There is mounting pressure in some quarters to amend the current European Union copyright law covering recordings. Currently, a recording becomes part of the public domain after fifty years. This means that all music recorded prior to 1957 is openly available to anyone for free. Songwriting royalties still have to be paid, but the recordings themselves are no longer owned by anyone. There was little debate over the issue until a couple of years ago when the first Elvis Presley records had their copyright lapse. Then suddenly the record companies started whining big time as they could see some of their cash cows being snatched away from them. As the law stands, the first Beatles records will pass into the public domain in 2013. By 2027, even the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” will have seen its copyright lapse!
The arguments are typically couched in the language of sympathy for the poor, down-trodden artists. This, of course, is pure baloney. For example, how many of the artists featured on these two double CDs, who are still with us, were ever paid a royalty in the first place? Very few – most received a flat fee. So it matters little to them whether anyone owns the recordings, because they sure as hell don’t. The people who do are the major record companies – the world’s most self-pitying corporations. They’ve been foretelling their own apocalyptic demise since the invention of radio!
There are problems, of course. Walk into any garage or high street ‘pound shop’, and you’ll find a whole host of thrown together compilations of public domain material released on labels you’ve never heard of and consisting of poorly mastered copies of songs usually sourced from scratchy vinyl or shellac. These CDs may be cheap, but you definitely get what you pay for. On the other hand, there are companies run by enthusiasts who actually care about what they are putting out. The main advantage for the fans of the music, of course, is that material long buried in dusty vaults is suddenly available again, and often sounding better than it ever did. Few of the major record companies would bother with a lot of this material, since it’s not likely to sell more than a few thousand copies at most. So without the fifty year rule, this stuff would simply not be available except on difficult to track down shellac 78s and early vinyl records. There are companies like France’s Classics label which have truly ambitious programmes to reissue all recordings by many artists in chronological order. No major label would attempt something like that except for the most stellar acts. One side effect that nobody seems to have mentioned is that, with more stuff issued, there are more royalties being paid to the writers. Song publishers must be raking it in. Ironically, a lot of them (like Chappell) are owned by the very major companies (Warner Music) that are whingeing the loudest.
Anyway, one such laudable reissue campaign of public domain material has been carried out by Secret Records on their Boulevard Vintage imprint over the past few years. The period between 1947 and 1954 have already been covered by a series of four-CD boxes, each containing 100 rhythm and blues tracks from the year, ranging from big hits by the likes of Louis Jordan, Joe Turner and Ruth Brown to the more obscure waxings of near-forgotten artists. These sets were well-mastered, thoughtfully compiled and reasonably priced. The only fault I could pick was the paucity of documentation that accompanied them. Each had an interesting illustrated essay, but no details of sessions, band line-ups etc, which was a pity.
Two years since the last box hit the stores, the volumes for 1955 have appeared – this time as two separate 50 track double CDs. Another pair covering 1956 are scheduled to be issued soon. The new format must have been adopted for purely financial reasons because I can’t think that there would be many punters who’d want one and not the other. Disappointingly, the CDs again lack session details, although each has an informative essay by Roy Bainton and some nice photos. The discs are ordered chronologically, so the first volume covers roughly the first six months of 1955 and the second the remainder.
1955 was the year that rock & roll went big time. It’s intriguing to note how great the contrast between the two sets is, when it comes to material. Volume one has Bo Diddley, but is dominated by the established R&B stars like Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker and Wynonie Harris as well as a number of more popular blues performers like Elmore James, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter. The latter half of the year saw the emergence of new stars like Chuck Berry and Little Richard who were firmly rock & roll artists. Vocal groups also underwent a massive change in a relatively short period. The days of the standard were rapidly being superceded by a new, cool, teen oriented type of group. “Speedo” by the Cadillacs is a fine example. The Robins, represented here by “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, would metamorphose in the greatest of this type of group during 1956 – the Coasters.
These are great compilations, with familiar tunes like “Mannish Boy” and “Maybelline” rubbing shoulders with much more obscure stuff. There is very little generic filler – most songs are included on merit. I would recommend the entire series to anyone who’s into American R&B, but the 1955 volumes in particular ought to appeal to a much wider audience than that. Can’t wait for 1956!