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Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s duets album. The Who’s TV special soundtrack. Rare new music by George Michael and Kraftwerk… The history of officially unreleased albums offers a fascinating glimpse into an alternative universe. John Earls bravely ventures into the deepest valleys of cratedigging to tell the stories of the 20 unofficial releases we’d love to see on the shelves, and hears why some of them might be fools’ gold

One of the reasons the 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles, aka The White Album, was named Long Live Vinyl’s Best Reissue last year was because it finally gave an official release to the Esher Demos. Recorded at George Harrison’s Surrey mansion in Esher, these early versions of The Beatles' songs allowed fans to hear how classics such as While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Back In The USSR developed, often glimpsing wildly differing versions to the established end results. The expanded The Beatles was a great example of how to release an official version of a widely circulated bootleg, helping fans discover ‘new’ Beatles music they never knew existed.

Many audiophiles will own a sneaky copy of their own favourite bootleg, the studio recordings of a favourite artist who has quietly airbrushed their unreleased masterwork off their CV; the dodgy disco album the record label wisely rejected; a disastrous three-month session with the hot producer who turned out to have an even bigger ego; the songs lost to copyright disputes when the band changed record labels… all these have contributed to the great unreleased album.

Many of these are bootlegged in a quality which makes the artist despair. An important factor in the respect for Esher Demos is how superior it sounded compared to the bootlegs which had circulated among Beatles fans for decades. Anyone with a passing knowledge of audio knows how distorted a recording becomes once it gets beyond a first-generation copy, and the Esher Demos’ release brought that reality home. As The Beatles’ remastering engineer Miles Showell told Long Live Vinyl: “The Esher Demos bootlegs that turned up among fans were terrible copies – they played at the wrong speed and sounded awful.” Harrison was The Beatles’ in-house cataloguist, with the original four-track Esher Demos recordings kept in pristine condition by his widow Olivia. “To get demos of that good quality from 1968 is frankly incredible,” says Showell.

Another cautionary factor is how disappointing the reality of those lost songs can be. The rarer a recording, the more mythical its status, which can quickly be punctured once it’s heard beyond devotees. Runner-up to The Beatles as 2018’s best reissue was The Beta Band’s lovingly packaged The Three EPs. Another excellent Beta Band reissue last year was of their 1999 self-titled full debut album. The Beta Band was packaged with the first official release of The Hut, an album comprising two lengthy jams around the theme of making the happiest music possible.

Former Beta Band singer Steve Mason is ambivalent about giving The Hut official status, telling Long Live Vinyl: “The Hut is shit. For me, there’s no such thing as an amazing unreleased album. Unless the artist’s life has been cut short, then if it’s good it’ll get put out. People always ask me, ‘Is there any great unreleased Beta Band music?’ and there really isn’t. Most bands would get half an album out of the ideas the four of us would put into one song. It was so hard to write for The Beta Band that if we had any great songs lying around they’d have been released – it would have saved us the difficulty of writing more songs.”

Mason’s logic is hard to argue with, but there are great lost treasures out there. What follows are the 20 most desirable unofficial releases that would soon be regarded as among their makers’ finest work if they get released. Probably…


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About Long Live Vinyl

Issue 24 of Long Live Vinyl is now on sale! Join us as we uncover vinyl’s great lost albums – the 40 essential bootlegs and live records that never got an official release. From David Bowie to Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Kraftwerk, Amy Winehouse, Jay-Z and The Beatles, don’t miss our definitive guide. Elsewhere this issue, Mercury Rev tell us about revisiting Bobbie Gentry’s lost classic, The Delta Sweete, and we speak to Julia Jacklin and Fun Lovin’ Criminal Huey Morgan about their brilliant new albums. 1980s pop mastermind Trevor Horn talks us through the 10 records that shaped his remarkable career, we meet the punk labels who are redefining the future of vinyl, celebrate Warp Records’ 30th birthday, look back at the work of the great Andy Warhol, and pay tribute to our Classic Album – The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace Of Sin. If all that’s not enough, you’ll find the most comprehensive range of new album, reissue and gear reviews anywhere on the newsstand.