Between 2007 and 2008, I made six programmes for Radio 4 as part of the Lost Albums strand. The three featured below look at Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day, Lal & Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus and Robin Gibb’s Sing Slowly Sisters. Also included below is an accompanying article I wrote for The Times.
[By the way, apologies for the huge pictures of me that accompany two of the docs. I haven't yet worked out how to replace them with pictures of the subjects of the documentaries!]
For the railway enthusiast, one imagines that disused stations might hold a similar allure. For the art historian, it probably amounts to a fascination with unrealized sketches – or perhaps the abandoned paintings sometimes found on the other side of the canvas. Where music fans are concerned, lost albums have the same sort of mystique attached to them. The less definitive their track listings, the sketchier the circumstances of their disappearance, the more fascination they hold. Having collected several of them over the years, it was more in hope than expectation that I took the idea of celebrating some of them for a new Radio 4 series. Somewhere along the line, calls were returned, plans hatched, musicians contacted. Lost Albums begins on Tuesday with half an hour devoted to the songs that Elton John recorded with Stylistics producer Thom Bell – six blue-eyed soul cuts that remained largely unheard until 2003, when one of those songs, Are You Ready For Love, crossed over from dancefloors to the top of the charts.
Why the appeal of lost albums over ones that came out as planned? I suppose it’s because if one is a full stop, the other is a question mark. When albums actually appear, it’s the end of the story. Can I be the only person who felt a twinge of disappointment when Brian Wilson finally got around to finishing Smile? For a short time, it wasn’t even something I could subject to rational analysis. The songs were wonderful, and yet, unforgivably, I think I was more fascinated by it in the years before, when the final choice of tracks and the order in which they came was still up for the guessing. However, like so many Beach Boys fans the world over, I didn’t sit around and mope. I merely focused my attentions on what had now taken the place of Smile as the new Great Lost Album By A Beach Boy – Dennis Wilson’s Bamboo. Having died in 1983, Dennis is in no position to follow in his brother’s footsteps and finish his project, so we’re free to speculate about this one in perpetuity. But for what it’s worth, my personally compiled version begins with the sun-kissed acoustic gospel of Wild Situation before Companion proceeds to locate a blissful equidistant point between Steely Dan and Harry Nilsson. Thereafter, it’s cruising altitude through a string of sublime symphonic West Coast pop nuggets.
For the lost albums enthusiast, generous credit has to be directed towards the main facilitator of our fetish. The maligned bootlegger cops the blame for lost industry revenue, but the best illicitly circulated material has allowed fans to shine a light of love on abortive projects whose creators had long since forgotten. When I started work on Lost Albums, the record at the top of my list was Robin Gibb’s Sing Slowly Sisters. But given that the 57 year-old Bee Gee has barely ever alluded to these 1970 recordings, it seemed optimistic to imagine that he might want to talk about them now. Furthermore, you could hardly blame him. Recorded almost a year after The Bee Gees’ split (and a year before they reformed) even the fifth-generation murk of bootleg cassettes can’t conceal the turmoil of a man briefly estranged from his brothers. More importantly though, it also saw Gibb fully realizing his flair for the sort of achingly melancholy pop that yielded Bee Gees hits such as I Started A Joke. Sing Slowly Sisters’ title track is the sort of baroque wartime lament more commonly associated with 60s peers such as Scott Walker – while C’Est La Vie, Au Revoir seemed to précis Gibb’s existential outlook in four prettily embroidered lines: “When we were young/We’d sing in spring/A sweet lovely song/You made me feel like a king/Where did I go wrong?”
When the message finally reached him, it turned out that Robin Gibb was happy to talk about Sing Slowly Sisters. Not only did he do so (in detail and with considerable humour) but for the first time, he sanctioned the first ever airing of these songs. Whatever feelings of frustration bootlegs exact upon musicians, there’s surely something to be said for their ability to let fans determine the artistic value of recordings that artists might never have reappraised.
Definitions of what constitutes a lost album can vary. Lal & Mike Waterson’s 1972 folk masterpiece Bright Phoebus made it as far as the shops, but a bitter, internecine copyright dispute has prevented the record from reaching an audience who wouldn’t hesitate to take its haunting agrarian shadow-world to its heart. Shortly after its 1973 release, the mercurial, otherworldly blues of Terry Reid’s River was deleted. In the last five years, it has appeared on CD, but while it eludes the attentions of most music fans, there’s a good case for considering it lost.
Is an album lost if it existed only in demo form, and the minds of the musicians who conceived it? Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon has written entire albums about Michael Jackson (Behind The Veil) and the history of the world (Earth: The Story So Far), but without the funds to do justice to their vision, he says the albums are unlikely to be recorded. An album called Green Jacket Grey by Aztec Camera made it onto the release schedule of legendary Scottish indie label Postcard. But when the group built around the prodigious teenage talent of Roddy Frame finally got around to putting out their debut, it was 1983, the label was Rough Trade and the record was High Land Hard Rain. By that time, Frame had written a new bunch of songs – but bootleg recordings reveal that Green Jacket Grey would have been a different, no less exceptional debut record. Imagine Arthur Lee’s Love transplanted to the rain-lashed suburbs of East Kilbride, with a post-punk Django Reinhart on lead guitar, and you might be some way to imagining the odd beauty of songs like Remember The Docks and When The Spirit Shows.
Records that remain hidden, be it as a result of their creators’ choosing or through mere circumstance, have a strange allure – even when they’ve been recorded by people you don’t particularly like. Take, for instance, Jean-Michel Jarre. In 1983, the Parisian prince of synth made an album entitled Music For Supermarkets. Upon finishing it, he pressed up just one copy. His point, apparently, was that music is an artistic enterprise, and a great album is no less a work of art than something hanging in the Louvre. Accordingly, Music For Supermarkets sold to the highest bidder for $10,000. Of course, there are several Jean-Michel Jarre albums available to buy, but the only one I’m really interested in hearing is the one I can’t have. That’s the thing about lost albums. Even if there’s every chance that they’ll turn out to be boring, they remain oddly interesting.