Other than clever packaging, deluxe annotation, and nostalgia-tweaking swag, recent box sets summarizing the music of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Clash contain little or nothing that fans haven’t bought or rebought before.
So why do record companies keep pouring old wine into new wineskins? And why do people keep drinking?
Other than The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (apparently destined never to see CD release), The U.S. Albums (Capitol) comprises every Beatles LP released either only in the United States or with U.S.-only track listings. The set would seem ideal for celebrating the 50th anniversary of the quartet’s stateside arrival.
The problem is that these same albums were previously packaged and marketed as ideal for celebrating the same event’s 40th anniversary in The Beatles Capitol Albums Vol. One and Vol. Two. What’s more, many Beatlemaniacs think that the actual, if inferior, U.S. mono and stereo mixes used in these older collections reflect the experience of hearing The Beatles in the United States more faithfully. And even fans who prefer the U.K. mixes already acquired them on the 2009 mono and stereo box sets that organized the Fab Four’s output according to its U.K. configurations.
Beatlemaniacs who buy The U.S. Albums do get something for their money: Yesterday and Today packaged in a mini-sleeve replica of its original “butcher baby” cover, a booklet, and The Beatles’ Story, a 1965 audio documentary that has aged almost as well as The Beatles’ music. But whether these perquisites justify the $170 going price remains debatable.
Bob Dylan fans don’t fare any better with the $300 The Complete Album Collection Vol. One (Legacy). Not only have they owned its comprehensive contents for years, but they’ve also no doubt tracked down the 30 songs on the previously released (if previously uncollected) bonus obscurities grab bag Side Tracks.
So what exactly are the box’s selling points? Surely not the “CD debut” of Dylan (the 1973 studio-detritus compilation that Columbia issued as payback for Dylan’s having temporarily left for a rival label) or the 14 newly remastered titles: Sonic refurbishing in the age of iPod earbuds is a dead letter.
But at least Saved is among the refurbished, increasing the likelihood that listeners previously impervious to no-nonsense gospel might finally have ears to hear. And “Union Sundown,” from the un-refurbished Infidels, will remind anyone bothered by Dylan’s Super Bowl Chrysler ad that his NAFTA-like preoccupations have roots.
Clash fans who buy Sony Legacy’s not-quite-comprehensive Sound System (1985’s controversial Cut the Crap is missing) are on somewhat more solid ground. Fattened by three discs of extras and the DVD, it actually adds to one’s understanding of why The Clash meant—and mean—so much to so many.
And the chronological presentation of the band’s music makes it easy to notice such telling details as Joe Strummer’s admission in “The Sound of Sinners” that he’s not “good enough” or “clean enough” to be Jesus. Coming from the punk figurehead most likely to have been diagnosed with a messianic complex, the 33-year-old confession still stuns. It might even explain why right around that time Strummer stopped trying so hard to happen to music and started letting music happen to him.
Still, paying $180 for such revelations raises issues of prudent stewardship.
“What is there wrong about a miser,” asks the priest-detective Father Brown in G.K. Chesterton’s 1913 short story “The Head of Caesar,” “that is not often as wrong about a collector?”
Just over one century later, Brown’s question seems more rhetorical than ever.