From the Stacks

From The Stacks: Vietnam Era Taiwanese Bootlegs

These bootlegs are horrible. I love them.

Bootlegs come in essentially four tasty varieties:

  1. Unreleased demos and other tracks. These are compilations of things that are mostly professionally recorded but weren’t intended for commercial release. Prince’s Black Album is a good example, as are the myriad compilations of the Beatles’ Get Back sessions.
  2. Radio and other broadcasts. Once upon a time, if you weren’t listening to the radio when a show was broadcast you missed it, unless some enterprising bootlegger happened to be recording it. The FM broadcast of David Bowie’s 1972 Santa Monica show is an outstanding example of a bootlegged radio broadcast, while Jimmy Page’s Lucifer Rising soundtrack represents the “other broadcasts” variety quite nicely.
  3. Concert recordings. This is what most people think of when they think of bootlegs. Whether they come from the soundboard or a tape recorder smuggled into the venue, live bootlegs capture a once in a lifetime event–that night, those songs, that crowd. I can’t get enough of them.
  4. Cheap knockoffs of studio albums.  These are the lowest of the low. Why bother collecting poor quality copies of, say, Carole King’s Tapestry when an official copy sounds so much better? Well, for the stories, of course.

And that’s why I buy Taiwanese bootlegs of studio albums whenever I see them, specifically those from the decade spanning 1965-1975. The albums themselves are usually unlistenable, each one “mastered” from an album purchased at a record store and replicated in a Taiwanese printing plant. Their covers are horrible, too–made from flimsy cardboard that’s not much stiffer than an official album’s inner sleeve. Often the cardboard is recycled, so inside their sleeves one can see remnants of album covers that never happened for whatever reason. Affixed to each sleeve is a plastic outer coating with roughly the quality of transparent kitchen wrap. Sometimes the bootleggers changed the album cover’s artwork, which is interesting.

So what’s the story, morning glory? That’s what I ask myself every time I happen across one of these, and this is where 1965-1975 comes into play. How would a Taiwanese bootleg from that era travel from such a faraway place to Northern California, and who bought it in the first place?

I don’t know for certain, but I imagine this: Young, American soldiers on their way home from Vietnam. They’ve been stuck in the jungle for a year, or maybe two or three, and now they’re going home. Let’s make it one particular soldier in order to simplify this. He has back pay in his pocket, isn’t in fear for his life for the first time in months, and is terribly homesick. He hasn’t heard anything besides Armed Forces Radio in months. What’s that over there–a record store? Jesus Christ, Lennon put out a solo record? Ringo, too? I liked David Crosby in the Byrds. America. That’s a funny name for a band. Five bucks later he’s got a stack of fresh music in his duffel bag, next stop San Francisco. Next stop: home.

Forty years later, and that soldier is gone. What are we going to do with Dad’s junk? I don’t know. The records might be worth something. Take them to a record store and see what you can get for them. The store throws his descendants a buck or two per disc, and Dad’s big night in Taiwan is forgotten.

But it isn’t. It can’t be. And that’s why no matter how cruddy these old Taiwanese bootlegs of studio albums sound they are guaranteed a home if I find them in a record store’s bins. I got your back, unknown soldier. Your records are safe with me.

Prices for these, particularly those on the First Records label, are all over the place. What most buyers are after are the bands they collect, so the big names (Beatles, Elvis, etc.) fetch pretty good money while less popular artists are relegated to the dollar bin. Anywhere from $5 to $200 per record is possible, but before you get dollar signs in your eyes always err on the cheap end. Happy hunting.

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