To recreate, or to cash-in, that is the question.
As the value of recorded music, to the artists at least, shrivels to a shadow of its former glory like a once esteemed TV news presenter reduced to fielding prank calls on GB News, a spate of major acts such as Dylan, Paul Simon, Fleetwood Mac, Calvin Harris, The Killers, Shakira and Neil Young have cashed out some or all of their publishing and recording rights chips for monumental paydays. It’s rumoured Imagine Dragons received nine figures for their publishing catalogue, and Dylan trousered a cool $400 million for his rights – enough to buy the seat next to Jeff Bezos all the way to Mars.
There are plenty of good reasons for this. Nobody knows if music will be worth anything at all after another 20 years of technological advancement when, say, Alexa goes rogue, becomes mates with GarageBand and perfectly re-records all music ever for her own wicked gain. Many older acts – particularly if the lack of pandemic touring has hit their multiple alimony payments – have realised that income from the long-term rights to their songs might be a tad more use to them now than 75 years after their death. And incoming Biden tax laws on capital gains make it more lucrative to sell now rather than face an increase in the near-future, because the truth is sometimes, in its immaculate simplicity, really fucking boring.
“I can’t work…and streaming stole my record money…I have a family and a mortgage,” tweeted David Crosby, “it’s my only option…I’m sure the others feel the same”. “I’ll be approaching 60,” Noel Gallagher reasoned on Apple Music, “and it’s like, do I want to leave it to my kids, who’ll probably swap it for a fucking PlayStation game? Or do I get rid of it now and set everybody up for life?”
Rather than selling it wholesale to the movie sync and advertising equivalent of dockyard sailors, however, other acts have taken a more protective, nurturing approach to their back catalogue. Taylor Swift has famously set about re-recording all of her albums in order to bypass the sale of her music rights against her will. And this week Muse released ‘Origin Of Symmetry (XX Anniversary RemiXX)’, a revamped, titanium coated version of their cult 2001 breakthrough classic, which picks the original up between its gigantic mecha-fingers, curls it into a ball like something it found in its nose and casually flicks it 10 miles out to sea before stomping off to eat the nearest city.
Bringing entire orchestras, classical harpsichord interludes and alien harmonies out of the murk, the new ‘Origin…’ is a triumph, and a blueprint for how bands can not only reissue, repackage and reflog their old albums but refresh, refurbish and reinvent them for new generations too – like Carrie Symonds but with taste. The again, Muse were lucky enough to have an album loaded up with more sounds and ideas than it could carry in 2001. If the concept of remixing classic albums for the 2020s catches on, I fear for the butchery we may have to endure.
Imagine a ‘The Stone Roses (Untreated Vocal Remix)’. A ‘Psychocandy’ on which The Jesus & Mary Chain decide to finally go back and remove the screeching of that unearthed amp. My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ remixed to correct the warping issues caused by the mixing desk being powered from the engine of a knackered Austin Allegro, and presented as the tribute to Enya it was always intended. The opportunities for ruining great records is limitless, even without uncovering a long-lost duet with R Kelly on track 14.
Often we fall for the flaws and rough edges of records just as much as the songs themselves, and tidying them up merely serves to erase their original appeal and taint the memory of the initial spark. It would scar whole generations if The Killers’ ‘Hot Fuss’ were remixed only to reveal that the intro to ‘Mr Brightside’ was just the chance sound of an ice-cream van passing the studio at the right moment. If The La’s gave their seminal lo-fi debut the sonic brush-up Lee Mavers always wanted, courtesy of new producers Crowded House. Or if The Strokes went back to ‘Is This It’ and simply turned up the fader on Julian Casablancas’s microphone, so that the vocals were no longer being recorded solely via the studio’s CCTV intercom system.
Few remixed albums have ever improved on or replaced the life-marking punch of the originals. The adult me listening to ‘Let It Be… Naked’ appreciated the subtleties of Paul McCartney wanting Phil Spector’s overblown orchestral guff stripped away for posterity. But the kid me longed for the Busby Berkeley choirs and Wizard Of Oz strings that sucked me into ‘The Long And Winding Road’ as a pre-teen.
And sure, it was great to hear Michael Stipe’s voice emerge from the sludge of REM’s 25th anniversary remix of 1994’s ‘Monster’, like the archangel Gabriel in a mud fight, but it rather fumbled the point of the record, for better or worse, as a wholehearted embrace of the grunge era. And Pearl Jam’s 2009 makeover of ‘Ten’ as a tighter, punchier record seemed to lessen its standing as a grunge behemoth. Instead, it sounded like Steve Buscemi putting on a fake nose ring and saying, “How do you do, fellow punks?”
Remixes often work better when used to undo commercial label interference, such as The Replacements reworking 1989’s radio-friendly ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ album from a raw early mix or, in 2013, Steve Albini getting his mitts on the two ‘In Utero’ songs that Nirvana’s label had remixed by Scott Litt in the hope of chart hits. In addition, history is all the more magical for the dust that builds up on it, so bands should be sure their ancient texts won’t crumble in their fingertips the second they start brushing off the cobwebs; that it wasn’t the grime itself that was holding it together.
There’s a thin line between restoring a great work so that it can astound anew and sanitising it. There’s selling off your legacy, and then there’s selling it short.