3.05, 12 September 2001
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Backstreets, Bootlegs and the CD-R Revolution
The centerpiece of the Fall 2001 issue of Backstreets is an excellent retrospective of the August 20, 1981 Vietnam Veterans of America benefit. It is a testament to the magazine's unabated high quality under the stewardship of Chris Phillips that it can pull off such a thing. One cringes when seeing similar articles in, say, certain Elvis fanzines. ("Aloha From Hawaii! Thirty Years Later!")
In that same issue, Backstreets contributor Lynn Elder reviews Scorpio's recent, upgraded bootleg of the show, A Night for the Vietnam Veteran. The review is positive, as it should have been. We at The Hitter do not own the Scorpio discs, but we have seen and heard them, and they are very well done. Moreover, Elder provides useful and entertaining detail about the various tapes of the show and the circumstances in which a new upgraded tape came into circulation. The review was a small, tantalizing window into the high-powered world of tape collecting that few can provide.
However, there are some facts unknown to many Backstreets readers that seem necessary to a full understanding of the review. One is that "Lynn Elder" is a pseudonym. A careful, tandem reading of Clinton Heylin's book Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry and Backstreets' own You Better Not Touch books suggests that Elder is actually a specific person well known in the Springsteen fan community (although one cannot eliminate the possibility that multiple writers share the byline).
Another fact is the full story of a nonprofit CD tree from the same source tape called Written on the Wall, that preceded the Scorpio set. (It is here that The Hitter must confess two conflicts of interest. First, we played a supporting role in preparing that fan release; we drafted its liner notes. Second, Elder complimented our liner notes in his review of the Scorpio set.) Elder ranks the Scorpio set above Written on the Wall for reasons that seem sensible: the Scorpio discs are pressed on gold CDs and they are packaged more lavishly.
But having gone out of his way to contrast the two sets, Elder fails to paint the whole picture. First, while he acknowledges that the two sets came from the same tape, he doesn't make it clear enough that there is no meaningful sonic difference between them. Second, he does not disclose that the fan CD, unlike the Scorpio set, contained seven bonus tracks from an uncirculated partial soundboard recording of the show. Ironically, Elder mentions the soundboard tape in the review and suggests that it was widely known for some time. In truth, it had not circulated at all until very shortly before the fan CD was prepared; we ourselves had never heard it until we got our copy of the finished fan CD. Elder also suggests that the soundboard tape is of negligible quality. Reasonable ears can differ about that, but one must ask why, if that was the case, the tape stayed under wraps for so long.
In the end, the review leaves the reader with the correct ultimate conclusion about the Scorpio set: it's well done and arguably worth the money. But that conclusion stands at some odds with Backstreets' long-stated editorial philosophy on bootlegs: that they are unsavory things that the magazine condescends to review only as a courtesy to its weak-willed readers, and that the world would probably be better off without them. The oddity is only compounded when Backstreets openly favors a bootleg over a nonprofit fan CD production that is sourced from the same tapes and can be obtained readily through the Internet for next to nothing.
In our humble opinion, the review of the Scorpio set epitomizes the confusion that Backstreets has sometimes brought to the subject of bootlegs. Even though it sells magazines and books by reviewing bootlegs, it has never mustered the overt enthusiasm for the pesky little discs that other fanzines like The 910 do. In our view, there are some legitimate reasons for this. One is that Bruce Springsteen and his fans have suffered more than their share of shoddily produced ripoffs, and that a whole flood of them came during the magazine's formative years in the mid-1980s. (Of course, this hasn't stopped The 910; no one can rival The Beatles in generating lousy bootleg CDs.) Another reason might be the magazine's desire for good relations with the Springsteen organization, although to tell you the truth, we'd be hard pressed to point to its fruits. The day Bruce Springsteen or Jon Landau gives a Backstreets interview, the market for anal pig extraction surgery will shoot up 1000%.
A final reason is that some Backstreets contributors -- presumably including "Lynn Elder" -- bring a great deal of unusual knowledge to the subjects of bootlegging and tape collecting. Yet that can be a double-edged sword for the fans. On the one hand, such knowledge gives fans access to information that they otherwise wouldn't have, whether about specific tapes (like the 1977 "from the board" recordings that Elder discusses in the You Better Not Touch books) and upcoming releases.
But when that knowledge depends on connections
with people actually in the business, the reviewer may find himself unable
or unwilling to discuss the matter with complete candor or disinterest.
As a result, the review may not fully serve the interests of the fans.
The worst case is when information obtained from an inside source is wrong.
For example, ICE's "Going Underground"
column recently lauded a Who bootleg on the Hiwatt label called Instant
Party. That bootleg purported to present original and unheard
studio master tapes of some of the band's seminal early singles.
(The set's excellent packaging strikingly resembles some Scorpio and Doberman
releases, by the way, most notably in its use of gold discs that ape Mobile
Fidelity's Ultradiscs.) Yet some knowledgable Who fans on the DCC
Compact Classics bulletin board and the alt.music.who newsgroup have
since claimed that the music was actually pirated from common, official
Yet we'd personally like to see Backstreets do two things. First, we'd like to see a fuller discussion of the CD-Rs and trees that commonly circulate on the Internet at little to no cost. The world of unauthorized audio is completely different than it was in 1984. Fans need to know that they can collect great music and not have to pay $75 a pop to do it. Other fanzines such as ISIS serve this need; Backstreets should too. Indeed, Backstreets' near-total silence on the world of CD-R collecting may serve fans poorly when the record industry takes even more draconian measures against the practice.
Second, maybe Backstreets should review its editorial position on bootlegs, and on collecting unauthorized audio generally. We personally would take a franker approach than Backstreets now does. In our view, the fish rots from the head down. The hostility that Bruce and the Organization have shown historically toward taping brings out the worst elements in some fans, who try to exert the same sort of control by hoarding material and sometimes profiting from it.
How better the world would be if the Organization
allowed taping, and openly blessed the free circulation of live performances
among fans. It would challenge fans to develop a new ethic in collecting,
under which music trades freely and bootlegs are shunned. Maybe fans
aren't up to the challenge. But we think they might be. As
a magazine that has always represented the fans, first and foremost, Backstreets
is in a perfect position to say so.