30 January 2008

Book review: The Greatest Music Never Sold

There are people who believe that, had Brian Wilson managed to complete the Beach Boys' SMiLE album back in 1967, it would have supplanted Sgt. Pepper's as the default Greatest Album Of All Time. Its re-recording and eventual release in 2004 could have been seen as fuel for these arguments, but instead it just laid them to rest once and for all. Absent the context of the 1960s, the album functions as something of an odd time capsule rather than an earth-shattering masterpiece. But more importantly, now that the album can actually be heard, Wilson's more devoted supporters are no longer free to imagine just how wonderful it might have been. With the veil of mystery lifted, most of its lustre is inevitably lost. No matter how good it is, it's a little bit disappointing simply by dint of being mere music.

Dan Leroy's book is a much a cooler idea than finished product. He's pieced together the complete behind-the-scenes stories of nine albums that were supposedly completed but never released. And, in a way, the list is a little disappointing. How many people are really clamouring for a chance to hear the thwarted magnum opi of, say, Chicago, or Adam Ant? Or that great lost Mick Jagger solo album from the 90s?

Having said that, some of the stories themselves are admittedly quite interesting, more so than the prospect of the actual album in question, which makes for a decent read. The Jagger chapter, for instance, is a trip. Leroy focuses on the history of an obscure LA bar band known as the Red Devils, who were called one day out of the blue to come into the studio and record with Jagger and producer Rick Rubin. Rubin's concept was that the band would have no advance knowledge of the session, come in and learn a bunch of old blues tunes from scratch, then record the whole thing in the same day. Apparently they pulled it off, but it's never been released.

Leroy's biggest shortcoming is that he constantly falls into the Smile trap of describing each album as the artist's best work ever or, in the case of older artists like Chicago, in many years. In the case of Juliana Hatfield's God's Foot, he goes so far as to speculate that it would have been considered one of the finest albums of the decade. But if all these albums are so good, wouldn't at least a few of them have eventually seen release? And are all lost albums good? Aren't there a few long-lost clunkers out there too?

Apparently not, or at the very least the book would have been longer. Which brings us to Leroy's other problem: there's really not a lot of material here. He stretches it past 300 pages, but that's with wide margins and a big fat font size. It seems as though, with most of the albums in question, the principal players in the drama at hand didn't really have a great deal to say about it. There are a few tasty bits of he-said-she-said, as in the tug of war between the writer and director of the Ray Davies musical that got lost on the way to Broadway, but not nearly enough. Most of the artists either refused to talk about their album or had come to accept that it was a lost cause, and expressed disappointingly little residual bitterness.

Leroy also explains right off the bat why he hasn't chosen to write about a few of the most famous lost albums in pop music history. Smile and The Black Album got released; Chinese Democracy is still not officially abandoned; and no one from Neil Young's camp would discuss Homegrown. All valid reasons, but they seem to leave the remaining selections wanting. Of the nine albums to get a full overview, Crazy Wisdom Masters was the only one I had ever heard of (or that I'm dying to hear). These albums may be lost, but they're hardly legendary.

In the final chapter Leroy gives a few pages each to several lost albums that, for whatever reason, warrant a mention but not a full chapter. Some never really existed (Kraftwerk's Techno Pop), or there's scant evidence that much recording ever actually took place (Buckethead Plays Disney). Or in the case of the Bubbleheads, an alleged rap-rock supergroup including Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa, Ice-T, Vernon Reid, Flea, Doug Wimbish, Bernie Worrell and several others, scant evidence that the actual band ever really existed. In that case, why not include the Masked Marauders?

But these tidbits, along with Leroy's statement in the book's introduction that he hopes to write a sequel, give the book something of an unfinished feel. Why not collect some more stories and flesh them all out, strive for something more definitive? Juliana Hatfield's A&R rep kept sending her back to the studio to come up with one more song, one more song. Perhaps Leroy's publisher should have done the same.

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