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October 26, 2007

Book Notes - Dan LeRoy ("The Greatest Music Never Sold")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Before the internet and p2p services, unreleased albums were often the holy grail of music geeks like me. The harder I searched for these albums on bootleg vinyl or cassette, the more mythical their backstories would become. The internet has stripped some of that mystical allure from these recordings, many are available via music blogs and other outlets (my favorite being That Truncheon Thing's Classic Bootleg series). Still, I find the albums as fascinating as their mythologies.

Dan LeRoy has collected the fascinating stories behind 20 unreleased albums. Meticulously researched and well-written, The Greatest Music Never Told features input from seemingly everyone associated with these lost albums. Musicians, producers, label executives, and even studio personnel chime in to better our understanding of these legendary classics (and not-so-classics).

Paste wrote of the book:

"Through meticulous research and revealing interviews, LeRoy plays a fascinating game of 'what if?' with a collection of lost albums he describes as offering 'the best combination of genuinely excellent music and intriguing backstories.'"

In his own words, here is Dan LeRoy's Book Notes essay for his book, The Greatest Music Never Sold: Secrets of Legendary Lost Albums by David Bowie, Seal, Beastie Boys, Chicago, Mick Jagger, and More!:

Writing a Book Notes entry about songs I listened to while writing my new book – and filling said entry with songs from said book – might seem at best to be obvious, and at worst, kinda like cheating. My defense is that since the book, The Greatest Music Never Sold, is a behind-the-scenes look at famous unreleased albums and why they got shelved, I’m thinking of this Book Notes as an imaginary greatest hits album, if you will. It represents what I think of as the best stuff from these great lost discs, the songs that should make anyone get the feeling, as John Lydon once put it, that they’ve been cheated.

However, no one has been cheated more than the artists responsible for these unreleased albums, who have seen what is, in some cases, their greatest work, ignored by most, and bootlegged by the rest. All of these albums deserve an official release, and a few of them could conceivably get it. If The Greatest Music Never Sold does anything at all to help even one of them see some official daylight, I’d be happier than I can say.

1. Juliana Hatfield “Perfection”
Recorded during the sessions for the unreleased album God’s Foot (1996)

This is the song it would have been worth writing the book for, by itself. I can’t see how it’d be possible for any music fan to hear these three-and-a-half minutes of soaring, bittersweet music, which deliver everything promised in the term “power-pop” and then some, and not wonder how in the world this didn’t move someone enough to release God’s Foot, Hatfield’s masterpiece.

It would have been one of the best albums of the Nineties. It would still be one of the best albums of whatever year it was released. And although it remains property of the Walt Disney Company, it should be released, somehow, some way -- if only so that a perfect version of this perfect song could finally exist.

2. Ray Davies “Well-Bred Englishman”
From the unreleased score to 80 Days (1988)

I’m not one of those folks who blanches at the big-venue outreach Ray Davies has conducted during much of his post-Arthur career. The guy more or less created arena rock and deserves whatever benefit he and the Kinks derived from it, and some of the Arista albums (especially Low Budget and Give the People What They Want) offer a sublime combination of big riffs and subtle smarts.

Still, when you find out that in the midst of the Kinks’ mid-Eighties doldrums, Davies recorded what was essentially a solo album about Victorian England, it’s hard to imagine any self-respecting Village Green Preservation Societist not getting excited. And this song, demoed by Ray for a Des McAnuff-directed adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, is exactly what those Societists would expect. In other words, it’s vintage Ray: a tongue-in-cheek, music hall ode to well-respected men of the British Empire. Like the rest of the material from 80 Days, which never made it to the Great White Way (why it didn’t is a great story in and of itself, covered in TGMNS), this is a demo, but that takes nothing away from its charm. In fact, contrasted with the Big Rock Productions of the Kinks at the time, the gentleness and simplicity is nearly a revelation.

3. Adam Ant “Seems To Me”
Outtake from the unreleased album Persuasion (1993)

An outtake from an unreleased album seems like the definition of obscurity. That might be so, but here’s one song that certainly deserves a better fate. It seems to me that “Seems To Me” has everything you’d want in a latter-day Adam Ant tune: a danceable big beat; that old swashbuckling swagger and all-for-one spirit; and a killer riff from guitarist Marco Pirroni. (I know he got his own tribute of sorts with Adam’s “Man Called Marco,” but can we give it up for the guy again? Persuasion is filled with the sort of great riffs he’s been coming up with for thirty-odd years, and everything I’ve heard from latest band, the Wolfmen, proves he hasn’t lost the knack.)

Yet while “Seems To Me” would have slotted in more than nicely on this album, chock-full of similarly catchy dance-rock, Marco told me he and Adam didn’t think much of the song and it would have been a B-side at best. A pity, but if Persuasion ever sees release, maybe someone can be persuaded to tack on “Seems To Me” – it’d make one great bonus track.

4. The Jungle Brothers “Ra Ra Kid”
From the unreleased album Crazy Wisdom Masters (1992)

Part of the fun of writing about unreleased albums is imagining the ways they might have altered the pop music timestream had they come out as planned. What careers and what styles might they have changed? But there’s no disc in the book which invites this speculation more than the Jungle Brothers’ Crazy Wisdom Masters, a 1992 collection overseen by Bill Laswell and Matt Stein. It defied every rule of the notoriously conservative hip-hop world order, and made Warner Brothers blanch.

This track could well have been one of the reasons; it’s a near-indescribable fusion of drum-and-bass; trip-hop; and free jazz-inspired rap – remember, this is before any of these genres even existed! – given an extra Caribbean twist by the tune’s primary MC, Torture, a supremely out-there Guyana native who now rhymes as Sensational. He was a member of the JBeez for this one, unreleased album only, but he certainly left his mark. In fact, I’m not sure hip-hop has yet caught up with all the innovations found on this headspinning album.

5. Seal “All I Wanted To Say”
From the unreleased album Togetherland (2001)

Not all the albums in this book are being held hostage by heartless record companies. Togetherland, which would have been Seal’s fourth LP, is one example: he has gone on the record repeatedly to state that the disc – one of two efforts detailed in TGMNS where Seal tried to go it alone without the guiding hand of father figure Trevor Horn -- is unworthy of release. I respect that opinion, even though I – and others who have heard the album – disagree; it’s a perfectly presentable collection which might have a shade much trip-hop inspiration dating it today, but the songs, I would contend, more than make up for that. This is Exhibit A: how a track that compares favorably to such past, Joni Mitchell-influenced gems as “Fast Changes” could be cast aside is inexplicable. It is stunning enough, in fact, to make one question Seal’s apparent low opinion of the entire project.

6. Chicago “Stone of Sisyphus”
From the unreleased album Stone of Sisyphus (1993)

Here’s another case of an act which has talked itself out of – or been talked out of – belief in an album that deserves to see the light of day. When Reprise rejected Stone of Sisyphus, it essentially turned Chicago – then at a career crossroads – into an oldies band. The was a tragic turn of events, especially when you hear this album, which brought them back to their rock-with-horns roots without sacrificing any of the commercial instincts that had driven the band since the David Foster era.

The title track, written by former guitarist Dawayne Bailey, epitomizes what was right about SoS: it’s a rousing, rocking song with a funky groove, ultra-polished production by Peter Wolf, and a sound that makes room for both bold brass and big guitar – as well as an inspiring message about perseverance, to boot. Had it come out as planned in ’93, longtime fans would have returned; newer fans would have stuck around. The good news is that this disc – Chicago has had the rights to it for some time, but has decided against putting it out -- is rumored to be on the verge of official release. I’ve heard that before; let’s hope this time Sisyphus gets the rock over the hump.

7. Mick Jagger and the Red Devils “Checkin’ Up On My Baby”
From Mick Jagger’s unreleased blues album (1992)

It’s easy to rationalize about why Mick Jagger decided to keep the results of his marathon 1992 studio session with Hollywood blues band the Red Devils in the vaults. At the time, he was also working on a Rick Rubin-produced album, Wandering Spirit, a much more commercially-friendly endeavor than a collection of some of Jagger’s favorite old blues tunes. But Mick’s decision to include one of the 13 songs recorded that day – a sizzling cover of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Checkin’ Up On My Baby” – on his recently-released greatest hits album is fraught with a certain irony. Which is: as a solo artist, Mick really hasn’t had any significant hits, at least not since his 1985 single “Just Another Night.” He didn’t have any from Wandering Spirit, and he hasn’t had any since. So why not release the full results of the Red Devils sessions already?! What does he have to lose?

I’d say, nothing. And listening to “Checkin’ Up On My Baby,” which features the late Lester Butler on harmonica, suggests Jagger might still have a lot to gain. Even if he demurs, the Red Devils – whose story is also told in TGMNS – are definitely worth discovering. That their own, Rubin-produced second album is also unreleased is a doubly unfair whammy.

8. David Bowie “Shadow Man”
From the unreleased album Toy (2001)

This re-recording of a Hunky Dory-era demo has been officially released, as a B-side a few years back. It’s still the best commercial for Toy, Bowie’s update of his unfairly-maligned Sixties back catalog. The disc would finally have given some of his oldest tunes their due, but Virgin passed (and might have lost Bowie as a result). Lisa Germano, who played on “Shadow Man” and several other tracks from Toy, calls the atmospheric results of this one “beautiful.” You would too.

9. Brian Wilson “Smart Girls”
From the unreleased album Sweet Insanity (1991)

I deliberately wanted to avoid Smile for this book – not because it isn’t great, but because it actually saw official, if belated, release (the reason I also didn’t include Prince’s Black Album). Besides that, the story had already been told. True Brian fans are most likely familiar with this song – in which the head Beach Boy made an unforgettable stab at hip-hop, with the help of Dr. Eugene Landy, then at the height of his influence – but if you aren’t, mere words can’t describe it. And producer Matt Dike, fresh off hits with Tone-Loc and Young MC, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, was evidently Wilson’s (or Landy’s) choice to oversee this track; he emerged from seclusion to tell an amazing story about it in TGMNS.

“Great” certainly isn’t the right word for “Smart Girls,” but leaving it off this pretend best-of seems wrong as well. You wouldn’t put out a Bowie collection from the Sixties and omit “The Laughing Gnome,” would you?

10. Country Mike & the Boys “Sloppy Drunks”
From the unreleased album Country Mike’s Greatest Hits (1998)

“The Boys,” if you’re not familiar with this album, are none other than the Beastie Boys, and Country Mike is the nom de pop of one Michael Diamond, though he would deny it -- and has, to your correspondent. (Not with a straight face, though.) As a proud West Virginian, let me hasten to say that the idea of three New Yorkers doing an album-long spoof of country music isn’t a concept that automatically strikes me as hilarious.

But in this case, it works, and in spades -- with Bucky Baxter’s pedal steel adding down-home authenticity and the Beasties having their most fun on wax since Paul’s Boutique. If you can get through Country Mike’s stern admonition to heavy drinkers without cracking a smile, you are one somber individual. Or a sloppy drunk who throws up in his bunk. Or both.

Dan LeRoy and The Greatest Music Never Sold links:

the author's website
the author's MySpace page

Paste review
Stephen Catanzarite's review

the author's Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for his 33 1/3 book, The Beastie Boys: Paul's Boutique

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)