There’s a new collection of the Beatles’ live BBC radio performances available, and I understand Jimmy Page is compiling some unheard masters of Led Zeppelin’s first four albums to be retailed sometime this year. Much as I love both bands, there’s something troubling to me in pop culture’s increasing habit of recycling itself in the name of history.
Don’t get me wrong: for those of us who appreciate film, music, literature, or any artistic expression – which amounts to just about everyone – delving into the hidden origins or prototype versions of great works can be fascinating and rewarding. The sketchbooks of Da Vinci are as impressive in their own way as the Mona Lisa, and the rough drafts of James Joyce or Ernest Hemingway are cherished by scholars for literally showing genius at work. Anytime someone turns up a lost canvas by Rembrandt or an unfinished symphony by Mozart, it’s major news. But when commercial products are resuscitated as “Special Editions,” usually by the same people who made them in the first place, there’s clearly a vested monetary interest at work that undermines their supposed significance. You can call it revisiting a classic, or you can call it putting old wine in new bottles.
Today even two-year-old movies are released on DVD with alternate takes, directors’ commentary, and making-of documentaries which tout the richness and cultural depth of the original film. Albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the Who’s Tommy, and the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls are repackaged with extensive notes, deleted tracks, and first takes, all offering insight into the creative processes of the musicians at the time the records were made. If you’re already a fan, of course, such material might give wonderful insights into your favourite performances, but if you’re a casual viewer or listener, it’s mostly clutter you don’t need and may not be able to afford. But what happens when the only edition available is the “Special” one? With Rembrandt or Mozart, you can still admire the best-known paintings or music without having to sift through the minutiae surrounding them, but with Tangled or Taylor Swift, it’s harder to tell where the hype ends and the underlying work begins.
Of course, all this is relative to one’s tastes. I’m grateful for my Beatles Anthology CDs, with their inspirational rough demos of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “I’m Down.” My DVD of Doctor Strangelove has a nifty behind-the-scenes feature which shows some nice stills from the filming in the War Room. And Mark Kermode’s book on The Exorcist, published by the British Film Institute as part of their series on modern film classics, is a treasure trove of background data and critical analysis. So I can’t really begrudge anyone for giving Nirvana, Toy Story, or Touched By An Angel the same treatment.
That said, when the curator of the special edition is also the maker (and copyright holder) of the first edition, there’s an obvious conflict between financial and artistic motivation. And I’m not sure if I’ll like “Stairway to Heaven” any more in 2014 once I’ve heard the false starts or unused guitar solos that went into building it back in 1971. None of this is new, exactly; books on Citizen Kane, annotated guides to Lolita, and documentaries about Jimi Hendrix have been around for years. And Led Zeppelin and the Beatles are, to repeat, more than deserving of serious musicological study (I’ve done some of that myself) and revelation of their lost performances. But as the gap between yesterday’s junk and tomorrow’s treasure becomes briefer and briefer, you have to wonder if the treasure will deteriorate back into junk all the more quickly.