It’s 1969, and Rock n Roll is King of the World. Movie stars have taken a back seat to rock stars, and the international press trumpeting of Carnaby Street, Pirate Radio, Psychedelia, and the Summer of Love have given the naysayers who thought rock was a passing fad a solid thump on the chin. Albums have replaced 45’s, bands have replaced pop stars, and things are changing faster than anyone can keep track. Early sixties bands that once ruled the airwaves are melting away like a spring frost on the lawn. Mid sixties bands are either adapting or dying on the vine. And nobody doubts that there are two giants in music that changed everything: The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And coincidentally, these two bands are responsible for two of the first three bootleg records in the history of rock music. And these records were responsible for some big changes in the perceptions of those who thought “they knew how it is done”.
The first bootleg in the history of rock was Bob Dylan’s Great White Wonder. Released in July of 1969, it was studio quality outtakes of recordings with the Band in 1967. It was a double album contained in a plain white sleeve, and it confused the hell out of everyone. Record stores were serviced back then by “rack jobbers”, independent distributors of vinyl that had access to regular release albums. Some of the more connected jobbers had access to this release, and the fact it was played heavily on the West Coast meant that there were thousands out there that would be customers for this. The lack of any information on the sleeve or label lent a cryptic air to the proceedings. Of course, anyone actually working in a record department of a larger department store had pretty much no idea what anything was. If it was on the shelves, they sold it.
That Dylan album was the first foray into the business of the most famous bootleg label in the history of music, The Trademark of Quality label, or TMOQ. Based in Los Angeles, they were responsible for most of the original bootlegs in 1969 and the early 70’s. (Stealin’ and GWW John Birch Society Blues were two very high quality follow ups to Great White Wonder, also put out by ‘Dub’ and ‘Ken’ the anonymous bootleggers in late 1969)
The next release was something altogether different, and got some serious attention from record companies. The Rolling Stones played in Oakland Coliseum in November 1969- two shows. This was the first Stones tour since the halcyon days of early 1966, the days of screaming teenagers, poor sound systems and shortened shows. In 1969, audiences had matured. LSD and marijuana were now commonplace, and teens no longer showed up to shriek, the showed up to LISTEN. Rock concerts had changed from high energy female shoutfests to sweaty communal gatherings of a near religious import. The tribes had been identified, and had gathered at Monterey and Woodstock in large numbers. They now gathered to commune with the Stones on their 1969 tour.
An enterprising audience member from the Bay Area decided to show up with a high end reel to reel deck tape deck, and expensive shotgun microphones. You see, there was little to no security back then, and nobody would question someone lugging in some unwieldy professional gear. (hell people could sneak KEGS into shows back then, never mind a beer). The resulting recording was quickly pressed, and hit the streets in December 1969, a month after the show. It was reviewed in Rolling Stone magazine in February 1970, and was highly praised. Other reviews claimed it to be the best representation of the Stones to date. (this was early in Mick Taylor’s first tour with the band) This put the record industry in a difficult bind. Sources for the label said that it had sold in excess of 200,000 copies by November, enough to qualify for a Gold Record award. Panic ensued in most major labels offices. Some schlump could buy a ticket, drag in a suitcase full of semi pro gear, and press up his own hit album? This defied the industry paradigm. What about copyright control? Publishing rights? Art choices? The all important ‘record company cut’ ? If this guy could do it, and get reviewed in Rolling Stone, what was to stop anyone from doing it? This would be the end of the recording industry’s control over their acts. In the spirit of revolution, the people had tried to seize control of their own music.
The Stones and their label Abkco reacted quickly. Press releases said that East Coast shows were to be recorded for an official live album, and Get Your Ya Ya’s Out was rush released to counteract the threat. Most sources agree this album was not planned until the storm of this bootleg broke. (others pointed out that Ya Ya’s had many overdubs to clean up mistakes, and wasn’t technically a live album, leaving Live’r as still the honest album) All major arenas were warned sternly by promoters to have heavy security on hand to prevent any repeats of this debacle. Billboard reluctantly included it on a list of top selling bootlegs of the year, but did not put it on any charts, to curb any possibilities of ‘legitimizing’ this burgeoning illegal industry.
The other major release came very shortly after the Stones, in December 1969. This was a preview copy of the upcoming Beatles album, eventually titled Let it Be. It’s working title throughout 1969 had been Get Back, hence the play on words with Kum Back. This version was stripped down high quality rock ‘n roll-no strings, few overdubs, different songs, wholly different mixes-a holy grail for many Beatles fans. The master tape for the album had been mixed several times in early 1969, and these Glyn Johns mixes were reportedly in John Lennon’s possession in late summer 1969 when he visited the States, and he traded an acetate to a collector who had some early Beatles recordings he did not have. This is the generally accepted story, per his own quote. Whatever the truth, this album circulated throughout the major FM stations of the country-WBCN in Boston broadcast it in late September 1969. WKBW in Buffalo played it at the end of August 1969. WBAI in New York, WMMS Cleveland, CKLW Winsor/Detroit, KXOK in St Louis and WEBN in Cincinnati were also among the first to air this. For an album officially released in May 1970, this September 1969 radio release of the largest selling band in the history of music would be considered an extremely troubling leak, or a disaster of near apocalyptic scale, depending on your view. High quality mixes circulated across the country courtesy of these radio stations, and the WBCN tape was used as the source for the album itself.
Like the Stones live album, this showed up in droves in legitimate stores, sold by the pallet-load, and was reviewed once again by Rolling Stone, confusing the issue of legitimacy. Storm clouds gathered in powerful circles. What could companies do to wrest control back of these cash cows from the stoned and delighted masses? Music belongs to the people was a quote oft heard back in the late ’68 and early ’69. Now it was coming true. Bootlegs needed to be demonized, made illegal, and draconian penalties had to be associated with this behavior. While this was in practice true, bootleg records continued to flourish well into the 1980’s and the advent of the CD era.
All three of these albums were sold in department stores (the major source of records for mainstream America) and underground record stores. Little distinction was made as to the legitimacy of each release. It was just ‘cool’. And to be fair, few clerks in a department store would have any idea what it was other than just another obscure ‘rock’ album. They all got reviews in major music magazines, including Rolling Stone. They sold well enough to earn Gold Record awards. They gave record companies endless nightmares. One more thing they have in common, though…
As legendary and as rare as these albums are, many will be surprised to learn that they are not out of reach for the average vinyl collector. This year I found two copies of Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be in one store, both for around ten dollars. Kum Back I found last month for an inexplicable three dollars. Great White Wonder is a bit harder to find, but generally a patient person can find one for around 25 bucks or so. These prices are definitely on the low side, but the diligent collector who puts time in can do it. This is something anyone into rock history should investigate: three albums that together nearly brought the record companies to their knees? That is the power of the people in action. Rhetoric is easy, but actions are powerful. These albums caused the largest uproar in the history of rock. Go find ’em.