The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Better Than That

We all love CD deluxe editions, don’t we? Extra-shiny packaging with slipcases and lyric booklets, notes, bonus b-sides, remixes and demos, and the original album remastered so that it’s a little bit louder and maybe has a little more bass.  What could possibly go wrong?

Here is a list of ten ways in which deluxe editions go bad.

1. Incompleteness

This is the worst one. A deluxe CD edition is the opportunity to provide a definitive edition, collecting together all the associated b-sides, remixes and alternative versions. So what do they do? They leave one off. And there’s always one, one b-side, one remix, something essential that you know exists but which isn’t there. So you know that – sales projections permitting – they’ll have to do another edition ten years down the line.

Example: The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society has the album in mono and stereo, it has all the singles, b-sides and songs recorded during the sessions - except Pictures in the Sand.

2. Overcompleteness

It’s good when deluxe CD editions are thorough. But there comes a point where you have to draw the line. Do you really need radio ‘sessions’ where all they did was play the single on the radio? Do you really need ‘edits’ which are identical to other versions except they were faded out earlier? And do you really need albums presented in mono and stereo when there is no discernible difference.

I mean, with The Beatles, all the differences between the mono and stereo editions have been scrupulously annotated. And you definitely need both versions of Odessey and Oracle. But what differences are there between the mono and stereo editions of Butterfly by The Hollies? Or Odessa by the Bee Gees? Or Mighty Garvey! by Manfred Mann? Are there any? Or is the mono version just the stereo version ‘folded down’?

3. Inconsistency

What any deluxe edition is going to spend most of its time doing is sitting on the shelf. So it’s vitally important that the packaging is consistent and the spines all match up. On top of that, there should be a consistent approach to content – no duplication of material, all bonus tracks on the correct album, and if one CD goes b-sides, demos, live tracks, all the CDs should go b-sides, demos, live tracks. It’s just tidy. If one edition puts all the 12” mixes on a second CD, then all the successive editions should follow suit, unless there’s a reason for not doing so. And for goodness' sake, put all the b-sides together and all the 12”s together, or present them chronologically, but at least have some appreciable logic to it. If people want to listen on ‘shuffle’ then that’s their prerogative but you don’t need to shuffle the tracks for them.

The worst examples, and I feel so bad for saying this, are the deluxe editions of Erasure’s Wonderland and The Circus albums. The first reissue, The Innocents, came in a lovely booklet-y case. Then the second and third come in those double jewel cases we associate with Now! albums. The contents are great, but on your shelf, ugly.

Additional example: Elton John’s reissues of his 70s stuff are great, with most of the b-sides included. But when it gets to his 80s stuff, most of the b-sides are left off. Why, Elton?

4. Rewriting History

Following on from my earlier point about incompleteness. The albums have to be presented as they were when originally released. No sneaky substituting alternative mixes is allowed. And while it’s great when the original artist is involved with their reissues – they must realize that this is an opportunity to present a definitive warts-and-all record, and that their fans often love the things that they themselves don’t rate. At its most extreme, this can even mean they leave whole albums out of their reissue campaigns – Elton John doesn’t rate his Leather Jackets album so it hasn’t been reissued at all. Yes, it’s not great, but he’s done a lot worse. 

Example: Nik Kershaw deciding that his b-side Progress should be left off the deluxe edition of The Riddle because he didn’t like it, and deciding to re-do the vocals of some live tracks. What is the point?

5. Tardiness

As Telex once sang, we are all getting old, so for goodness’ sake, get on with it, get the material out there. I realise there are marketing considerations and people don’t want to swamp markets but this is what I believe branding people call ‘legacy’ material, this is archive tat, your fanbase is growing old and deaf so let’s not prevaricate!

Example: Paul McCartney’s reissue program of his 70s and 80s albums is slower than the rate the original albums were released. Get on with it! I want Back to the Egg with all the bootlegged stuff!

6. Stalling

Following on from tardiness, what could be more annoying than building up a definitive collection of one of your favourite artists CDs in deluxe edition form – and then they stop without having included all the albums? Yes, I know, sales, marketing, but this is my moan and it’s annoying. It’s annoying that the Bee Gees reissues didn’t get as far as Cucumber Castle, they could’ve included the movie as a DVD extra (well we can dream). 

Example: Sorry to pick on Erasure again but it’s very frustrating that the reissues – which, aside from the packaging, were excellent – haven’t got to Wild! and Chorus because they are two of the group’s most successful and highly-regarded albums, with lots of hits on and stuff, and they both could really do with a remastering spit and polish. I mean, I think Chorus is one of the best albums ever made, it’s annoying that it’s not been given the deluxe treatment. And both Wild! and Chorus have excellent concert videos that could be included as DVDs. Oh, it makes me mad.

7. Ignorance

There is an art to providing liner notes. What you want is to guide your listener through the various gems included in your deluxe edition. They need context. They need to know what order the b-sides were recorded and what singles they were flipside-ing. What you want, basically, is your artists’ equivalent of Mark Lewisohn. Someone to ferret through the archives and uncover facts about working titles and alternative versions. What you don’t want is some journalist rent-a-hack who is just trying to fill four sides with words. And I’m not sure you even want the artists themselves unless they have something interesting and positive to say; liner notes full of ‘I don’t remember writing this’ and ‘Well this was a load of crap we knocked off in an afternoon’ are not what you want to read after you’ve forked out your £15.

But while it’s lovely to see the artwork of every international edition of every single... you do need to include something  to read.

8. Low fidelity

There are one or two or more deluxe editions where the sound quality is not, in any discernible way, an improvement on the previous edition. In fact, there are a few where the sound quality is worse. I’m not going to name them because it’s often not the record company’s fault, there are problems with getting access to original tapes and things get mislaid, but if improved sound quality is not your selling point then it’s all the more important to make sure you get the other selling points right.

9. Superfluity

There comes a point at which you cannot improve sound quality any more. At some point you are going to remaster something correctly, as it originally sounded, but in the best possible quality. At which point you should stop. And not, in the case of ABBA, keep going. Some of their albums have been remastered three or four times now. So which is the best one to get? This one’s too loud, this one’s too noise-reduced, this one’s got an edited version of The Name of the Game by mistake. Get it right – and then stop! In the words of ABBA – Move On!

10. Nonexistence 

It’s a little bit baffling that some artists have had the deluxe reissue treatment when they were, and are, not particularly popular or highly-regarded, and yet with other artists we’re still listening to CDs that were mastered in the 80s (when they didn’t even master stuff for CD, they just mastered it for tape and used the same master for the CD). There are artists with loads of b-sides, probably loads of great unreleased demos and leftovers, where the only editions of their albums still have inlays telling you about The Compact Disc Digital Audio System in four different languages. You know, ‘If you follow these suggestions, the Compact Disc will provide a lifetime of pure listening enjoyment’.

So come on. Get acts together. Pull fingers out. Where are the deluxe reissues of Kate Bush’s stuff, Prince’s stuff (80s only, we are not masochists), The Beautiful South’s stuff?

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