The best albums we can't buy


August 5, 2001

BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic


Whether it was because of a record company feud, a musician who got cold feet, or sounds that were simply too far ahead of their time, some of the most famous albums in rock history have never been officially released.

That doesn't mean that fans haven't heard them--or helped to spread their legends.

The odd history of ''lost'' classics has been brought into the spotlight by the controversy surrounding ''The Lillywhite Sessions'' by the Dave Matthews Band. No less a pop-culture barometer than Entertainment Weekly called the aborted disc ''the biggest phenomenon in bootlegging since Bob Dylan's 'Basement Tapes' surfaced three decades ago.''

The story holds that the platinum-selling groove band had finished recording a rather dark and downbeat album last year with its longtime producer, Steve Lillywhite (a veteran of sessions with U2 and XTC, among many others). The band's label, RCA Records, heard the disc and balked: The company didn't hear a single.

''I'm not feeling this record as a fan,'' RCA exec Bruce Flohr allegedly told Matthews.

Surprisingly, given the band's reputation for doing things outside the mainstream music industry, Matthews agreed and/or acquiesced. He went back into the studio with mega-hack producer Glenn Ballard, the sort of ultra-commercial pro that bands like Aerosmith turn to when they're short on inspiration. (Ballard also co-wrote many of Alanis Morrissette's songs of twentysomething female angst.)

The result was ''Everyday,'' Matthews' most polished and radio-friendly album. Ten months after its release, the disc is still sitting at No. 25 on the Billboard chart, with certified sales of 2 million copies. But RCA had expected even better, given the group's position as the best-selling touring act in America.

It turns out that many of Matthews' most devoted fans were disappointed by ''Everyday,'' finding it overly slick and glossy, and lacking in the extended interplay that characterizes the jam band onstage. They were thrilled when ''The Lillywhite Sessions'' began to surface on the Net in March--the album that had been shelved not only sounded like the ''real'' DMB, but many thought it was the group's strongest recording ever.

In addition to being much more of a collaborative band effort (though with a minimum of the traditional instrumental wankery), ''The Lillywhite Sessions'' find Matthews digging much deeper lyrically than his usual Hallmark card banalities. Influenced by the deaths of two close relatives, songs such as the concert staple ''Bartender,'' the lilting ''Grace Is Gone,'' and the Peter Gabriel-flavored ''Grey Street'' question Dave's place in the universe and ''what it all means.''

As aural diaries of rockers' midlife crises go, it's pretty potent stuff. I give it * * *, compared to the * * I awarded ''Everyday'' upon its release.

Responding to the fans' enthusiasm, many radio stations began playing tracks from ''The Lillywhite Sessions.'' This fueled speculation by conspiracy theorists who posited that the band and the label were endorsing if not actively promulgating the underground release of the sidelined album in an attempt to woo back any Daveheads who might have been alienated by ''Everyday.''

Matthews played several of the Lillywhite songs during his recent concerts at Soldier Field, adding more support to this plot. But folks were overlooking the fact that neither RCA nor the band was making any money from an album that was being distributed electronically for free.

Two weeks ago, RCA sent threatening letters to radio stations ordering them to ''cease and desist'' from playing the bootlegged tunes, or face serious legal ramifications. Most stations, including WXRT-FM in Chicago, quickly complied.

Will ''The Lillywhite Sessions'' ever be officially released? Neither RCA nor Matthews' spokesmen are commenting. Right now, it's anybody's guess, though it remains easy to find copies of the disc on the Net. (A quick web search will turn up a dozen or more options for an instant download.)

Of course, the mystery surrounding the album makes it even more alluring, which has been the case whenever an artist's work has been withheld from the public, regardless of the reason. After the Morrison/Hendrix/Joplin truism (''Death is a great career move!''), the most accurate cliche in rock is that nothing sparks interest in a recording more than not releasing it.

The most famous lost album ever is probably ''Smile,'' the Beach Boys' aborted followup to the masterful ''Pet Sounds.'' Brian Wilson began this ill-fated collaboration with Van Dyke Parks in late 1966, following the success of the ambitious single, ''Good Vibrations.''

Wilson set out to record an album of ''teenage symphonies to God'' called ''Dumb Angel.'' But the Beach Boys' songwriting genius was taking speed and smoking marijuana constantly, and he suffered bouts of depression and paranoia. He built his infamous sandbox in the living room and refused to leave his bed for weeks at a time.

The nadir came when Wilson tried to destroy the tapes of a track called ''Fire'' because he thought it was starting blazes around Los Angeles.

In May 1967, Capitol announced that the album had been abandoned, despite the fact that ads had already run featuring the finished artwork (it had since been renamed ''Smile''.) The group cancelled a headlining appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, and things were never the same for the Beach Boys again. Hyperbolic rock academic Greil Marcus famously wrote that Wilson's artistic reputation would forever be based largely on music that no one ever really heard.

In fact, the songs from ''Smile'' that were salvaged for the later album ''Smilely Smile'' and those that eventually appeared on a 1993 box set show flashes of inspiration, especially ''Surf's Up'' and ''Heroes and Villains.'' But the rest of the music isn't nearly as brilliant as ''Pet Sounds,'' an accomplishment that is shortchanged by all of the obsessing over its followup.

Based on tapes from Beach Boys fanatics who've rounded up fairly accurate approximations of what the unfinished ''Smile'' would have sounded like, I'd have to say that it was a * * * effort, compared to the * * * * ''Pet Sounds.''

And so it goes with many of rock's ''lost'' classics. A few of those that have belatedly seen the light of day have indeed turned out to be the masterpieces that were rumored. But most loom much larger in legend than they do on actual tape, vinyl, or CD.

Here is a look at some buried treasures that remain deep underground, followed by a list of lost classics that eventually found their way into record stores. If you know or have heard of others, email, and the Sun-Times will run your additions in an upcoming edition of Sunday Showcase.

Brian Wilson, ''Sweet Insanity'': Not as infamous as ''Smile,'' but close. The followup to Wilson's 1988 Warner Bros. debut was a solid collection of pleasant pop tunes written in collaboration with his controversial psychiatrist, Eugene Landy. The disc was shelved when many around Wilson started attacking the good doctor's ethics, but aside from some dumb lyrics and a painful attempt to rap, it's at least as strong as other recent Wilson solo discs.

Chances it will ever be officially released: Slim. Wilson dodged the question when I asked him about it last year.

Star rating, based on the boots: * * *

The Beatles, ''Get Back'': This is the ''back to the roots'' album that the Beatles were trying to make when they played on the rooftop, as seen in ''Let It Be.'' Most of the tracks appeared on the album that accompanied the film, but the disc as originally planned was raw, rootsy rock with minimal overdubs, and the finished release was notoriously tarted up with strings and horns by pop legend Phil Spector.

Chances it will ever be officially released: A lot of it's already out there, in alternate takes on the ''Anthologies'' and such.

Star rating: * * *1/2 (better than ''Let It Be,'' which is * * *)

The Stalk-Forrest Group, ''Unreleased Album'': The band that became Blue Oyster Cult recorded this fabled psychedelic epic for Elektra Records in 1970, after it had morphed from another band called the Soft White Underbelly. A single was pressed, ''What is Quicksand?''/''Arthur's Comics,'' but the album never appeared, despite an inspired sound akin to an East Coast version of Love.

Chances it will ever be officially released: Slim; not much interest.

Star rating, based on the boots: * * *

Pink Floyd, ''Household Objects'': Following the phenomenal success of ''The Dark Side of the Moon,'' the long-running English art-rockers were at a loss about what to do next. In the autumn of 1973, they started work on an album that would consist of nothing but homemade instruments, and they spent months recording the sounds of stretched rubber bands, cardboard boxes, and wine glasses filled with different amounts of water. ''Of course, it's a dead easy thing to do today with samplers, but then, we abandoned it without having made any real tracks,'' guitarist David Gilmour told me a few years ago. ''It just got too difficult--and pointless. I mean, in the end, after you've spent weeks trying to make cardboard boxes sound like bass drums and snare drums, you think, 'Well, why the [heck] don't I use a bass drum and snare drum?'''

Chances it will ever be officially released: Nil. The Floyd is notoriously stingy about parting with such rarities.

Star rating: N/A (I'd kill to hear this one!)

Neil Young, ''Homegrown'': You were probably wondering when we'd get around to ol' Neil, ''the keeper of the key to the vault'' (which is stuffed to overflowing with unreleased goodies!). Recorded in 1975 after ''On the Beach,'' Young allegedly scrapped this lilting, countrified account of a broken romance because it was too depressing and overly personal; since he released ''Tonight's the Night'' in its stead, that's really saying something. A few tunes such as ''Human Highway'' and ''Long May You Run'' appeared on later albums.

Chances it will ever be officially released: Probably some day, but who knows when--look how long we've been waiting for the oft-promised box-set follow-up to ''Decade.''

Star rating, based on the boots: * * *

Prince, ''The Black Album'': Prince's recording career has been a spotty mess of stellar highs and very-low lows ever since 1988, when he made an abrupt about-face and decided to release ''Lovesexy'' instead of this gritty, uncompromising, and thoroughly bad tribute to George Clinton-style funk. It remains the nastiest music he's ever put on tape.

Chances it will ever be officially released: Pretty good, since Prince eventually releases everything.

Star rating, based on the boots: * * *

Buffalo Springfield, ''Stampede'': This title was originally floated as the followup to the first album by Neil Young and Stephen Stills' original band, but the group was falling apart at the time, and whatever it recorded for this set was never released in its original harder-rocking, less orchestrated form. The group broke up, regrouped, recorded ''Buffalo Springfield Again,'' then split for good.

Chances it will ever be officially released: Slim. Rhino Records just blew the perfect opportunity to include in on the new Buffalo Springfield box set.

Star rating, based on the boots: * * *

Brian Eno, ''My Squelchy Life'': Recorded in several cities with a varied cast of musicians ranging from Tom Petty sideman Benmont Tench, to the Neville Brothers' rhythm section, to a four-piece female marimba band, Eno rethought this 1991 solo album (his most accessible since 1977's ''Before and After Science'') and took it back from Warner Bros. before it could be released. He went ambient/techno on subsequent outings, but that was a let-down based on the promise of this music.

Chances it will ever be officially released: Probably not. Eno is more likely to just let it float around on the Net.

Star rating, based on an advance cassette: * * *

Bruce Springsteen, ''The Electric Nebraska'': Springsteen has recorded and abandoned several albums throughout his career, but the holy grail remains this full-on band version of his introspective acoustic epic, ''Nebraska.'' After the E-Streeters recorded the tunes, the Boss decided they weren't as powerful as his solo acoustic demos, so he released those instead.

Chances it will ever be officially released: Probably not; few outside Springsteen's inner circle have ever heard all of it.

Star rating, based on the boots: N/A

My Bloody Valentine, ''The New My Bloody Valentine Album'': The Irish shoegazers have been missing in action for more than a decade now, since releasing the mind-blowing ''Loveless'' in 1991. Having created a revered cult classic that fans rank as one of the greatest guitar albums of all time, auteur Kevin Shields has been stymied in his attempts to top himself. He has started and abandoned countless follow-ups, with very little of the music ever surfacing from his home studio.

Chances it will ever be officially released: Slimmer every day.

Star rating, based on the boots: N/A

Guns N' Roses, ''Chinese Democracy'': Axl Rose, the lone original Gunman, has also been trying to get his act together for a decade now, but he's only been working in earnest on this disc for a year or two. (Before that, there were mostly just rumors about musicians, producers, new songs, and alternate titles, including ''Cockroach Soup'' and ''2000 Intentions.'') Axl is supposedly going in a hard-rock-meets-techno direction, though the new tunes he's played live sound a lot like old GNR.

Chances it will ever be officially released: Believe it when you hear it..

Star rating, based on the boots: N/A (does anybody even care anymore?)

The Butthole Surfers, ''Unreleased Capitol Album'': Capitol issued advance cassettes of this disc in 1998, but the band became embroiled in a legal battle with the label, and it never came out. The group has finally resurfaced on Disney-owned Hollywood Records; a new album called ''Weird Revolution'' is forthcoming, and it features reworked versions of some of these songs. Neither album is any great shakes, though--the Buttholes have abandoned their earlier psychedelic lunacy to attempt to craft another alternative/industrial hit a la ''Jesus Built My Hotrod.''

Chances it will ever be officially released: Nil.

Star rating, based on the advance cassette: * *


Chris Bell, ''I Am the Cosmos'': The solo debut by the man who co-founded power-pop heroes Big Star with Alex Chilton and who wrote many of that band's best songs was unreleased for years until it finally surfaced on Rykodisc. It is easily as strong as any Chilton solo album, and it stands as a fitting tribute to Bell, who died in a car crash shortly after the recording. * * * *

The Who, ''Lifehouse'': The rock opera Pete Townshend crafted after ''Tommy'' wasn't as structured as that effort of ''Quadrophenia,'' which is probably one reason why it was scrapped in 1971 and retooled as ''Who's Next.'' The songwriter continued to tinker with his sprawling, dizzying take on organized religion and spirituality for years, eventually winding up with a massive six-disc box set that was recently released via his web site as ''The Lifehouse Chronicles.'' I have never had the fortitude or the curiosity to seek it out.

Joan Osbourne, ''Righteous Love'': Shelved for five years by Mercury, which didn't hear a hit (she should talk to Dave!), Osbourne finally raised the money to issue this satisfying collection of brassy pop and Janis Joplin-style blues last year. Unfortunately, her moment had passed, and it sank without the notice it deserved. * * *

John Phillips and the Rolling Stones, ''Pay Pack & Follow'': The late leader of the Mama's and the Papa's recorded this backporch hoedown with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Mick Taylor in the early '70s, but it was only released this spring. We weren't missing much. * *

Run-D.M.C., ''Crown Royal'': Delayed for years while the influential forefathers of hip-hop were frustrated in securing permissions for the album's many guest appearances, it was something of a let-down when it finally came out in late 1999, falling far short of a hit comeback. * *

The Velvet Underground, ''VU'' and ''Another View'': When PolyGram finally saw fit to release the lost album that the godfathers of punk recorded between their third effort and ''Loaded,'' the company spread the songs out over two separate discs. That's annoying, but it doesn't make the material any less brilliant. Rating for ''VU'': * * * *; rating for ''Another View'': * * * 1/2.

Bob Dylan, ''Live 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert'' and ''The Basement Tapes'': If Dylan isn't the most bootlegged rock artist ever, he's a close second to the Grateful Dead. These two classics thrilled fans as illicit releases long before they got their official issuances. The misnamed ''Royal Albert Hall'' set finally surfaced in 1998, while ''The Basement Tapes'' officially emerged in 1975, eight years after they were recorded with the Band in Saugerties, New York. They were both so good, they were well worth buying again. Rating for ''Albert Hall'': * * * *; rating for ''The Basement Tapes'': * * * 1/2.