When the Beatles recorded Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” at their audition for Decca Records in 1962, they were recreating an arrangement that Holly himself had never approved, much less heard. The version of “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” the Beatles were familiar with was created after Holly’s death by producer Jack Hansen, who added additional instruments and vocals to Holly’s home recording.
Around 30 years later, the Beatles and producer Jeff Lynne did something similar when they added their own overdubbed instruments and vocals to two songs left unfinished by the late John Lennon, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.”
Holly and Lennon are not the only musicians whose work has been altered after they’ve passed on. Modifications have also been made to the work of such deceased artists as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Nat King Cole, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley.
Toying with the music of dead artists is one of pop’s oddest traditions — and one of it’s most controversial. For casual listeners, these recordings might seem like harmless “posthumous pop.” But for purists, tampering with an artist’s work can seem somewhat sacrilegious. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, for example, described saxophonist Kenny G’s “collaboration” with the late Louis Armstrong as “musical necrophilia.”
Debates about this practice will probably be reignited in the coming months, since news broke that Michael Jackson left behind two unfinished albums. There’s alsonews the surviving Beatles may release another Lennon demo they worked on, “I Don’t Want to Lose You.” Additionally, Paste magazine reported that Lynne will now help complete unfinished recordings by late Beatle George Harrison.
A double-edged sword
Veteran music writer Gillian G. Gaar remembers liking the way the Beatles had beefed up Lennon’s “Real Love” when she first heard it as part of the “Anthology 2” CD. Yet she revised that opinion after she heard the original demo on a Lennon box set.
“It just sounded so nice and gentle and I thought ‘They shouldn’t have really added stuff, should they have?’” says Gaar who for years wrote the “Beatle Beat” column for the record collector’s magazine Goldmine.
Still, Gaar says she realizes that sweetening Lennon’s work broadened its appeal: “With instrumentation, it’s more like a complete song, and maybe more people would be interested.”
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Reworked recordings can be a “double-edged sword” says music writer Chris M. Junior, who has written extensively on Buddy Holly. He notes that the unfinished Holly recordings that were revised after the singer’s death probably wouldn’t have been what the artist wanted. But they brought in more listeners — including the Fab Four, who liked “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” enough to cover it.
“On the one hand, when these records first come out, it keeps the artist in the public eye,” Junior says. “But I think over time, these types of releases lose their value because people can see through them. With hindsight, they look back and say ‘OK, that may have been a smart move from a commercial standpoint, but artistically I don’t think they added all that much to the artist’s legacy.’”
Gaar, who also used to write a column about Elvis Presley for Goldmine, says her feelings are a lot less mixed about the kludged-together “duet” version of “If I Can Dream,” in which the late rock icon was unwittingly paired with Celine Dion.
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“I hate Celine Dion but I love that song,” she says. “I’ve never listened to it because I don’t want that in my head. Would Elvis have chosen to duet with her?”
On the other hand, she notes, when Natalie Cole created a posthumous duet with her late father Nat King Cole on his song “Unforgettable,” the response was favorable from both the critics and the public. What’s the difference?
Respecting an artist’s vision
The success of posthumous productions depends on whether the producer takes into account the artist’s vision, says John McDermott, who serves as the catalog director for Jimi Hendrix, a musician whose work underwent controversial alterations after his death. Imposing a new agenda on an artist is where the process goes wrong, McDermott says.
McDermott cites as a bad example the way producer Alan Douglas recast Hendrix as a jazz fusion player by pairing him with session musicians he’d never met on the 1970s albums “Crash Landing” and “Midnight Lightning.”
“The objection was that Douglas had promised an album that was supposedly a lost album, but in actuality was an album that was created by using session musicians to replace the original playing by Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding and Billy Cox,” he explains. “And nowhere on the album jacket was an explanation of why they took this approach.”
Junior says in Holly’s case, he doesn’t believe the artist’s ideas were prioritized either. Many of Holly’s unfinished recordings were dressed up in a rockabilly style the singer had moved away from before his death: “He was more experimental than people remember him for. Who’s to say he would have gone for that older style like they did?”
Slideshow: Pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll McDermott notes that in the Internet age, there’s now enough information available that listeners will understand if posthumous releases lack commercial polish. “What you have to do in any posthumous setting is describe the work as a work in progress,” he explains. “That’s what we tried to do on the Hendrix box set.”
That idea worked for Nirvana, Gaar says. She thinks Kurt Cobain’s unvarnished song sketch “Do Re Mi” is one of the best things about the band’s box set “With the Lights Out.”
“They could have done a band arrangement, I suppose, but then you’d lose the beauty of the original demo,” she says. “It’s so plaintive, and to have other musicians there I think would ruin it.”
With music by major artists, McDermott says, there’s no need anymore to sell the public on it by touching it up. Great music, he says, “sells itself — whether it’s a demo or a track that was considered for an album.”
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