New Music Tuesday: Great Albums, Shelved by Major Labels

Ever work your tail off on a massive project then have the plug pulled by some corporate change in direction, random happening or managerial whim?

Well, of course you have.

In publishing, stories get killed. In law, cases get dismissed. In product development, launches get halted, sometimes after years of work. In the music industry, albums get shelved.

Here are some really good albums that were denied distribution or tragically delayed so long by corporate mergers that the bands had already broken up by the time they arrived in stores.

Paul Pena “Jet Airliner” (1973)


The famous single by the Steve Miller Band “Jet Airliner,” was not written by Steve Miller, but by a blind, gifted Boston musician whose parents had emigrated from Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa.

He almost became famous.

The CEO of Bearsville Records had signed Paul Pena to become “the next Jimi Hendrix.” Pena could have been, maybe. He sounded like Hendrix vocally, and with his spidery fingers and natural gifts, he could play blistering, fiery guitar when he wanted to.

When the recording sessions were finished and Albert Grossman heard the record, he flipped out—in a bad way. Instead of psychedelic guitar meltdowns, the album included slow and tender songs and was overall, more soul and blues than rock ‘n’ roll. Grossman shelved it.

When Steve Miller, a fellow Bay Area artist (Pena had moved to SF) heard a tape of the unreleased New Train record, he immediately covered “Jet Airliner,” which went to #8 on the Billboard chart and made a ton of money for Capitol Records.

Contractually obligated to his Bearsville deal and unable to record elsewhere, Pena’s recording career never got off the ground. He lived off the royalty checks from the “Jet Airliner” for the rest of his life, which he spent in a modest Haight apartment in San Francisco with a notable excursion or two to Tuva, which was made into an award-winning documentary.

Bad health kept Pena from playing out very much on the local scene. At a rare show I was lucky enough to see in San Francisco in 2001, he sang soulful 12-bar blues songs where mid-song he would unexpectedly slide down into the low, droning register of Tuvan Throat Singing that he had learned listening to short-wave radio in his apartment. It was transcendent – presenting “the blues” as a universal feeling shared by all humankind across cultural divides, and it remains one of my best concert memories.

 

Juliana Hatfield God’s Foot (1996)


Coming off her biggest commercial successful album to-date, 1995’s Only Everything, which was a Top 100 album with a Top 5 hit in “Universal Heart-Beat,” Juliana Hatfield submitted her next album’s worth of material to Atlantic Records.

“We don’t really hear a single,” is what she heard back, and the songs were never produced or released. With her little-girl vocals, cute waifish looks and her penchant for writing hooks, it’s understandable that her record company would want tunes from her that weren’t so… well, dark.

Despite not being more than a rough demo, God’s Foot has tons of appeal. There’s some real pretty music under the raw exposed nerves. To me, it’s really not any different than Only Everything, and I can’t really understand the issue the label had with it.

 

Whiskeytown Pneunonia (2001)

In the ‘90s, Ryan Adams’ alt-country band Whiskeytown rose from the local Jacksonville, North Carolina music scene to national alt-country cult status. The band was poised to break it wide open with their first major label album. But Pneumonia was shelved for two years during the merger between Polygram and Universal, which caused the band to lose its record deal and, ultimately, to break up.

When Pneumonia finally surfaced on Lost Highway in 2001, it arrived as nothing more than a ripple in the wake of Ryan Adams’ second solo album Gold and its timely, popular single “New York, New York,” which became a 9-11 anthem and cast an even darker shadow on Pneumonia.

Here’s the thing, though: Pneumonia is a bit of a masterpiece. Haunting, beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s by far the best Whiskeytown/Ryan Adams record no one has heard, and maybe the best thing Ryan Adams has ever done.

 

Red House Painters Old Ramon (2001)


Another band killer, Old Ramon was recorded in 1998 for Island Records. After building up a cult following on the slowcore/shoegazer indie label 4AD, The Red House Painters were ready to release their major label debut. But the album, Old Ramon, got caught up in limbo for three years during a corporate merger at the label, and with no product to support, the band that had honed its sound over 10 years on the road, broke up.

When it was released by Sub Pop in 2001, there was no band to take it on the road: frontman Mark Kozelek was working on a solo career under the name Sun Kil Moon. The CD seemed to only be welcomed by the fans, and the music on it seemed to match the desolation; it was as melancholy and sentimental as an introspective rainy day in an empty room, with just your cat and your memories to keep you company.

 

Frank Allison & the Odd Sox

Sure, some bands get their albums shelved by the majors and often through no fault of their own. But the vast majority of bands (like 99%) never get a major label deal at all. What a pipe dream the music business is for so many talented young acts.

Adoring fans in Ann Arbor have created no fewer than two separate documentaries about Frank Allison & the Odd Sox, in part I think to re-live the good ol’ days and in part to try to answer for themselves that burning question they never understood: why a band so good, so loved, never got famous.

The college town’s most popular club headliner throughout the ‘90s, the band first made a splash in 1988 when the guitar-bass-drums quartet recorded their debut album Monkey Business in Frank’s basement for $140. It flew off the shelves. It was so well loved that despite all “odds,” (sorry) it got reviewed by the New York Times. Whoa! Hopes were high… What could possibly go wrong, right?