Invisible Hits is a column in which Tyler Wilcox scours the internet for the best (and strangest) bootlegs, rarities, outtakes, and live clips.
Last week, Matador Records released Girly-Sound to Guyville, a box set that includes a comprehensive collection of Liz Phair’s demos. The long-overdue official edition of these tapes offers a privileged look at Phair’s songwriting in its early stages, her raw brilliance just beginning to emerge. It got us thinking about pre-fame recordings of legendary artists, those precious documents that provide insight into the beloved debut to follow. Occasionally, as was the case with Phair, one of these recordings will be circulated from fan to fan (or musician to musician), building up its own buzz. Here are a just a few notable examples.
The Velvet Underground — 1965 Demo Tape
In mid-1965, the Velvet Underground’s John Cale flew from NYC to London armed with home-recorded tapes of his then-unknown band, hoping to stir up interest among the city’s rock cognoscenti. He returned without a record deal, but the demo did manage to make an impression. “[The tape] was copied and passed around a lot in England,” Mick Farren, lead singer of British psych group the Deviants, told VU scholar Richie Unterberger. What’s more, the Deviants performed several Velvets covers, well over a year before the first VU album hit shelves in March 1967, and even before David Bowie tackled “I’m Waiting for the Man” in late 1966. It’s unclear exactly what was on the VU demo, but the contents are likely similar to the acoustic vibes of the band’s mid-1965 recordings (officially released in 1995). One enticing tidbit is the possible presence of a mythic Lou Reed composition, the entertainingly titled “Never Get Emotionally Involved With A Man, Woman, Beast or Child.” Long thought lost, a snippet of the song showed up this year via Lou’s Facebook page, suggesting that there’s still a little gold left in the VU vault.
Television — The Eno Tapes
It’s the stuff rock dreams are made of—a late-1974 collaboration between pioneering NYC art rockers Television and pioneering British art rocker Brian Eno. Alas, the team-up might’ve been one pioneer too many, as Television’s frontman Tom Verlaine was unimpressed with Eno’s approach. “We did a demo with Eno, but he’s not as good a producer as he is an artist himself,” Verlaine later revealed in a 1976 interview. “He gets a little carried away…” The unreleased recordings got around, however. A slightly paranoid Verlaine suspected that the tapes found their way into Eno’s old sparring partner Bryan Ferry’s hands. “The bad thing about it is there was a very uncool A&R guy who took the tapes back to London and played ’em for every fucking artist on Island Records,” Verlaine told Crawdaddy. “[T]here’s a lot of lines that are on [Marquee Moon] that might strike some people as familiar even though the songs are like four years old…specifically, a lot of the lines turned up on Roxy Music’s Siren record—at least a dozen!” For a deeper dive into Television’s Eno Tapes, check out this vintage Invisible Hits column.
Pavement — Slanted & Enchanted
Even though Pavement completed its first full-length, Slanted & Enchanted, in early 1991, the album didn’t officially make it out into the world until April of 1992. In the meantime, plenty of journalists and music biz insiders heard and passed around various tapes of the record, building up a considerable amount of buzz. As a result, Spin ran a full-page rave of S&E months in advance of the release date, despite decidedly murky circumstances. “Too many versions of Pavement’s debut album have been floating around these last few months,” wrote the magazine’s critic Erik Davis. “I’m not sure which one I’ve got, nor the relation it has to the final release. There’s no cover on my XL II—no song titles, no lyrics. All I have is music, played over and over again.” Part of the delay had to do with Pavement’s switch from Drag City to the then-fledgling Matador Records, the reasons for which were fairly practical. “When I asked [Malkmus] why, he said, ‘They’re in New York and they have a fax machine,’” Drag City label co-founder Dan Koretzky told Pavement biographer Rob Jovanovic. “I told him I’d get a fax machine, but that’s as far as I was willing to go.”
Liz Phair — The Girly-Sound Tapes
In 1991, Liz Phair holed up with a 4-track tape machine and a guitar and started recording. What she came up with—dozens of original songs that became known as The Girly-Sound Tapes—was funneled through the underground for several years. It all led to Phair’s epochal 1993 debut Exile in Guyville, which featured several re-recorded Girly-Sound songs, and rocketed the songwriter to indie stardom and beyond. A deep archive, the tapes were a source she continued to revisit as late as 2005, when “Gigolo” (retitled “Can’t Get Out of What I’m Into”) ended up on Somebody’s Miracle. “I go in there and rip stuff off—it’s like a library,” Phair told Rolling Stone in 1994. “There’s about 50 songs. A lot of it is juvenile cleverness. There’s verses, there’s choruses, there’s subchoruses. It just goes on and on. There’s a certain naive sound, more breathy. It’s more me.”
Belle and Sebastian — Tigermilk
Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 debut LP, Tigermilk, was originally pressed in a run of 1,000 LPs; it went out of print almost immediately. The record wouldn’t be reissued until 1999, making an original copy a much-sought-after cult item. In the days just before filesharing exploded, most fans heard the album via nth-generation cassettes. Despite its low-key initial release, Murdoch’s motivations were anything but modest. “You have to understand that the ego and the drive of the first time album maker was off the scale!” he wrote in a 2016 blog post. “I’m sure I wasn’t eating or dressing or housing myself properly, I was just completely obsessed with getting my songs onto a record.” But the inevitable mystique of Belle and Sebastian’s hard-to-come-by debut worked out perfectly, as fans fell in love with Stuart Murdoch’s intimate odes to eccentric Glasgow denizens and the band’s cuddly indie pop with orchestral maneuvers. For at least a little while there, they were a closely guarded secret, a band worth obsessing over, the stuff of late-night hangouts and bold declarations from friends: “You gotta hear this tape.”