It's been said before, but it bears repeating: The reissuing of classic rock 'n' roll is driven mainly by record companies who've realized that the target audience for such stuff is dying off, so they'd better appeal to it while they can.
How else to explain the recent multi-disc sets enshrining the works of John Lennon (Signature Box [Capitol]), Bob Dylan (The Original Mono Recordings and The Bootleg Series Vol. 9-The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 [Columbia]), and Jimi Hendrix (West Coast Seattle Boy [Sony Legacy])? Although lavishly packaged and therefore a dandy addition to any coffee table, the packages-with the partial exception of Dylan's Witmark Demos-don't add all that much to their respective artists' legacies.
In the case of Lennon, the Signature Box might even detract from it. Containing his entire post-Beatles output, it serves as a reminder that at least half of his solo output lacked luster. He began strong (Plastic Ono Band and Imagine embody his struggle to come to grips with a world he inadvertently created) and finished stronger (both Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey suggest that marriage and fatherhood beat being "bigger than Jesus" any day).
But in the intervening four albums he flailed about, scoring the occasional hit ("Mind Games," "#9 Dream") but otherwise seeming like a rebel without a cause. (The second half of Sometime in New York City sounds as if it was recorded while Yoko Ono had her finger stuck in an electric socket.) Perhaps if the set had included the separately available "stripped down" version of Double Fantasy, the $189.99 list price wouldn't seem so un-"imagine"-able.
And if The Original Mono Recordings of Bob Dylan-i.e., his first eight albums without the haphazard-sounding stereo separation foisted upon them by less-than-sensitive engineers-doesn't diminish his legacy, they don't embellish it either, unless the undeniable aesthetic pleasure of owning the albums in miniature replicas of their original vinyl packages (right down to the liner inserts of The Times They Are A-Changin' and Highway 61 Revisited) counts. As for the sound, only audio nerds will care that all of it is coming out of one channel-and feel like paying $124.98 for it.
Hearing Dylan's first eight albums in one fell swoop, however, does point up the main reason why Dylan still seems universal while Lennon seems increasingly parochial if not at times downright insular: In Dylan's music, one hears life happening to Dylan; in Lennon's, one hears Lennon happening to life.
The Witmark Demos, on the other hand, are a steal at $18.98. With 47 songs on two discs, over a dozen of them never officially released in any version (the precociously apocalyptic "I'd Hate to Be You on That Dreadful Day," the hilarious "All Over You"), the never-intended-for-release nature of the recordings captures the young Dylan at his most spontaneous and least affected. Even the songs that he would go on to record on his own albums benefit from pleasant surprises (the joke about losing 120 pounds by getting divorced in "I Shall Be Free" chief among them).
A unique conundrum faces the consumer pondering the four-CD, one-DVD Jimi Hendrix collection West Coast Seattle Boy. No sooner do Disc One (15 songs circa 1964 to '69 by performers such as the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, and King Curtis, on which Hendrix played guitar) and the Biography Channel documentary seem to justify the semi-reasonable price tag ($69.98) than Discs Two through Four kick in with their "alternate" and "previously unreleased" takes.
They're not bad. Really. They might even prove that Hendrix was rock's greatest guitarist.