When I was at university and was developing my tastes in music beyond the fairly narrow genre of 90s rock that I’d listened to up to that point, I came across one of the more cynical and disappointing aspects of the music industry. Compilation tapes (as they were then) that you could buy for about £3 in bargain shops, which were packed full of hits by bands like The Drifters, but were actually re-recordings by musicians with about as much claim to being in The Drifters as I have.
So you’d have Up On The Roof and Under The Boardwalk, but not quite the versions you were hoping for. So what was the point? Seemingly, the point was for record companies who didn’t own the rights to those songs to be able to make money from them by getting people with vague associations to the bands (or, even worse, original artists who had fallen on hard times) to re-record them. There was no artistic reason for doing so, and the music was always cheap-sounding and poor quality. So I had to start checking the back of these compilations to see if it made mention of things like ‘Contains re-recordings by original artists’ or something similar.
Of course, re-recordings aren’t always done for purely cynical musicians who are past their peak. Three examples of more recent re-recordings are by Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega and rock band Everclear, none for low-budget compilations, but ‘proper’ new albums and with artistic reasons behind them and the songs are deliberately done slightly differently. Vega has even released three whole volumes of her Close-Up series over the last 18 months and there’s another on the way, which is remarkable for someone who has only released seven albums of new material since 1985.
The songs on Close-Up are done in a stripped-down acoustic manner, which is hardly a massive step from the original versions, but does take away some of the 80s production of her earliest hits. Whether that’s enough of an artistic reason to redo them all is open to debate, but with sales of her last, excellent, album disappointing and her songs otherwise owned by record labels, you can see why she might want to self-release them in this way. And whether they are massively different or not, they do still all sound lovely in their new versions, making for three really good albums.
Kate Bush’s decision to release Director’s Cut earlier this year confounded some people, and you can understand why. Six years since her last album, announcing a new release aroused plenty of excitement, which turned to consternation when it turned out that it would be made up of new versions of songs from her The Sensual World and The Red Shoes albums. The danger of going back and reworking things is that, once you’ve released something, it stops being your possession and becomes ‘owned’ by your fans, who don’t like you messing with it. Just ask George Lucas.
However, once the initial confusion and disappointment had worn off (ie, once the album had actually been released), Director’s Cut turned out to be very good. Essential? Maybe not quite, but given the scarcity of new Bush releases, certainly worthwhile. But less worthwhile than an album of new material would have been, and it does make you worry that she’s lacking inspiration for a release like that if she’s having to go back and play around with songs from the late 80s.
My final example is Everclear, an American rock band who approached some level of fame in the mid-to-late 90s and captured my teenage heart. They’ve had a turbulent time since then, particularly in HR terms, with lead singer Art Alexakis ditching the classic line-up in 2003 and then getting rid of their replacements six years later. The current line-up then went in to re-record old songs for an album called In A Different Light, doing the old classics with a new band on a new record label, presumably for similar reasons to Vega’s Close-Up series.
The new versions are not quite ‘unplugged’, just a bit less noisy at times, and the only one that really adds anything is the version of Fire Maple Song from their very raw debut album. None of these albums are bad at all, but they do sum up the main issue when it comes to re-recordings. Whether they’re done for commercial or artistic reasons, those reasons are a lot more about the artists themselves than their fans. We don’t need these re-recordings, but we buy them out of loyalty or a desire for complete collections.
So, when’s Close-Up Vol 4 out then?