When I was in college the bootleg record was a big deal. Later, cassettes would replace the vinyl version and for me lose a good amount of their appeal. But for a moment back then I really found bootlegs to be a terrific source of music, of art, and of a raw live dynamic that most label supervised live recordings often missed.
There was a great record store in downtown Poughkeepsie that had to have as many bootlegs as they had actual studio records. I wish I could remember its name. Boots were often the result of someone tapping into the soundboard at a live show and capturing a performance in its entirety. The intent wasn't to match the fidelity of studio cut. It was to document the performance and any specific live treatments of popular songs that weren't otherwise available. Maybe there was a special break used only in live shows. Maybe there was a crowd call and response that only happened live. It could have been something as simple as the opportunity presented itself to record the show and someone simply decided to act on it.
Over time some boots have developed a real cult following. Back then I collected quite a few Springsteen boots, first focusing on the Born In The USA tour and then moving back to The River. Born in Cincinnati is one boot that I have written about that today is understood to be a definitive recording of a definitive moment in Bruce's career. As good as it is, it still has its flaws. Sound quality was always an issue and it often made listening to a show all the way through a tiresome act. Even today when I listen to Grateful Dead radio or E Street radio on Sirius the sound quality can be a real deterrent. That said — I love the concept.
Almost without exception the cover art was real underground kind of stuff. The imagery was almost as illegal as the album itself. Having copies of these records around was almost cooler than having the studio cuts because they better embodied the rebel nature of rock itself. Showcasing your boots was like openly saying that you owned illegal contraband.
Lately I have been spinning one of my favorite boots of all time. The album is called The Last Foxtrot because that's what Elvis Costello yells to the crowd as he opens the show. This is a live recording of his performance with Nick Lowe from San Francisco's Winterland Theater on June 6th, 1978. To put the timeframe in perspective, this can be considered Elvis Costello's most creative period.
Here you find classics like "Less Than Zero" and "Watching the Detectives" from his first two albums My Aim Is True and This Year's Model — records that had been released within two years of the Foxtrot show. But he also debuts tracks from what would be his forthcoming third album Armed Forces. The first side opens with "Goon Squad" while the second side opens with "Party Girl." The fact that Costello would open a show or a set with new material just goes to show how good the new stuff really was. He knew it — the crowd responded. The music he was making when this boot was recorded captures Costello at the peak of his most creative moment. Here his output was extraordinary.
From start to finish Foxtrot captures the boundless energy that he and the Attractions brought to their live performances. Throughout they break from script and take familiar songs like "Lipstick Vogue," "I'm Not Angry" and "Chelsea" in fun and different directions. This isn't Steely Dan doing a note for note performance of the album Aja. This is a group of punk rockers exploring the boundaries of the very music they created together. This is exactly what a boot is supposed to be all about.
For any of those bands who today try to channel late 70's punk they owe it to themselves to find a copy of The Last Foxtrot. Most need to hear the real deal. They need to experience the authenticity of the Attractions. "Watching The Detectives" is raw, sloppy, and brash as it wanders from punk to spot on Jamaican reggae. Live it has more of a party feel than the studio cut could ever match. The acoustics of Winterland shape the sound in a way that makes the Attractions sound like a much bigger outfit. It's a shame they didn't get a cleaner version on tape. The problem is that back then you didn't record a live album until you had maybe four or five studio records under your belt. Thankfully today those kinds of rules no longer apply.
Nick Lowe, long considered the guy who discovered Elvis Costello promoted him on concert fliers as Buddy Holly on acid. The performance bears that out and makes Costello a tough act to follow. As soon as Lowe takes the stage you realize — there was never anything to worry about. Nick Lowe knew how to put on a rock show. Here, depending on which version of the album you have he appears with about four songs of his own. I'd forgotten how much I like his older material. "So It Goes" is as good a pop rock song as there is. It's followed by the hard driving punk sound of "Fool Too Long." When coupled with Costello's performance Lowe's music provides a terrific snap shot of the late 70's punk movement. You also get a clear picture on how back then the music was packaged and presented to American audiences. What punk brought back was the kind of energy you saw in those live performances from the 50's by acts like Jerry Lee Lewis and The Comets. Crowds went as wild as the performers themselves.
The album cover in an odd way kind of sums the entire evening up. The wild posting feel that the creative direction presents suggests that this might be more of an underground, off the radar, non-sanctioned kind of affair. As soon as the needle drops you learn that the promise has been kept.
The Last Foxtrot is a must hear for anyone who loves Elvis Costello, loves the period, or just loves live rock. For all of the over the top stage productions found on most modern tours, guys like Costello and Lowe knew that in the end it was always going to be about the music. On that night in June 35 years ago, we are just lucky that someone saw an opportunity and plugged in. Who knew that when they did that they'd make rock history?