Saturday, November 26, 2011

Topping up the pension plan

Frightening, as it may be, there is only a month to go until Christmas. However, take pity - if you can in these embittered, embattled, credit-downgraded, Wall Street-occupying times - on those who run any sort of enterprise, as they will be currently engaged in the annual freakout that is "Q4". If you are unfamiliar with - or simply don't care about - corporate jargon, this is the final 'quarter' of the financial year, in which Brer Loman and his kin pound the proverbial streets of commerce in a last-ditch push to load the corporate coffer before quill-and-ink monkeys close up the fiscal books on December 31.

Entertainment executives have traditionally pinned their hopes and, presumably, their following 12 months' narcotics budget on these final few weeks of the year. The 'holiday season' has traditionally been a bonanza opportunity to shift "units" (in English: CDs and DVDs), with record labels in particular banking on big releases from their most dependable acts to swell the cash flow.

To compensate for digital downloading cutting into profit margins, the music industry's suits have been increasingly turning to the 'mega package' to roll a coin. This has meant raiding the proverbial attics and basements of rock's dusty past to carton up classic albums replete with remastered CDs, vinyl LPs, Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, SACDs, live extras, outtakes, demos, bootlegs, postcards, badges, T-shirts and, probably, the pencil shavings from the original writing sessions. In the Champs-Élysées Virgin Megastore in Paris there is an entire island devoted to these box sets, each aiming to separate the nostalgic from their hard-earned Euros.

Along with U2's "über-deluxe" 20th anniversary package of Achtung Baby (a snip at 320 Euros!) I came across The Beach Boys' Smile Sessions. Though Brian Wilson only released a new version of the largely experimental Smile album three years ago, out comes a new and positively bulging box - as big as a board game - offering a cast array of CDs, different mixes and paraphernalia. There is even, in the US only, one suspects, a version available which includes a Beach Boys Smile-emblazoned surf board - for an eye-watering $5999.

For some artists, these repackages are exercises in loving detail. Jimmy Page personally oversaw the remastering of Led Zeppelin's back catalogue, and Pete Townshend - a feverish curator of The Who's archives - has now done the same with Quadrophenia, the band's legendary 1973 double-album.

It was, Townshend recently declared, the "last great album" the band produced. "I would say we only made three landmark records - Tommy, Who's Next and Quadrophenia," Townshend told fans at a recent question-and-answer session in London. "I've always felt Quadrophenia was the last definitive Who album. I've always regarded it as a very ambitious album, but what got away was the story."

That story, of course, was one of Townshend revisiting the Mod culture of early 60s Britain, and recalling many of the societal cues of his own youth in south-west London.

Unlike Tommy, which invariably got lost in the pretentiousness of trying to be a 'rock opera', Quadrophenia was indeed a tighter record, with a definite sense of The Who at their powerful peak, even despite the ever-present tensions between Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and drummer Keith Moon treading a thin line between eccentric lunacy and drug-addled rock casualty.

Now, in releasing Quadrophenia: The Director's Cut, Townshend has dived deeper into his art to package together the original double album remastered, along with  two whole CDs of previously unreleased material.

While not cheap, the complete set puts into a wider context the Quadrophenia story as well as a band channeling its own individual personalities through their self-styled brand of "maximum R'n'B". The extras - especially the demos and rough cuts - demonstrate a story in development, a voice, a tone and an attitude trying to find an outlet. Sonically, the remastering is fantastic, and if you haven't heard the album for a while, you will experience a new depth to it all.

Digital remastering may have enabled bands to milk their back catalogues, but it has also enabled them to bring out nuances that clunky 1970s analogue technology lost. When the Rolling Stones reissued many of their early 60s ABKCO releases a few years ago with new digital technology applied, a remarkable new clarity came through.

The Stones have always had a very astute approach to business. Mick Jagger's recent endorsement of the EMI takeover by Universal was spoken as a businessman first, and artist a distant second. "Mick likes to run a pretty tight ship," Keith Richards once said of his fellow Glimmer Twin, and it is true that the London School of Economics-educated Jagger is as much the band's CEO as he is its lead singer.

With the Stones - like U2 - running their financial affairs out of the Netherlands, thanks to a generous corporate tax system (subsidized by the Dutch taxpayer, of course), each year they meet at the sumptuous Amstel hotel in Amsterdam for formal board meetings. Their business acumen has inevitably seen them mining their own musical archives for nuggets of green from their almost 50-year recording career.

Following last year's reissue of Exile On Main Street as a box set laden with extras and a price tag to match, their 1978 album Some Girls has now followed suit. Originally appearing at the tale end of punk and the height of the disco era, Some Girls projected much of the Stones' tax-exile, rock star playboys status, like a Jackie Collins novel with electric guitars, playing up their abandonment of gloomy, strike-bound, supertaxed Britain for the playgrounds of New York, Los Angeles and the Caribbean.
The Some Girls package contains the requisite goodies - remixed original CD and another disc of overmatter, a DVD of the album performed live in Texas, plus a vinyl single, hardback book, a set of postcards (surely the clincher...!), a poster and a set of Helmut Newton prints. Like Quadrophenia, it'll liberate around 70 quid from your wallet, which is a lot for what is essentially the double CD you're really buying.

Like most Stones albums, Some Girls lacks a centre, a groove to define the piece, but instead builds up a raft of blues riffs which extend into songs, and have lyrics added to them. Beast Of Burden is one such example, apparently representing a personal 'thank you' note from Richards to Jagger for putting up with him being out of it for much of the time due to being the original human laboratory.

The indulgence of the times frequently comes through Some Girls, channeling the prevalent louche behaviour into what is now regarded - rightfully - as the last great Rolling Stones album.

It's a sparky, tight album, and the first to feature Ronnie Wood as a permanent member of the band. Already, you can hear the empathetic guitar interplay between Keith Richards and Wood on the album, an understanding that, for all the headlines these two have generated (and still do), they are still ashamedly underestimated as guitarists.

On the downside, there is Miss You, which opens the album. A worthy hit, I'll grudgingly accept (though I'll never forgive any breakfast time DJ for playing it as its refrain will not leave your head all day), even if it does feature the embarrassing cod-disco feel Rod Stewart was also striving for around the same time. It also features Jagger's ear-grinding appropriation of Harlem patois: "What's the matter wich yo' boy?". Jagger, it is worth remembering, comes from Dartford in Kent.

The Some Girls sessions garnered a bountiful harvest of new songs - more than 50, apparently - which would later surface on the Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You albums. To make up the second CD of the box set are 12 of the unreleased tracks which are good enough to have been easily released as an album in their own right. Amongst them are gems like the country cover You Win Again, featuring some great slide guitar from Wood, and a clear nod to Richards' great hero Muddy Waters on the rocking blues When You're Gone.

There is no denying that these box sets are brazen, some might say, cynical attempts to bleed the music fan further. I'm sure the majority of baby boomers buying them will have little or no use for postcards, posters and all the other bundled bumph. As discretionary purchases go, there is probably little artistic interest in listening to a bunch of outtakes and demos, any more than watching the 'deleted scenes' section of a DVD will add anything the plot you've just seen unfold. But in the case of Some Girls at least, the two-CD 'deluxe' edition of the album's reissue, with the CD of unreleased tracks makes genuine sense to revive a great album 33 years on. And that might just be the reason the Rolling Stones are such astute businessmen.

No comments:

Post a Comment