It’s All Too Much… Again.

Last week, I wrote about how, despite the myriad options for listening to music online, it’s a greater burden than ever for the hardcore music dork to stay on top of new sounds because there are just more records than ever before. Album releases per year have multiplied by a factor of about 10 in the last forty years, and the last decade’s daily complaints by the record industry haven’t slowed this avalanche one bit.

For the financially dedicated and wholly demented among us, this has led to a struggle as we try desperately to decide on what CDs, LPs, and downloads are worth whatever money we have managed to rook from our employers and save from our bartender’s tips. First, you have to draw aim on the new releases, then come up with more scratch than you ever imagined.

And now, on top of that, messages from the Wayback Machine have become the new clarion call for much of the music fan market. Staggeringly packaged reissues now clearly occupy more of the release calendar than ever before. At a certain point, it appears, rather than try to deal with countless new bands and a tidal wave of mediocre fresh releases, searching for a winning ticket on the floor of a racetrack betting room becomes folly, and music fans perk up at the idea of buying old favorites again (and if you are too young and hip to be part of this, just wait, pal… Gabba Gabba Hey). You can argue that collectors are after cleaner sound, or rare “bonus” tracks, or maybe they just feel obliged to add to the totem pole they’ve built in honor of their favorite records. If you just spent twenty years telling people how Nevermind changed your life, how can you not welcome a monument to that album into your house? It would be hypocritical not to, right? Or is hypocritical for the ultimate alternative act to SELL you a boxed reissue? Hmmm…

But I think many may jump on the reissue wagon only because it’s easier to buy old music than is to buy new stuff. For many of us, even those not quite as inflicted as those who inhabit The Bunker, want to make a regular addition to the CD shelf, regardless of anything screaming at us specifically. Sort of like, “haven’t rented a movie in a while…” Well, back when people rented movies, that is. Believe me, the labels haven’t overlooked this gnawing ritual. And if recycling old needles is the way to a quick fix, then hey, let’s do it, man.

This habit was set back in ’87 or so, when millions of us decided we had to have a CD to replace the LPs that we dug just fine until those perfect little discs became the status quo, and we feared we would look like jerks with a turntable in the apartment. (And apartments it was – Another attraction of CDs was that they’re easier to crate up when it’s time to move… Again.) The concept of getting a new version of something we already owned was therefore endorsed, and a precedent set. Which opened the door real wide for ‘anniversary editions’ and re-mastered re-releases. And that brings us to the brunt of this screed, which is how our love for a carefully assembled reissue now is now being abused by the labels.

The Stick loves to see a fantastic record from the past treated with respect and foisted upon the present day. There’s a good-hearted intention somewhere in the equation: Masterpieces like Exile On Main Street, hyped beyond belief last year, damn well ought to kept in circulation and more so, brought to mind, every decade or so. And if you can make a favored milestone sound a lot better, then fans of the record should have a chance to enjoy it more thoroughly, especially if they still bother putting together a decent stereo. Original issues of CDs often sounded lousy, but you didn’t know it until you got the thing home. Traffic’s best album, John Barleycorn Must Die, was a sonic bus crash when it hit first got digitized back in ’88 or so. Carelessly mastered from a late-generation tape as part of the headlong rush to put everything on CD, Barleycorn wound up distorted, harsh, flat… I can’t recall which hurt more, the way it sounded, or the ache in my already-thin wallet. But a second issue on CD fixed all of that, and if you couldn’t find another 15 bucks in the 20 years between the two, then you had more important things to worry about anyway.

Reissues are nothing new, of course. You can’t track the history of recorded music without seeing how titles drop from catalogs and then re-appear, sometimes just because the label didn’t have room in their pressing budget to keep the original release on the shelf for another quarter. They, and the dealers, simply had to make room for new releases, and something had to give.

For the last few years, the majors, and those labels built originally on low-key reissues (Rhino, Hip-O), have been wetting the appetites for special editions of beloved records with Deluxe CD Editions of things like My Generation and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Hi-resolution CD/DVD double-packs, like the one for Rush’s Moving Pictures help you get a little more bang out of your DVD player and offer a little more rationale for getting the latest version. But these were still reasonable in size and cost, if you shopped around a bit.

But then, maybe two Christmases back, we started to see the emergence of albums-as-box-sets: HUGE things, often spoken of with the term ‘massive’ included, that seem to be taking the place of the end-of-year standard, the career-spanning boxed collection.

And they keep getting more and more lavish with eyebrow-liftingly creative ways of adding to the song count. 2009’s boxed version of the Stones’ Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out featured more music than the original LP by including the opening acts from the ’69 Stones tour, B.B. King and Ike and Tina. Live At Leeds, already the subject of a deluxe double-CD job several years back, got the big box treatment about a year ago, and padded the bags by inserting The Who’s complete show from the following night in Hull (even if that meant copping Entwistle’s bass parts from the Leeds concert to patch up the incomplete tapes of that next night). In both cases, these heavyweight box sets had worthwhile books in them, but also got filled with vinyl AND CD copies of the music, a trend that really skews these things to the audiophile and obsessive collector tribes.

From there, though, we’ve sadly moved to piles of memorabilia being included. The recent Super Deluxe Edition (a common term that actually has meaning, since a cheaper, slimmer ‘Deluxe Edition’ is also often issued) of David Bowie’s Station To Station included a stash of promo photos and tour miscellania. It’s starting to feel like 1977 all over again, when a kid could just about cover his bedroom walls with boring posters pulled from LPs like ELO’s Out Of The Blue. Are we, as adults, really expected to enjoy these trinkets? Does somebody really expect us to put up a cheap poster in a room that we mortgaged? And as much as it’s a great idea to have a big version of Layla that ties up the loose ends of Derek And The Dominos’ all-too-short career, who had the bright idea to include a Stratocaster pick guard decal in the thing? Did that decision actually translate to more sales, as I am sure it translated to a higher price?

Imagine what they have in store for a celebratory edition of Never Mind The Bullocks – expect a small tin of safety pins and a tiny bottle of alcohol so you can pierce your cheek in a sanitary manner.

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

This fall, besides a healthy number of ‘staight’ reissues, the number of Hindenburg-sized deluxos is beyond any reasonable measure. I won’t drag you through the complete press kits, but The Who, The Doors, Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, U2, and the previously worshipped Nirvana all plan extravagant shelf-breaking boxes, each celebrating a rather predictable selection from their respective catalogs. Pink Floyd is going well beyond that step by remastering and reissuing their entire catalog in a car battery-sized chunk (something they did just four years back), and then issuing monstro-boxes for their three best sellers. Each of those will be complete with the tchotchkes that tip the scales toward ridiculous. The Dark Side of The Moon box has coasters for your acid-spiked drink, and a scarf in case the music is too chilly for you.

The Beach Boys’ entry into the race is multi-disc release of The Smile Sessions, the full 5-course of Brian Wilson’s purported lost masterpiece, the planned LP home of “Good Vibrations”. But what once would have seemed like a miracle coming true for Boys’ fans, now smacks of exploitation. Smile has been closeted away for well over 40 years, true, but just a few years back, its auteur, Brian Wilson, saw fit to re-record and release the whole thing under his own brand, and got nice rewards for it. So how is this not a $140 anticlimax? And, by the way, if you have never heard the Wilson version… Skip it. Smile, advertised as some kind of skitter through American folklore (or something), was, if you ask me, left in the basement for a darn good reason. It just isn’t that great, folks. Songs about vegetables and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow? When the man-in-charge can create something as emotionally pristine as “God Only Knows”, why in the world did he want to make novelty songs?

Peter Gabriel has a boat anchor for you, too, but it isn’t the one he promised. Earlier this year, PG discussed a 25th anniversary version of So, the record that took him out of the fringe and into John Cusack movies. But he swerved on that, as he often does, and is about to sell you New Blood, which might better be called Old Songs, because that’s what it is – orchestral versions of Gabriel’s catalog, extrapolated into 4 discs and an artsy display case.

But at least that’s something sort of kind of new, and he’s only asking about 50 bucks for the thing. The Who’s upcoming retread of Quadrophenia offers a new master and a long menu of Townshend’s original demos, along with another of Pete’s hard-bound ruminations on his own history. 4 CDs, a DVD that contains a hi-resolution surround mix of only part of the album (say what?!), a 7” single, the history book and, of course, some “collectables” (isn’t the album itself collectable?), and it will only set you back about $150.

Yeah, you’re right, that’s too expensive. I mean, sure, let’s take this on face value and say that you, the big Quad fan, will get more out of listening to all this than you might from dusting off your old copy. But can you really attach a decent value statement to that price tag? Even if you have the dough, get ready to accept a little guilt, too.

But what one band will do, U2 will always do bigger. The soon-to-be-released “uber deluxe” version of Achtung Baby, a product that should have its own zip code and includes some 6 CDs, 4 DVDs, LPs, singles, a coffee table book, and a replica of Bono’s shades, for cripes’ sake, can be pre-ordered at Amazon right now, friends, for the rock-bottom price of 480 Yankees. Pikers with less love or money for U2 can choose from less ridiculous versions, but you might still need about $150. Still, just the availability of a top-rank version at almost 5 large makes the head swim, especially when The Smiths are offering the whole magilla – their entire catalog on CD and LP, and including every single on 7-inchers – for about $360. Limited Edition, no less (if that means anything to you.

Jane, stop this crazy thing.

Between the struggle to give new music its due (and by the way, get the Wild Flag album right now) and the home refinancing needed to collect the bruising objects d’arte that fall under the category of “timeless classics remembered”, the fun of collecting music is getting sucked down like Samuel Jackson attacking that soda in Pulp Fiction.

Again, I welcome all of this stuff, just not in such a typhoon attack. New releases by Wilco and Ryan Adams are around the corner, and I feel as close to Quadrophenia as the next Who fan, believe me. I might like it even more than Glenn, who seems to lean hard toward pre-’69 Who more and more. But keeping it all in focus and on budget is zapping the enjoyment.

There’s a way out, though, and you can thank your turntable. If you can still play records, you can still get them cheap. Do this: Put $20 in your jeans; That’s one Andy, no credit cards, and hit a used record shop on Saturday afternoon. You will have a nice time for an hour or so, maybe make a friend and almost certainly walk out with a few great records, enough to make Saturday night worth living through.

But then, off to bed. You need your sleep for the second job you just took to pay the freight on 600 bucks worth of Floyd reissues.

Next time: What name is missing from this reissue frenzy and why?

– Mr. Stick

Last Album: Various Artists – This Are Two Tone


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