Monday, 15 July 2013

The Best Five AAA Re-Issues Series (News, Views and Music Issue 202)

The Monkees may not have been the most highly regarded of AAA bands – not post 1967 anyway – and many people thought record label Rhino (best known for their re-issues of prog rock and heavy metal) were mad for buying up their back catalogue in the days of CD. But Rhino recognised two major things about this band: that they had an active, vocal, loyal fanbase who always treated The Monkees as a worthy band they were proud to have on their shelves and that they had a real embarrassment of riches sitting in the vaults, the band having recorded almost as much unissued material as they released in their short but busy four years together. Rhino excelled themselves by re-issuing not just the ‘hit’ albums but the obscure, rarer material (the last couple of Monkees albums hadn’t even charted and cost a fortune on vinyl) and making these then-30-year-old LPs blossom and sparkle like never before (they are still among the best sounding CDs in my collection some 20 odd years on).Even better, Rhino took the time to research the making of each album, interviewing all four Monkees for their comprehensive CD booklets and raiding archives for smashing unseen shots of one of the most photogenic of all AAA bands. Unlike some re-issue series the interviews were left intact, however honest some of the opinions, with the bitterness over ‘More Of The Monkees’, especially, making sense of that troubled second album far more than any amount of hyperbole or exaggeration. Best of all for the collectors were the dozens of unissued songs and alternate versions, especially on the mid-period albums of 1968 and 69, almost all of which compared favourably with the recordings that actually made each album. The Monkees worked so hard in the 1960s that there was even enough for a three-volume series of ‘Missing Links’ outtakes (covered elsewhere on this site) and another potential three volumes still in the vaults. The Monkees were never as respected as they were when these CDs came out (and the rest of the world finally caught up with what us fans had been saying for years – that The Monkees really were a proper group worthy of attention) and that’s a wonderful thing for a record company to do, Rhino clearly having the love and care the band’s fans share. While their recent, pricey mono-stereo sets (with a few extra remixes but nothing really new or important) and expansive but expensive ‘handmade’ box sets over the past few years are, frankly, pushing their luck a bit Rhino’s superb early 1990s re-issue series of all nine original Monkees albums on CD has never been surpassed. It wins this website’s coveted award as the ‘best AAA re-issue series of all time’ hands down. There are several other competitors, though, hence this week’s top five which features the best of the rest, in strict alphabetical order, all fighting over second place:

The Beach Boys (1960s catalogue 1962-69; Capitol two-fer-ones, early 1990s)

These CDs have been promoted and pulled so many times weary Beach Boy collectors now speak of a ‘yo-yo’ effect where the band re-issue their albums every few years in a variety of different ways and with a wildly varying degree of care. At their best, though, the Capitol re-issue series was superb: two whole (if short) albums on a single disc, slightlky improved sound, copious choice unissued songs, essays on the albums in the CD booklets (with varying degrees of detail and success) and a short note from Brian Wilson himself. All it would take is a free surfboard and these albums would have been the perfect way to get in touch with the true essence of these albums. Better still, the re-issue series stretched to every single one of the band’s 1960s catalogue, including such oddities as two live albums from 1963 and 1968 (sensible packaged together), ‘The Beach Boys Party!’ (an unplugged covers session from 1966 recorded in a hurry so the band could spend longer making ‘Pet Sounds’) and the ultimate Beach Boy curio ‘Stack-O-Tracks’, 15 Beach Boys backing tracks released when the band had never been less popular and Brian Wilson had never been more poorly or unable to make a ‘proper’ LP, re-issued after selling barely a thousand copies on first release. All this – and the hot-on-the-heels ’30 Years Of Good Vibrations’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ box sets meant Beach Boys fans were never happier. Unfortunately some scrooge out there won out not once but twice – an early, late 1980s bare bones no-bonus-tracks-and-plain-packaging series (with some early CDs lasting barely 20 minutes in total) was re-issued a second time a few years ago, the band and label perhaps figuring they could make even more money this way. Hmm, surf’s up if you ask me – let’s have the old ‘proper’ CDs back out on the shelves again! Thankfully Warner Brothers and Caribou followed suit for their own, similar 1970s Beach Boys album re-issue series which are ever so nearly as good, but don’t feature quite as many bonus tracks so don’t quite make this list in their own right.Place to start: ‘Friends’/’20/20’

The Byrds (entire catalogue 1964-72; Columbia/Legacy, mid-1990s)

The problem Columbia faced in the 1990s was a) they were one of the very first AAA bands to jump on the CD re-issue bandwagon with a series of late 1980s bare bones Cds and b) most of the handful of exciting Byrds outtakes and rarities had already been issued on a pretty nifty box set in 1990. As a result, the Byrds re-issue series was never going to be as world-beating as Rhino’s take on The Monkees, but it did the best it could all the same, adding all the relevant bonus tracks from the box set and a small handful of new recordings and rogue B-sides as well as delivering some excellent packaging featuring contributions by every band member available and some rare photos. The label even thought of adding radio plugs for each album as ‘bonus tracks’ – and some of them are very weird indeed! Best of all, each of these albums came out at a cheap price – and got cheaper as the years went on! Whilst rarer nowadays, these CDs are well worth looking out for if all you own is the vinyl editions. Best place to start: ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’.
Grateful Dead (entire catalogue 1966-95; Warner Brothers, 1999-2001)
Pricier than The Byrds and Monkees re-issues, at least you more or less got what you paid for with each Dead album released on CD (well eventually, again this excellent superior re-issue series followed a late 1980s bare bones attempt into the shops). Some 25 CDs were made available together in two big boxes or separately, each with relevant bonus tracks that filled out each album to the full CD running time of 80 minutes (or doubled it to 160 minutes in the case of double albums). Whilst the bonus tracks aren’t always that interesting (several live versions of songs taken from tired nights when the band seemed to be nodding off), the best of them are thrilling: alternate mixes, alternate takes and occasional live recordings that transform sometimes tentative studio animals into beautiful transcendental forces of nature. Add in some excellent sleeve notes for each CD (almost all of them by leading figures with long association with the band) and full notes on where and when each song was recorded and Warner Brothers made an awful lot of us Dead fans very happy over a two-year period, with even the supposedly ‘lesser’ Dead albums shining like never before. All this and Bob Weir’s ‘Yellow Dog’ story (improvised while the rest of the band tune up during a 1972 gig) too! Best place to start: ‘Wake Of The Flood’

The Kinks (entire 1960s catalogue 1964-70; Pye/Velvel, late 1990s)

Pye were probably the worst label to be on in the 1960s: bands who weren’t selling were dropped straight away, albums were expected twice a year and often compilations and live albums were ordered without any consultation with the bands themselves. Frankly, The Kinks couldn’t wait to leave in 1970 when their contract was up – and yet Pye might well be the best record label of all in the CD age, re-issuing sensitive, carefully considered CD versions of albums they once used to treat as throwaways (usually by licensing their recordings out to other companies, it has to be said). The Kinks re-issue series of about 15 years ago might not have featured the most detailed packaging or the greatest number of bonus tracks, but at their best they did exactly what they needed to: outlining the stories behind each album in enough detail to whet the appetite, interviewing both Davies brothers and including as many bonus tracks as Ray Davies would allow. Some of them, especially on the early albums, are superb and far too good to have left sitting in vaults for all these years – ‘Kinda Kinks’ especially doubles in length and track number and if anything the ‘second half’ is a better album, featuring three key hit singles plus equally marvellous B-sides, an EP and a wonderful Ray Davies home demo; ‘Arthur’ from 1969 might not be improved (can you improve on perfection?) but also almost doubles in length with some very rare B sides given a ‘proper’ home at last. Last year’s double CD of mono-stereo sets aren’t quite so impressive, adding a few BBC radio sessions which are now themselves released separately on a ‘complete BBC’ set and a tiny smattering of other oddities whilst doubling the price, doesn’t really compare.

The Searchers (entire catalogue 1963-65; Pye/Vellvel/Castle, mid 1990s)

The Searchers are another band originally on Pye who have been well served on CD, far better than they ever were at the time. Alas The Searchers only made five albums and don’t have quite as many outtakes in the vaults as some other bands out there. What they did do, however, is release loads and loads of singles which are all here on relevant albums along with the odd outtake and foreign language recordings. Better still, Pye have chosen to include these in the ‘middle’ of an album, separating mono and stereo copies of each album on one single disc, offering good value for money. The packaging of these CDs, too, are among the best AAA CDs out there, interviews with all the then-surviving Searchers being compacted into a long essay which turned into a fold-out poster. Considering how awfully little has ever been written about this band, it was a great opportunity to get to the heart of the Searchers story. It’s sad that there aren’t more rarities on them – and I’m still waiting for the collection of post-album As and B sides which would make one of the greatest AAA albums of all time if they were finally issued altogether on CD instead of drip-fed onto compilations and box sets – but these five CDs are presented with a lot of love and a lot of care and that’s all you can really ask for record companies looking to make some money out of old material.

That’s all for this week. Join us again next time for some more news, views and music, whatever medium you’re using to listen to these albums!

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