the secret world of bootleg collectors


I first stumbled into the murky world of collecting illegal bootleg records in the early 80’s when I went with a mate to the Manchester Record Fair which was then located in a basement at the back of Piccadilly Plaza in the heart of Manchester. I still recall the excitement of walking down the steps and paying my admission price (around 60p) and seeing stacks of record crates and boxes in the stalls packed into every available corner of the basement space overlooked by dodgy looking geezers with fags hanging out of their mouths and T-shirts a couple of sizes too small. The kind who looked like they’d rip-off their own granny.There was a vague musky smell of stale sweat, beer and old record covers mingled in with the plumes of smoke. It seemed everyone smoked in those days and even if you didn’t there was no escape as your clothes would reek of it after you left the pub, club or any other kind of confined space.

After an hour or so flicking through every crate that had the words ‘Punk and New Wave’ or ‘Psychedelia’ scribbled on it and then going round again to see if I’d missed anything the first time, I swiftly discovered many vinyl rarities (CD’s hadn’t been invented yet) and live bootlegs usually with photocopied prints stuck on the sleeves, often with plain white labels. I also discovered the best ones were slightly overpriced and so began the stressful business of haggling over the price with said dodgy geezers who clearly were in no mood to waste their time arguing with some scruffy oik with a spiky hairdo.

Eventually I came away with 2 live bootlegs : The Sex Pistols : Indecent Exposure (£10) a decent live recording of an early gig from 76′ in a rather fetching newspaper cover with a charming picture of a man with padlocks and chains hanging from his nipples and a cock ring. The second one was a Clash live boot (£8) recorded in London in 77′ which sounded like it had been recorded in a subway tunnel. Pretty much unlistenable, problem was there was no way of actually hearing the record before you bought it and it turned out many bootlegs were audience recorded on a cheap tape recorder.

My mate got hold of a book called The Bootleg Bible which listed just about every bootleg released to date. This was useful as it had a short review and a quality guide, and which ones were soundboard recordings direct from the mixing desk. I’ve never seen this book since, and there was no internet in those days either which meant research was out of the question.


After my initial foray into this secretive, shady world, I got the bug and enjoyed the ‘hit’ of buying something illicit, and we went to many more Record Fairs, which in the mid 80’s moved to a new larger venue called New Century Hall, obviously to cope with the increasing demand for rare records. There was also a yearly Giant Record Fair housed in G-Mex, a large exhibition centre in Manchester.

Other notable vinyl bootlegs I bought included Buzzcocks – Time’s Up 1976 demos with Howard Devoto, David Bowie Live in Santa Monica 72′, Bauhaus – Odissea (Live in Italy 82′) and The Cure – ‘Happy Birthday Live 1980, all these turned out to be pretty good albeit a little underproduced. Bootleg cassettes were also for sale as they were easy to reproduce. The advent of CD’s in the 90’s led to even more bootlegs seeing the light of day, and much more choice with stacks of CD’s from A to Z at around £10 each.


Fact : The word bootleg, as gangster fans will know, comes from the sale of illicit booze (called ‘moonshine’) the expression, which became popular in the late nineteenth century came from the apparently common practise of carrying a whiskey bottle in the leg of ones boot to avoid detection. A bit like smuggling a tape recorder into a concert.

The late 90’s saw the tightening of laws by the authorities, and increased enforcement by the police on behalf of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), forcing dealers and distributors of bootlegs further underground. Around this time many bootlegs appeared online on fileshare sites like Megaupload, Pirate Bay and Mediafire until illegal piracy cases led to prosecutions with the perpetrators ordered to pay millions in damages, as in the infamous case of Kane Robinson from North Shields in the UK, sentenced to 32 months in prison for setting up the music forum file sharing website Dancing Jesus, which allegedly cost the industry £240 million. This ‘criminal mastermind’ set up his operation on an iMac computer in his bedroom between working part-time at Tesco’s and his college course.

The argument about lost royalties will drag on forever, and opinion is divided between those who say the people buying bootlegs will have the official releases by their favourite artists anyway and just want more ‘product’, and those who say the artists suffer by losing royalties. Whatever the arguments for and against, bootleg recordings can easily be found online, and many classic bootleg concerts, demos and outtakes are now readily available on You Tube.


Sex Pistols : Indecent Exposure (white label) Classic early Pistols gig recorded live at the 76 Club in Burton on Trent in Sept 1976. It’s a decent soundboard recording which is rare for an early punk gig, but the sound is also very raw. The band sound tight with Glen Matlock on bass and there are energetic versions of many of their classic songs such as ‘Anarchy In The UK’, ‘Liar’, ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Problems’ (with false start). There are also a few cover versions in their set as this stage like ‘Substitute’, ‘Stepping Stone’ and a great version of ‘No Fun’ by The Stooges with Johnny Rotten on top form throughout.


The Cramps – Ohio Demos (red vinyl) The Cramps recorded these demo’s in 1979 with Alex Chilton (from Big Star) on production duties. It’s hard to believe the band rejected these mixes as they show the early Cramps in all their fuzzed up reverb-soaked glory with the dual guitar attack of Poison Ivy and Bryan Gregory, the pounding rock-solid drums of Nick Knox, and the crazed extra-terrestial vocals of Lux Interior. The set contains some of their best tunes with wild versions of ‘Teenage Werewolf’, ‘Rockin’ Bones’ and ‘What’s Behind The Mask’. Brilliant!


Sonic Youth – The Peel Sessions (Blue vinyl)   Sonic Youth recorded a session of cover versions of songs by The Fall for The John Peel Show in May 1988, knowing of his fondness for the band. This initially came out as a 4 track EP called 4 Tunna Brix, but this version has an added Peel session from 86′. The Fall covers are fast and powerful with screeching noisy guitars and Thurston Moore’s tuneful vocals, the 4th track, ‘Victoria’ is actually a Kinks song (covered by The Fall), and is done in a kind of ramshackle style with all the band joining in on vocals. The earlier session features some unreleased songs such as ‘Come And Smash Me’ and ‘Moonbeam Magic in a Glass Cage’. There’s also a great early version of ‘Expressway To Yr Skull’.


Joy Division / Warsaw (Picture disc) Warsaw was the planned debut LP by Joy Division and the band’s original name. They changed their name to Joy Division in early 1978 and recorded these demos in May that year at Arrow Studios in Manchester, but were disappointed with the sound and the LP was scrapped.

It contains the 4 tracks recorded for the ‘An Ideal For Living’ EP, such as the epic ‘No Love Lost’ as well as early versions of ‘Transmission’, ‘Shadowplay’ and ‘Interzone’. The sound is much rawer and closer to the band’s live sound than Unknown Pleasures would prove to be, but interesting to see the development in their sound.


READ : Bootleg! The Rise and Fall of the Secret Recording Industry by Clinton Heylin.

Article by John Rose, vinyl reviewer and photographs of John’s collections also by himself.

Author: johnnyr66

Musician. Photographer and Artist

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