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Great White Wonder: Bob Dylan and the birth of Rock Bootlegs and Album Leaks
October 3, 2012 11:15 AM   Subscribe

In the summer of 1969, two guys pressed a few thousand records with white label stickers, and packaged them in nondescript white sleeves. They didn't have their own cars to deliver the records so they borrowed friends' cars, and the record ended up throughout California, with copies getting airplay at 5 southern California radio stations. The music wasn't their own recordings, but unreleased material from Bob Dylan. The recording became known as the Great White Wonder, "the entertainment industry's first truly hip situation comedy" (in other words, the first bootleg ever to be produced in the rock-and-roll era).

In 1965, Dylan went electric, and the next year he released his seventh studio album Blonde On Blonde, which was the same summer of his motorcycle accident. Dylan was laying low while recuperating, and in 1967 he and a few guys who were known as The Hawks got together in the basement of a big pink house near Woodstock, and made some demo tapes. Even though Dylan owed Columbia another album before he could consider his options (Google books preview), this wasn't material for a future album for Dylan, but music he was pushed to make as demos to be re-recorded by other artists. In total, Bob Dylan and The Hawks/The Band recorded over a hundred songs in the summer of 1967. That was boiled down to less than 20 tracks that were sent around for other artists and labels to consider recording. A few of those tracks did quite well for other artists, including: The Hawks, reunited with Levon Helm and were rechristened The Band. Some of the material composed in that pink house was re-recorded and released debut album, Music from Big Pink, including "This Wheel's on Fire," "I Shall Be Released" and "Tears of Rage."

That demo recording made its into the hands (or at least ears) of some music reviewers, including Jann S. Wenner at Rolling Stone magazine. He reviewed the demo in the magazine, writing highly of the material present:
There is enough material — most all of it very good — to make an entirely new Bob Dylan record, a record with a distinct style of its own. Although it is highly unlikely that Dylan would want to go into the studio to record material that is now seven or eight months old, nonetheless these tapes could easily be re-mastered and made into a record. The concept of a cohesive record is already present.
Wenner went on to describe the songs, as if reviewing a publicly available album. Dylan had actually released an album since the recording the basement tapes, but John Wesley Harding, and it had been reviewed in Rolling Stone months before the review of the basement tapes. The JWH review was quite positive: "The music is again a brilliant electronic adaptation of rural blues and country and western sounds," and "Without a doubt this is another major musical step for Bob Dylan." Yet Wenner ended his review of the demo tapes with a major proclamation: "If this were ever to be released, it would be a classic."

The fans knew there was something more out there for them to hear. It was with that set-up that Great White Wonder made its entrance. Two guys, who were only known as Dub and Ken, credited as "industry insiders" who wanted to make some unheard Dylan available, put together a two-record set from various sources. They started by pressing 100 copies, but the first store they went to bought the lot. Then they pressed a few hundred more, until they had made a couple thousand records. Great White Wonder didn't capture the complete demos from the basement sessions, but consisted primarily of recordings made in 1961 in "The Minnesota Hotel," an apartment complex well-known to musicians. The record was rounded out with outtakes from other albums, and recordings of Dylan's appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, a nice tip to Dylan's limited association with Cash.

Great White Wonder was notable not only for it's content, but also as one of the first (if not the very first) bootleg to come out in the era of rock'n'roll. GWW came out a few months before the first bootlegs of The Beatles (Kum Back, September 1969) or the Rolling Stones (Live'R Than You'll Ever Be, December 1969), which were also released by Ken and Dub, now pressing bootlegs under the mysterious pseudo-label Trademark of Quality (abbreviated as TMQ or TMoQ). The Beatles bootleg wasn't the first Beatles bootleg of any sort, as that credit goes to The Original Greatest Hits, an illegal US-made compilation of publicly released Beatles songs. But Kum Backwas the first bootleg of unreleased material, consisting of early takes of tracks from Get Back, probably earning the title of the first album leak.

In 1975, Columbia re-recorded and released 24 of the 100-plus basement tapes tracks from 1967, under the title The Basement Tapes. Paul Nelson reviewed the album for Rolling Stone, written in the intriguing fashion of a detective novel.
The music was eight years old, but it could have been made eight minutes or eight decades ago; it wouldn't have mattered. It had once been illegal, sold under the counter. Hell, even now it wasn't complete — these things never are.
...
"I haven't solved the case and I don't intend to. No one will ever figure out The Basement Tapes the way you want to; somehow it would be indecent. They're either King Lear or they're nothing — take your pick, then leave them alone. I respect them and I think I understand them, and that's enough for me."
More of the original basement sessions leaked out over the following decades, and one way or another, and in 1989, the bootleg label Scorpio released a 5 CD set of the Genuine Basement Tapes, 104 tracks and more than 5 hours. In 2001, both Scorpio and another label, White Bear released 4CD sets, both titled Tree With Roots, both with better audio quality and a few more tracks. They are not direct copies, and feature minor differences in track order track inclusion.

In 2010, Ken Douglas of TMoQ blogged a bit about his time as a bootlegger, and chatted with VICE about his time as a bootlegger. In 2011, Ken put together a more complete telling of his time as a rock'n'roll bootlegger.
posted by filthy light thief (24 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
This link is b0rked:
In 2010, Ken Douglas of TMoQ blogged a bit about his time as a bootlegger...
posted by imperium at 11:32 AM on October 3, 2012


My day is borked. Thanks again.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 11:35 AM on October 3, 2012


Indeed, thanks for the post. When I Paint My Masterpiece is another classic rescued by The Band from the semi-obscurity of these sessions. Dylan's tongue-in-cheek "Pack up your money, put up your tent McGuinn" jab at the Byrds over "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" has long been one of my favourite examples of Dylan at his acerbic best. The only thing that comes close to the Tree With Roots reissues is the 26 CD box set chronicling Dylan in '66, Jewels and Binoculars.
posted by Lorin at 11:43 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


My brother has one of these copies. We knew there was a story to it, but never this much. Awesome.
posted by Miko at 11:44 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The only thing that comes close to the Tree With Roots reissues is the 26 CD box set chronicling Dylan in '66, Jewels and Binoculars.

Oh my goodness. 26 CDs chronicling a whole year of Dylan? Amazing.

Miko - There are a lot of different pressings with different levels of quality. From what I've read, it looks like there are top-tier bootleggers who actually score unreleased material and well-recorded live shows, then the lower tiers who either re-press or re-combine existing boots, or might dig up a gem here and there, and fill in the record or CD with other material, either b-sides or bootlegged material from other boot-labels.

Bob's Boots has more information, so you could pin down which version you might have.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:53 AM on October 3, 2012


The Pitchfork article claims that Live Peace in Toronto was a bootleg, but the Greil Marcus review they mention actually says that it was an official release put out to beat a bootleg.
posted by larrybob at 12:21 PM on October 3, 2012


The trouble with bootleg hauls like this is that there's too much material for me to have time to process. 26 CDs, much of which is different versions of the same few songs, is a lt.
posted by Yakuman at 12:33 PM on October 3, 2012


[Begin]

"More then..." *click*[back]*click*
posted by humboldt32 at 12:33 PM on October 3, 2012


The Pitchfork article claims that Live Peace in Toronto was a bootleg

They also call GWW the first "album leak," which is silly, because The Basement Tapes only happened because the actual basement tapes leaked.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:36 PM on October 3, 2012


A musical excerpt (from the '61 tapes): Baby Please Don't Go.
posted by swift at 12:37 PM on October 3, 2012


The trouble with bootleg hauls like this is that there's too much material for me to have time to process.

Yeah. Even though I have Tree With Roots on CD, I find myself playing the official Basement Tapes release a lot more. Mind, the fact it's on record factors into that. I've seen and been tempted by the actual Great White Wonder in record stores, but I couldn't justify the expense. Not when I could have dozens of perfectly good records at the same price.
posted by Lorin at 12:40 PM on October 3, 2012


Oh man, that "Baby Please Don't Go" is fascinating. For all Dylan clearly owed a lot to all the bluesmen of the 20s and 30s who were getting Folk-Revived around then — and especially owed a lot of his vocal mannerisms to them — he was rarely doing a flat-out impersonation. But on that track you really do get him just straight-up mimicking those guys to the best of his ability. Awesome.

(Actually, the bit I find especially interesting is one of the bits he gets wrong. He's already, in places in that recording, doing the flat nasal voice that he'd later get famous/mocked/etc for. I've listened to a lot of old country blues, and as far as I can tell most of those singers really didn't do "nasal." It wasn't part of the style. But here you get the sense he's shooting for something — maybe some kind of Skip James falsetto or something? — and ending up with "nasal" apparently by mistake.

And I sort of wonder whether he eventually just said "fuck it, I'll sing through my nose, it seems to be working." True or not, it seems appropriate, that one of the most recognizable bits of his style might be a failed attempt at appropriation that he just shrugged and ran with anyway.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:58 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Basically in hindsight I find Bob Dylan most interesting when he hadn't quite actually figured out how the hell he was gonna manage to be Bob Dylan yet.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:59 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Clinton Heylin's Bootleg is a rewarding history/appreciation of the cultural service the 'leggers have provided us.
posted by Egg Shen at 1:13 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I Paint My Masterpiece is another classic rescued by The Band from the semi-obscurity of these sessions.

Great song, but it's post-New Morning rather than Basement Tapes-era.
posted by anagrama at 2:24 PM on October 3, 2012


Ah, so it is. I conflated it somehow with Tears of Rage, which is mentioned in the post!
posted by Lorin at 2:35 PM on October 3, 2012


Wow. I'm sure most songwriters could never in their lives write a single song as good as 'You Ain't Going Nowhere', yet Dylan was just dashing this stuff off and leaving it behind like it was nothing.
posted by Flashman at 2:53 PM on October 3, 2012


. From what I've read, it looks like there are top-tier bootleggers who actually score unreleased material....

I'll send him the links. He found it in the 80s. It was kind of cool because he listened to it and thought it was Dylan, but wanted a second opinion, so the whole family listened to it - having no idea what it was - and all said "It just really, really sounds like Bob Dylan. But what sort of record could this be?" but there was really no easy way to find out, and it's just hung out in his collection since then.
posted by Miko at 4:37 PM on October 3, 2012


Man, I remember the era of Great White Wonder and the other boots floating around back then—people were trading tips and trying to figure out what was different from what. And I still remember the quality of the sunlight on the wooden floor in the room where I first heard The Basement Tapes; I could hardly believe it was available officially, in such good quality (even though some of the famous songs were missing). I understand people who can't stand Dylan's voice (I'm married to one), but man, he's a huge part of American culture, musical and otherwise. Thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 5:46 PM on October 3, 2012


1969 ... the first bootleg ever to be produced in the rock-and-roll era.

Not hardly. The Let It Be album bootleg circulated in the US around 1968.
posted by Twang at 6:06 PM on October 3, 2012


How is that possible? Looking around, it seems that Let It Be really came into being in 1969. Wikipedia lists recording dates as February 1968, January–February 1969, January and March–April 1970, with the summary of the concept of the album coming about in the end of 1968 and into 1969, after the completion of The White Album sessions.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:42 PM on October 3, 2012


Super interesting post, even to a non-fan. Thanks for all your hard work making this :)
posted by starscream at 8:38 PM on October 3, 2012


Oh man, that "Baby Please Don't Go" is fascinating. For all Dylan clearly owed a lot to all the bluesmen of the 20s and 30s who were getting Folk-Revived around then — and especially owed a lot of his vocal mannerisms to them — he was rarely doing a flat-out impersonation.

Really? Sounds to my ear pretty much exactly the voice he has on his first album. "Fixin' to Die," "Gospel Plow," and "See that my Grave is Kept Clean" are all sung in that voice.
posted by yoink at 8:54 AM on October 4, 2012


The Basement Tapes are a favorite of mine, I own all of the above boots including a supposedly complete 11 disc collection. An interesting recent "discovery" is a boot entitled "Safety Master" that has been attributed to being a copy of the original White Wonder Acetate that Neil Young has in his archives. You can read more about htis version here.
posted by silsurf at 11:05 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


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