We find ourselves in a moonlit English graveyard, in front of an ancient set of chained doors set into a dilapidated mausoleum, behind which we can detect a slow, stentorian breathing -- can you hear it? That labored huffing of an angry thing trapped inside, left to mark out its days in bloody hatch-marks on the wall of its burial chamber. How many years, we wonder, has it been trapped here, measuring the passage of time without a friend to help fill it? As we listen uneasily, we hear the trapped thing pause, stop; we imagine it sniffing the rancid air of its tomb, catching a whiff of our presence outside its doors. And with a last-chance strength, born of undiluted rage and a never-quite-vanquished desire to register its existence to the uncaring void of space, we hear it lunge forward toward the chain-crisscrossed portal. It throws itself against the barrier: Wood splinters, fingernails break with the effort of clawing, beams snap and iron bolts pop! into the chilly air with the groaning of the twisted hinges. And there, shrouded in the dust of ages, in all its awful freedom, stands . . . either Ginger Baker or Peter Frampton, whomever you personally find more terrifying.
So we exaggerate. But if ever any musical artifacts cried out "one from the vaults," it's the repackaging of Frampton Comes Alive! and Blind Faith, the first two releases in Universal Music Group's "Deluxe Edition" series. Had it stopped there, we could've praised and even recommended these releases; but as it stands, both are remarkable mostly for a hideous bells-and-whistles overkill that ultimately negates even their historical value -- and certainly fails to justify the price tag.
Now, before you get your boxers in a knot, be advised that we're strictly wild about the notion of historical refurbishing when it comes to the great career statements of Our Aging Giants in the Field. (You know what's coming next in Universal's series, in late February? A repackaging of What's Going On featuring Marvin Gaye's masterpiece in three versions: the original mix, an early alternative "Detroit Mix," and a complete live performance of the album at the Kennedy Center in 1972. Am I looking forward to it? Buddy, I'm gonna hip-check old osteoarthritic hippies away from the Jerry Garcia section to get to it, on the day it hits the stores.)
So don't dismiss this as the ageist sniping of an uneducated snot-nose. We know our history. It's just that the two-disc reissue of 1969's Blind Faith, which is a good album in its original form, is here padded with a few different mixes, a short Steve Winwood cut called "Time Winds," and a goddamn-near unconscionable hour and 15 minutes of fairly straightforward studio jamming . . . to what end, there can be no possible coherent answer. It's like seeing a high school friend after 10 years to find he's gained 150 pounds; it's not the first thing you want to comment on, but you can't help registering it with dawning horror. The added music is interesting, but not that interesting, and to judge from the evidence given, all the best stuff ended up on the original album to begin with. This is the kind of item of which one would say "for completists," except that Blind Faith only ever released the one record, so if you already own that, you're pretty much done. And the liner essay by John McDermott is an exercise in revisionist history that borders on outright fabrication. ". . . The underground press grumbled about high ticket prices and commercial implications created by such 'supergroups,'" he writes cutely, intimating that childish audiences clamored for "White Room" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy" while screaming insults at the band and beating each other over the head with the armrests they'd ripped from their stadium seats. And all these poor auld lads wanted to do was play bitchin' music.
Bullshit, we say. Part of the reason Blind Faith imploded after its ill-received American tour was its members' egos coupled with their inability to agree upon a common musical direction, not the fact that audiences weren't ready for what they delivered. That's a criticism neither of the music nor even of the personalities involved, but Blind Faith wasn't nowhichway a gossamer-tenuous miracle assemblage of musical geniuses; it was an okay band that produced a good album. To say any greater, to inflate a sensible 40-minute release to more than three times that length and call it "deluxe," smells of promotional hype, which was how the whole train wreck came about in the first place. You see how people repeat their history if they don't learn from it?
Bringing us perforce to the two-disc version of Frampton Comes Alive!, which is by no means as fat, but still leaves one wondering why all this material was stapled onto an okay album, rendering it a tot more unwieldy than before. When Frampton's first solo live album hit the racks in 1976, it documented a performance by a very young man who put on a very energetic rock show, and whose audiences appeared to love him back. The band was tight, and throughout the show Frampton worked the crowd nonstop, not like a huckster but like a genuinely happy performer. We have to admit it's still exciting, years later and after thousands of subsequent live albums, to hear that kind of symbiosis at work, as when Frampton asks the crowd encouragingly, "Y'wanna sing?" and they just do, with no "Rock on!" cheering or "Hello, San Francisco!" theatrics.
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But it's no cruel irony that his post-Comes Alive! career described a rapid downward arc. Frampton's brand of guitar-heavy songwriter's rock got eaten alive by disco and punk, if you can believe that, which is a horrible enough fate for anyone to have to swallow. Frampton Comes Alive! appears here in a slightly augmented form -- four unreleased tracks tacking 20 minutes on to the original playing time -- but as with our previous model, the "why" goes unanswered. The unreleased material doesn't add anything to our understanding of the canonical album, which holds up fine, thank you, on its own. It's not as self-indulgent or just plain annoying as the hour-plus "jam" tracks on Blind Faith, but the real problem is that for all the apparently genuine pleasure of performer and audience on Frampton Comes Alive!, Frampton's musical style and material simply don't date well, lending the previously unreleased tracks especially a painfully obvious patina of age. It quickly becomes clear that rock music has developed along entirely different lines in the past 25 years, and shuffling added tunes into a familiar mix actually hurts the album's sound, in this case. (The Simpsons' "Homerpalooza" episode sums up this state of affairs perfectly in the scene where Frampton yells at Sonic Youth for getting into his watermelon backstage, and Thurston Moore addresses Frampton deferentially as "Mister." Points to Frampton for having a sense of humor about it all.)
The ultimate gripe is that both of these albums are already available in remastered editions at midrange prices, in their original sequencing, which is a fair and right and proper state of affairs. To seduce us into buying a two-disc version of either, Universal ought to offer a bit more than masturbatory practice sessions in the first case, or historically related but mostly tangential songs from the same tour in the second. As it stands, we don't need the extras, so they don't need our money.
But . . .
We would be remiss in our duties if we didn't tell you that these two releases are among the most beautifully packaged compact discs ever released. Translucent plastic slipcover, original album artwork, high-quality cardboard, unreleased photographs, extensive liner notes -- the word handsome, as in stately and classy, springs immediately to mind. As soon as Universal gets some more solid material to work with (see the Gaye release above, please, God, please), and if this junk-drawer mentality can be refined into a more selective set of standards for added material, this series is going to deliver some impressive offerings indeed. But until then, stick with the low-cal platters. They're better for your heart.