As Hendrix, Tupac and Jeff Buckley have proven, death is no impediment to a hit album. Jacko's next, explains Stevie Chick.
To cynics, posthumous collections of unheard material, unfinished works or unreleased concert recordings represent the rapacious Record Industry at its worst, a last-ditch attempt to squeeze revenues from an investment gone sour. For the fans left bereft, however, such releases plug the void of silence that follows an artist's death, suggesting where their muse might have led them next, had the reaper not taken them first. Certainly, posthumous releases are often a mixed bag, offering up the occasional masterpiece among the barrel-scraping exercises, but also sometimes taking unforgivable liberties with the artist's legacy.Jimi Hendrix's after-career illustrates both the highs and lows of Posthumous Pop. Upon his death in 1970, Jimi was sketching out an ambitious double album, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, that looked set to drag him out of the uncertain period that followed the breakup of his Experience. Mitch Mitchell and producer Eddie Kramer (who'd engineered Electric Ladyland) released ten songs from these sessions on 1971's Cry Of Love, the first and best in a series of albums compiled after Hendrix's death, with a number more dribbling out on two further Kramer-helmed compilations, War Heroes and Rainbow Bridge, released over the subsequent year.
So far, so respectful. But when producer Alan Douglas took over Hendrix's legacy recordings in 1975, the result was a controversial series of albums featuring Hendrix out-takes overdubbed with the work of contemporary session musicians. Jimi's father Al Hendrix won back the rights to his son's music in 1995, and in 1997 his family-run Experience Hendrix company released First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, with Kramer attempting to compile the unfinished album as close to Jimi's original plans as possible. Subsequent Experience Hendrix releases, including a series of unheard concert recordings, have underlined their intention to enhance Hendrix's legacy, not tarnish it.
Now, Hendrix's little sister Janie's in charge of the estate, and promises a release of unheard material every 12 to 18 months for the next 10 years. That's on top of a new series of "Expanded Editions" of the original albums, featuring "never before heard studio recordings", soon to be available through Sony. Exactly how much of that unheard material can actually be good, or that its creator would have been happy to release, remains to be seen.Tupac Shakur was murdered in September 1996, he'd released five albums, with a sixth--The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, under a new stage name, Makaveli--waiting in the wings. In the subsequent decade there followed a further six full-lengths of unreleased tracks, in addition to two live albums, a collection of unheard material by his earlier group The Outlawz, two remix LPs, an album of his poetry, and four greatest hits albums; an album of 1988 vocal takes set to modern-day productions is due later this year. This constant onslaught of 'new' Tupac material prompted Dave Chappelle to film this sketch depicting a supposedly-undiscovered Shakur cut that referenced 21st Century phenomena like Dubya, 911 and the Blackberry. It's so accurate it's barely even funny.
Rarer is the example of the artist who prepares a work they know they won't live to see finished, as with Queen's 1995 album Made In Heaven, the basic tracks for which were cut by Freddie Mercury during the last stages of his battle with AIDS, the frontman toiling in considerable pain to give his bandmates enough material to continue beyond his death. Meanwhile, Detroit Hip-Hop producer/rapper J Dilla completed his haunting and wonderful collection of instrumental tracks, Donuts, while in the hospital dying of a rare blood disease. He lived on three days after its release in February 2006, his mother Maureen Yancey supervising the release of his unheard music in the years that have followed, as the success of Donuts has introduced the magic of Dilla to a new wider audience.Jeff Buckley's death in 1997 came as he prepared to complete his troubled second album, My Sweetheart The Drunk, having rejected earlier sessions cut with Tom Verlaine. The following year's release of Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk attempted to answer the question of how the mercurial young singer intended to follow up Grace, Buckley's friend (and Soundgarden frontman) Chris Cornell compiling a double album from Verlaine sessions and Buckley's later 4-track demos.
Frustratingly unfinished, but containing much remarkable music, "Sketches... answers the tantalizing "what if...?" left by Buckley's tragic passing with another question: where would he have gone next, after My Sweetheart The Drunk? It's a question unanswered by the torrent of Buckley releases that have followed, the concert tapes and demo sessions and deluxe repackagings and, oddest of all, So Real: The Songs Of Jeff Buckley, a 'greatest hits' compilation for an artist who only released a single album in his lifetime.
But it is thanks to such releases that Buckley today enjoys a profile much higher than in his lifetime, his youthful death embroidering his myth for newcomers. Buckley is not the only artist to prove more successful in death than in life; Eva Cassidy was an obscure but respected Washington DC singer when she succumbed to cancer in 1996. It wasn't until Terry Wogan began playing tracks from Songbird, a 1998 collection of tracks compiled by Cassidy's family and friends, on his Radio 2 breakfast show in 2000 that the Eva Cassidy phenomenon truly began, her sentimental interpretations of jazz, blues and pop standards winning her a global fanbase touched both by her vocal, and her tragic tale.
Meanwhile, the recent surge of interest in Arthur Russell, a composer/cellist whose then-obscure work embraced ecstatic disco, minimalist experimental and affecting songcraft before his AIDS-related death in 1992, has prompted a commendable ongoing series of releases culled from the hours of unheard Russell music in possession of his partner, Tom Lee.
What's for sure is, like death and taxes, posthumous albums will always be with us. Less than two weeks after Michael Jackson's fatal heart-attack, Amanda Ghost--president of Jackson's record label, Epic--confirmed that the company would eventually release recordings the King Of Pop had cut for the planned follow-up to his 2001 album Invincible, including collaborations with contemporary soul stars Akon, Ne-Yo and will.i.am.
"We want to be respectful to his memory, and not be seen in any way as trying to cash in," she assured BBC 6 Music, but only time will tell if these tracks should've been kept in the closet.
The deluge begins on October 27, when a previously unreleased Jacko song, "This Is It" and, er, a "touching spoken word poem" entitled Planet Earth emerge on two discs of music accompanying the movie-doc centred on his final O2 rehearsals, This Is It. But as history shows it won't be the last posthumous release from the MJ estate--only the first.
For a more grown-up take on music, trust MOJO4music.com.
- Jeff Buckley