I notice that this is the 1,400th post in the history of this blog. But it may be the 14,000th one I’ve written. Every post gets written and then rewritten, sentences moved around, words swapped out, punctuation tweaked—often multiple times—before I’m ready to hit “publish.” You don’t get to see the earlier versions—too rough, poorly thought-out, inadequately imagined, or boring—because I didn’t feel they were good enough. That stuff is my secret alone.
For prominent musicians, however, endlessly rolling tape captures everything, no matter how rough, poorly thought-out, inadequately imagined, or boring. Time was, such tapes disappeared into the void, to be heard by practically no one. But then came the CD box-set era, when artists and labels realized there was a market for unreleased tracks, alternate takes, and works in progress. The Internet, with its easy sharing of audio files, slammed this phenomenon into hyperdrive.
As time goes by, it begins to seem as if almost nothing has been lost. For example, the Beatles put out something like 213 songs on their official releases between 1963 and 1970, but thanks to the Anthology boxes and an endless proliferation of bootlegs online, the number of Beatle songs available now numbers in the hundreds. Some are rough, poorly thought-out, inadequately imagined, or boring (some more than one and all at once), but they provide a glimpse into the band’s creative process that was once reserved to George Martin and a few engineers at Apple.
I have a few officially released alternate or in-progress works in my collection, including the deluxe editions of Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, and Tusk, the Bruce Springsteen Tracks box, and the career-spanning box of Rod Stewart’s unreleased tracks and alternates that came out a couple of years ago. I have collected a few more via bootleg online, including some fascinating material from the Gaucho sessions by Steely Dan and quite a bit of Paul McCartney stuff from the mid 1970s. The latter includes a number of tracks recorded during McCartney’s 1974 sessions in Nashville, a large pile of alternates from the 1975 release Venus and Mars, and most recently, what amounts to a full alternate version of the 1978 London Town album.
When this stuff fascinates, it’s for various reasons. Rod Stewart’s alternate “Maggie May” shows him working out the lyrics on the fly, knowing full well what he’s putting down at that moment isn’t final. If Springsteen had gone with his moody alternate version of “Born in the USA,” people wouldn’t mistake it for a patriotic anthem. Fleetwood Mac’s alternate “Dreams” provides insights into how the track was built up; the alternate “You Make Lovin’ Fun” shows how it was cut down. Sometimes, an artist’s vision for the track changes drastically as the song evolves. “Born in the USA” is one case where it does; another is on Elton John’s Honky Chateau, where “Slave” appeared officially as a country-flavored midtempo number—but the deluxe edition of the album contains an awful alternate version of the song hammered at breakneck speed.
Most of McCartney’s alternates bear a fairly strong resemblance to the finished versions we know. But the decisions he makes along the way can be pretty interesting. The alternate version of “With a Little Luck,” the lead single from London Town, is pretty clearly a work in progress, very repetitive, as if Paul hasn’t quite figured out where to go with it yet. As you’d expect from the world’s most famous left-handed bass player, the bass guitar is prominent, although far more prominent than it would be on the finished version. There’s little to the song other than bass, in fact. The synthesizer noises that wash over the hit version merely threaten to do so. There’s some guitar and drums on it, although the percussion instrument that leaves the strongest impression is a high-hat cymbal. The finished record would have had a much different feel if McCartney had left the high-hat where it is on the early version. Like Stewart on “Maggie,” Paul is still working out the lyrics of his song, repeating himself a lot, presumably planning to write more or better words at a later time.
Although he had lots of decisions yet to make at the time of this recording, Paul ultimately made the right ones: in May 1978, “With a Little Luck” would top the American singles charts. If you’ve got a favorite alternate version or work in progress by somebody, please share it in the comments.