A prime concern of mine at the moment is the idea of what can and can’t be released officially.
Well, in 1999 Rhino Handmade, under license from Arista released the ultimate testament to one of the rare albums that stands as peer to Nevermind.
On the table before me is the seven disc boxset of The Stooges Funhouse: The Complete Sessions. And they do mean complete. This is eight hours worth of session recordings, there are over well over thirty takes of some songs, it’s literally everything they could find; Funhouse’s seven songs played out to infinity across 140 tracks with the addition of a minute and a bit shred called Sliding the Blues and one unreleased track called Lost in the Future.
What stands out for me though is that they could do this and it hasn’t in anyway harmed the band’s reputation; this limited edition box-set is now a hallowed release among the kind of deep fans who give a toss whether a band releases its rarities and outtakes. Instead of wasting time worrying about the tastes of the dilettante fans who just want the greatest hits album, Arista released that all re-releases are ultimately unnecessary and simply went ahead and pleased the true fans who were still writing, reviving and appreciating The Stooges after all these years. It’s a very digestible release too; it emphasises the hard work the band put into trying tweaks and alternative ways to get these songs into best shape, there’s a snippet of dialogue in which Iggy Pop’s sensitive ears note a string ringing on one of the instruments and makes the retake totally belying the band’s reputation as slackers, damn they work hard.
The Stooges and Nirvana are two of the only bands whose outtakes really fascinate me; the comparison also appeals because the lo-fi nature of live recording technology in the early seventies means it’s a challenge to find polished material. It leads me to question what is/isn’t capable of being released. Take a look at the release below:
The booklet on top is the You Don’t Want My Name, You Want My Action box-set gathering up recently discovered recordings of The Stooges with a short-lived two guitar live line-up. The sound quality declines from front to back going from reasonable (if one is tolerant of pops and clicks) to severely degraded. The crucial point is that it doesn’t matter. The expectation and direction is set, it’s acknowledged, one buys in the knowledge of what this is — it’s exceedingly rare material and if one is the kind of fan who wants to hear multiple versions of songs then you’ll love it anyway.
The two CD version of Metallic K.O. wedged there is also an argument against audio quality being the defining reason for or against a release. It’s a famed album, it’s achieved a cult status in spite of and partly because of the low audio fidelity. It basically records a now stoned-to-the-eyeballs Iggy Pop, fronting a band about to break-up, for an audience that wants to hit him with the various glasses flying overhead. And still, with a great band, even releasing this simply reinforced the iconic value, the underground heroism and the position of The Stooges as forefathers of punk confrontation and one of the finest rock outfits ever unleashed.
Nirvana needs to decide, or already has decided, how they want to be remembered. The choice is between the overground success with feet and souls planted in the underground or as a slick well tuned, corporate rock behemoth that left the underground behind. There was criticism of the With the Lights Out box-set for the sound quality on certain tracks, but then there’s been criticism of the Nevermind anniversary release on the same topic but for having been excessively pumped up and compressed; oh and of the boombox demos of Nevermind back on the audio quality issue. There’s no happy medium. Releasing lo-fi material is fine so long as people know what to expect — only the fanatics buy regardless.
The final item is the Heavy Liquid box-set. To distinguish The Stooges from Nirvana, it must be recognised that the depth of outtakes and leftovers The Stooges left behind is vast compared to the relatively shallow pool of genuinely unheard Nirvana/Kurt Cobain originals. The Stooges poured out material and, in the absence of solid relations with record labels for a lot of their time as a band, a lot of it poured into the unofficial realm. This box, again going from highest to lowest fidelity, brings together a ton of non-album tracks plus such curios as a full disc of the band experimenting with the song I Got a Right across thirteen takes — different lyrics, instrumental, no solo, different effects, and so on. The rest is everything from soundchecks to off the cuff studio sessions at various locations. Tragically Nirvana could never compete with this, With the Lights Out is the nearest they’ll ever come; there simply isn’t enough left in the vaults of true originality. But that doesn’t mean a specialised box-set of this nature wouldn’t appeal to fans, wouldn’t be worth listening to and wouldn’t tantalise.