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Bootleg: The Rock & Roll Liberation Front?

With high quality Dylan concerts — not to mention an amazing live Stones show — on the market, are bootlegs the future?

Bob Dylan performs at the Isle Of Wight Festival.
David Redfern/Getty
February 7, 1970

Los Angeles — Even as Columbia Records was going to court to prevent further bootlegging of Bob Dylan's Great White Wonder album, two more bootleg Dylan LPs and an amazing live Rolling Stones album were being made available on the black market. And, according to bootleggers, you can expect to find Dylan's Isle of Wight concert with the Band in your local record store any day now.

If the fact that the bootleggers have a release schedule now seems to indicate that their "business" is stabilizing, it's only illusory. For everybody's getting into the act, and people are going out and buying an "underground" album, then pressing a few thousand copies for themselves. All five albums on the market today are being distributed by at least three different producers, and competition is driving the price down.

In fact, bootlegging was just getting to be a damned lucrative business when KSAN-FM in San Francisco put the word out over the air that the underground albums are shucks, with a life span of, maybe, 20 playings. The top layer of vinyl is very cheap, KSAN claims, and the needle scrapes it off pretty quickly. The result is nothing but a grating scratchy noise through the speaker, and probably a damaged needle. The cheap vinyl is also full of bubbles.

Some people are finding this true of the bootlegged albums they bought; others claim to have played the records many times more than that with no ill effects. With so many new "distributors" playing the bootleg game, it could well be that some of them are, indeed, inferior products.

It all started late last summer, when two L.A. freaks put out the GWW set, a double album consisting of unreleased Dylan tapes originally recorded in a Minneapolis hotel room in 1961 and a Woodstock basement (with the Band) in 1968, plus one song copped directly from the TV set, when Dylan sang on the Johnny Cash Show. Quality of the tapes was poor, but the album still sold well, especially on the West Coast. There soon followed the Troubled Troubador, which duplicated some of the material already being bootlegged, but added some new songs as well.

Columbia believes it has caught up with the producers of the GWW set. Attorneys for CBS, Dylan, and Dwarf Music teamed up to get a restraining order in U.S. District Court here which prohibits the further manufacture and sale of all Dylan material. Four persons and a suburban Gardena pressing plant were named in the court order, each charged with violating the Federal Copyright Act, "unfair competition and unjust enrichment."

The underground Stones album — aptly titled LIVE r Than You'll Ever Be — is actually a major coup for the bootleggers. Recorded live at the Forum in L.A. and the Oakland Coliseum, it is one of the finest albums of 1969. For a bootleg, the sound quality is excellent. It is so far superior to the Stones' legitimate live LP that comparisons are unfair.

Although the Chuck Berry composition "Little Queenie" is the only song not available on a London-released album, the undergrounder is selling well enough and is available in large enough quantity that the price has dropped almost a dollar since it first came out during the Christmas season. The album is put out on "Lurch Records" and the Stones are identified only as "The Greatest Group on Earth."

The Dylan album put on the black market just in time for Christmas shopping is called Stealin', and by January there were at least three versions being sold — some with labels (Har-Kub Records), some without; some with a rubber-stamped title, some without even that much identification. Much of it is of excellent sound quality, seeming to consist of alternate takes of songs appearing on either Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited. Columbia spokesmen are especially incensed over this album, since they believe these tracks were stolen right out of their vaults.

And the week after Christmas, still another Dylan album was made available, this one called G.W.W. "John Birch Society Blues." This one also duplicated some songs on other underground Dylans, but presented new material as well.

For a while, a recording of the Plastic Ono Band's concert at Toronto was being bootlegged. However, Apple scotched that by releasing Live Peace in Toronto, featuring John and Yoko with friends including Eric Clapton.

Thus, the underground record scene, at the turn of the decade, has become a noticeable industry. Not so big Columbia or London Records or anyone else has any real fear of being knocked off, but large enough to warrant a flurry of angry retaliatory activity in the offices of Dylan's manager and the Stones' manager and lawyers for their record and music publishing companies.

Columbia has been the only one to get results, though, and those only on the bootleggers of the first Dylan album. And it wasn't easy tracking them down. The original producers of that album had reportedly split to Canada, taking with them the proceeds from an estimated 8,000 albums, one step ahead of the draft. Supposedly, they purchased a gas station there.

Apparently one of them gave the bootleg business some second thought, though, and he returned to Los Angeles — only to find others had jumped aboard, duplicating the original GWW and selling at least 40,000 copies. For the moment, he remained out of sight.

By then, of course, Columbia and Dylan and Dwarf were involved, assigning the case to attorneys on both coasts and employing private detectives to conduct a full investigation. The story they pieced together is fascinating, and the major characters are two of those subsequently named in the court order, Norton Beckman, owner of Norty's Discount Records, and Ben Goldman, owner of Do-Re-Mi Records, both of them small shopkeepers in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. Apparently they were the ones who'd copied the original GWW, evidently making a tape from a bootlegged album one of them had purchased from the people who started all this. This was in early September.

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