Not long ago, I got drawn into an extended Facebook conversation about the albums the Beatles might have made in the 1970s had they not split up. This is one of my favorite exercises, not only in regard to the Beatles but to everything — the alternate history of rock ’n’ roll.
It’s inspired an array of books, from Lewis Shiner’s 1993 novel “Glimpses,” which reimagines the creation of the Beach Boys’ “Smile,” to Zachary Lazar’s stunning “Sway” (2008), with its portrait of the “Satanic Majesties”-era Rolling Stones. This makes sense, since for many of us, rock music is, or once was, essential to our inner lives, the substance of our dreams and of our fantasies.
Such intentions (or desires) reside at the heart of Bruno MacDonald’s “The Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear: Unreleased Records by the World’s Greatest Artists” (Octopus Books: 256 pp., $24.99 paper), which comes out this month and features dozens of records that never were by artists ranging from the Kinks to the Sex Pistols to Ryan Adams. Arranged by decade, it is a procrastinator’s delight, source of hours of nerdy music fun.
Some of the albums here are legendary: “Smile,” the Who’s unfinished “Lifehouse,” the Beatles’ stripped down “Get Back.” Much of the music recorded for these projects was eventually released — either on records such as “Who’s Next” or “Let It Be” (built, in part, out of the fragments) or in the never-ending spiral of archival re-issues and deluxe box sets
The real pleasure of the book, though, is in its portrayal of breakdowns such as Jeff Beck’s so-called “Motown Album”; there never was an album, just “nine or ten tracks” recorded at Motown Studios by Beck and drummer Cozy Powell. “We were going to do instrumentals,” Beck recalled later (of a project he remembers as a “catalog of disasters”), “get Holland, Dozier and Holland to write a great tune, and I’d play it. But we completely disrupted the whole Motown session!” None of the work recorded during those sessions has ever been released.
At times, MacDonald pushes the concept: The Sex Pistols’ “Spunk,” for instance, is less unreleased than an alternate version, rougher and often bootlegged, of the band’s debut “Never Mind the Bollocks,” while Danger Mouse’s “The Grey Album” (a mash-up of the Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “Black Album”) was widely downloaded on its release in 2004 … until, that is, the Beatles’ label shut it down.
But that’s part of the intention of a book like this, to blur the boundary between official and unofficial, between the music we hear in the world and that to which we listen in our minds.
“‘The Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear In Quite The Way The Artists Intended At The Time,’ was never going to fit on the cover,” MacDonald writes. “Some of these you will hear if you have no objection to bootlegging. Others you may eventually have the opportunity to purchase because, as the music business scrabbles at the soil to keep from falling into its own grave, everything that can be reissued will be.”