Elvis is back, and he's got company. The Paul Oakenfold remix of his 1970 B-side "Rubberneckin'" out next month in conjunction with the compilation Elvis 2nd to None, the inevitable follow-up package to last year's "A Little Less Conversation" and 30 #1 Hits, is one thing. But also released last month was Close Up, a four-CD collection of 89 unreleased Elvis out-takes and obscurities. A similar "new" box set appeared in 2002. And in 2001.
Elvis's helplessly prolific output is matched by other cadavers. New double CDs by Tupac Shakur and Jimi Hendrix are due soon, while the seventh posthumous selection by Eva Cassidy (dead in obscurity in 1996; the planet's best-selling artist by early 2001) is out next week. There seems no end, either, to the careers of Jeff Buckley, Bill Hicks and Kurt Cobain, all dead before the 20th century was out.
Posthumous releases by pop stars are nothing new. But, for the first time, many of these artists are releasing more albums dead than alive. Reputations earned in life are buckling under the weight of records pumped out by relatives and back-room executives with vastly different agendas. Pop history is, in effect, being rewritten, by strangers to pop music. Resting in peace is no longer an option.
The time-honoured way of exploiting a good-looking corpse was famously summed up by The Smiths in "Paint a Vulgar Picture": "At the record company meeting/ On their hands - a dead star... and ooh, the sickening greed... satiate the need." But the striking thing about today's most aggressive and successful post-death careers is that traditional record companies have little to do with them. It is the stars' mothers who are controlling their rebel offspring's iconic afterlifes. And while "double pack with a photograph/ Extra track (and a tacky badge)" may be Morrissey's idea of a marketing ploy, these proud parents have grander plans.
Afeni Shakur typifies just how much one blood relative and a box of unreleased demos can achieve these days, and how completely a star's reputation can change when he's no longer around to mess it up. Afeni, a one-time Black Panther and crack addict, had a predictably difficult relationship with her son. Tupac, meanwhile, was shot in the studio, was convicted of rape, stoked up the West Coast/East Coast rap "wars" on record and was a wannabe gangsta associate, before being shot dead in 1996, aged 25. He was not the best rapper around, as his four completed solo albums proved.
Afeni, however, had different ideas. And, once she gained control of her son's recordings and discovered 200 unreleased songs, she put them into practice. "Tupac was and remains in my mind a child of the Black Panther party," she said. "The misconceptions are that Tupac was a rapper... wasn't political... was a gangsta. But I have faith in Tupac's legend." And that legend has been propagated not only in the posthumous releases of her Amaru Records - five "new" albums to date, and singles, such as "Thugz Mansion" (2002), that portray a dewy-eyed street-martyr figure. The Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation funds summer camps for the poor and plans an ambitious arts centre. Afeni's intentions are obviously good. But the often confused, cocky and violent Tupac who made some records in the early Nineties is slowly being turned into the revolutionary, sainted 'Pac of his mother's dreams. The mother of Tupac's murdered rival, The Notorious BIG, has her own charity and fantasises that her son's initials stood for "Books Instead of Guns".
Dead rap stars are peculiarly susceptible to such sentimentalising, as well as to a long afterlife, another new twist in this eternal pop trend. Compared with the shooting of John Lennon, the killings of The Notorious BIG - whose first two albums were titled Ready to Die and Back from the Dead - and Tupac were not shocking. Indeed, the wealth of Tupac songs imagining himself murdered or piously looking down from heaven has made his apparently endless output as a corpse seem almost normal. It was always part of his appeal. "The way he always said he would die made me buy [his CD]," a new fan told a reporter shortly after his shooting. Black youths who had seen friends die saw his demise as a bond. There must be rappers even now preparing tracks for the career they won't be here to see.
The wider issue of families radically revising their children's reputations, though, ripples through pop. Mary Guibert's backing of three albums of demos and gigs by her son Jeff Buckley, though he died in 1998 after only one promising LP, Grace (1994), shows how a career can be diluted in death, as do the cutting-room-floor scrapings of the new Eva Cassidy album and the plethora of recent live records repeating the late rock'n'roll comic Bill Hicks's jokes.
The star's "legacy" is the excuse that their estates give for such overexposure. The more sinister implications of the term, suggesting dark inheritances, is borne out when families fall to fighting. Most notorious are the Hendrixes: although his father, Al, gained full control of Jimi's work shortly before his death last year, he left it to Janie, a daughter adopted during a second marriage after Jimi left home, and Jimi's brother Leon is still grimly suing for his piece of the pot. Janie justifies her selling of Jimi air-freshener, golf balls, hoodies, polo shirts and wine, as well as her licensing of seemingly endless triple live albums, this way: "Jimi's music was to take care of the family." It is, at any rate, better than the previous arrangement, in which the producer Alan Douglas dubbed other musicians over the helpless Hendrix for his own endless ersatz releases. The bitter battle between Kurt Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, and his band, Nirvana, has actually blocked his exploitation, providing a rare example of a healthy "family" fight.
In this sea of innovative exploitation, Elvis Presley, bizarrely, has been a lone pocket of calm artistic integrity. "Things will continue just like they always have," his rapacious manager, Colonel Tom Parker, famously said, even before Elvis was buried. But though the estate's Elvis Presley Enterprises continues with Graceland's kitsch goldmine/mausoleum, it and RCA records also let a fan and producer, Ernst Jorgensen, assemble three definitive five-CD box sets in the Nineties, filleting an output that was erratic and absent-minded in life into monuments revealing his greatness. Even the many subsequent sets of almost-identical out-takes and live shows have a charm that no other performer would manage, no matter what slop the King had to sing. But, as his fans, too, have started to die, recent precipitous reductions in his sales have led to more ruthless action, agreed by estate and label: remixes, Disney soundtracks, anything to get their boy back on top. Last year, he made it. On the Forbes Dead Stars' Earnings Top 10, Elvis was No 1.
But, as even Elvis faces dilution (the point of Close Up is hard to see), it would be nice if doting mothers, desperate labels and deaf fans took a different view: that you can have so much of a good thing, it's no longer good. They should try moving on - and get a life.Reuse content