Unreleased albums offer a tantalising glimpse of an alternate rock universe just beyond our reach. Ultimately we’re drawn to these tales not just for the music – which doesn’t always live up to the hype – but because of the people who make it. Behind these projects are stories of some of the greatest artists of all time fighting for their creative vision against a commercialised industry or even their own band members. Sometimes drama isn’t the cause: Other projects are simply set aside and forgotten. But rumours of unreleased sessions by , the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, and others live on in the minds of devoted fans determined to hunt down every last note their idols recorded.
Legendary “lost albums” like the Beach Boys’ Smile and the Who’s Lifehouse have been chronicled in exhaustive detail, but a surprising number of other noteworthy projects remain hidden away in the vaults. Some albums might have changed history, while others might have merely sounded nice. Both are worthy reasons to listen.
The Beatles, ‘Get Back’ (1969)
Get Back was envisioned as a back-to-basics rock album, free from elaborate production work, recorded live in a hangar-like film studio for a corresponding Beatles documentary. The premise was interesting, but the conditions were not ideal for making music, and the camera presence proved intrusive. The torturous sessions wrapped soon after the iconic performance on the Apple Records rooftop, but no one could face digging through the 85 hours of material the band had amassed.
Producer Glyn Johns was given the unenviable job of pulling a usable track list from the wreckage. “I originally put together an album of rehearsals,” Johns told the BBC, “With chats and jokes and bits of general conversation in between the tracks, breakdowns, false starts.” The band apparently “really liked” his fly-on-the-wall approach, but the Beatles’ new manager, Allen Klein, balked at putting out such an unpolished product. In March 1970, he persuaded Lennon to hand over the Get Back tapes to producer Phil Spector, who went wild with orchestral overdubs.
Not everyone in the band agreed with this new creative approach. “It was all done over my head,” Paul McCartney sighed to biographer Barry Miles. “I was sent a remixed version. No one asked me what I thought.” He was livid when he heard the changes made to his work – particularly “The Long and Winding Road,” which had been laden with mawkish strings, harps and a melodramatic choir. Requests to remove the instruments were denied, and the album was released as Let It Be that May.
Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, ‘The Dylan/Cash Sessions’ (1969)
Dylan and Cash had been circling each other for the better part of a decade before finally joining forces in the studio. The Man In Black had made the first move, writing the young troubadour a fan letter shortly after Dylan came on the scene in 1962. When they met in person at the Newport Folk Festival two years later, he gave Dylan one of his guitars as a sign of respect.
In February 1969, Dylan was in Cash’s hometown recording his ninth album, the country-imbued Nashville Skyline. By chance, Cash happened to be working in the studio next door. Dylan paid him a visit, and on February 17th and 18th, the pair recorded more than a dozen duets together. Of the bunch, only one of them – an update of the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan track “Girl From the North Country” – made the finished album. The rest would languish in the tape vaults until being liberated by enterprising bootleggers.
The collection is a fascinating study of two musical heavyweights revisiting their respective legacies. Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” is given a run-through, as are Cash’s hits “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire” and “Big River.” Early Sun Records tracks like “That’s All Right” and “Matchbox” are also dusted off, with Carl Perkins himself backing the men on guitar.
Jeff Beck, ‘The Motown Album’ (1970)
Jeff Beck stands as one of the few British rockers to record in Detroit’s hallowed Hitsville U.S.A. studio. “It was one of the last sessions there,” Beck told Rolling Stone US‘s David Fricke in 2010. “We were more like tourists, kids in a candy shop.”
Pairing Beck’s guitar with Motown session men the Funk Brothers sounds brilliant, but the collaboration got off to a bumpy start when Beck brought his own drummer, Cozy Powell. “What the hell was I doing taking a rock drummer … into Motown?” he wondered in later years. “They hated us right away. They didn’t want to know.”
Ultimately this union between funk and rock never jelled. “I wanted to make a band that understood the Motown feel, then give it more oomph. But at Motown, we got further and further away from the rock part, because they didn’t understand that.” Costs began to mount, and eventually the Brits headed home in defeat. “It was a total missed opportunity, a catalogue of disasters.”
Beck claims that 10 tracks were recorded – some penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland, the songwriting team behind Motown’s greatest hits. Is there a lost smash in the mix? Only Beck knows. “I made one copy onto cassette. That’s all there is.”
In a happier coda, Beck returned to the Motown fold in 1972 to guest on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. The pair jammed between takes, eventually forming the basis for the song “Superstition.”
Jimi Hendrix, ‘Black Gold’ (1970)
In early 1970, Hendrix sought to pen music that stretched beyond conventional rock & roll songs. “Pieces. I guess that’s what you call it,” he described to Rolling Stone US. “Like movements. I’ve been writing some of those.” One day he grabbed his Martin acoustic guitar and recorded a 16-song suite onto some cassettes. Writing “Black Gold” on the label, he presented the tapes to drummer Mitch Mitchell to work out parts for a studio recording. Hendrix died before this could take place, and the cassettes remained in Mitchell’s possession, forgotten for two decades.
During this time, the tapes were presumed stolen and lost forever, leading to endless speculation about what they contained – if they existed at all. Hendrix rarely spoke about Black Gold in the press, offering only oblique references to his new creative direction. “It’s mostly cartoon material,” he said. “I make up this one cat who’s funny. He goes through all these strange scenes. You could put it to music, I guess.”
The mystery of Black Gold was partially solved in 1992 when Mitch Mitchell rediscovered the missing tapes in his English home. Six songs had been completed in the studio and issued on posthumous albums, but the other nine titles were unique to the tape. After years of legal wrangling, Hendrix’s estate has promised to deliver Black Gold at some point “this decade.” So far only one song, the opening number called “Suddenly November Morning,” has seen release.
Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, ‘Wicked Lester’ (1972)
Before donning their makeup as Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley in Kiss, Gene Klein and Stanley Eisen cut their teeth as members of Wicked Lester. Though they had only a few gigs under their belt, Epic Records agreed to fund their debut album. A disorganised recording schedule stretched for over six months, during which time they laid down an eclectic mix of pop covers and self-penned songs.
While historic, the session is an aimless mishmash of musical styles struggling to coexist on a single piece of wax. The 11-track album was promptly rejected by Epic. Even Simmons agrees it was for the best. “Wicked Lester may be an interesting collection of songs, but I don’t get a backbone or an identity from it,” he reflected.
Simmons and Stanley decided to start anew, joining forces with Peter Criss and Ace Frehley and forming the band that made them famous. The Wicked Lester tapes lay dormant until 1976, when the label saw an opportunity to capitalize on Kiss’ worldwide popularity. Embarrassed by the lightweight material and fearful of confusing their audience, the band bought the tapes back for $137,500, and locked them away.
Wicked Lester-era songs “She” and “Love Her All I Can” were reworked and released on 1975’s Dressed To Kill, and “Keep Me Waiting” was issued on Kiss’ 2001 box set. But the rest remain in the vault.
The Who, ‘Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock!’ (1972)
Lifehouse, Pete Townshend’s multimedia dystopian fable intended as the follow-up to 1969’s rock opera Tommy, proved too heavy to get off the ground. After a year of blood, sweat and breakdowns, the project was scrapped and the songs funnelled onto 1971’s Who’s Next. For his next concept, Townshend chose a topic closer to home.
Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock was to be an autobiographical album of the band’s history. At a time when glam rock was taking off in the U.K., the Who were right on schedule to switch off their synthesizers and pound out some old-fashioned four-on-the-floor. The title track, a gloriously retro boogie-woogie number, sets the scene with a cinematic look at an early Who gig.
Sessions took place between May and June 1972, with Glyn Johns serving as co-producer. Townshend has claimed that recording was nearly complete, and there was even talk of a proposed television special to accompany the album. But as the summer progressed, the band began to feel that the work sounded too similar to Who’s Next and enthusiasm began to wane. “People don’t really want to sit and listen to all our past,” Townshend grumbled to Melody Maker that fall. Yet revisiting their past had left him greatly inspired, and Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock morphed into the Who’s next rock opera: the Mod-centricQuadrophenia.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, ‘Human Highway’ (1973)
Discord on CSNY’s 1970 tour proved explosive enough to fragment the band for years, but by 1973 they were ready to reconcile. The quartet flew to Maui to write and rehearse a new album from the peace and comfort of Young’s palm-shaded beach house. They named the project Human Highway. Neil Young penned the title track and “Pardon My Heart,” Nash offered “And So It Goes” and “Prison Song,” Stephen Stills had “See the Changes” and Crosby “Homeward Through the Haze.”
CSNY reconvened in the recording studio armed with the fresh batch of songs, but tensions quickly overwhelmed the sessions and work ground to a halt. They let the dust settle for a year before attempting a massive two-month tour in the summer of 1974. Fans had a blast, but drug abuse, poisonous group dynamics and general bad vibes caused Crosby to nickname the excursion “the Doom Tour.”
The band reunited in a California studio that November for another stab at Human Highway. “[It was] a hopeless cause,” said Crosby. “Stills was burnt out. I was burnt. Even Nash was less than his usual nice self.” They tried one final time in January 1975, enlisting Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann. Listening to Nash and Stills bicker over a harmony note proved too much for Young. He walked out, and the album was abandoned for good.
Pink Floyd, ‘Household Objects’ (1974)
Pink Floyd had achieved worldwide success with 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, an album that transformed them into one of rock’s biggest forces practically overnight. Unsure how to match their previous work, they settled on a concept as irreverent as it was avant-garde – they would make an album without the use of any musical instruments at all.
Dubbed Household Objects, the project consisted of Pink Floyd playing songs on hand mixers, light bulbs, wood saws, hammers, brooms and other home appliances. Recording in this manner was excruciating. “We’d spend days getting a pencil and a rubber band till it sounded like a bass,” Wright remembered in a 2007 BBC documentary. “I remember sitting down with Roger and saying, ‘Roger, this is insane!'” Guitarist David Gilmour agreed. “A lot of the time it would just be like plonky noises. … Ultimately, to me personally, it became rather unsatisfying.”
Unsatisfying and futile. Rather than laboring to make a rubber band sound like a bass, the band eventually decided to just use a bass. Instruments were reinstated, and Household Objects came to a permanent halt. A month of work yielded just two semi-complete tracks: “The Hard Way” and “Wine Glasses.” The former wouldn’t see the light of day until being issued as a bonus track in 2011, but “Wine Glasses” was incorporated into “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the centrepiece of their next album, Wish You Were Here.
David Bowie, ‘The Gouster’ (1974)
Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs showed glimpses of his growing infatuation with R&B, which became a full-fledged obsession that summer as he toured America. Crisscrossing the country by bus, he became enraptured by Philly Soul beaming over the airwaves.
Bowie decided to head straight to the source by booking time at Philadelphia’s famed Sigma Sound that August. There he assembled a dream team of studio musicians, including a young Luther Vandross. Several weeks of cocaine-fueled activity yielded enough songs for an album. “It’s Gonna Be Me,” “After Today,”“Who Can I Be Now” and “Shilling the Rubes” are all strong songs in the “plastic soul” vein. “Young Americans” is the best known from these sessions, with its lyrical nod to Richard Nixon recorded just two days after his resignation that August.
Producer Tony Visconti assembled the tracks under the obscure black slang term The Gouster, which he defines as: “A hip guy who walks down the street snapping his fingers.” It was a label that suited Bowie just fine. “I think it’s the closest thing I’ve ever done on record to being very me,” he said while previewing the album for Melody Maker.
The record was poised for release when a Beatle intervened. “About two weeks after I’d mixed the album, David phoned to say that he and John Lennon had recorded this song called ‘Fame,'” Visconti recalls. The pair also laid down a version of Lennon’s “Across the Universe.” The track list shifted a number of times to accommodate these cuts, before the album was ultimately issued in March 1975 as Young Americans.
Paul McCartney, ‘Cold Cuts’ (1974-80)
Paul McCartney and Wings delivered Beatle-sized sales with 1973’s Band on the Run, and the label was anxious for a follow-up. A new album wouldn’t be ready for the lucrative Christmas season, so they planned to release a collection dubbed Hot Hitz and Kold Kutz (also spelled: Cold Cuts). The double album was to contain one disc of chart-topping singles and a second comprised of unreleased tracks from McCartney’s post-Fab career.
Wings began work on the project in July 1974, polishing old tracks and recording several new songs. But with Band on the Run holding strong on the charts, the stopgap release was deemed unnecessary and the album was shelved.
McCartney revisited the project several times during the next decade. It nearly saw release as a slimmed-down single disc in 1978, but label suits preferred the Hot Hitz to the Cold Cuts, and it hit shelves as a greatest-hits collection. McCartney returned to the unreleased material yet again in October 1980, compiling a 12-track album that showcased his own musical versatility. The homespun hoedown “Hey Diddle” sits alongside “Best Friend,” a searing live cut from Wings’ 1972 European tour. “Waterspout” is playful summery synth pop, and a cover of the Fifties ballad “Tragedy” is a haunting highlight.
In many ways the tracks were stronger than his contemporary output. Yet label indifference, the dissolution of Wings and the emotional devastation wrought by John Lennon’s assassination caused the album to get lost in the shuffle.
Neil Young, ‘Homegrown’ (1975)
Neil Young’s personal life was in free fall by 1974. His wife, actress Carrie Snodgrass, was gone for good, and attempts to rekindle a working relationship with CSNY only resulted in the aborted Human Highway project and the goodwill-shattering “Doom Tour.” It was during this turbulent time that he composed songs for a new record, Homegrown.
“It was intense, like trying to make a record in the middle of 42nd Street, or Vietnam,” says producer Elliot Mazer “Here’s a guy going through hell, and this is like a fuckin’ catharsis for him.” Titles like “Frozen Man,” “Separate Ways” and “Love-Art Blues” paint a stark portrait of a lonely and heartbroken man. Those who heard the completed album insisted that it was as strong as Young’s breakthrough smash, Harvest. Cover art was printed, and label executives braced themselves for a million seller.
And then Young changed his mind. He had assembled friends, including the Band’s Rick Danko, at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont to get an opinion on his latest work. As a tape of Homegrown came to an end, a mix of the dark, gritty and unreleased Tonight’s the Night came on the stereo by chance.
Danko preferred the raw power of Tonight’s the Night to the comparatively delicate Homegrown. Disregarding advice from his label, Young released it instead that June. “[Homegrown] might be more what people would rather hear from me now, but it was just a very down album,” he told Rolling Stone US at the time. “It was a little too personal. … It scared me.”
The Beach Boys, ‘Adult/Child’ (1977)
After being sidelined for the first half of the seventies by metal illness and drug addiction, Brian Wilson was prodded out of hibernation in 1976 to resume his role as the Beach Boys’ producer and resident genius. The resulting albums, 15 Big Ones (1976) and Love You (1977), weren’t stellar, but the sessions reestablished his confidence. Wilson threw himself into his next project with a creative fervor rarely seen since his unfinished Smile sessions a decade earlier.
Adult/Child was Brian Wilson’s attempt at making a big-band album, with swinging, brassy arrangements scored by Frank Sinatra’s own arranger. Wilson’s newfound élan is apparent on the album’s opening track, “Life Is for the Living,” featuring the unforgettable admonishment: “Life is for the living/Don’t sit around on your ass/Smoking grass/That stuff went out a long time ago.”
For all its ostentatious instrumentation, the songs on Adult/Child offer a surprisingly intimate glimpse of Wilson’s days. Uptempo numbers like “H.E.L.P. Is on the Way” lament his “pudgy” frame, and “Lines” documents a mundane trip to the movies. Twin ballads “Still I Dream of It” and “It’s Over Now” are as emotionally devastating as anything found on the second side of Pet Sounds.
The music was not well received by the band. Upon hearing the heavily orchestrated demos, Mike Love apparently turned to Wilson in utter disbelief and gasped, “What the fuck are you doing?” They rejected the music, and in its place released the much-maligned M.I.U. Album.
Marvin Gaye, ‘Love Man’ (1979)
The Motown star was addicted to two things in 1979 – cocaine and his estranged wife, Janis Hunter. Both addictions were wreaking havoc on his music career and listeners flocked to younger stars like Rick James and Prince. “All these boys are romancing my fans and I don’t like it,” he complained. “I’m getting my fans back. I’m doing a straight-ahead make-out party album.”
Wryly titled Love Man, the songs were unabashed attempts to woo his wife as well as his fans. “A Lover’s Plea” featured the mournful lines, “If God up above can forgive me then why can’t you?” Even the lead single, an unfortunate disco-flecked dance record called “Ego Tripping Out,” is a self-lacerating parody of his ladies’ man reputation.
The song was not a success, and a $4.5 million tax bill made matters worse. Desperate for money, Gaye hit the road to generate income. He only made it through several lukewarm performances before he pulled out, drawing lawsuits from concert promoters. Crippling debts forced him to declare bankruptcy, and he attempted suicide by snorting an ounce of cocaine.
Gaye survived and made attempts to put his life in order. To distance himself from this unhappy period, he began work on a new project, In Our Lifetime. “No matter how much money Motown would give me to release Love Man, I couldn’t do it,” he told Ritz. There were rumours that he wanted to revisit the album, but those hopes died with him in 1984.
The Clash, ‘Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg’ (1981)
The Last Gang in Town were beginning to splinter by the fall of 1981, as frontman Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones butted heads over the band’s sonic direction. Strummer preferred down and dirty rock & roll, while Jones wanted to continue exploring the world-music trends present on their recent work. Assuming the role of producer, Jones proposed an ambitious double album with the working title The Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg.
Recorded primarily in New York City, the album’s final mix clocked in at 80 minutes. Heard today, the tapes are a fascinating amalgam of the band’s wide spectrum of influences: Hints of hip-hop, surf rock, calypso, funk, New Wave and Afrobeat shimmer throughout, shrouded in the electronic haze of Jones’ echo-y production. It might not have been their best album, but it’s certainly among their most interesting artistic statements.
But the response from Jones’ bandmates was overwhelmingly negative. “Does everything have to be a bloody raga?!” their manager fumed when he heard the sprawling tracks. Labeling it self-indulgent and rambling, Strummer hired superproducer Glyn Johns to whip Rat Patrol into a more commercial single disc. Johns axed five songs completely, trimmed five more by two minutes each and stripped away much of the heavy production. At 46 minutes, the Clash had their single-disc rock album. It was released in May 1982, under the fitting title Combat Rock.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Electric Nebraska’ (1982)
The album that became Nebraska began as an acoustic sketch recorded in Springsteen’s New Jersey home during the first week of January 1982. Using a “Portastudio” cassette recorder, he taped guitar and vocal demos (with minimal overdubs) for 15 tracks to be fleshed out with the E Street Band. These songs were more downbeat and macabre than his previous work, reflecting Springsteen’s malaise as he grappled with family difficulties and the isolation of superstardom.
Springsteen and the band convened in a New York City studio the following month to give these intimate songs the full E Street treatment. As work progressed, the Boss grew dissatisfied with the heavily orchestrated takes. “They overruled the lyrics,” he told Uncut. “It didn’t work. Those two forms didn’t fit. The band comes in and generally makes noise, and the lyrics wanted silence.” He decided that the delicate demo tapes suited the music far better than barroom bombast. The studio recordings were scrapped, and Springsteen released 10 tracks from his home sessions as Nebraska.
For decades it was unclear exactly just how much work had been completed on the so-called Electric Nebraska, but drummer Max Weinberg recently confirmed that the album does exist. “The E Street Band actually did record all of Nebraska, and it was killing,” he revealed to Rolling Stone US. “It was all very hard-edged. As great as it was, it wasn’t what Bruce wanted to release. There is a full-band Nebraska album – all of those songs are in the can somewhere.”