So many vinyl-reissues and only so much cash. I fucking hate this kind of choice, and I can’t help but feel a bit ripped off, but the truth of the matter is that for all it seems a bit cheeky, I still really, really want these immaculate new vinyl versions of old albums I love.
Part of Guy Hands’ comically disastrous purchase of EMI a few years ago was the anticipation of mining the back catalogue of the label for infinite re-packaging and re-release. It was supposed to be a viable new model, and for all it failed completely, the idea was clearly not crazy because a lot of people are enthusiastically embracing large aspects of it today.
For example Mute have just sold their back catalogue to BMG, and one of the first things that they did was to decide upon an immediate re-release of most of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ back catalogue. As a massive Nick Cave fan, of course this is thrilling news for me, albeit in a slightly wary sort of way.
But really, given I have already bought a lot of these albums a couple of times already (the old vinyl -> tape -> CD -> etc… milking process) there is a perfectly reasonable argument to make that this is basically just ripping off an existing fanbase, exploiting their nostalgia and love for the bands to get your hands in their now well-stuffed middle aged pockets. It can feel, no matter how much I love a lot of the music, pretty grubby.
This isn’t a new thought to be considering, of course, but at this point in time there are three series of these reissues which all seem to be approaching it a little differently, and I think it sort of highlights where I start to feel exploited, and where I think that it feels less like back-catalogue-flogging and more like fan-boy completism.
Bob Dylan Bootleg Series
It feels fair to say that pretty much no-one has exploited their back catalogue more (or indeed better) than Bob Dylan. Live show reissues, rarities, early demos, encyclopaedic album sessions… you name it, if he’s recorded it, someone has remastered it, stuck it on vinyl and flogged it to idiots like me.
For all I feel that my weakness for Bob Dylan has been identified and exploited, though, I am not sure I would really call the Bootleg Series exploitative. It’s a bit merciless, I guess – I mean, holy fuck, how many hundreds and hundreds of pounds have they managed to prise out of me since this series first started, but holy hell it’s good. The records are beautifully packaged and accompanied by gorgeous design and extensive writing and photography, and this really helps emphasise the raison d’être of the collection, as well as making it a wonderful thing to own in and of itself.
Some of it’s a bit obscure and weird, but for the most part this is all new material as well, things which existing über-fans and regular passive fans can enjoy equally. As an example, the 1966 Royal Albert Hall recording is arguably the greatest live album of all time. For a casual Bob Dylan fan, this contains some of the most ferocious and vital recordings of his music – it’s not just scratchy shit, played and recorded less well than the album the songs were released on, these are actually the best versions ever captured of many of these tunes. On the other hand my parents are huge Dylan fans – my mum was actually at the Manchester Free Trade Hall show which gets surreptitiously spliced into the recording part of the way through. They were, in fact, amongst the outraged folkies who howled in dismay as their hero went electric.
When I bought this for my folks I said ‘I know you’ll love the acoustic half of this, but just listen to the full band side – it’s one of the most electric (ha ha), confrontational performances I have ever heard’. Predictably, after a few weeks they got back to me saying ‘well yes, but the acoustic side really is incredible. It’s Dylan at his best really.’ But what surprised me was my dad taking the time, almost a year later, to agree that the second album, the plugged-in part, really was incredible – that it really was the highlight of the album.
So it works for casual fans, it works for lifelong fans, and for someone like myself it made me understand just how intense the betrayal when Dylan went electric really was for his fans, even to a degree for society itself, something I could never have understood from simply reading about it. This may be the pinnacle of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and an exceptional moment in music history, but if you are going to mercilessly mine a back catalogue for things to sell to people, this is how you do it.
The Wedding Present Reissues
The other vinyl reissues I wanted to discuss are a little different from the Dylan Bootleg Series, in that they aren’t releases of material people haven’t necessarily heard before, they are simply plain old reissues of old albums to an established fanbase. This is where things start to feel a little more dubious. ‘Hey, people who already bought this the first time, how about buying it AGAIN? This time for TWICE THE PRICE because it’s a deluxe reissue on heavy vinyl.’ You know what I mean.
Where these reissues make sense, however, is that The Wedding Present were at their most prominent during the nineties nadir of vinyl manufacture. A lot of their stuff was pressed, if at all, in runs so tiny that getting hold of the bastard things is a serious challenge. I know. I have tried. Bizarro and Seamonsters can be tracked down, but the likes of Watusi and Saturnalia represent a bit more of a challenge and can be rather expensive. So for all I kind of resent paying once again for albums I have already bought on CD, well, I still sort of get it, and really it’s my own stupid choice.
Plus, once again, the artwork may not be new but they have taken care with the re-packaging and included single b-sides and EP released around the time of the album as well, and the Wedding Present are a very good b-side band. I still am sulking about it a bit, I must confess. I have successfully tracked down Bizarro and Seamonsters second hand, and I am now looking at these re-releases wondering if I really, really think it’s worth it but… oh, I don’t know. It’s tricky. There’s good stuff here, but it does feel a bit like I am being tricked into paying for the same damn thing over and over again.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Reissues
This is actually today’s announcement: full vinyl reissues of more or less every fucking Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album. This was a proper fucking forehead palm-smack moment for me, because I have put a fair bit of time into finding these recently, and to own slightly tatty old copies when new, heavy, shiny ones will be available so soon is hugely galling.
Beyond just plain bad luck with timing, however, there are a couple of aspects of this which really do smell rather strongly of fish. The first and most obvious one is that this series of reissues includes fucking Dig Lazarus Dig, which was only released in 2008 in the first place. Come on, lads, there’s surely no fucking way that merits a reissue already.
The second, and one which perhaps annoys me the most, is this: for all these are all being remastered the actual quote from the press release about the artwork is this: “Each album has been crafted to reflect the original release from the cover to the printed inner sleeves”. Now, I may be being unreasonably cynical, but to me that reads like they haven’t really done anything to the artwork at all. It’s possible that the original recordings were over-compressed in the mastering stage, because that’s what people did back then, but unless they are remastering the original mixes there’s not much that tweaking an over-compressed master can really do, so even that causes me to raise my eyebrows a little.
I suppose it’s also arguable that a lot of these were originally released on shitty 80s vinyl pressings where the record itself was wafer thin and the liner notes were minimal, so maybe these will just be slightly better quality, but these records are out there so for the most part their scarcity is debatable, with the exception of a couple.
The final product may prove me wrong here, but what this whole enterprise smells of to me is someone realising that the market for second-hand Nick Cave vinyl is strong, there is no in-house stock, and dammit that money should be ours. And that’s actually fair enough, I guess. If people are buying Nick Cave records, they should be buying them from Nick Cave. But once again, I find myself in a position where I have paid for these damn albums so many times I am really starting to resent it. I love the music, I go to the shows, but if I am going to cough up for something like my third fucking version of Henry’s Dream then at least give me something new so that I don’t just feel like you’re taking the piss.
Well, simple, really. I assume that most of these records are being sold to existing fans. It’s possible that this is considered as a chance to gain new press for old material and perhaps address an emerging fan base who might be more likely to buy vinyl than they were ten or fifteen years ago, but in general this stuff is being sold to people like me: people in their 30s and 40s with slightly deeper pockets than we once had and an enduring love for the bands in question. So really, as much as I moan, I really do want these products.
I am delighted about the chance to hear Bob Dylan scare the shit out of his audience for having an electric guitarist and a drummer in his band. I’m actually quite excited about being able to get the three 10″ vinyl reissue of Seamonsters with all the accompanying b-sides and EP tracks. And actually, I hadn’t thought about how good an album No More Shall We Part is for ages, so I am pretty chuffed about it being available on vinyl as well. But please give me something. If you are going to come back for my money again and again for the same material, at least put effort into the artwork, the context provided by the accompanying material, the historical significance for dedicated fans of the band of the unheard material you include, and.. well pretty much anything that makes this more than just a clean, new duplicate of an album I already own, and probably also bought on CD in the 90s too.
It needs to be a bit more than that, because one side is giving dedicated fans something of depth, interest which strengthens their relationship with the band, and on the other is simply ripping people off because vinyl is back again and you know you can get yet another payday for the same damn material. So it’s a very fine line, but not one you want to fall on the wrong side of.