Adam Duke explores the ways that old school acts are being reissued or recycled for profit….

If one wanted, and it would be possible to purchase new music from long established acts such as the Clash, Nirvana, Elvis, Sly Stone and the Band, among others, despite the fact that these artists have been inactive for extended periods of time. Well, to say that one could get new music from them might be wrong. “Previously unreleased” is a far more apt term.

As record sales are dropping and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for new artists to establish themselves commercially, it has become all the rage for record companies to reissue classic albums, giving us a chance to hear demos, alternative mixes or discarded material all together. While some of this can be interesting, and while I can sympathise with the record labels, reissuing material leads to some serious issues.

The two most high profile reissues this year have been Geffen Records reissuing of Nirvana’s swan song, In Utero, with five discs giving us a chance to hear demos, alternative mixes and alternative versions of the songs, and CBS The Clash Strikes back, an eleven disc retrospective on the Clash. While these will no doubt be interesting, it seems to go against the artists wishes, and it comes across as very disingenuous.

When Nirvana started to plot a follow up to their breakthrough (and game changing) Nevermind, Kurt Cobain set out to make a departure from the album that had made him and his band superstars. Seeking to create a sound that was more raw, primal and ultimately more personal, Nirvana went into seclusion with Steven Albini (the man behind abrasive luminaries such as the Pixies, the Rapemen, Big Black, PJ Harvey and the Jesus Lizard), emerging after two weeks with a record that was both a departure and a logical step forward from Nevermind. However the band then feared that Albini’s mix was too raw, the sound too much of a departure and they spent several months working on the sound, with REM’s producer Scott Litt remixing much of the album. Kurt Cobain was obviously a deeply sensitive artist, and clearly he worried about In Utero. For a record company to release embryonic versions of songs, mixes that the band was unsatisfied with, and versions of songs that they might have been embarrassed by, seems like a deep invasion of privacy.

The Clash first came to prominence during the original wave of punk rock, a time of economic and political uncertainty, and they sought to create music that challenged these times, asking questions of society. They wanted to make their music available to everybody, often fooling CBS records into releasing music at a low price – most notably with their 1979 opus London Calling, a double album sold for the price of a single album, a fact that CBS weren’t aware of until the record physically came out.  With a mentality like this, an expensive reissue just seems wrong, as the price keeps it out of the hands of most fans.

What makes the Clash and Nirvana reissues particularly disturbing is the fact that in both cases key songwriters and artistic leaders of the bands are deceased. The image of a vulture picking at a corpse is all to vivid, as Kurt Cobain and Joe Strummer no longer have control over what they created, and the idea of a reissue goes against ideals they where known to profess. Without getting too bogged down, the Clash and Nirvana both represented a change in the musical guard, rallying against an industry that had become bloated and excessive. Sadly the main point to be taken from these reissues is that to some, music is just a business.

By Adam Duke