In the days when recorded music was on vinyl, there was a kind of pre-release hierarchy. Early pressings – tests and demos – were on acetate; pre-release promo copies (for radio stations and DJs) were “white labels“, and then there were the release versions.
Over at The Space, there’s an intriguing story by the producer Joe Boyd about the impact an unreleased acetate version of Dylan’s Basement Tapes had in London in the late 1960s. By way of a reminder, The Basement Tapes were recorded by Dylan in 1967 at the The Big Pink, near his home in upstate New York with The Band (still then known as The Hawks) but weren’t released in any form until 1975. At the time, Dylan was recovering from the motorcycle accident that had caused the cancellation of the Blonde on Blonde tour. They were musicians exploring, having a good time. They weren’t thinking of releasing them; in fact, the musicians talked about destroying the recordings.
But bootleg tapes got out. In an article in Rolling Stone to mark the release of the complete set of recordings this year the iconic music writer Greil Marcus described – with only a trace of “rock writer luvvie” – how he got hold of a copy:
Marcus remembers getting a call from a stranger in early 1968, asking him to meet on a specific street corner in Berkeley at 2 p.m. sharp. “It was like a dope deal,” he says. “He handed me a cassette he got while working for the Rolling Stones. I invited 15 friends over to hear it. People were cracking up. People were crying. People were shocked.”
A publisher’s test pressing – recorded on acetate – also emerged. This is where Joe Boyd picks up the story. His The Space article is from a collaboration with the John Peel Archive, in which people are given the run of the vast Peel collection and invited to pick a “Record Box” from it. One of Boyd’s selections is this publisher’s demo, and it turns out that there was only one copy in the UK, at a London music store.
And in turn the bands who had success with songs from the “basement tapes” recordings – Manfred Mann, Julie Driscoll, and Fairport Convention – made the pilgrimage to the shop to listen. Boyd (who I’ve written about before) picks up the story:
All of a sudden there were these whispers going around Soho in London that there was a demo at Feldmans Music on Charing Cross Road, just up the road from Dobells record store, and you could go in there, they wouldn’t give you a copy, but you could go in there and listen to the demo, Julie Driscoll covered ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ from this demo, Manfred Mann covered ‘Quinn the Eskimo’ [‘The Mighty Quinn’] from this demo, Fairport Convention covered ‘Million Dollar Bash’. I remember that day, we all went in and crowded into this tiny listening booth, the professional manager from Feldmans came out, took this record out and put it on the turntable.
Of course, we can hear almost anything now, if we have an internet connection. This is a story from a different world, when music was both more expensive and often hard to find. And maybe it had a different meaning as a result.
The image of the tracklist is from the John Peel Archive, and is used with thanks. The whole of Joe Boyd’s Music Box is worth listening to; there’s much strange and evocative stuff there. Disclosure: I’m doing a piece of work for The Space at present.