“Style over substance: the reissues craze” - A fans’ dilemma by Alan Hewitt.
Fans of any musician with a pedigree and back catalogue as extensive as Genesis’ are well aware of the ploys record companies will try to get us to shell out our hard-earned cash on buying the same product again, aren’t we? First of all it was so-called “limited edition” vinyl releases which may or may not have come in coloured vinyl of varying hues or in a variant of the original sleeve. We bought them didn’t we? We’re fans after all!
With the advent of the Compact Disc format in the early 1980’s the record companies had a field day yet again, reissuing entire catalogues in this bright shiny new format which did away with all the clicks, pops and other superfluous background noise that vinyl accumulated. Sadly, it also did away with much of the warmth of the older format as well as whole chunks of the upper and lower sound spectrum but once again, it was the music that mattered and we all flocked to purchase our heroes’ albums all over again. Then came the picture disc and the limited edition to tempt us yet again.
|The rush to transfer existing artists’ catalogues to this new format on occasions demonstrated the unseemly haste with which this process was done. This was definitely the case with the first CD release of Anthony Phillips’ glorious debut album: The Geese & The Ghost which was transferred to CD by his US record company Passport Records in 1987. Those of you like myself who rushed to purchase this choice item at the time may well have wondered what the “fluttering” sound was on parts of the album? Was this some previously unheard effect now made audible by the new technology? Oh no, dear reader it was in fact the sound made due to oxide falling off the tapes! Yes, the tapes from which this recording was transferred were not “baked” first to prevent shedding of the oxide from them. To add insult to injury, the master used for the transfer process was not even the original but a copy! Careless to say the least eh?|
This was clearly also the case in the late 1990’s when Steve’s Charisma solo albums were finally reissued on CD for the first time by Virgin Records. The sound quality on Voyage Of The Acolyte on that original issue was appalling and not surprisingly so as the mastering process was done via a Canadian copy master and NOT the original which could not be located at the time. Worse was to follow however with Please Don’t Touch where we were confronted by a gap between Land Of A Thousand Autumns and Please Don’t Touch which had many thinking that their CD was faulty! Oh no, folks, those good people at Virgin were responsible for this act of artistic vandalism which was finally put right in 2005 but we shall come to that later. However, there was to be an unexpected “bonus” for initial purchasers of Steve’s third solo album: Spectral Mornings with the appearance of the previously unheard spoof track: “The Janitor”. So unexpected was this track, that when quizzed about it, Steve and his then manager were unaware that it was on the CD! What had happened was that the entire master was transferred without checking if there was anything else lurking on it as is so often the case with these things. The end result was at definite (and hilarious) bonus for collectors. And in fact subsequent runs of the CD had this track removed at their request making the initial run more collectable. The reason for all of this mayhem subsequently became apparent when it was revealed that Virgin had not even consulted Steve over the project! If this is how a record company was prepared to treat one of its artists, what chance did we the punters stand, eh?
By the beginning of the new century/millennium however, the well appeared to be finally running dry in terms of product which record companies could use to tempt us to part with our cash. How wrong we were. There soon began the craze for reissuing “remastered” versions of our favourite albums. Now, as you all know I am not best placed to discuss the merits/demerits of remastering in terms of the actual technical processes involved. All I can do is judge the results when I hear them. The first member of Genesis to offer us the opportunity to hear remastered versions of his back catalogue was Peter Gabriel when Real World reissued his entire back catalogue in 2002. These reissues only confirmed to me that the entire process, at times could be completely irrelevant as there was little (to my ears folks) noticeable difference in the overall sound quality of these releases to their original CD counterparts which I still have for the purposes of comparison. Nor were we even treated to any of the multitude of B sides which had appeared on singles from these albums over the years. What was surprising to many was the fact that Peter, a confirmed technophile did not upgrade the albums to the much vaunted 5.1 format at the time nor has he succumbed to the temptation to do so since although you can bet your bottom dollar that such a project will appear at some point (erm, check your facts Alan, he did that in 2003! SB).
Nothing daunted, we all waited with bated breath once word got out that Genesis themselves were revisiting (pun intended) their back catalogue and all in both 5.1 and SACD. In fact, this was to be one of the first major remastering projects to this format by any record company and represented a considerable investment in time and money (!) by the company. I would refer you to our interviews with Genesis producer Nick Davis on this subject in previous editions of TWR for the technical side of it. However, when the albums eventually arrived in a series of boxed sets here was the time to really re-evaluate the band’s catalogue. This was much more like it. Not only was the process entirely justified in terms of restoring detail which had been “buried” in the original recordings thanks to the limitations of the recording/production processes at the time but also at last, the record company also provided us with something “extra” in terms of the selection of non album tracks and B sides which accompanied each set. Even here, however, there was room for criticism. There were several tracks omitted and a whole heap of session recordings which could have been included too but for reasons as yet unknown, they were not. The live album box set also missed a golden opportunity to give the fans a little extra in terms of previously unheard live recordings from the same period. Here the inclusion of live tracks from The Lamb.. On the end of Genesis Live was particularly jarring especially when a BBC recording from roughly the same period IS available. That said, at least we now had the albums themselves in truly pristine quality which goes some way to justifying the expensive price tag that they came with.
The more recent reissuing of parts of the back catalogue of Steve Hackett, Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Anthony Phillips have only served to illustrate both the good and bad points raised above. The initial re-issue of Steve’s Charisma albums by EMI in 2005 showed just how satisfying such a release could be. Each album was improved sonically as you would expect now that Steve and his own engineer, Ben Fenner were actively involved and even the extras included on each album were sufficient to make most fans happy. They even corrected the errors mentioned above. However, how to fundamentally botch the same albums was demonstrated by the release last year of the Premonitions box set. Where the master tapes to several of these albums have disappeared to since 2005 is a mystery which has yet to be resolved and so we were deprived of the opportunity of hearing these albums in the 5.1 format although it has to be said that Steven Wilson’s work on the “up” mixes does improve them somewhat. What was really galling for fans however, is the complete omission of many of the extras which had made the EMI issues such a delight and it is here that the Spectral Mornings album in particular springs to mind. Lack of space cannot be an argument in this case as they were initially appended to the end of each of their respective albums so why not here? OK, so the live tracks were available as the full recordings from which they were taken (Poole 1979 and Reading 1981 respectively) do form part of the package and there was the bonus of a previously unheard complete 1979 live show and a BBC session from 1983. This does not explain the omission of these tracks however, although in the interview you can find elsewhere in this edition, Steve does give us his thoughts about this, and from an artist’s perspective they make absolute sense. In fact, this release gives all the appearance of being rush released to capitalise on Steve’s current high profile by a record company; Universal who have just taken over all of EMI’s roster and want to make a return on their investment. With these albums now also being re-issued as stand alone sets, again WITHOUT these extras, it makes me wonder who is in charge of such projects? Whoever they are, they have evidently not been paying close enough attention to the material they are working with nor indeed have they paid any attention to the feedback their previous efforts have received on the various fan forums out there of which TWR is one, of course.
|Anthony Phillips has been much better served in terms of the CD reissue of his albums. Initially by Virgin back in the early 1990’s each album was blessed with extra tracks and was an improvement sonically. The same can be said of the Voiceprint reissues which also expanded the amount of extra material available for fans including two releases of previously unheard material in the Archive Collection series which were selected by Ant and a group of dedicated fans yours truly included. It helps that Ant not only has most of his studio masters in his own possession and so does not have to go through the usual round of haggling with a record company for return of same which has dogged many a similar project. That and the fact that he has a fan as his archivist, and Jonathan Dann’s work in this area has ensured that the resulting releases are of uniformly high quality. This trend has continued with the more recent reissue of the early part of Ant’s back catalogue by Esoteric Records. Great care has evidently been taken on these not only in terms of the remastering, with the 5.1 mix of Ant’s debut album; The Geese & The Ghost being a marvellous demonstration of just how good the process can be when attention is paid to it. The presentation of these albums and their attendant box set Harvest Of The Heart also demonstrates exactly the kind of quality that can be delivered when the record company set their minds to it.
|Esoteric have also been responsible for the custodianship of Tony Banks’ back catalogue beginning in 2009 with the excellent reissue of his debut album: A Curious Feeling. Their recent box set A Chord Too Far was also uniformly excellent in terms of both content and quality. Many fans have scratched their heads at the reissue most recently of A Curious Feeling yet again although their issue at the same time of The Fugitive is welcome as this album has been unavailable for far too long. Sadly, neither of these releases gives the fan anything major in terms of extras, but as Tony himself has said, the cupboard is bare (do we believe him though folks?). At least the new mixes here do bring an extra element to these albums which even someone whose ears are as jaded as mine are can appreciate and for fans who never got the albums on CD first time round can do so now. If the rest of the albums in the Banks solo catalogue receive a similar treatment then the fans should be contented.
|Finally we have the ongoing reissue of Phil Collins’ solo albums. A much publicised campaign which once again promised us a great deal. Unusually, the albums have NOT been remastered to 5.1 which is surprising and it has to be said, the resulting mixes don’t exactly set me alight with excitement. And, unlike some of the items mentioned previously, Phil’s albums have never (to my knowledge at least) been deleted. Here we have the added “bonus” of live and studio rarities. Hmm… placing the live tracks together in the shape of what amounts to a live EP is a good idea, and indeed does demonstrate just how much songs change and evolve within the live context. However, it has to be said, the sound quality of these leaves much to be desired. Given that there are a plethora of B sides and unreleased tracks from each of these albums, it is extremely disappointing that a meagre handful of these have graced the albums to the justified frustration of the fans. The lack of recording information on these releases is also deeply frustrating for the anoraks among us but I for one can live with that.|
And so there you have it. It appears that the major record companies are still unable or unwilling to engage fully with the very people who are purchasing their product - the fans. When you look at the work by the likes of King Crimson and Jethro Tull where the effort has been expanded in actually putting together editions which give fans EXACTLY what they are willing to pay for, then it does beg the question what are the majors afraid of? Repackaging albums which have been purchased in some cases four, five or maybe even SIX times before cannot go on indefinitely especially in today’s digital age no matter what new “ray” format they may come up with. Fans’ loyalties can only be taken for granted so far and with the fan base for many of the older established bands dwindling as fans begin to vote with their wallets and refuse to be fooled again. The returns for mediocre effort won’t justify the outlay whereas, if the record companies actually LISTENED TO and more importantly ACTED UPON what the fans actually WANT then maybe, just maybe both parties could get what they want out of the situation but, jaded old cynic that I am, I won’t hold my breath waiting folks!