Set the Records Straight: Bruno MacDonald on 'Greatest Albums You'll Never Hear'

The author of the definitive new book on shelved LPs walks through lost classics by artists like Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Neil Young

Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young Credit: Jeff Siner/Getty; Tristan Fewings/Getty

Most classic rock fans want it all — every album, every reissue, every re-mastered box set of their favorite band. For completists, Bruno MacDonald's The Greatest Albums You'll Never Hear is both a dream come true and a bit of a nightmare. Spanning from the Sixties to the "noughties," MacDonald's book recounts a series of great albums that went unreleased by well-known artists, which include the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and U2. Sometimes the label or the band simply get cold feet over an ambitious or out-of left-field project; other times, drugs, financial difficulties or that old standby "creative differences" will send an album into limbo. Regardless of the reasons, this is music by some of rock's heaviest hitters — and you can't hear a single note of it. (Not legally, at least.)

MacDonald says the idea for the book began almost a decade ago while he was working on the similar The Greatest Movies You'll Never See, but this book brought him back to an earlier time when he was an editor for a Pink Floyd fanzine called The Amazing Pudding. "If you're a nerd, like me, you want to know," MacDonald says. "You want everything by the band. And while there's any number of books and magazines that look at classic albums, the phenomenon of albums that didn't quite make it hasn't been documented quite so well. It's almost an alternative history of rock & roll."

So, where's all this unreleased music sitting? Is it with record labels?
My impression is that where the material is available, it's sitting in record company vaults rather than in possession of the artists themselves. I think that there are examples of companies who are, clearly, doing their best to meet that need. I guess the finest example of that would be Bob Dylan's ongoing bootleg series, which we allude to in the book. It's hoped that one of those forthcoming bootleg series releases will focus on the original version of Blood on the Tracks.

And to be honest, some of it doesn't exist. There are examples in the book, such as the Veronica Electronica album by Madonna, that seem to only exist as plans or concepts, and I'm not sure that album is sitting in anyone's vault.

Do you feel like the decline of record labels is going to keep some of this existing music from ever being released?
No, I think that it possibly the opposite, because there are so limited ways in which record companies can make money from physical products, I think the way forward is for them to dig into the archives and put some of this stuff out there, because the sort of artists that we're talking about are people who will appeal to the classic rock fan. My guess is they're going to be an older demographic of people who still want physical products, and they're the ones who are likely to buy archive releases, not people who get all their music by downloading.

So for labels that aren't releasing material right now, why are they holding onto these recordings?
That's a really excellent question. The ways of record companies are as baffling to me as they are to everyone else. I think it's partly because of the recession that's hit the record industry. There are fewer people working for those companies, and so there's simply not the financial luxury of having someone digging through the archives. If you want to make a quick return on the stuff that's in your catalog, then it's a far easier proposition to slap another "Greatest Hits" or "Best Altogether" collection than it is to assign someone going in tracking down master tapes or something that was never quite finished 40 years ago. 

There are a couple of examples in the book where the albums were released and didn't do so well because they were overshadowed by the artist's previous material.
I think no one is really pretending that any of these releases would have huge commercial appeal. Although, having said that, when Brian Wilson revived his Smile project as both an album, a collection of demos and as a live performance, it was the start of the renaissance of his career. It's what has put him back in the limelight. Certainly, there are albums in the book that, if they were completed and released, wouldn't really do the artists any favors in terms of their musical reputation. Having said that, all of the people that we're talking about are really people whose reputations are intact. Pink Floyd, for example, are about to put out a new album that's a collection of archival demos from 20 years ago. So, I guess they must be pretty confident that at this point in their career, even an album of "Best of" demos is not going to do their reputation any harm.

For certain albums like Jimi Hendrix's Black Gold or Neil Young's Chrome Dreams, you joke that if they were ever to be released, it might not be for another 10 to 30 years. Why is that?
I think, in the case of Black Gold, there's been an ongoing tug of war with Hendrix's legacy. For years it was in the hands of his producer Alan Douglas and now it's in the hands of an actual company called Experience Hendrix, which I believe is run by Jimi's adopted sister, Janie. When you're dealing with an artist like Hendrix who's no longer around, it becomes a question of people laying claim to the tapes.

In the case of Neil Young, we could have filled this entire book with Neil Young projects. He has never stopped recording. At one point, we quote one of his band members that he never knew when an album was going to come out because Neil would compile tapes from various different sources and then present those to a record company as an album. But the band members were not aware at any given time that they were working towards a particular album. He's has been talking about his archive projects for as long as I can remember. But I think it took well over a decade for Neil's first archives vault to actually, finally, stumble into public view. So, I suspect we would have to wait for his demise before the rest of his vaults are finally open to the public.

Did anything ever happen, culturally, that contributed to an album going unreleased?
You could look at the case of Bruce Springsteen's album The Ties That Bind. It had the potential to be a huge commercial success because it's a really good, poppy album. And then Bruce pulled it because he felt that an album that was simply full of good, poppy songs wasn't weighty enough at that point in his career. It would have come out in 1979, so you're looking at the dawn of the Eighties. You're kind of staring down the barrel of worldwide recession, the aftermath of punk and the dominance of New Wave. So, after coming out with Darkness on the Edge of Town, where he did address issues like unemployment and poverty, he felt that he needed to make a more substantial statement. Still, in my view, that's the one album in the book that most merits a proper release. It's a fantastic piece of work.

What kind of strange or funny stories did you encounter surrounding these albums that maybe didn't make it into the book?
For me, the most ludicrous one is the Pink Floyd album Household Object. The notion of a band who had just made this hi-fi masterpiece in the form of Dark Side of the Moon then sitting down with rolls of cellotape and jars full of water and rubber bands and trying to make 14 minutes of worthwhile music out of that is a notion that, really, you would have to have smoked a lot of dope to think that was a good idea.

The book lists a few recurring reasons for projects being shelved or orphaned, but what was the most unusual thing that kept an artist from releasing an album?
By far the most interesting and atypical is 50 Cent's Power of the Dollar, in which his record company got cold feet because he was involved in real-life dramas; you have someone who's actually being shot and whose story is very much entwined with criminal activity. Even for a marketplace that was infatuated by gangster rappers, it was too hot to handle.

Which album that isn't available right now would be the one you, personally, want the most?
From a personal point of view, I would love to hear a properly re-mastered version of Prince's Dream Factory — I think I probably speak for every Prince fan with that answer. He's another artist who has unimaginable numbers of songs and completed albums in his vaults, and he seems very, very uninterested in revisiting his past. But Dream Factory, which is the album that ultimately spawned Sign o' the Times, is such a fantastic collection of songs. Prince is one of the shining examples of these restless creative spirits who are just churning out hours and hours of stuff that's quite difficult to marshal into releases. But in the Eighties, creatively, I don't think there was anyone that could touch him.