Giving Up On Reissues: When My Favorite Band Played Me For a Sucker
Published on December 11, 2011 by guest author: Brian McElhiney

As an unhealthily obsessed Nirvana fan, I often find myself feeling like a teenager with an unrequited crush. Not only that, but the object of my crush totally knows I have a crush on her, too, and she’s playing me for all it’s worth.

Back in the early 2000s, former Nirvana members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl began hinting at an all-inclusive box set that would finally compile the band’s heavily bootlegged rarities in one place. Not only that, the set would include the final song the band ever recorded! I was ecstatic. No, scratch that. I was screaming, squealing — my little 15-year-old heart was doing somersaults and my stomach churned with the anticipation of what could be.

(Finally, she noticed me!)

And then Courtney Love, ex-wife of late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, decided she didn’t like that idea, and promptly sued Novoselic and Grohl to stop the set, and the new song, from being released. The two parties eventually settled, and a stopgap best-of, including the new song, “You Know You’re Right,” was released in 2002.

(OK, so she toyed with my heart, but hey, she did smile at me! There’s hope! Right …?)

A few years later, the box set finally came: a three CD, one DVD blowout entitled “With the Lights Out.” And it was awesome, really — with lots of stuff previously only available in spotty quality on bootlegs, and some stuff that I’d never even heard before. But there were glaring omissions that caused some head scratching — where were the studio versions of “Spank Thru” (there’s at least two floating around, and both are hard to find)? No Smart Studios sessions (the early demos from Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough “Nevermind”)? And did we really need a boom box version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit?”

(So we finally went on that date, and it was great, don’t get me wrong … but something just wasn’t right. She was holding out on me, somehow …)

This year was a biggie — the 20th anniversary of the album that broke punk, “Nevermind.” And Nirvana Incorporated was in a celebratory mood, for another box set was announced — and this one was going to be a doozy. A limited edition set, four CDs and a DVD, with rarities and demos and a full live concert, oh my. Again, I screamed and squealed and my little 25-year-old heart pounded. And then, about a month before the set came out, the track listing was released.

And I finally broke up with Nirvana.

OK, I did buy the two-disc edition, which does include the Smart sessions, finally, and some B-sides, and more useless, unlistenable boom box demos than you can shake a battered old copy of the “Lithium” single at. Although I can’t actually do that, because I sold my copy of said single about eight years ago, and I’m regretting it now, because damn it, it was way cooler than this half-assed reissue.

That glorious, five-disc set? Rubbish. Two of the discs are dedicated to one live show, on CD and DVD — the band’s Halloween 1991 performance at The Paramount Theatre in Seattle. It’s a great show, but it’s not exactly rare. The other disc not in the two-disc set features “Nevermind” producer Butch Vig’s rough mixes of the album — yes, the same damn album that we’ve all been listening to since 1991. The set runs anywhere from $100-$150, depending on where you get it. In contrast, I paid about $45 for “With the Lights Out” when it was first released.

So that’s it. I’m done. Screw you Courtney, and David Geffen Company (Nirvana’s record label), and everyone else involved with this mess. I’m done throwing money away on you because all of your promises are lies, lies and more lies and you don’t really love me and you never did. Humph.

I’ll just find a new favorite band. How about Pink Floyd? I love “Dark Side of the Moon,” and the Syd Barrett stuff just kills. And they would never just repackage the same old stuff and sell it over and over again to unsuspecting fans, with middling demos and alternate studio takes and — what’s that? They did? All 14 studio albums, you say? An extensive reissue “campaign” — Blu-Ray, two CD and six CD box set versions of every album, beginning with “Dark Side” this year?

OK, maybe Pink Floyd isn’t really for me. You know what? No one holds a candle to The Beatles. The Beatles recorded for only eight years, and managed to totally change the face of rock music in the process, inventing countless genres and writing songs that have become part of the American culture, even if they were British. Yep, The Beatles are my new favorite band. Oh, wait … they reissued their back catalog recently, too. With bonus DVDs. In two huge box sets for stereo and mono versions.

You know, I’m more of an indie rock kind of guy. Indie rockers have integrity. They would never rehash their back catalogs to make a quick buck off their fans. From now on, Pavement will be my new favorite — oh wait. Two disc reissues, lots of demos, rehashed blah blah blah. The Replacements? Oddly expensive one-disc reissues, which means I still don’t have a physical copy of “Tim” because I don’t like paying $20 for circles of plastic. My college love affair, Sebadoh? Reissues, reissues, reissues with multiple alternate takes and pages of whiny commentary from head whiner Lou Barlow. Et tu, Sebadoh?

At this point, it’s a little odd to find an album that doesn’t have the words “remastered” or “expanded” slapped across its cover. And it’s not just the old dinosaurs or the forgotten underground releases that are getting the treatment — I recently read a review in Rolling Stone of a 10th anniversary expanded reissue of Alicia Keys’ debut album “Songs in A Minor.” Did that album really need a remastering job? Has mastering technology evolved that much in the last 10 years?

I once found myself in a record store somewhere in Massachusetts staring at four different reissued copies of Elvis Costello’s debut album, “My Aim is True,” and wondering, “Which one should I buy?” (I went with the two-disc Rhino reissue because it came in a jewel case as opposed to a flimsy cardboard sleeve.) Punky metalheads Motorhead have single disc reissues, but are also being given the deluxe two-disc treatment. The Meat Puppets, who rightfully remastered and reissued their long out-of-print albums in 1999 after winning the rights back from ’80s punk kingpin label SST, are currently going on about some two-disc reissue of their 1985 opus “Up on the Sun” for next year. It never ends.

What does remastering actually do to these albums? In some cases, it can indeed make an album sound better — the mastering technology has improved since the first CDs began showing up in the ’80s. But for something like “Nevermind,” it’s not all that necessary, really — my copy of the album from middle school still sounds fine. The reissued version just sounds louder, that’s all. A little more separation on the bass, perhaps, but it’s negligible.

This brings us to the Loudness Wars, with new releases getting louder and louder each year to compete with each other. Metallica’s 2008 album “Death Magnetic” is almost unlistenable because of all the clipping and distortion (not the good metal kind of distortion, the oh-no-my-stereo-speakers-are-exploding distortion).

And for all you people listening to MP3s out of your little earbuds or iPod speakers, why do you even care? All your music sounds tinny and distorted and digitally neutered anyway — what good does a remastering job do in that instance? CDs aren’t much better — if bands really cared about the sound quality on their remasters, they’d release them all on vinyl and be done with it.

But that’s the point — I don’t think they really do. This isn’t about improving the quality of the music, or letting people hear unreleased gems (ha, that’s a joke). What is it about then? Take a wild guess. I guess money is buying Paul McCartney some love these days.

It’s a little game that bands and record companies like to play with fans. Oh hell, I’ll admit it, I like to play it too. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for an announcement from Nirvana on the 2013 “In Utero” 20th anniversary reissue. I guess I’m really not breaking up with you after all, Nirvana. Here’s to the other 10 copies of “Nevermind” that I’ll probably be wasting my money on in the years to come.

Brian McElhiney is a musician and music journalist living in Scotia, N.Y.




User Comments
Tony Are | December 12, 2011 18:38

Yeah, those things are usually a money-grab. Well record companies have to find some way to profit from all those old tapes sitting around in the basement (and the artists make a little money as well--I collected a few hundred bucks when Yo La Tengo's "Ride The Tiger" was re-released).

That being said, sometimes its worth it--The Beatles remasters really sound way better (not just louder)and the mono set collects everything together in one place with versions most Americans have never heard. And the "Exile On Main Street" remaster really sounds way way better than the original on CD (and even a little better than the original vinyl).

But mostly, yes, you are being taken advantage of because you are a fan. Of course, you can take comfort in not being the only one--baseball "replica" jerseys for your favorite team are $100, and "authentic" ones are $300!

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