Velvet Underground

Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes


Once, back in 1990, I smuggled my college radio station’s handheld recorder into a Chicago club and recorded a matinee gig by a shaggy and relatively obscure band called Nirvana. One listen to the cassette today and the room still comes into focus: Chris Novoselic chatters about how a van blowout in Montana kicked off the tour with “a bad juju”; someone murmurs, “Holy shit, maaaaaan,” as Kurt Cobain falls to the stage halfway through the opening tune (the Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz”); after a false start, Cobain reprimands the drummer (“Wrong song, fucker!”). I can even tolerate the running commentary of the amateur engineer (sample quote from me: “Man, this song is great”). But the tape is more than just a vivid token of a fond memory–it’s a miniature documentary, an unedited snapshot of artists interacting with an audience, without the spin or filter of a producer, a manager, or a record label.

Bootlegs occupy a special niche in the library of any hard-core rock ‘n’ roll fan: a copy of Dylan’s “Great White Wonder” or “The Lost Lennon Tapes” confers a certain serious status on a record collector. But in recent years, the format has exerted great influence on the mainstream music industry as well. Why? Many a band has been signed on the strength of its live show, only to spend weeks and thousands of dollars holed up in three rooms trying to eliminate every last happy accident from its set. But the bootleg removes the ability of the artists or their handlers to take those moments back before they reach your ears. The qualities that consumers look to bootlegs for–rarity, exclusivity, spontaneity, and intimacy–are being infused into more and more label product, in the form of “official” bootlegs, intimate live recordings, and bonus material for box sets.

Often times these recordings are cleaned up to flatter the artist, but occasionally, as in the case of the Velvet Underground’s Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes, a major label issues a live recording with the context intact. The 23-song, three-disc VU set, culled from 1969 residencies in San Francisco and Saint Louis, is geared toward people who’d probably buy real bootlegs. It’s packaged in what looks like an old magnetic tape box, and it has a great back story: the recordings were made with the band’s permission by VU fan Robert Quine, years before he moved to New York, played guitar in Richard Hell’s Voidoids, or backed Lou Reed solo. He recorded the shows with a Sony cassette machine and a handheld mike, then wisely archived select performances on a borrowed reel-to-reel. The liner notes reveal that backstage the band would sometimes ask him to play back particular tracks from the previous night’s set, which suggests that the recordings might have even influenced subsequent performances.

History aside, though, once you adjust to the sonic character of the recordings–a thin but detailed and roomy sound–the Quine tapes are still revelatory. If you don’t fall for Reed’s leather-jacketed bubblegum rock, you still might still go out-of-body during one of the three 20-minute-plus versions of “Sister Ray.” The group moves between concise pop and fluent, fruitful jams with admirable nonchalance; if you doubted it, here’s proof that Loaded-era VU (with Doug Yule instead of John Cale on bass) was electrifying live. A honky-tonk freak-out leads into “Follow the Leader” on disc two, suggesting that the dead-cool New Yorkers were closer kin to the Summer of Love gang than you might think. Yet the band is indifferently received by the hippies at Washington University and San Francisco’s Family Dog and Matrix. Scattered applause after some songs only hammers home the general lack of appreciation. Lou and gang seem unaffected by the absence of validation; they instead seem relatively relaxed, offering the audience fragments of personal anecdotes. Reed informs the uninterested audiences that “It’s Just Too Much” was once called “Hi-Ho Silver,” and that “Femme Fatale” is yet another song inspired by Warhol Factory superstar Edie Sedgwick.

Much of the charm of the recordings comes from the knowledge that they were never meant for the record store racks. As writer Clinton Heylin has documented at great length, bootleg culture used to maintain a whole other history of rock ‘n’ roll, below the surface of the labels’ catalogs of official releases. The increasing ease of using digital technology has played a role in its emergence: In London’s street markets in the early 90s, soundboard recordings on cheap cassettes (Zeppelin at Knebworth, Marley anywhere in the 70s) were soon superseded by remarkable-sounding CD bootlegs of standout underground acts. “Stray Slack,” a disc of Pavement performing live in the UK in 1992 (often sweetened with the band’s Peel sessions), became an indie-kid essential. Outtakes, demos, live and studio material from oft-bootlegged icons such as Dylan, Springsteen, Iggy Pop, and the Beatles became available in European CD box sets on labels such as Italy’s Kiss the Stone. But by the middle of the decade, greedy pirates had grown bold (or bold pirates greedy), issuing a wide range of mass-produced live discs of big-name artists with dramatically clearer sound. Rather than target the collector and the 60s rock romantic, the new bootleg system went for a bigger market: obsessive fans of contemporary million-sellers like Gloria Estefan, Phil Collins, R.E.M., and, of course, Nirvana.

The Recording Industry Association of America and federal authorities did their best to quash this trend. In 1994 the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade made piracy of intellectual property a federal offense for the first time and criminalized “the unauthorized manufacture, distribution or trafficking in sound recordings and music videos of live musical performances.” This made even bootlegs from countries with loose copyright laws illegal in the States. And much to the delight of RIAA, U.S. Customs began cracking down on bootleg CDs, seizing nearly a million in 1996 alone, many of them concert recordings of Michael Jackson, Madonna, the Grateful Dead, and Pink Floyd produced in Italy or eastern Europe. In 1997 Operation Goldmine, a customs sting, netted 11 big-time bootleggers in Florida and some 800,000 CDs of recorded performances by the Dave Matthews Band, Springsteen, Phish, Smashing Pumpkins, and others.

Artists themselves also fought back: Paul McCartney kicked off a new phase in official bootlegging in 1991, when he pushed for the release of his MTV “Unplugged” sessions to thwart potential unauthorized reproduction. His set, subtitled The Official Bootleg, opened the floodgates for more sanctioned (and heavily rehearsed) recorded “events,” right up through Jay-Z’s acoustic hip-hop set with the Roots in December. Other artists took an active stance on the issue, too: to sate the voracious demand for their bootlegs, Pearl Jam (who allow live concert taping) issued 25 double-CD sets from its 2000 European tour and later 47 sets from an American one. Nirvana, on the other hand, announced in 1992 that they would simply no longer perform unreleased songs in concert.

But bootlegs, even when they’re made for the masses, don’t have to be exploitative. When taping is permitted, it can prolong a kind of innocent relationship between musician and listener–something legions of Deadheads surely will attest to. Where record sales are secondary to audience engagement, bootlegging tends to go over better. In Washington, D.C., in the 80s, tape trading was key to both the hardcore and go-go booms. A live cassette served symbolically as a passport to the underground and pragmatically to spread the word about a band without the cash or the life span to make records.

It almost goes without saying that the Internet has made it easy for the shameless to procure a bootleg of almost anything, either by trade or download. You can find audience recordings of Radiohead’s mesmerizing concert in Grant Park with a quick Google search. But for those who want charm without the guilt, the industry’s interest in well-assembled sets like The Quine Tapes suggests that the official bootleg (the one where the musicians theoretically get paid) is getting better. By bootleg standards, anyway.