Music Snob? Then “bootlegs” are for you….

Back in the late 60’s a couple of longhaired music freaks began a small, illicit business from their L.A. area garage. They had in their possession a few tapes featuring unreleased material from Bob Dylan performances. These tapes included selections from a recording made in a Minneapolis hotel room in 1961, a few tracks from Dylan’s Woodstock rehearsals with (a group soon to be known as ) The Band and one track recorded directly from a cheesy TV speaker of Dylan’s performance of “Living The Blues” from the Johnny Cash Show.

These two hippie entrepreneurs found a backer to pay for pressing a few thousand copies of a double-record they dubbed “The Great White Wonder.” The cheaply produced jacket (both records were crammed into one sleeve) featured a newspaper photo of Dylan playing at The Isle Of Wight Festival. The “cover” titles were printed on cheap multi-colored paper like a grade-school newsletter and glued to the blank jacket. A real low-budget production.

The audio quality of these records was definitely “Lo-Fi,” but due to the star-power of Dylan and the exotic nature of the surreptitious recordings, the boys found quite a demand for their product. Underground record stores and head shops were selling them for up to $12.50 apiece (more than the going rate for an “official” 2-record set at that time.) Likewise, underground radio stations began playing selections which increased demand.

The freaks had a hit on their hands but their distribution was a bit spotty. Seems neither fellow owned a car, so they had to borrow vehicles to make their deliveries. So was born the bane of the major labels (and their artists,) The Bootleg.

With the success of “GWW” it wasn’t long before pilfered recordings of artists like The Beatles, Stones, The Who, Doors and Van Morrison started hitting the racks. All equally low-budget and all selling surprisingly well. A label that specialized in selling boots was spawned and fans began looking for the “Trademark Of Quality” on their cheap-o record cover.

Now, I’m not condoning bootlegging of an artist’s work. Having tried to make a living as a creative professional I know how bad it sucks to be ripped-off and having your work out there making money for somebody else. But, as a hardcore music fan the allure of the bootleg was pure catnip. I still didn’t buy many because the audio quality was usually intolerable. But, if you wanted to hear what the Rolling Stones turned in to their record company in order to break their contract (and thus start their own label) you could only find it on a bootleg. Now, the Stones’ unreleasable “Cocksucker Blues” might not get much airplay, but it sure was heavy on cool factor. Playing this stuff for your friends at a party made you a “hep cat” for sure.

But, the world has changed. Dylan and Columbia Records got smart and began officially releasing the “bootlegged” material with vastly improved audio (they had the original tapes in most cases) and packaging. Other artists have followed suit with various boxed sets or re-releases with “bonus” tracks thus thwarting the need to seek out the secret booty. Some bands, like the Grateful Dead, not only looked the other way on the bootleg issue, they allowed taping of their shows by fans. The caveat being that these recordings (often made directly from Healy’s soundboard mix) not be sold. This started a huge “tape-swapping” community that only enhanced the Dead’s popularity. It didn’t hurt the group’s record sales either. Now, Grateful Dead Productions releases the most popular Dead shows in their “From The Vault” series. Hardcore Deadheads still slurp ’em up for the improved audio and nifty packaging.

The advent of the Internet has made music fans delerious with the ability to find and “share” files. Again, most artists these days partcipate directly or indirectly in the phenomena of “bootlegging.” The hard, steadfast rule of these minions is that these recordings be “traded” and not sold. A person who asks for compensation of any kind is ostracized from the “trading community.” It is strictly a “By Fans, For Fans” hobby and is viewed as good PR by the artists. Many musicians make their shows and other material available for downloading on sites like and at least receive some compensation from advertising sold on the site.

So, with the history of music “bootlegs” out of the way, here’s my Top Ten Bootlegs Of All Time:

1. Thin, Wild, Mercury Music / Bob Dylan

Most of this material has shown up as part of “No Direction Home,” the Scorcese  documentary of Dylan’s mid-60’s electric period. Still, the really weird “Just A Little Glass Of Water” which is a slow, dirge-like rendition of the song that would become “She’s Your Lover Now” from the 1966 “Blonde On Blonde” sessions makes this one worth having. What’s funny is, “She’s Your Lover Now” didn’t end up on an official album until the “Bootleg Series, Vol. I & II” and was a much sought after boot by collectors. This eerie, slowed down version literally sounds like Dylan is writing the song on the spot with the tape running. This collection is primarily studio outtakes so the sound quality is excellent.

2. Buenosera / Van Morrison

This has surfaced under a number of different titles but the 2-disc set is a masterpiece. Recorded at Pacific High’s studio in Sausilito in 1971 with a small audience, this was originally intended to be an official release. Van and his band give inspired performances of well-known songs like “Into The Mystic” and “Domino” as well as unveiling the soon to be released “Wild Night” and “Tupelo Honey.” The real standout tracks are “Hound Dog,” “Buenosera Signorita,” and a killer version of Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.” I’d also venture that the performance of Astral Week’s classic “Ballerina” is superior to the original. This bootleg was actually remastered in 1999 and the sound quality is very good for a bootleg.

3. April 10, 1988 Cologne, Germany / Leonard Cohen

This is an excellent 3-disc soundboard recording of a masterful Cohen show from, what I believe to be, his best overall tour (although I only witnessed shows from the 1974, 1988 and 1993 tours.) His elegant between song patter along with a top-notch musical backing make this a Cohen-lover’s dream set. In addition to the complete concert we’re even treated to the pre-show soundcheck where Lenny and the band run through several tunes as a warm-up. They even do “The Law” twice to get the room sounding just right.

4. Beggar’s Breakfast / The Rolling Stones

5. Beware Of Abkco / George Harrison

6. Get Back / The Beatles

7. From Newport To The Ancient Empty Streets Of L.A. / Bob Dylan

8. Sweet Home Chicago / Muddy Waters (with the Rolling Stones)

9. Blossoms Of Heaven, Ashes Of Hell / Leonard Cohen

10. The Grateful Dead at the Hollywood Palladium 1970

11. Blood On The Other Tracks / Bob Dylan

Blogger’s Note: I have some things to do away from the computer but rather than save this post for later publication, I’m going to put it up now and finish the descriptions on the list later. Thanks.

Explore posts in the same categories: Thoughts & Musings

2 Comments on “Music Snob? Then “bootlegs” are for you….”

  1. Uncle E Says:

    Owning a bootleg was a badge of honor back in the good old days of vinyl. Even though, as you mentioned, the sound quality was usually poor. There were several very cool record shops (*sigh*) were I could find bootlegs for about double the cost of a regular LP, and they were treasured additions to my collection, for sure.

  2. Glen Banks Says:

    One might make a case for the Beatles BBC Great Dane Box Set or the Lost Lennon Tapes LPs. If not for releases such as these, the mainstream labels would never be issuing outtakes, demos and other relics. The very notion of a box set full of unreleased or otherwise overlooked material was straight from the bootleggers’ cookbook and is now an industry standard. Do you think the Beatles would have ever released the Anthology series if not for the success of Unsurpassed Masters, the John Barrett Tapes and Ultra Rare Trax?

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