Be it tweeting selfies of yourself doing the can-can on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, blacking up for a ‘90s sketch show or masturbating furiously at the company Zoom AGM, there are things we all wish we’d done differently in life. I, for one, have had an entire engagement which was a major mistake, and recently horrifically oversalted a bolognese.
When it comes to works of art, however, you would be advised to heed the cautionary tale of Hal. Around 2004, a PR arrived in the NME office with a demo CD of a disarmingly beautiful song called ‘Keep Love As Your Golden Rule’ by these unknown Irish troubadours. Fragile, delicate and sublime, it captured the tentative flowerings of the first buds of hope amid a wreckage of a life in a charmingly lo-fi tumble of acoustic arpeggios and bliss-dream harmonies. Every single one of us quit on the spot and applied for jobs driving horse-drawn carriages around Montmartre; that’s how Keane-buggeringly gorgeous and romantic this song was. Then a few months later, the same PR returned with a re-recorded, pomped up, album ready version choked with saccharine strings, plodding along like a knackered combine harvester and containing all the subtlety, sensitivity and nuance of Piers Morgan’s internal monologue. “It’s how they always wanted it to sound,” they said.
So it’s with some trepidation that many fans will have approached Taylor Swift’s re-recorded version of her 2008 second album ‘Fearless’ last week. Her motives for starting a campaign to replace all of her albums with fresh recordings are noble indeed: disapproving of the sale of her master recordings to music manager Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings in 2019 and accusing Braun (who managed Kanye West) of “incessant, manipulative bullying…for years”, she vowed to regain control of her music, and the income from it, by re-recording everything from scratch.
It’s a brave and bold move, but not an unprecedented one. In 1960 The Everly Brothers re-recorded their greatest hits for new label Warner Bros., condemning their previous label to bankruptcy and instigating the practice of contracts stipulating that acts couldn’t re-record their music in a hurry – five years after the masters are delivered or three years after the contract ends became the rough standard.
Around 2013, facing wrangles over streaming royalty rates, Def Leppard played a very public game of Spotify chicken with their label, re-making some of their biggest hits and their entire ‘Hysteria’ album and replacing the streaming versions with their own until the label caved in and gave them a bigger cut. It’s amazing, in fact, that they didn’t rename one of their biggest hits ‘Put Some Thumbscrews On Me’.
In all of these cases, the artists have been at pains to make the new versions as indistinguishable from the originals as possible so as not to fall foul of the Hal Effect. Swift even hunted down some of the same players from the 2008 sessions in the name of recreative authenticity. Because no matter how cheap, hungover or tarnished by subsequent royalty writs a track might sound to the artist, there’s something about the moment a song clicks with the listener, the instant it makes that emotional connection that, in our minds, sets that particular recording in stone. The very tone and timbre became part of its essential appeal; every hiss, crackle and surreptitious passing of wind now holds magical meaning. It spoke to us at a specific moment in our lives, and that’s where it lives now, forever.
PJ Harvey’s ‘Oh My Lover’ is a physically excoriating listen because Polly didn’t bother stepping outside the studio for five minutes to have her breakdown. Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ is sensational because it’s clearly hammered out on instruments and equipment riddled with asbestos. The Beatles’ ‘Twist And Shout’ is brilliant because John’s voice is falling to bits from recording all of ‘Please Please Me’ in a day with Satan’s own head-cold and the Abbey Road caretaker is virtually dragging him off the mike so he can sweep up. If anyone had ever gone back to clean it up, we’d have cancelled their arse six ways ‘til Sunday.
Try giving such much-loved squats a Farrow & Ball makeover and a power shower and we’d balk at the pretention and fakery. The intimation of a radically updated track – usually the work of an act who wants to expose their underappreciated mastercraft by doing their drone metal noise barrages on acoustics, or hires in a philharmonic because they think they’re the drill’n’bass Debussy – is that, like a hen do snapping up Verse Archie handbags in an Essex pub, we were fools to fall for such substandard goods in the first place. But even when acts attempt a painstakingly faithful reconstruction, they’re often one-way tickets to uncanny valley.
Having been brought up on a strict diet of oven chips and ELO, listening to Jeff Lynne’s re-recordings of their symphonic rock classics on 2012’s ‘Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best Of Electric Light Orchestra’ – made simply because Lynne felt he could do them better – felt a bit like waking up in one of those sci-fi horror films where aliens secretly replace your partner with a clone made out of sentient vegetation. The songs were still the same but they were looking at me blankly, walking a bit funny and seemed to have no memory of our honeymoon. They felt, more than anything, like an ELO that had happened in a slightly more expensive alternate universe to ours.
There are moments in ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’ when the updated production and road-honed vocal depth can similarly jolt you out of the record, but the cause and story behind it undoubtedly carries it through. We’ll embrace Taylor’s versions because it’s the right thing to do. But be warned, vanity re-recorders, you mess with our memories at your peril. Keep authenticity as your golden rule.