That Was It: The Strokes and the Contractual Obligation Tradition
Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
The Strokes' fifth album, Comedown Machine, came out this week. The video for its single "All the Time" appears below -- an in-happier-times montage built around performance footage in which they seem to be playing some other song. The band has made no secret of the fact that it's not exactly an inseparable unit these days: there's not going to be a tour for Comedown Machine, and their press for it has apparently consisted of one short radio interview with bassist Nikolai Fraiture. They've also made no secret of the fact that this album concludes the five-album contract they signed with RCA back in 2001. Connect the dots, and this looks very much like a contractual obligation record -- one that got made not because the Strokes wanted to make it, but because they had to.
There's a long and not-exactly-proud tradition in pop of recordings produced under one degree or another of duress. Sometimes, as with Comedown Machine, they're meat-and-potatoes work; sometimes they're an upraised middle finger. One of the biggest birds of all came from Van Morrison, who'd had a hit with "Brown Eyed Girl" in 1967, but apparently owed Bang Records several dozen more original songs. He responded by making up 31 barely-there songs in a single session, including "The Big Royalty Check," "Want a Danish," "Ring Worm," and the classic "You Say France and I Whistle," after whom a band named themselves a couple of years ago.
In 1970, the Rolling Stones owed Decca Records one last single before they'd be free to start their own label. They turned in "Schoolboy Blues," a voice-and-acoustic-guitar piece recorded by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that was raw, spare, kind of great in its way, and totally unreleasable at the time. (It officially saw the light of day for about five minutes in 1983.) It did, however, provide the title for Robert Frank's (also legally constrained) 1972 documentary about the Stones under its better-known title, "Cocksucker Blues."
John Lennon's 1975 album Rock 'n' Roll emerged from a couple of legal snarls. Music publisher Morris Levy had sued Lennon over a line from Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" that opened the Beatles' "Come Together"; as part of the settlement, Lennon was obligated to record three songs from Levy's publishing catalogue on his next album. Lennon started recording an album of oldies with Phil Spector producing, but Spector--never the stablest collaborator--disappeared with the tapes for a while. Lennon recorded his album Walls and Bridges in the meantime (it included a short cover of the Levy-owned Lee Dorsey song "Ya Ya," evidently as a gesture of good faith). When Lennon finished the album in late 1974 and gave Levy a tape of rough mixes, Levy promptly released them as a mail-order item (on his own label), Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock 'n' Roll Hits, through TV ads. The official release of Rock 'n' Roll, and more legal actions, followed. Here's Lennon's version of Rosie & the Originals' "Angel Baby."
Andrew Eldritch of Sisters of Mercy owed Warner Music Group's division East West Records some new music in 1997, seven years after the previous Sisters album. What Eldritch delivered was an album called Go Figure, credited to a band called SSV-NSMABAAOTWMODAACOTIATW. It consisted of drumless techno tracks with some samples of Eldritch's voice on top of them. East West sent out some advance cassettes of Go Figure, but apparently never quite bothered to release it commercially, and no wonder. The Sisters' official web site eventually explained that the band's name was an acronym for "Screw Shareholder Value - Not So Much a Band as Another Opportunity to Waste Money on Drugs and Ammunition Courtesy of the Idiots at Time Warner." Here's "Feel No Pain" from it.
Of course, it's also possible to make a perfectly decent album while making it clear that it wasn't created out of the purest of intentions. Lyle Lovett concluded his long-running contract with Curb Records last year with an album consisting mostly of covers of other artists' songs -- a pretty common gambit for artists whose next collection of original material appears shortly thereafter on another label. (See also Tori Amos's Strange Litle Girls.) Lovett, though, showed his hand by naming it after the country standard "Release Me" -- the video for his version (featuring k.d. lang) appears below--and packaging it with cover art showing him tied up in rope. Point made.