by Tom Ingram
Lately I’ve been looking into legitimizing the vast collection of music on my computer. A lot of songs can be found on CDs lying around the house, but quite a few cannot (of course I have no idea how they ended up on my hard drive…). I don’t think it’s unreasonable that bands like Rush or Queen should benefit financially from having me as a fan. So I’ve been buying CDs over Amazon to cover the core of my music collection, the bands I have entire albums from. This is a slow process, since I’m an impoverished unemployed student, but CDs are surprisingly cheap on Amazon and it’s chugging along steadily.
I could just buy the music over iTunes or something, but I have a couple of qualms with the concept. The idea of the product I buy not taking any physical form bothers me, even though as a card-carrying member of the Internet Generation(tm) it shouldn’t. One hard drive crash, forgotten password, or accidental deletion and it’s gone. Buying games on Steam still makes me uncomfortable.
The CD is perfect, because it’s easy to use, widely supported, and physical. It’s like vinyl, but without the disadvantage–the music is stored in a much less temporary form. I’m sure that vinyl has a much warmer sound and the scratchiness is charming, but I prefer music that doesn’t degrade every time you play it.
So this plan is working very well, except for one little detail: I can’t play the CDs. I mean, I’m physically capable of it, but it would be deeply, deeply wrong. Why’s this? Because the shadowy forces that control all the record companies just had to come up with the idea of bonus tracks.
It’s not a universal problem yet. My copy of Permanent Waves is intact. John Hiatt’s albums Bring the Family and Perfectly Good Guitar remain unmolested, probably because nobody’s clamouring for a remastered version of “Blue Telescope”. The various Led Zeppelin albums haven’t been touched.
But look at the casualties. It’s a venerable list, including Ian Dury’s New Boots and Panties!! with five bonus tracks, The Boomtown Rats’ The Fine Art of Surfacing with 4 (including one live track; I don’t care if Geldof and Briquette “oversaw” the whole process, I don’t want live tracks on my studio albums), seemingly every Queen album except The Game, and, the biggest atrocity of all, Kind of Blue.
They fucked with Kind of Blue. Who do we shoot?
Surely, this is wrongheaded, you say. Why, you’re getting five extra songs for free! That’s a good five dollars’ worth of music right there. Well, sure it is, but music isn’t measured in seconds and minutes, any more than books are measured by pages. A good album is a self-contained unit, and if you add or remove any songs from it you have a different (often inferior) experience. For example, Sheer Heart Attack ends with “In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited”. This is quite possibly the best way anyone has ended an album, ever. There is certainly no conceivable way you could modify the ending without substantially changing the entire album. So guess what they did?
They tacked on a remastered version of “Stone Cold Crazy”*. The gigantic repeated refrain that ends the record fades out and you smile. Those were the days. Freddie Mercury was a genius. If you’re a straight woman or a gay man, you love him. If you’re a straight man or a lesbian woman, he makes you seriously reconsider. Back then people knew how to rock. Oh, to hear that song live with the original band, just once–
Who thought this was a good idea? I understand the appeal of additional material, and if we were talking about anything else, it would be good. I’m all for extra features on DVDs, or a little section at the back of a classic novel with information about the author’s life and maybe excerpts from other works. That’s fine. The difference is, when your movie is over, you stop watching. When you get to the end of the novel, you stop reading. If you want to go on to the special features, you’re welcome to, but it’s not required.
That’s not the case with the CD. Once Freddie’s voice dies down, your CD player will go right ahead to the next track and you have to scramble to shut it off. If you fail, the album’s beautiful ending is ruined by the tacked-on speed metal. To succeed takes such careful concentration to things that aren’t the music that there’s hardly any point.
This is disrespectful to the artists who created these classic albums, and even the very concept of an album. And while I don’t have the numbers, I can’t imagine it helps sales much–have you ever bought an album because of all the wonderful bonus content? I’ll buy these CDs to do my part to support my musical idols (or, as the case may be, their estates), but I can’t imagine getting much physical use out of the ones with bonus tracks. The mind can sense the natural ending of an album. We’re not stupid. Every song that plays after that is like a kick in the nuts.
* This is especially annoying because it’s a duplicate. That remaster is included on the greatest hits album Classic Queen, so even if I wanted it I’ve already got it.