It’s #JazzSunday. Today is the day I become my late father, and I focus my musical energy on a truly American art form. It makes me think of him, and that makes me smile.
Today, I’m focused on John Coltrane, arguably one of the most influential musicians of our time, particularly in the jazz realm. The first album I’m playing is Blue Train, a bona fide classic.
I’m listening to the album on CD, since I’ll be in the car most of the day. That means I get not only the air tight Blue Train‘s 40 minutes worth of brilliance, but a couple of alternate takes as well.
The extra tracks are placed at the end of the disc’s running order. So Blue Train effectively begins, ends, and then begins again.
I have mixed feelings about this.
When it comes to some artists (like Coltrane), I’m a musical completist. I have no objection to hearing every note the musicians saw fit to play. Alternate takes, B-sides … I want to hear it all. But everything has its place. And I’m not sure the place for bonus tracks — as they are commonly known — is at the end of the album proper.
When I interviewed singer/songwriter Rob Fetters for my book, we broached the subject of bonus tracks, and how they can be used for marketing re-issues of classic albums. This was the only time a very affable man nearly became angry. “I hate bonus tracks,” he sneered. His rationale was simple: the band and its producer put together an album, and worked to sequence it properly. Bonus tracks destroy the album’s original intent.
There’s something to be said for this argument.
Few albums begin and end better than The Who’s Who’s Next. It is a thing of beauty. Side One opens with the synthesizer run of “Baba O’Riley.” Side Two closes with the epic “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It’s perfect! When the album was remastered, bonus tracks were added to the end of the disc. Now, holding the perfect “air windmill” pose as the last note from the perfect ending of a classic album decays from the speakers is rendered moot. There’s more album left.
I don’t have the deep-seated resentment for bonus tracks Rob does. But I do believe they deserve their own place within the album’s overall context.
Radiohead and Led Zeppelin got it right. When their catalogs were re-released, their albums were loaded with bonus tracks. But that extra material was assigned to its own CD, so fans had the option of whether or not they wanted to hear them. That’s the way to do it!
I’m sure record labels would try to convince us that they are saving us money by putting the extra tracks on the same disc. But CDs don’t cost that much to make, especially these days. I’m sure they could find a way to package the extra disc with minimal fuss, if they really wanted to.
Admittedly, some bands should leave their extra tracks on the cutting room floor. But in other cases, the bonus tracks are as brilliant as the album itself, and I find myself wondering why these tunes were omitted from the album in the first place! Radiohead is good for this. The extra songs left off The Bends are nothing short of amazing. And the best song from The King of Limbs wasn’t even included on the album!
I hope to meet Thom Yorke someday, if only to ask him just what the hell were they thinking on this one.
That being said, I love the way Radiohead and Led Zeppelin handle their extra material. It was like getting an extra album or two in one package! Sometimes, I’d skip the proper album in order to deeply and objectively explore the bonus material, giving that music its own sense of context.
That’s harder to do when everything is crammed on a single disc. There’s no time to breathe, no real opportunity to reset the brain. Yes, I know I could simply press the “stop” button once the original album is complete. But that’s beside the point, as far as I’m concerned.
Of course, record companies are trying to render this argument moot by encouraging downloads and streams of many classic albums. Personally, I will live and die by physical media. Who wants to stare at a computer screen for additional information when they can enjoy a well designed booklet on the subject?
Still, I kind of wish there was a rule in place: “The original album must be self-contained on a single disc. All bonus material must be contained on an extra disc(s). Labels shall not charge more than $2 extra for these packages.”
Hey … I can dream.
Putting bonus material on the same disc with the original album will never prevent me from buying said album. But I would hope labels could take a little advice from Radiohead, and put “everything in its right place.”