Lost tapes: The music that fans may never get to hear

Recording has always been a risky business. Many potential classics have been lost forever, says Simon Hardeman

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.

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game