“Extra track and a tacky badge” – doing compilations doesn’t get any easier

That song I abandoned back in 1987 because it didn’t sound very good? It still doesn’t sound very good.

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I’ve spent the last couple of weeks living in the past. And all because I’m about to release a compilation album of solo recordings and collaborations – so I’ve had to listen back to old work, choose the right tracks and then try to put them in the right order. This task comes around fairly regularly now, the nostalgic times we live in making repeat demands on any artist to come up with new collections of old stuff, or de luxe reissues of past albums.

Morrissey wrote about this in the most contemptuous terms almost 30 years ago, albeit referring to dead singers, in the Smiths song “Paint a Vulgar Picture” (“Reissue, repackage, repackage/Re-evaluate the songs/Double-pack with a photograph/Extra track and a tacky badge”), but it has become so much the norm that not only are you not judged for it, fans positively demand it of you. As Everything But the Girl, Ben and I have been involved with the recent de luxe reissues of all our albums, and are constantly contacted by fans asking when the next one will be out.

Through it all, we’ve tried to avoid taking advantage. In order to make a record meaningful, you either have to gather together work that has never been compiled in that way before, or add new and desirable material. People definitely want the “extra track” – preferably an unreleased song, whether a live version or a demo.

It’s all to do with the endless quest for an authentic experience – something unmediated, unpolished, as though we believe that songs which are unfinished or that have been rejected reveal more of the true artist. It reminds me a bit of my teenage punky antipathy towards production values. Back in the late Seventies and early Eighties the worst thing my friends and I could find to say about a record was, “Oooh, it’s so overproduced.” I don’t think we really knew what production was, or what it was for, or how that statement collapsed in the face of our love for, say, Phil Spector records, but all I know is that we would complain bitterly when a modern record sounded too finished, which to us equalled inauthentic. It meant we had to run quite fast to keep up with bands such as Scritti Politti, who wrong-footed us with the high gloss of “The Sweetest Girl” only three years after we’d bought in to the ethos of “Skank Bloc Bologna”. Bloody pop music, we thought, forever changing the rules.

Now here I am, all these years later, much more conflicted about the idea of letting audiences hear unfinished and undercooked songs. I realise that people always hope there will be undiscovered gems, gold in them there hills. I understand the thrill of discovery when you find a song you’ve never heard before by an artist you love, but still I struggle with the increasing demands for complete access. I wrote about this before in relation to P J Harvey’s experiment of allowing the paying public to come and watch her record an album – and I thought about it again recently when there was a furore about a couple of writers breaking with long-held tradition and reviewing the preview of the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet.

Many were outraged by that, regarding it as an unfair intrusion, judging work in progress, potentially influencing the direction of the finished item. But it’s not going to go away, this desire of the audience to see inside the creative process, this distrust of the notion that an artist is the best judge and should be allowed to decide when something is finished. So we muddle along, against a strengthening current, trying to find a compromise that at times requires the illusion of openness while hanging on to a degree of control.

That song I abandoned back in 1987 because it didn’t sound very good? It still doesn’t sound very good, so I’ll leave it in its box in the garage, if that’s OK. On the other hand, the vocal on that live performance isn’t as out of tune as I’d feared. And that demo surprised me, turning out to be much better than I’d remembered. Sometimes you do find buried treasure. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles