Even some of the best LPs play no longer Vitality on vinyl doesn't always mean life on CD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Face it: The age of the LP is over.

It isn't just that records, so prone to wear and surface noise, have been made obsolete by quiet, durable CDs; the fact of the matter is that old-style LPs have been virtually pushed off the market by the digital revolution. Walk into almost any "record" store, and all you'll see are cassettes and CDs -- even in the singles section. It's as if black vinyl had never existed.

As a result, a lot of music fans are slowly but surely replacing their music libraries with CDs. Granted, it's hard to blame them; who wouldn't prefer the clean sound and convenience that comes with having all of "Blonde on Blonde" or "Exile on Main Street" on a single 5-inch disc?

Lord knows I do. My collection started to go digital in 1984, and I sometimes wonder how I endured the fuss and bother of LPs. Even things like shelving -- no small consideration when your collection is large -- seem simpler when reduced to the 5-by-5-inch world of compact discs.

Yet I still find myself occasionally clearing a couple of stacks of jewel boxes off the top of my turntable to play an LP or two. I don't do it because I prefer the sound of analog vinyl, though many audiophiles do; when I reach for an LP these days, it's because I have no other choice.

Why not? Because not every great album has made its way into the digital bitstream. Whether it's because the album didn't sell well in the first place, was released by a company that went out of business, or is tied up in an ownership dispute, there are still quite a few wonderful albums that exist only as old LPs. And there's a good chance that some of your favorites are among them.

Plenty of mine are. Granted, a number of them would have been doomed to out-of-print obscurity even if CDs hadn't been invented, if only because they never attracted much of an audience in the first place. But popularity isn't the only criterion for CD reissue. A lot of better-known albums remain unavailable, while many equally overlooked albums have somehow sneaked back into the catalog. And the reasons vary.

So, as an exercise, I put together a pile of albums I'd love to see issued on CD, and started checking around. Some actually were back in print, like Keith Jarrett's "Ruta and Daitya," an electric, eclectic 1973 album he cut for ECM with Jack DeJohnette. I figured this one was gone for good, since Jarrett long ago repudiated the electric piano and his recordings thereupon, but "Ruta and Daitya" slipped back into the catalog in February. (Buy one quick -- Jarrett may yet think better of bringing it back out.)

Then there was "Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports," a 1981 release that posed as a solo album by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason but came on like one of Carla Bley's quirky jazz-pop concoctions (no wonder, since it featured Bley and most of her band). At the time, "Fictitious Sports" seemed like a non-commercial labor of love, and soon after slipped quietly out of the catalog. But last month, the folks at Sony Music Special Projects revived it and the rest of Mason's output -- much to my surprise and delight.

Still, quite a few of my favorites remain gone without a trace -- for reasons both good and bad.

Ray Charles' "Renaissance" (Crossover, 1975), for instance. Seeing as he's one of the great voices of American popular music, you wouldn't think anyone would allow some of Ray Charles' best work to get away, would you? An astonishingly eclectic album, "Renaissance" finds him singing everything from Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" to "It Ain't Easy Being Green," making it an amazing testament to Charles' versatility and intelligence.

But if you want a copy for yourself, you'd better get it from him. Like everything he recorded between 1961 and 1975, Charles owns the masters, and ultimately controls whether or not the albums will ever be reissued.

Funkadelic's "One Nation Under a Groove" (Warner Bros., 1978). If you caught the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing at the Grammys, you no doubt noticed that midway through "Give It Away," the Chilis and their guests went into a couple of choruses of "One Nation Under a Groove." And maybe you wondered why you hadn't heard that song in a while.

Well, the answer is simple: Warner Bros., which originally released the album, no longer owns it. "We gave it back to George Clinton," says Warner Bros. vice president Bob Merlis. "The right to put that out is not ours." It may not even be Clinton's, given the current legal squabbling over Funkadelic's name. So do what the rap guys do -- stock up on the LP while you can.

Bob Dylan's "The Basement Tapes" (Columbia, 1975). Critic Greil Marcus described "The Basement Tapes" as being "a bit like the phantom 1956 session that brought Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash together for the first time." Less an album than a collection of rehearsal recordings, they were cut by Dylan and the Band back in 1967, when both were at their peak. They were, before this release, some of the most widely bootlegged recordings Dylan ever made.

Ironically, these days it's far easier to find "The Million Dollar Quartet" album by Presley, Perkins, Lewis and Cash than it is to get ahold of these tracks. Odds and ends from the album turned up on Dylan's "Biograph" retrospective, and more may turn up in future volumes of Sony's "Bootleg Tapes" series. But until then, not even tears of rage will help those without the LP version.

Jimi Hendrix's "Band of Gypsies" (Capitol, 1970). Hendrix may be best remembered as a rock guitar god, but he was getting heavy into R&B; rhythms before he died, and the Band of Gypsies -- Billy Cox and Buddy Miles -- is seen by many as an attempt at psychedelic funk. Unfortunately, the album has been out of print for years, driving anxious fans to pay more than $25 for import copies.

According to Sujata Murthy of Capitol Records, that may change later this year. "It's on hold, but it will come out eventually," she says. And there are even rumors that extra material may be included in the CD -- but we'll have to wait to hear what.

Abba's "The Album" (Atlantic, 1978). Even though Abba-mania swept Europe last year, with tribute albums, sound-alike bands and even a few reissue hits available, none of Abba's albums are currently in print in this country. Nor are they likely to be soon; although Polygram recently acquired American rights to the Swedish foursome's back catalog, a label spokesman says the plan at this point is to ignore original albums in favor of greatest-hits compilations. So if all you want is "Take a Chance on Me," look for "Abba Gold: Greatest Hits" in April. But if you want the rest of the album on CD, better book a flight to Sweden, where it is in print.

The Go-Betweens' "Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express" (Big Time, 1986). Between Robert Forster and G. W. McLennan, the Go-Betweens were blessed with some of the best songwriting on the post-punk scene, and "Liberty Belle" is a classic example, from the waltz-time melancholy of "The Wrong Road" to the lithe locomotion of "Head of Steam." But Big Time is long gone, and Beggars Banquet -- the English company that owns the masters -- is currently without American distribution.

So the closest American fans can get to the album is the Capitol anthology, "1978-1990," which includes one track from the album.

Trouble Funk's "Drop the Bomb" (Sugarhill, 1982). A giant on the D.C. go-go scene, Trouble Funk was an early favorite for hip-hop DJs, and even before sampling became common, Trouble Funk beats found their way onto countless rap singles. "Drop the Bomb" includes some of the best, from the call-and-response title tune to the party-hearty "Hey Fellas" and "Pump Me Up." But Sugarhill has been in limbo for most of the last decade, meaning that this remains almost as much a collector's item as the original singles.

Bill Evans/George Russell Orchestra's "Living Time" (Columbia, 1972). Easily one of the most daring and original jazz works of the early '70s, "Living Time" is a radical big band work, balancing roiling, percussion-driven ensemble writing with twin-fisted improvisations from Evans' piano. As the liner notes warn, the music "is nothing to be taken lightly."

Trouble is, most jazz fans didn't take it at all. "Living Time" sold poorly when it was initially released, and despite its partisans in the jazz world, those bad numbers aren't likely to persuade the reissue lords at Sony Music (who currently own the masters) to rush the album back into print.

Herbie Hancock's "Sextant" (Columbia, 1973). Before he got funky with "Chameleon," Herbie Hancock made richly textured, densely electronic jazz albums that pushed beyond the fusion sound of Miles Davis' post-"Bitches Brew" work. "Sextant" is by far the best of these, with colorful writing and inventive playing that admirably showcased Hancock's eclectic octet. But because Hancock followed this album with "Headhunters," "Sextant" was soon forgotten by his increasingly pop-oriented audience.

Naturally, the non-commercial "Sextant" was deleted long ago. But the hit-bearing "Headhunters" is also out of print.

Go figure.

Andy Fairweather Low's "Mega-Shebang" (Warner Bros., 1980). A classic English eccentric, Andy Fairweather Low started out in a group called Amen Corner before embarking on a solo career that earned him glowing reviews but precious few sales. It didn't help that his sound was so quirky, but "Mega-Shebang" -- whose songs ranged from the hook-laden stomp of "Night Time Djuke-ing" to the zany zydeco of "Let Ya Beedle Lam Bam" -- deserved better.

It won't get it, though. If you want to hear Fairweather Low these days, look for him in Eric Clapton's band -- or in the cut-out bin.

Lena Horne/Michel Legrand's "Lena & Michel" (RCA, 1975). Lena Horne isn't exactly a soul singer, but this album -- recorded with some of the top jazz-funk players in New York -- shows that there's an awful lot of soul in that jazz-schooled sound of hers. Particularly stunning is her sassy take on the classic, "I Will Wait for You," which starts off swinging and builds to an explosive climax.

Unfortunately, Horne is not exactly a hot ticket these days, and "Lena & Michel" is out-of-print with little hope of return.

Greg Copeland's "Revenge Will Come" (Geffen, 1982). Imagine a guy who combined Jackson Browne's righteous anger with Tom Petty's straightforward sense of melody, and you'll have a good idea of what Greg Copeland sounds like. So how come you never heard him? He didn't tour, he never made a video, and songs like "El Salvador" were a little too political for pop radio. You'll have a hard time finding people even at Geffen who remember the album.

But those of us who did hear it won't ever forget -- or give up our copies.

Blanket of Secrecy's "Ears Have Walls" (Warner Bros., 1982). This is a case of a good gimmick gone horribly wrong. Produced by Roger Bechirian (Elvis Costello, Squeeze), the Blanket of Secrecy was a pop-savvy new wave trio consisting of musicians known only as "Tinker," "Tailor" and "Spy." A clever touch, that, but the mystery overwhelmed them -- almost nobody heard the album or its standout single, "Say You Will."

"Good album," agrees Warner Bros.' Merlis. "But it's not in the catalog." Nor are there any plans to put it there.

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