I’ve spoken before on the blog about the record fairs of the early 1980s, and the bootleg tapes that featured so prominently in their trade. Extremely erratic in quality, and often pedalled by people who knew little to nothing about the artists, these tapes (usually of live performances or radio sessions) were frequently mis-labelled, recorded and/or copied in a slapdash fashion, and thus a dire risk to the purchaser – who might pay £2.50 to £3.50 for an absolute piece of rubbish.
Technically, the customer could request that the vendor played the tape to verify the quality, but a) the fairs were often too busy for that to be practical, and b) the vendors obviously couldn’t play the whole tape, so the customer may well get home to find an entire side missing. These vendors were, by nature, slippery characters. It was hard enough to find them once the fairs were over, and even if you did find them, they were likely to be well versed in dodging the blame: “Erm… I was just, er, looking after that stall for someone else mate…”, etc. Realistically, once you paid, that was it. You weren’t getting any refund.
Some gigs were recorded by the actual vendors, typically with a Sony Walkman half concealed under their jacket. Recording live tapes was prohibited, and a lot of venues would police the prohibition quite aggressively, confiscating the recording device when a bootlegger was caught. When asked by the customer, some bootleggers would not admit they’d recorded the gigs with cheapish, hand-held devices, and some had arsenals of fancy language to try and conceal the fact that they’d basically stood amid a crowd surreptitiously pointing a personal stereo mic vaguely in the direction of the stage.
Other bootlegs were recorded from radio or TV broadcasts, in the hope that fans of the artists had missed the transmissions, or just wanted to listen to them on an ongoing basis. At the beginning of the ‘80s A LOT of people still didn’t have video recorders, and even if they did, the kids were almost inevitably going to be overruled by the parents when it came to choosing what to record.
The cassette featured in this post is somewhat typical of offerings from that latter category. According to the inlay, this is a live Bob Marley and the Wailers concert, recorded at the Rainbow Theatre, London, on 16th May 1981. Given that Bob Marley had died five days before this date, 16/5/81 will have been the day of a radio or TV rerun of the professionally recorded June 1977 Rainbow concert, broadcast in tribute to the just-deceased reggae icon.
Reading further into the sleeve notes, you see more evidence that the vendor was not particularly au fait with Bob Marley. Rebel Music is listed as Read The Music, Lively Up Yourself is listed as Liven Up Yourself, and other tracks are not listed at all, even though the whole programme appears on the tape. Errors such as this were incredibly common. With no Internet, those who weren’t fans of an artist could not easily establish song titles.
But considering this recording was copied to a cheap Sony CHF 90 (base level ferric Type 1 tape), the quality is not too bad. The original bootleg (from radio or TV) has been made at too high a level, and this results in some distortion to the very heavy bass at times. But it’s bearable, and if you export the concert to a computer and re-equalise it digitally, you can make it sound really good. The high level to tape means that background noise is minimised. As these bootlegs went, this was actually one of the better quality offerings. And this is a fantastic concert – as you’d expect from Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Naturally, today, few people would pay good money for degraded recordings, but in 1981 many young music fans had very little choice. Aside from the fact that so many concerts were not made commercially available, there was a general dearth of information, and ignorance is very easy to exploit for sales.
The record business was partially to blame for the scale of bootlegging. Bootlegging was only viable because people bought bootlegs, and people only bought bootlegs because they couldn’t get the material through legitimate channels. It was years before legitimate commercial enterprise began releasing radio sessions and a wider range of concerts on professional audio media, and by the time they did, the bootleggers had left them with a limited market.
It’s interesting, in the light of the current state of play, to consider how greatly some recording companies would now value the market the bootleggers had in 1981. They turned their noses up at the opportunities then. They’d give anything to have them today, I suspect.