Most CD reissues merely regurgitate the same old hits from the same old chart-topping artists: Elvis Costello is on his fourth catalogue reiteration, and Elvis Presley’s rehashed recordings are an industry unto themselves. But don’t damn the enterprise as a whole: Truly adventurous and revelatory reissue projects hover both outside the margins and within the mainstream.
The best of these provide whole new chapters in the history of an artist, a studio, a producer, a geographical entity, or a whole genre, presenting songs, recordings, and even entire new albums salvaged from the commercial or artistic disinterest that greeted them the first time around.
The heart and soul of any truly compelling reissue is the disc’s producer, who guides an initial concept across a field of financial, organizational, geographic, social, technical, and artistic hurdles. They’re project directors with a musician’s ear for fidelity, an archaeologist’s talent for discovery, an anthropologist’s memory for context, and a diplomat’s knack for negotiation.
Two such multitaskers — the East Bay’s Alec Palao and Los Angeles-based Andrew Sandoval — teamed up recently to produce Magic Hollow, a definitive four-disc box set celebrating San Francisco’s Beau Brummels, early responders to the British Invasion with a harmony-laden mix of folk, rock, and country that predated better known efforts by the Byrds and others.
Palao relocated from England to the Bay Area (currently, El Cerrito) in part to feed his love of Bay Area music. His early-’90s fanzine Cream Puff War led to connections with local musicians, producers, and studio owners, creating a web that resulted in the mid-’90s series of Nuggets from the Golden State releases, which documented ’60s West Coast labels like Autumn, Scorpio, and Hush, and bands like the Mojo Men, Frumious Bandersnatch, and (pre-Creedence) Golliwogs, not to mention loads of rock obscurities from San Jose to Sacramento. More recently, Palao has extended the reissue kingpin Nuggets brand as coproducer of two garage-rock box sets for Rhino, 2001’s Nuggets II, and this year’s revivalist set, Children of Nuggets.
Palao’s core work for the UK-based Ace label group typically steers clear of material owned by major labels, “because straightaway, I know that it may get flagged because it’s going to be too expensive,” he explains. “I’ve always preferred to do independent stuff and often been able to do a better job; because it’s cheap, we can go to town a bit more on other things.”
Sandoval, who’s helmed projects on the Monkees, the Everly Brothers, and the Band, echoes his problems with such corporate hurdles: “You can find A&R people who just don’t like a certain artist and don’t want to be involved with something. It could be a big seller, but they don’t even get it.” Even catalogue owners who love an artist may not fully understand their modern appeal. Several years ago, Sandoval’s suggestion for Everly reissues was coldly greeted with reminders of the duo’s poor original album sales — “You could say the same thing of Big Star,” he retorts. But the success of his 2001 Everly twofers on a UK label begat additional reissues this year, including two seven-disc box sets out on Germany’s Bear Family.
Even when a major-label project is green-lighted, budget issues still impede. Sandoval often finds himself arguing with record companies to let him properly transcribe material that’s been deep-sixed in a salt mine after a hasty digital transfer. The inferior copies offered are typically “made on the fly by someone who’s been making hundreds of digital copies that day,” Sandoval laments, without properly calibrating the tape player or searching for undocumented material at the end of a reel. On more than one occasion, Sandoval has offered up his own studio time to bring a project in: “I’m constantly buying studio equipment just so I can get certain things done.”
Palao’s focus on independently owned material often finds him carting his transcription equipment in search of master tapes. In a sense he’s a second-generation Alan Lomax, hunting master tapes rather than folk songs. “Part of the reason why I have been successful in getting rare stuff is because they say, ‘Well, I’m not going to let this stuff out of here,'” he explains. “So I schlep my gear up to the Pacific Northwest, schlep it all the way out to Nashville, Memphis, many times down to LA. That’s the only way. The fact that I’m able to engineer well enough to be able to do transfers is a tremendous advantage for what I want to do.”
Once an archive is opened, it often yields unexpected riches. Sandoval turned up an undocumented segment of mid-’60s tape of Brian Wilson running through demos of Smile-era songs at the end of a “talking session” on which Wilson and friends merely chanted and conversed. The tape’s most interesting section unspooled only after ten minutes of silence. “Sometimes it’s not being the most intelligent person,” Sandoval muses. “It’s just wasting the most time listening.” Palao agrees: “It’s very much archaeology. But the thing about music is it has that kind of intoxicating power that makes you want to look more. It’s never dull. It can be tedious when you’re looking for something and you can’t find it and you have to listen to a lot of crap. But it’s worth it for that moment when you find that tape of Sly’s first single.” Indeed, Palao found the master of the rare 1961 doo-wop side “Stop What You’re Doing” by Sylvester “Sly” Stewart’s Vallejo-based junior college group, the Viscaynes, in a clutch of tapes recovered from the estate of Golden State Recorders owner Leo Kulka.
“Often in the process of digging, you may not even necessarily find what you were looking for, but you’ll find a whole bunch of other things,” Palao explains. “And then this becomes tremendously exciting, because straightaway you can envisage, ‘Well, wow, I thought I was going to get a couple of CDs out of this — I can get like eight or ten.'”
Sandoval and Palao often engage their artistic subjects, seeing if they might have outtakes, demos, photos, or simply memories for the liner notes. That can backfire, though: “If you get in touch with the artist, even though you get great information, great insight into how these things were put together, you may also find that they want a little bit too much say in what goes on there,” Palao admits. Sandoval found P.F. Sloan (who wrote and produced hits for the Turtles, Johnny Rivers, and Barry McGuire) resistant to having his demos released, while Palao hit paydirt after asking for Zombies demos: “They dug up a few things, and then Chris [White, the Zombies’ bassist and one of two primary songwriters] found a whole bunch of tapes in his ex-wife’s attic, and all of a sudden there was all this Zombies music that I hadn’t heard before.”
After unearthing the tapes, the producer grapples with a number of technical and artistic decisions, including which material to include and how to reproduce it. “My philosophy is to try and get the original mixes,” Sandoval explains. “And if there is no original mix, at least pay attention to what went before. I listen to other things recorded around the same time as a reference, to see what kind of reverb they used, and compression, and the setup of how they mixed things.” Palao also does his own remixing, but often draws upon the expertise of Oakland’s Wally Sound studio, where vintage analogue equipment and Wally’s historically educated ears can re-create the 1960s sounds of legendary San Francisco studios like Golden State (1965-’94), Coast (1957-early ’70s), and Columbus Recorders (1965-early ’70s, in a building that now houses Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope).
Given the mid-’60s period these producers often focus on, they must also struggle with the issue of mono versus stereo. Palao’s 1997 four-disc Zombies box Zombies Heaven, for example, returned the original mono mixes to print, after years of lifeless, label-created stereo versions had made the rounds after the band’s demise. “It was my intention,” Palao explains, “to put all the original mono mixes back out there, because they hadn’t been available on the market — even a song like ‘She’s Not There,’ an iconic song, had a whole extra drum overdub that’s only on the mono version.” In contrast, his compilation for the Sonics (a 2003 reissue of Psycho-Sonic) sidestepped the oft-reissued mono masters by releasing the original two-track session tapes as is.
The New Year will find Sandoval revisiting the Monkees catalogue for a series of double-disc mono/stereo releases; he’ll also helm a second seven-disc Everly Brothers box. Palao, meanwhile, is currently digging through an archive of garage-rock recorded by Norman Petty in the same Clovis, New Mexico, studio where Buddy Holly helped invent rock ‘n’ roll. Now it’s time to help document and reinvent it.