When Peter Hook said last month that he hoped to release music from Joy Division master tapes that had been saved from a waste bin, it was yet another reminder of just how precarious the very recent past was for musicians. Today's recordings are digital and can be copied in perfect quality, so the risk of losing them should be minimal. But little more than two decades ago the definitive mix of a song or album would be recorded on a master tape, of which there would only be one “best quality” version, because – unlike digital – every copy would feature a loss in quality.
The Joy Division tapes are particularly valuable because, as Hook has said, most of their masters were lost when Factory Records went bankrupt in 1992. They were rescued by an assistant to producer Martin Hannett 20 years ago when Stockport's Strawberry Studios hit financial problems – ironically because of the advent of digital technology. If you consider that the same studios were responsible for music by The Stone Roses, OMD, the Happy Mondays and The Smiths, the potential for loss from just this one operation becomes clear. Now factor in the number of recording studios across the world that have closed over the past few decades and it becomes terrifying.
Knowing what to do with tape has been a problem for a long time. There are stories about one major label desperate for space in the 1980s telling employees to saw the tapes off reels so the metal could be sold for scrap. Then there was the time when RCA Records blew up – literally – one of its warehouses, complete with four floors of recordings, as the best way of clearing the site.
Attitudes until relatively recently could be cavalier to the point of criminal. Sony Music Columbia producer Michael Brooks told in a landmark article in Billboard magazine in 1997 how he had saved never-released Louis Armstrong masters: “I was in the studio supervisor's office – this was 1980 – and there was a pile of tapes… They all had a big S on them, including boxes clearly labelled 'Louis Armstrong – Unreleased Concert'. The guy said, 'All that's old stuff getting thrown out to make room in the vault.' The S was for 'scrap'.” Brooks saved the tapes, and they came out on CD.
The other side of the coin is that tape is – and was always – expensive. A single reel of one-inch tape will set you back £150 in today's prices and might only hold 30 minutes of music. So wiping tapes to use again became a habit. The often cash-strapped BBC has an inglorious history in this area, but is by no means alone.
The fact that one master could be stored in one place only means that even when labels wanted to hang on to them, fate could still intervene. In 1978 Atlantic Records' warehouse in New Jersey, US, went up in flames, taking with it thousands of irreplaceable reels of tape, from jazz and pop artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane.
And artists themselves could be careless – Jimi Hendrix left the masters for side one of Axis: Bold as Love in a taxi. The album was mixed again in a hurry, but no one can be sure that the remix is the same as the original. And Green Day's Cigarettes and Valentines was stolen from the studio – though with unpredictable consequences=. Meanwhile, artists themselves over the years have sat on recordings – the most famous being the Beach Boys' Smile), but also notably The Who's Lifehouse, created by Pete Townshend as exploration of mysticism and technology, and several Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young albums.
As music went digital in the 1990s, labels were left with mountains of tapes – BMG had more than a million analogue recordings in its archives in the mid 1990s, Sony more than half a million. Many companies quickly realised the importance and potential value of what they had and began cataloguing, storing and digitising it. But years of poor storage had often taken their toll, and many tapes were badly degraded.
Lost: Eight great albums
Jimi Hendrix - Black Gold
In 1970, Jimi Hendrix, using just an acoustic guitar, recorded 16 songs about his life onto tape in his flat in New York. Later that year, at the Isle of Wight Festival, Hendrix gave the tapes to his drummer, Mitch Mitchell who, after Hendrix's death that September, forgot about them. In 1992, he mentioned Hendrix tapes with “BG” written on the box to an interviewer. Up to that point they were thought stolen or destroyed. One track, “Suddenly November Morning”, came out on a compilation three years ago but the other 15 have not surfaced. A few of them Hendrix played again at other times but most only exist here. (Confusingly, there is an unconnected Hendrix bootleg called 'Black Gold'.)
Kurt Cobain - Solo Album
Does this exist? Hole co-founder Eric Erlandson said last year that the Nirvana frontman had been working on a solo album in the weeks leading up to his suicide in 1994, that it would have been “his 'White Album'”, and that the demo recordings definitely existed. But the producer of 'Nevermind', Butch Vig, disputed this. He said, “[Cobain] was working on songs, but they were just in his head. He might have just played them to Eric.” Erlandson then ramped back, saying he never actually said there was a solo album out there. So Cobain fans may have to be content with waiting for the “lost track” from 'Nevermind' itself, an instrumental known only as “Song In D”.
Green Day - Cigarettes and Valentines
The loss of this album may have been a blessing in disguise for the neo-punksters. It was pretty much finished in summer 2003 when the multitrack tapes were, reportedly, stolen from the studio. No mixes survived and, although the band has said that some back-up tapes remained, they didn't have the feel of the originals. Despite the material being “good stuff”, according to singer Billie Joe Armstrong, the band started over with a new set – the Grammy-winning, musical-spawning, multi-platinum-selling, career-reigniting American Idiot. The tapes never reappeared, though a few songs were rerecorded and released as B-sides and album tracks.
Ice Cube and Dr Dre - Heltah Skeltah
The former NWA cohorts began to put this album together in the early 1990s, aided by The D.O.C. and Snoop Dogg. “Natural Born Killaz” was announced as the album's first single, but nothing else has surfaced. Ice Cube told an interviewer in 2010 why: “Eminem and 50 Cent,” meaning Dr Dre was too busy elsewhere to finish them. The D.O.C. eventually left the collaboration in a huff, taking lyrics he had written and releasing many of them on his own album, 'Helter Skelter'.
Beach Boys - Smile
The most legendary lost album in pop. It is still lost, despite Brian Wilson's Brian Wilson Presents Smile in 2004, 2011's The Smile Sessions, and any number of bootleg approximations of what Wilson's 1966/67 intentions were. The problem is that these were fluid at the time, buffeted by his problems, drug intake, and competition with The Beatles, whose “Strawberry Fields Forever” stopped him in his tracks with Wilson reportedly saying they had “got there first”. Eventually Wilson gave up and the band recorded Smiley Smile in two weeks in the summer of 1967. It featured straight-ahead versions of several of the Smile tracks, and the legend has grown since then.
Prince - Dream Factory
Prince (left) prefers to write, arrange, produce and perform on his own recordings. But while on tour in 1986, he went into studios to make a “band” album with backing group The Revolution. But, once the tour was over, it seems the artist formerly known as a control freak reverted to type. He rehashed some of the tracks himself – such as “Sign O' the Times” – and canned the rest. Though many of its songs have since come out in one form or another, the collaborative album that was to be has never appeared.
Neil Young - Homegrown
This might finally see the light of day if Young gets round to releasing volume two of his 'Archives' series. It is a mostly acoustic collection from 1974, centred on Young's disintegrating relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress. It was ready in 1975 but when Young (above) played it to an invited audience, the reaction convinced him that the more upbeat 'Tonight's The Night' should be released instead. Some tracks have appeared since, but the last word was that he was “rebuilding” it for 'Archives'. Holding one's breath would be risky.
Mick Jagger and the Red Devils
Los Angeles-based the Red Devils' live shows attracted celebrity jammers from Queen, Motorhead and more, and fans included producer Rick Rubin who, in 1992, was producing Jagger's third solo album. Jagger sang two numbers live with them. A few weeks later they all went into the studio and recorded 13 songs in 13 hours. But Jagger's album featured none of the tracks and the tapes have never, with one exception on Jagger's 'The Very Best Of...', been heard.