (which had, of course, originally been issued in the US at Boys Don’t Cry with “Killing an Arab” inserted into the tracklisting and a handful of album tracks removed), the song was nowhere to be found on the second disc, in spite of its status as a contemporaneous single. The Faith reissue did include “Charlotte Sometimes,” a contemporaneous single, as a bonus track, so the argument cannot be made that the label chose not to include standalone singles. No, this looks to me like a case of the label trying to act like this song has never existed. Because both Staring at the Sea: The Singles and Boys Don’t Cry are out of print, the song, which is of no small historical importance, remains out of print.

Of course, this is a rather extreme example, and most cases of revisionism are not so political as that. Most of them involve merely tacking bonus tracks onto the end of an album. I am torn over this practice. While having bonus tracks is nice, there is something about the completeness and stasis of the album that is disrupted when one tacks track at the end. In the ‘90s, the Rykodisc Elvis Costello reissue campaign left ten seconds of silence on the disc after the album proper before the bonus tracks began, which at least gave you a subtle aural cue that the album was done. The early-aughts Rhino reissue campaign added several bonus tracks to each release and put all the bonus tracks on a second disc, leaving the album proper, well remastered, on its own, unadulterated disc. This reissue campaign, as well as Rhino’s subsequent Cure reissue campaign, seems to respect the original forms of the albums. (For the record, this particular Elvis Costello reissue campaign may be my favorite reissue campaign ever. We will see how The Beatles reissues measure up this September.)

Rhino is not above making a few mistakes, however; just look at their recent reissuing of the entire catalog by the notoriously reissue-aversive band, The Replacements. First of all, it is incomplete; certain b-side recordings and rarities are missing for no discernible reason. Second, the bonus tracks are tacked on to the end of the album; once again, no respect for the original album. Third, Rhino have seen fit to excise things such as bits of studio chatter at the beginning of some tracks; this is not a big deal to me, and I take no issue with it whatsoever, but some purists who have grown up with these albums have called Rhino out on this, and although this is not my battle, I stand firmly in solidarity with these people. But the biggest problem with this reissue campaign is the way they signaled the transition from the album to the bonus tracks. Here’s how it goes:

  • First, five seconds or so of silence.
  • Then, footsteps.
  •  Next, the sound of a vault door creeping open.

 Yes, seriously. This is what they did. Fortunately, I have Fission on my computer, so I was able to excise this, so that I don’t have to hear these footsteps and vault door opening every time I want to listen to “Answering Machine.” Still, though, I should not have had to do that. The extra sounds should not have been there. They are not cute. They are grating the first time you hear them, and they get progressively worse with each subsequent listen. It’s a shame, because Rhino’s remastering really sounds terrific on these albums (Tim and Pleased to Meet Me in particular really needed badly to be remastered). For the record, the last bonus track on each album ends with the vault door slamming shut and the footsteps walking away. Unbelievable.

So here is what I am proposing: why alter an album that has already been established? As much as I enjoy getting more songs, I also want to respect and preserve the album. When bonus tracks are to be had, record labels can follow the model Rhino used with The Cure and Elvis Costello and put the bonus tracks on a second disc. Or they could issue a CD of b-sides and rarities, or a double CD, or even a box set. Either way, this tendency toward changing the albums as they were originally recorded and released seems to me tantamount to disrespect for the artists, and disregard for the art they produced.

I had some more thoughts, but they are gone, and this is already three (single-spaced) pages in word, which means I should have stopped long ago. I will be expanding this into a longer and more academic think piece on my solo blog in a couple of weeks, so hopefully those thoughts will be back by then.


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