Underrated: The case for bootlegging: The battle of Britten

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How misguided the trustees of the Benjamin Britten estate are. Their boy has joined Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead as a cult hero. The late composer of Billy Budd, Peter Grimes and other operas, symphonies and concertos is being bootlegged.

Illegal imports of recordings, mostly made in the 1960s, of Britten conducting his own symphony for cello and orchestra, Op 68, and playing a piano duet with the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, have found their way into shops, and large quantities of other illicit Britten are on the market.

But instead of rejoicing in this unique tribute to British classical music, Britten's trustees have become angry and litigious. They say they fear that the prospect of vast pirated CD catalogues will put legitimate recording companies out of business. No doubt they understand classical music, the Britten legacy and the music industry's licensing laws. But how wrong they are about the cultural and economic consequences of the bootleg.

For my money, a fair percentage of which has gone on bootlegs in the past, the fact that Britten has at last attracted the attention of the spivs and the black marketeers can only enhance his reputation.

The bootleg, you see, carries with it the inflated price and the promise of forbidden fruit that give the featured artist charisma by association. The Grateful Dead have no end of live albums, with the sound properly mixed and the product properly packaged. But can they compare with the thrill of handling a brown paper bag containing a scratchy recording made by the chap in the horn-rimmed glasses on his cassette player in row Z of the upper tier? Of course not. His is the authentic memory of that concert.

At university I bargained late into the night with the bootleg sellers, purchasing the still unavailable 1966 Bob Dylan Royal Albert Hall concert, possibly the most exciting live rock concert ever, complete with the cry of Judas from the stalls and Dylan's 'liar' riposte.

But this was just one of many purchases of concerts, interviews, guitar-tuning sessions and even coughing fits. The sleeves were sometimes completely blank, sometimes the vendor had made inspired guesses at what the title of the tracks might be. The excitement became unbearable when occasionally the songs listed in biro on the makeshift album sleeves were the same as those on the album.

It didn't really matter. I once parted with a goodly whack of my termly grant on a scratchy recording of the Byrds in a Los Angeles night-club which recently failed to get a single offer at a car boot sale.

These were treasured items, more treasured indeed than the legitimate articles, precisely because they were illicit. And alongside the underground sales of bootleg albums went an underground culture of bootleg trading, discussions, posters, newspaper reports, even books. Even those staid items, the official recordings, increased sales because of interest in the bootlegs.

Now I doubt there are too many posters of Britten on bedroom walls; nor do the letters columns of the classical music journals resonate with argument about who played the bum note in the bootleg cello concerto at Aldeburgh or whether it was Ben or Peter Pears chuckling off-stage in the pirate Turn of the Screw at Covent Garden.

But soon Britten bootleg-talk will dominate the salons. Fly-by- nighters at tube stations will take customers into dark corners and swap the Sergeant Pepper out-takes for the Albert Herring rehearsals.

Record sales demonstrate an artist's popularity, but it is the trade in bootlegs which demonstrate their status in music culture. And the possessors of bootleg albums know they have a slice of musical history, not recorded in an antiseptic studio with a designer record sleeve, but snatched at a midnight session complete with chat and chest infections, and the flavour of the era so close you can smell it.