We live in an age of revolution. I've been alive barely 41 years, and yet, the world has changed on a day to day, minute to minute basis, since I reached some form of adulthood.
If all you've known is the modern technological world, the concept of the way it used to be would be like a throwback to the dark times. We're now so reliant on the instant transference of information that a system whereby stuff didn't happen that way seems like some kind of crippled worldview. An archaic throwback to the drought of music.
Twenty years ago, for example, there were one million people on the internet, and there was no graphical browser : it was all text based, and staggeringly so, relying on 16 kbps of text based information. These days information runs at something like 60 times that speed as a basic of 1mb/sec.
Information was disseminated through print alone. Every piece of news you read was hours old, and had been vetted by one of a select group of editorial teams at a newspaper, radio station, or TV hub. No Twitter, no Facebook, nothing like that at all. There was no pocket computer in your phone that you could access nearly every piece of information in the world.
Nowadays, U2 play “In Gods Country” in Phoenix Arizona, and two hours later, someone in Britain can be watching it over their breakfast. Nowadays, if you want to hear an obscure Nirvana song that Kurt Cobain only sang once on a radio show, it's there in 15 seconds. Congratulations, you have won!
When I was younger, this was a very different world. Someone got a tape, and from that copied more tapes, until a discreet network of cassette tapes was running all over the world, with obsessions around the generation of the copy in the belief that each generation lost an imperceptable percentage of the original signal. These physical media existed in a world of contact sports, and each play wiped away a tiny section of the original, until all you were left with was fuzz and nothingness.
If you were lucky, and had the budget, you could buy Bootleg CD's and VHS tapes.
The only way to know for sure if Pink Floyd played “One Slip” at Oakland on 22nd April 1994 – for the only time since 1989 – was to find a cassette, or a bootleg CD, from the show. And how would you do that? You couldn't buy these in HMV. You had to find the independent stores, and look for a section around 'imports'. Some were legitimate, such as Blur and Underworld's Japanese only albums (such as “Live At The Budokan”, “Bustin' And Dronin'”, “Live In Tokyo”, “Oblivion Ball”, and “Live at Camden”). Most in the import section were very far from official releases, being largely live concerts recorded from radio broadcasts – such as “U2 In Dublin 1989” (which was legitimised, of a sort, by the fan club printing an 'official' cut out and keep sleeve in it's quarterly publication), or any number of Pink Floyd or Metallica live releases. At one point, The Sisters Of Mercy were the band with the largest number of bootleg releases on their label, Warner Bros. Not bad for a band that had taken a five year hiatus from live shows and only released three studio records at the time.
In the end, the independent record shop that occupied a single space in a shopping arcade, which was run by the owner, competed with the HMV by stocking these obscure releases at extortionate markups. A single CD would start at £15. A double vinyl LP would be at least £20. (Inflation adjusted, double that figure). The artwork was shoddy, being taken from a press release photo, a grainy 5” x 8” taken from a smuggled camera at the show, or, if you were really lucky, a specially commissioned but obviously fake design of a picture of a church, or a swan in a desert, or something that could violate copyright law as 'passing off'. (or, the infamous legal argument, if it could be mistaken as genuine by 'A moron in a hurry').
The age of the bootleg took off enormously around the time that Oasis and Nirvana broke. The titles and cover art were ridiculous : a live shot of Kurt Cobain backed with a default font that screamed “One Hour At A Desk”, and a title such as “Sniffin' Heroin In Milan 1991!”. Flip it over, and again, a fairly basic set of images. Track titles, in any cases often wrong – even for well known songs – to the extent that, not that I did such, people would find Depeche Mode performed a song called “Touch Faith”, or The Cure had one called “Just Got Paid”, or The Smiths infamous number “Jumped Up Pantry Boy”. In other cases, illicitly smuggled out tapes of The Beatles and Elvis – and boy, did the security guard at that tape vault like blow jobs from hookers in the days before CCTV cameras whilst he 'looked' the other way and people borrowed the tapes – were commomplace.
Copies of Metallica's early demos turned up in import racks in shops and at record fairs on a daily basis, alongside pictures of dragons, and such illustruous titles as “Monster Attack!”. I'd trawl these racks, and carefully select from rumour and photocopied sheets, knowing that Nirvana in Milan on 22nd February 1994 was taken from a radio broadcast, and whilst The Cure Birmingham 1987 was broadcast on radio, those songs weren't, and it was sourced from an audience tape. The only way to be sure was to find the fabled KTS label, which operated out of Italy, and used the Mechanical Royalty loophole – that is, lodging royalties with the publisher for the sales of their CD's – and thus, violating some law. KTS operated almost exclusively in the world of radio broadcasts and the sets were largely immaculate in quality. Sometime in 1995, the law was replaced as part of Italy's membership of the European Union, and the KTS label quietly wound up to avoid any prosecution.
Other labels, it was strictly potluck. A number of bootlegs deliberately got the titles wrong to promise some exclusive new song the band had only played live, only to be revealed to be a callous bait-and-switch. The recording could be a random assortment of radio sessions and soundchecks, as Nirvana's infamously hard to get – and harder to enjoy - “Outcesticide” series. Owning these bootlegs, and the more the better, was the sign of the serious fan. You didn't just go to HMV at the weekend. You went beyond. You went, as Axel Foley described, deep, deep, deep undercover. You took the risk, and paid far too much money. You paid £25 for “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, which was the first show of the Pink Floyd tour. On occasion, in 1987, members of Pink Floyd were beaten to New York by their own bootlegs, and the stores were full of bootleg LP's from the opening night of the tour three weeks earlier. That's how competitive it was. The recordings were often appalling, being one set of cassettes recorded using microphones attached to a baseball cap near a speaker, the taper being deathly quiet, and hoping to God the mogadon bystanders nearby weren't going to sing out of tune, talk loudly about getting stoned or seeing a film about Patton, or try and ask the girl next to them out of a date. But sometimes that was part of the fun.
One particularly excitable audience was Kraftwerk in Birmingham in 1991. I wish I was there, to be honest.
There's also the moments where things don't go to plan : any listen to U2 doing the happily titled “Springhill Mining Disaster” from 1987 normally ends with Bono lambasting the crowd for not paying attention, for a start.
Talking of which, I possess 10 U2 bootleg live albums, and um, 42 Pink Floyd ones. That's enough for now.
Living in the UK, we were relatively lucky and able to access this stuff. Radio broadcasts were the prestige of Radio 1's Friday Night concert at 9pm. You could sacrifice a Friday night out – especially if you didn't have much money – put in a C90, and record a new live set by your favourite band, that you would absorb and listen to again, and again. Even now, I open conversations with a particularly obsessive subset of my friends with lines from bootlegs : such as Roddy Bottom's intro to “Surprise You're Dead” from Sheffield 1989 -
“You guys awake out there? This one's called.... Like A Virgin.” (Surprisingly, it's NOT on YouTube!)
For the more advanced, I have been known to open a flippant conversation with a friend with a mid-song adlib (this time, from Metallica at Milton Keynes, 1993). Fuck Yeah, Motherfuckers!
Of course not sweary adlibs are available. Am I bugging ya? I'm not trying to bug ya.
Saturdays were made of going to town on the 45 bus and going to the record fair – crates and crates of cardboard boxes of CD's, LP's, and the £5 bootleg photocopied tape, and picking out carefully from an extremely limited budget your purchases, trading the possibility of the misnamed “Nitrate mix” of Depeche Mode's “Rush” that – until you played – may only have been released in America, versus the risk of a set of new Ned's Atomic Dustbin songs from Mexico played 10 months before they appeared on an album. These were serious decisions. Music was an investment, and you could only get so much of it in any week. Even blank cassettes cost money, at £3.99 for 5 or £6.99 for 10 TDK C-90's, and having a friend with the patience to copy the material for you. More than once, I recorded albums for friends, turned the volume off, and watched television – or interrupted a dinner to turn the album over, pressing pause – not stop – so as to not have the vulgar THUNK of tape heads hitting the tape. Even to the point of manually spinning a vinyl LP backwards and manually winding the 5 second lead in with a Bic Biro (because pencils were too thin) to just before the actual tape started, so as to minimise hiss and dead space. I even got to know which brands averaged longer lengths. TDK averaged around 47 and a half minutes per side. And that mattered. On a 43 minute LP, that four minutes was enough space for an extra track, a single b-side.
Filler on tapes was important. Remixes, B-sides, radio session tracks, all of these could be compiled on side B to allow you to compile your own deluxe editions of existing records on the tape. Metallica double albums, thankfully, were always chock full of crappy cover versions and demos on shitty 10” blood red singles and skull-shaped picture discs.
This was the world we used to live in. A steady dripfeed of material, only existing in limited physical media, a limited budget from which to expand that pool, and every album was not just a risk, but an investment. If the album was shit – and oh, some of them certainly were – you had to wait a week until the next one. Or you could wait a few weeks, and find it in the racks of Rounders, or Steve Sounds, or Polar Bear, or Kev's, or anyone of a dozen record shops, possibly, for half the price. Unless some equally skint bastard with great taste beat you to it. It's a long way from hollowing out a seat in a car to smuggle albums into the communist states, but also, not a long way. Music was a limited, precious commodity, a band came to your town maybe once every two years, and an alum less so, so the music was absorbed, listened, treasured, and every line known, every mix considered, every B-side – at least – tried, even the crappy instrumentals that made up the 12” b-side of the four single from the album. And when that wasn't enough, it was to the record fair, to the import store, to the crappy bootleg.
It's not that I'm nostalgic. I'm not at all. In this day and age, the idea of infinite music, running like water, is wonderful. All of it, at my fingertips, at a seconds notice. How wonderful. The risk is, should Morrissey decide, songs you have known for decades – such as “Roy's Keen”, or ”The Ordinary Boys”, may just disappear one day from a playlist, as if it was never there. And that is why I like art to hold, to keep, to treasure. Because history matters, even if history involves a C90 recorded in a baseball arena in America in summer 1994, just because Rob Halford once sang a Judas Priest with Metallica.
It happened. We were there. It was real. And I prefer it now. We're living in the future. Surely it's better now than it was then?