Saturday, 8 November 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 11 - The Super Deluxe Edition

In the summer of 2010, my wife and I got into a debate about David Bowie’s cover of “Wild Is The Wind”. At some point, I dropped the bombshell that I did not own the album it appeared on, “Station To Station”, on CD. Somebody in the Shergold household had bought it in the seventies on vinyl, whilst I bought the 1991 expanded reissue on Cassette, after deleted US Rykodisc copies turned up in WH Smiths in Romford at a fiver a pop a few months after it‘s original (re)release.

We had a look online to see how much a CD copy would cost. The bonus-track-less 1999 edition was on there, also down to about a fiver, but we also saw a September 2010 release date for a new “Super Deluxe Edition” version of the album. The price tag? About £80. Ouch. A lot of money for something I had bought on Tape for £5.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen a ridiculous price tag being attached to a “normal” album (see Dylan’s “Tell Tale Signs” boxset, the vinyl repressing of Neil Young’s “Greendale”), but it was the first time I had seen a boxset version of a normal album I already owned, whereby the price seemed to be hitched up mostly due to the extra non musical bumpf that was due to appear inside. Aside from the album, and it’s free “bonus” live double record, there were other bits and pieces that were due to be included - reprints of old Bowie fan club memorabilia, vinyl pressings of the album and the live album, a DVD featuring extra mixes of the album, etc, etc. It really didn’t seem like it was offering anything approaching ’value for money’, although it did, in total, have about 9 “discs” in one form of another, but I had to admit, it looked fascinating. Christmas was coming, and so my wife offered to buy it for me as a present.

It is a thing of beauty. The strange “padded cell” imagery on the cover was replicated on the underside of the lid of the box, with squishy bits of foam sticking out from underneath, and the extra bumpf, whilst ultimately pointless, was quite fun to play with. We played, at random, one of the alternate mixes of the album that was on the DVD and nearly fell off the sofa when a monumentally altered version of “WITW” came out of the speakers. OK, there was no getting around the fact that this was, really, nothing more than a triple album being heavily over priced, but hey, this was Bowie - the greatest rock artist of all time, and it was a one off. Nobody else was going to do something as OTT and as mad as this - were they?

There was one glaring omission. CD3 in the set was called “Singles Versions”. When the LP had originally been released, different divisions of RCA around the world tried different promotional tricks. Of the six songs on the record, five were edited for single release (either as an A-side or a promo mix), and this CD handily included all five. But here’s where the missed opportunity is. The one song not edited in 1976 was “Wild Is The Wind”. But when Bowie issued the “ChangesTwoBowie” comp in 1981, the track was included on the LP and then released as a single, in edited form. This meant that by the time he left the label, shortened versions of EVERYTHING on “Station To Station” had been created. Wouldn’t it have been brilliant if the CD had included all six edits, you know, a 50 minute album condensed into about half an hour?

But no. The “rules” were that it all had to represent what Bowie was doing in 1976, so the edit of “WITW” was AWOL. You had got a lot of bumpf for your £80, but not quite the full monty. And that, unfortunately, set the precedence for virtually all future Super Deluxe Edition releases. “Station To Station” was not, in the end, a one off - but was actually the start of a strange, and usually baffling and expensive, new format that - along with the “official bootleg” live album releases everyone was doing by now - finally made record collecting, as a hobby, impossible to “do” properly.

The Super Deluxe Edition was, to be honest, a typical “Mojo” style format. It was usually pitched at old fogies, people who “in their youth”, had wanted to fight the powers that be, smash the system, and bought Bob Dylan records for political reasons - but all of whom were now sell out managing directors of unethical global companies and all of whom had money to burn. The idea was that you would have enough disposable income to buy, at a highly inflated price, a record you already owned - only with added bells and whistles. The concept was about as far removed from punk rock as it was humanly possible to get. The record label may just as well have come round your house, and asked for your credit card details at gunpoint, such was the sheer money making cheek of the format. OK, so usually, the choice of album getting the treatment was often worthy, but sometimes, the choice of album was a record whose reputation was that it was a classic, when really, it was weaker than lesser known gems from the artist’s back catalogue (“So” and “The Wall”, to name but two).

You were being reeled in by the “bonus material”. Not the coasters and scarves in the Pink Floyd ones, but the extra CD of unreleased material, the DVD of “previously unseen” gig footage. Whenever somebody announced a new SDE release, you knew there was going to be something never-before-available in there somewhere.

At first, I did wonder if I could get all of the ones I wanted by getting people to buy me them as presents, and several more were indeed acquired. I couldn’t resist the “Dark Side Of The Moon” one, with it’s 1972 gig footage, and it’s second CD of “the whole album played live on stage“. But I did scratch my head over the packaging, as the discs seemed to be designed to slot into a bit of cardboard at the back, but which seemed to become dislodged every time you picked it up. I also couldn’t resist “Live At Leeds”, which included not only a 7” repressing of the period “Summertime Blues” single (required for my Who 45 collection), but also the (in)famous Hull City Hall gig as bonuses on discs 3 and 4. But I remember playing those discs, and feeling completely underwhelmed - it sounded like a band on autopilot, and a crowd seemingly half asleep. But hey, this was all “previously unreleased” material so you needed to own it, right?

Here’s where I started to lose interest. The second Floyd SDE release was “Wish You Were Here”, out in 2011, which as you all know, is the band’s defining masterpiece. A 2-CD set, cleverly replicating the original “double sleeved” LP record, was to include a second disc of alternate material. The multi disc SDE boxset edition was obviously going to include this as well. There were also loads of other discs, including a DVD and Blu Ray, which boasted the inclusion of “1975 Concert Films”. What this meant was, the original films shown on stage above the band when they had toured the record in 1975. Not film of the actual BAND playing in 1975. So, what extra proper “new” audio and visual material of the Floyd did you get by paying eight times as much for this one as opposed to the double CD pressing? Er, none.

When it came out, online reviewers on the Amazon site tore it to shreds. Hardcore geeks were pleased that the Quad mix was in there, whilst anybody who had seen the band play in 75 would presumably have got a twinge of nostalgia watching the concert films, but £80 was a lot of money to pay for something that just seemed to be...inconsequential. The band got knocked for including those coasters and marbles, whilst the Blu Ray disc seemed to duplicate what was on the DVD, and so questions were asked as to why so many discs had been included “pointlessly”, and whether or not the price would have been less had the scarf been excluded. There were also issues about the actual pressing of one the discs itself, as quality was “dubious” I am told. Questions were being asked about how much VFM people were really getting from these sorts of releases.

The problem with the Super Deluxe Edition, aside from the cost grounds, was what should or should not be included. “Live At Leeds” was perfect, as there was simply nothing else from that period that could be included - but when Gabriel’s “So” box was released, he got slated for refusing to include any B-sides from the period, whilst including some new previously unavailable stuff on a 12”. People grumbled about these new songs “not being in digital form”. I am sorry people, but if you are a supposed record collector, not owning a turntable is the equivalent of being a fan of Formula 1, and then moaning when somebody buys you an old Formula 1 car because “it’s too fast to drive on the motorway”.

Anyway, I digress. Gabriel’s view was that the sort of people buying the boxset were going to be the hardcore, the people who already had - or had a desire to own - the original singles from the period, and thus, all the flipsides. Fair comment. But at £80 a throw, shouldn’t a boxset celebrating a SINGLE album therefore tell the complete history of that album? When the concert DVD included later got released independently as well, people wanted his head on a stake.

By now, 2012-ish, the Super Deluxe Edition boxset was fast becoming established as an accepted format. Even new albums started to get issued with price tags seemingly aimed to entice people on Premier League footballer wages, no longer did you have to be re-releasing an accepted classic to justify inflated price tags. I have already mentioned in passing on an earlier blog the “Special Edition” boxset releases, at the £35 mark, of things like the third Cheryl Cole album, or the Lana Del Rey debut, but new hits albums like the Stones’ “Grrr!” were turning up as multi disc releases, with extra slabs of vinyl, and big hardback books, at SDE prices. They seemed to be appearing at an alarming rate, at least when you factored in the cost implications of what you would need to spend if you wanted to buy them all. And there, in a nutshell, was how I learned to hate record collecting. The good old days, when all you needed to do to own everything by your favourite band, was buy each single and album until they split up, was long gone. Now, you were being asked to rebuy, in an expensive boxset, something you already owned, just to get a discs worth of “lo fi demos”. Soon, even the quality aspect of the records being subjected to “super deluxe” repressings started to get questionable - I kind of like it myself, but when Dylan announced a SDE revamp of the much maligned 1970 effort “Self Portrait”, some people wondered if it was a massive joke by a Columbia Records exec. Dylan’s latest SDE release is a “complete” release of “The Basement Tapes” - yep, £110 for a boxset full of songs that, back in 1968, even Dylan didn’t think were worth releasing.

As these releases continued to come out, it became increasing difficult to justify buying any of them, as they all seemed to have “flaws” - the famous “Quadrophenia” boxset, with it’s “not quite finished” surround sound mix of (part of) the (concept!) album on one disc. The SDE release of “Tommy”, a decade after the “Deluxe” release, with several tracks from that one now missing in action, replaced instead by some slightly superfluous “live in 1969” recordings and “Townshend only“ demos already available on bootleg since the year dot. The Elvis Costello “Songbook” release that, when he heard how much the label were asking for it, was dismissed by the man himself as “obviously being a typing error”.

I did get “The Wall”, and was both fascinated - and horrified - by the Roger Waters home demos that were included. There were lots here, which was nice, but all had been deliberately edited - meaning that for your £80, you were only getting to hear extracts of what was actually in the vaults. U2’s “Achtung Baby” (also available in a ridiculous “Uber Deluxe” edition at about £200, where I think, for that price, The Edge personally delivered it to your house) was good, 10 discs, but still “incomplete” - material from the fan club only “Melon” CD made it onto here, but not all of it. Designed, obviously, to placate those who had it already, but could it not have at least been included somehow?

These things just don’t stop coming. Suede have released a 20th anniversary edition boxset of “Dog Man Star”, only a couple of years after a supposed “definitive” 3 disc release of the very same record by Edsel. Some will tell you it’s not even their best album. And don’t get me started on the basic concept of a SDE release of Primal Scream‘s “Screamadelica”, released by a band who have always been left field politically, who you would have thought would have been the first to stand up to their record label over an overpriced reissue of an old LP, but whom now seemed to be happy for them to take £80 off the fans for a record that, back in 1991, was a statement for the working classes, a record recognising the plight of the underdog that was resolved through hedonistic partying. A record that acknowledged the misery of being a slave to the wage, that wanted to rise up against “The Man”. I guess a lot of those poor students who originally bought it for under a tenner on Tape are now deemed rich enough, post-Masters Degree, to be able to pay over the odds to relive their youth, especially as some of them probably became “The Man“ they were originally railing against, just like all those old punks who are now all bank managers. Still, the irony of it is difficult to come to terms with. Even more morally suspect is the SDE reissue of “Never Mind The Bollocks”. Even Lydon has disowned that one. And, seriously, does anybody really want a 20th anniversary edition of the Floyd’s “Division Bell”? It’s a decent enough record, but £100 for something that is arguably no better than “Obscured By Clouds”? And getting the nod in front of something like “Meddle”?

When rock and roll was the new kid on the block, it was part of youth culture. Now, I am not here going to start talking about how great it is that Radio 1 refuses to play anything by anybody who has released more than two albums, or the way in which the BBC’s “kids” channel, BBC Three, one time failed to acknowledge during one of their festival coverage shows, that Kraftwerk - who had invented everybody on the bill that day - had even played at the very same festival, because these are obviously stupid approaches to take towards music. Shame on you, BBC. Again, I digress. But, yes, when Elvis invented rock and roll, music was viewed as being part of youth culture. When Scott Walker’s fifth solo record tanked, it was partially because it was his third record in a year, and the consensus was, his fan base simply didn’t have the financial clout to keep up.

Now, we are at the other end of the spectrum. The consensus being that these people now have the disposable income needed to shell out whatever the labels want them to pay, without question. Records being pointlessly reissued to coincide with some sort of anniversary, and with price tags to make you baulk. New albums being available on standard CD for the plebs, or with extra tracks on a “ten disc multi experience boxset” even though the album itself is a bit crap, for the hardcore. Years ago, unreleased material was left unreleased for a reason, and when some of it was deemed OK to release, you’d either get a rarities album for 11 quid, or it would be shoehorned into a career spanning boxset, for about £40 a time, where it would nestle alongside 7” edits and long lost b-sides. Now? £80, shoved into a boxset reissue of a record you already own. Where, prey tell, has the concept of “value for money” actually gone?

Of course, I am as guilty as the next man. Yep, I own a couple of those Smashing Pumpkins “super deluxe” boxsets from a few years back, mainly because I wanted to get them on CD to stick on my iPod, and I figured if I was going to rebuy them, I may as well get them with all the bells and whistles intact. But it just feels like there is no end in sight. As if no label is prepared to reissue an old album in a simple style, like when EMI had their Fame imprint, but feels it HAS to be revamped into some form of mega expensive, and expansive, multi disc release, irrelevant of how good (or bad) it might be. Hell, even the guy who runs the Super Deluxe Edition website occasionally adds his own comments to some of the news items he posts, and can sometimes be less than complimentary about what he sees. When the editor of a website which celebrates SDE’s is actually complaining about the product he is mentioning, you know something somewhere has gone wrong.

It’s a format that is here to stay. Any album that hasn’t already appeared as an 8-disc £80 boxset is thus fair game, hence the pointless, and rather underwhelming, current Led Zepp reissue campaign which is being dragged out for months on end, decades after these things first turned up on CD, with a scant choice of bonus tracks being issued as part of the process. And with plenty of potential “classic rock” artists to choose from, this sort of nonsense is going to go on forever. Christ, there are even “deluxe” reissues of PWL-era Kylie albums being knocked out at wallet emptying prices, a sign that nothing within the music industry is considered out of bounds. What next? A 6-CD repressing of Black Lace’s “Going To A Party”?

Why is this happening? Well, it may be that the labels are scared that downloading has killed the physical format concept, maybe they are worried that too many people are downloading individual tracks, that perhaps there is a struggle to get new artists to “sell” units. So, the way around it? Stick out Elvis’ “That’s The Way It Is” again, this time as a 4-LP boxset and - hey presto! More money from the obsessives' bank accounts going direct to the RCA coffers. There is something about this relentlessly retro, “looking back” approach that slightly saddens me. New albums by heritage acts, no problem. But another reissue on CD, at £80 a pop, for a Who album that has already been reissued two or three times? Where will it all end? Given by the comments I see on SDE, where somebody will put “not a great album, not much in the way of bonus material...but I love [insert band name here] so I have just ordered it from Amazon straight away without hesitation”, then why would the labels NOT carry on? Money for old rope, extracted from compulsive collectors, who need to have everything, irrelevant of how awful the material might be, and how much it might cost them.

So, I just gave up. The “Grrr!” boxset filled up the last space we had on that particular shelf in our front room, so that technically prevented me from buying anymore. I go on that SDE website every day, and am amazed at how there seems to be a new boxset being released by somebody EVERY SINGLE DAY. The record companies knew that record collectors were fair game, and so decided to “create” collectible records to get them to shell out more of their hard earned cash. With several acts releasing download only EP’s, which in my view, “don’t count” in terms of record collecting, I was already in a position where I was no longer thus purchasing everything by my favourite bands. So what would it matter if I turned down a boxset of Dylan outtakes? I did not die when I bought the single disc version of “Tell Tale Signs” for £100 less than the 3 disc one, the world did not stop turning when I decided against rebuying “Greendale” again. Some might say I shouldn’t have bought it originally in the first place. And so, I became a bit of a lapsed record collector. Somebody who bought this, didn’t buy that, and realised that by not trying to complete my collection of coloured vinyl, and to just be happy with the ones I had, I would make a saving of about £2000. Record collecting had finally beat me, and I accepted defeat. I hated it for what it had done, but I accepted it. The pressure was now off. I could buy each album on “any format”, each single on “one format only, of my choice”, and others were optional. There was no way I was going to be able to buy every one of those Pearl Jam official bootleg releases - I had four or five, why bother with the other hundred or so they had put out? Know your limits, and know when it is time to call it a day. Although, that can sometimes be easier said than done. When you love music, you can feel a bit guilty about leaving things on the shelf. But the record companies made it hard not to do so. In the final instalment next month, we shall look at how the dying physical format single finally joined the Super Deluxe boxset in the world of overpriced insanity, a world where us working class kids kept wondering if rock and roll had abandoned us for the champagne and caviar crowd.

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