Fellow Medium journalist Mike Moran perused a feature interview of mine, “Surf’s Up on Al Jardine’s Bombshell SMiLE Revelation,” and prompted me to dig deeper than he likely intended with his straightforward query — what are some other lost albums besides the Beach Boys’ 1967 pop masterpiece SMiLE? Although the criteria for abandoned LP’s are debatable, here are nine generally not-so-familiar instances. Some have yet to see the light of day.
- Big Star — Third / Sister Lovers — In a perfect world this Memphis-based quartet should have been acknowledged for their brilliant melodies and angst-ridden lyrics in the wake of the Beatles’ sudden demise. #1 Record and Radio City are back to back power pop staples that sound as if they were dropped yesterday — dig those crisp acoustic guitars — thanks to the engineering expertise of Ardent Records founder John Fry. But neither sold. By the time of the intended 1975 follow-up Third / Sister Lovers, singer-songwriter-guitarist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel were both out of the band as a result of Stax’s halfhearted distribution efforts. Alex Chilton, formerly the teenage vocal powerhouse behind the Box Tops, masterminded the deconstruction of any notes resembling a conventional pop record. With drummer Jody Stephens still behind the kit, Chilton drunkenly exorcised his demons over 19 chaos-resonating performances, basically inventing punk. In 1978 14 cuts were officially released, albeit in limited quantities, long after the duo had called it a day. It would take another decade and a half before producer Jim Dickinson sorted through all the tracks and compiled a cohesive LP. Not an album that can be absorbed in one listen, stream Chilton’s stunning acoustic demos, unearthed on the 2009 Keep an Eye on the Sky 4-CD box set, first.
- Johnny Cash — Out Among the Stars was cut at two Nashville sessions in 1981 and 1984 alongside “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill and finally dropped posthumously in 2014 with sweetened backing tracks from former son-in-law Marty Stuart and other elite Nashville session cats. The Man in Black was creatively adrift in the early ’80s, too old for country radio programmers, guesting on Billy Graham’s Christian crusades, and enduring a renewed bout with pills. Fortunately, you’d never know that based on Cash’s startlingly defiant reading of David Allan Coe’s “She Used to Love Me a Lot.”
- Chicago — Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus — The horn-driven octet submitted the finished LP to Warner Bros. in 1993, yet Sisyphus was rejected as straying too far away from their recent run of formula adult contemporary offerings and sat unreleased for 15 years. The autobiographical “Bigger Than Elvis” was an affecting tribute to then-bassist Jason Scheff’s dad Jerry, a founding member of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s TCB Band who also supplied plenty of groovin’ Fender bass licks on L.A. Woman, the Doors’ final studio album with Jim Morrison.
- Bobby Darin — Go Ahead and Back Up: The Lost Motown Masters — The multifaceted singer died in 1973 during open heart surgery, but two years earlier he united with Motown production team the Corporation for soul-pop sessions that were forgotten about for 45 years until Real Gone Music excavated them. Seeking a hit when he joined the Detroit-based R&B label — his final Billboard Top 40 pop hit was the John Sebastian-penned “Lovin’ You” five years earlier — Darin sounds uncomfortable and ironically lost among the cluttered, dated arrangements ideally suited for the Jackson Five. Darin biographer Shane Brown recently told me, “Motown’s way of working was completely alien to Bobby. Bobby was used to having arrangements written for him, going into the studio and recording them live with the orchestra in most cases, and an album would be completed in three nights. That’s not how things worked at Motown. Some songs allocated to Bobby found him adding vocals to an already-recorded backing track intended for another singer — sometimes a female singer like Martha Reeves as is the case on ‘Stray Dog’ — and overdubs being done on different days etc. You can’t expect a man to sing in anything like the same key as a woman, and this is why we have Bobby straining away trying to reach notes on some occasions.”
- Guns N’ Roses — Chinese Democracy — Mercurial rock frontman Axl Rose began recording the 14-song tracklist in 1997 with assorted session personnel. Perhaps no record has been promised, subsequently delayed, and overdubbed to the extent that Chinese Democracy was, but its belated 2008 issue led to a Top Three placement on the Billboard 200.
- Merle Haggard — A Tribute to the Troubadour — In an exclusive 2012 conversation Haggard told me why he was honoring fellow country icon Ernest “Walkin’ the Floor Over You” Tubb. The record remains under lock and key two years since the “Mama Tried” sage succumbed to double pneumonia on the same day as his 79th birthday.
- Rick Nelson — Untitled Rockabilly Roots Project — In the months leading up to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s demise in a New Year’s Eve 1985 fiery plane landing, he had reunited with original arranger-producer Jimmie Haskell for a 10-song album that Curb Records was set to release. Preliminary scratch vocals and instrumentation exist, but the “Garden Party” troubadour’s family and management have never reached agreement on how to properly present the rockabilly-inspired sessions [see below for links to the songs recorded as well as my interviews with key players in the decades-long saga].
- Buck Owens — Country Singer’s Prayer — The ace Bakersfield picker recorded most of this 10-song project in early 1975. His long-running Capitol contract was on its last legs due to tumbling record sales and an overall feeling of malaise in the wake of Telecaster-wielding right hand man Don Rich’s horrific motorcycle crash. Forty three years later reissue label Omnivore assembled the record with deluxe liner notes and a few bonus B-sides in the USA, although the German mail order label Bear Family unleashed them first on a massive chronological box set in 2012. “John Law,” “Love Don’t Make the Bars,” “Run Him to the Round House Nellie [You Might Corner Him There,” and “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch” are quintessential Owens.
- The Who — Lifehouse — The intended follow-up to debut rock opera Tommy was started by Pete Townshend in 1971 but abandoned in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown exacerbated by the inability of both band mates and management to grasp the songwriter’s cryptic concepts. Various songs from the post-apocalyptic rock opera have appeared on singles and albums including Who’s Next, but the original full Who sessions have yet to see the light of day. However, Townshend’s demos are captured on the Lifehouse Chronicles box.
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