I was reading through a book, a biography of John Coltrane by Ben Ratliff, and he wrote something that deserves repeating and contextualizing. In his book he wrote about how some of the legendary jazz musician’s works may have been lost if not for bootleggers who recorded it surreptitiously at clubs and various venues where he happened to be playing. Coltrane himself was a bootleg recorder, taking tape recorders to Charlie Parker concerts so he could record, and later study, the man who would greatly influence his own style.
I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between Coltrane’s behaviour and what would happen if he engaged in it today, along with the bootleggers recording Coltrane’s concerts. Chances are they’d be arrested at the concert, thrown in jail, subject to prosecution, heavy fines, and probably jail time. Yet we owe much to these past musical pirates because of their (now highly illegal) actions. Because of them, we have some recordings of a pivotal era in Coltrane’s musical development.
I also think back to the early television. Wouldn’t you like to watch some of Johnny Carson’s first appearances as the host of The Tonight Show? How about the first episode of the Ed Sullivan Show? Maybe you’d like to see the early work of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore?
Well screw you, because you can’t.
They’re gone. Utterly and totally gone. Why? Because the networks wiped the tapes. They destroyed their own history, and what pisses me off even more is that they knew they were making history at the time. They had to know they were making history because they were, after all, broadcasting moving pictures and sound through the air to millions of people – something that’d never been done before. But no, they needed those tapes for other things so they wiped them and recorded over them.
Terry Gilliam of Monty Python’s Flying Circus purchased every single episode of the show from the BBC and it’s a good thing he did, because they were scheduled to be wiped. Let me repeat that. Let me repeat that because that’s something that gets inside your brain and starts tearing away neurons with a weed whacker. So I’ll put it in big, bold letters: The BBC was about to destroy the original recordings of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
A color production of the Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella starring Julie Andrews – gone. The original slow scan footage of the first moon landing – missing. The NBC and CBS telecasts of Super Bowl I and II – destroyed. The Vampira Show, the first TV horror movie show – wiped.
The music, television, and movie industries need pirates and librarians because, quite frankly, they have a very hard time managing their own stuff. They’re like children with toys, except these “toys” are easily broken and totally irreplaceable.
One last bit of trivia. As a huge fan of spaghetti westerns, I am well acquainted with the work of Sergio Leone. Back in the mid 70s, he shot a new opening to the classic film A Fistful of Dollars because of broadcasting guidelines. Of course, the network lost the damn thing. The only reason it still survives today is because someone recorded it using one of those, at the time, new fangled video cassette recorder thingies
In other words, because someone pirated it.