By this point, on the release date for Taylor Swift’s new album Lover, you must be scraping and clawing in the darkness, desperate to find a music outlet that isn’t covering pop’s most irrepressible star in some way.
Apologies, friend, but down this road lie more Swift-related takes.
And honestly, with good reason: In advance of an interview to air this weekend, CBS Sunday Morning revealed that Swift “absolutely” plans to re-record her classic hits after her master recordings were purchased by impresario Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings from her former label, Big Machine Records. Swift condemned the deal earlier this year on her Tumblr, noting "the incessant, manipulative bullying” she’s endured from Braun and his clients, Kanye West and Justin Bieber. Big Machine head Scott Borchetta weighed in with his own side of the story, adding fuel to another deeply frustrating, kaiju-like feud between pop titans.
Should Swift go ahead with the plan, it’s easily the highest-profile act of master re-recording this century, and one that could send shockwaves through the industry—not to mention users’ Spotify feeds, where you’d have twice as many versions of “You Belong With Me,”“I Knew You Were Trouble” or “Blank Space” to sift through. But this practice is nothing new, and the reasons artists have headed back into the studio to tread familiar ground over the last century have been varied. From technical opportunity to artistic ambition to fiduciary necessity, here are 10 captivating examples of master re-recordings that could hold up a mirror to Taylor’s future—or in some cases, hopefully not.
Some of the best known re-recorded masters exist for purely practical reasons. As technology evolved and labels were far more lax about the integrity of masters (which, in the pre-war era, weren’t put to magnetic tape), artists would find themselves revisiting their hits to keep up with the times. And if that all sounds overly capitalist in nature, at least artist and label would occasionally work together. Such was the case with The Nat “King” Cole Story, a retrospective of the legendary crooner featuring re-cut versions of his classics meant to capitalize on the mainstreaming of stereo sound. Cole reteamed with his original arrangers, including Ralph Carmichael and Nelson Riddle, to achieve perfection on the double album. Most notably, The Nat “King” Cole Story featured his fourth and most definitive take on “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire),” proving that art and commerce can sometimes make beautiful music together.
Like Cole, the Chairman of The Board repeatedly revisited his back catalog in the studio. On Sinatra’s Sinatra, Frank had good reason to look back: He was now under contract with Reprise, a label he founded, and his previous labels, Columbia and Capitol, would waste no time in repackaging him. So Sinatra didn’t either, re-cutting favorites like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “All The Way,” and “Witchcraft” with old friend Nelson Riddle in the conductor’s chair.
Once stereo and long-playing albums had settled in as the dominant form of music consumption, re-recordings began to lose their artistic edge, as was the case here. On paper, it’s not a bad thesis: Sly and The Family Stone’s vibrant, multicolored brand of funk and soul in the ’60s shares some DNA with the hip-shaking disco of the ’70s. That doesn’t explain this perplexing platter of Sly classics, extended, remixed and re-recorded under the auspices of engineer John Luongo. It sounds more like his work remixing the Jacksons than one of America’s finest funk ensembles. Appropriately, it’s not even clear that the ever-enigmatic Sly signed off on this.
The biggest (and most privately volatile) rock band in the world was essentially finished by the time the Synchronicity tour ended in 1984. Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland drifted apart to work on solo efforts, but manager Miles Copeland (Stewart’s big brother) wasn’t about to let his most famous client fizzle out. A reluctant plan was formed to re-record a song or two for a greatest hits album; this plan started bad (Stewart broke his arm in a polo accident the day before the session) and ended worse (over several weeks, Copeland’s Fairlight sequencer and Sting’s Syclavier dueled over percussion tracks). But if you think this is bad (or at least misguided), check out the rarer re-do of “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” from the same session, which got released by accident.
One of the more brazen instances of re-record as marketing exercise, The ZZ Top Six Pack capitalized on that little ol’ band from Texas’ massive mid-’80s popularity on MTV by reintroducing their pre-Eliminator catalog to newfound fans. Of course, those original records were barbecue-greasy, and lacked the gated drums and weirdo synths of “Legs” or “Sleeping Bag”—until Six Pack was cracked open on an unsuspecting public, that is. It would have been far less offensive had these remixed retreads not replaced the original records on CD for decades; all the original editions were finally reinstated only six years ago.
Prince, “1999: The New Master” (NPG, 1999)
Prince is a big reason why many music fans even know what a master recording is. His contentious battle with Warner Bros. Records for creative freedom led to an infamous name change and an honest expression of what he wanted from the music business. Knowing that the year 1999 would bring a lot of heat to his hit single of the same name, recorded some 17 years prior, Prince issued “1999: The New Master,” which augmented the original track with a new vocal, a maddening dance beat, and cameos from Larry Graham, Rosie Gaines and, uh, Doug E. Fresh. Fans were indifferent, but he made his point clear to Paper: “Now you will have two catalogs with pretty much exactly the same music—except mine will be better—and you can either give your money to WB, the big company, or to NPG. You choose." Fans chose the familiar, and a promised full album of remastered re-recordings, A Celebration, never materialized.
As music distribution started going digital in the early 21st century, savvy bands and artists started to take stock of what a re-recorded master could do for their fortunes. Rock and metal groups, in particular, stepped up to the plate, offering one-off singles here and there. Twisted Sister took a bold step forward in 2004, celebrating the 20th anniversary of their breakthrough album Stay Hungry with a completely re-recorded edition, Still Hungry. Unlike some of the other entries on this list, rubbing off the original album’s studio sheen adds a certain charm to the proceedings, although Dee Snider and company had to make some concessions to time, taking hits “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock” down a half-step. The gambit paid off: The latter-day version of “Rock” was licensed into an ’80s-themed spin-off of the then-popular Guitar Hero video game franchise.
By the end of the ‘00s, classic-rock re-recordings were in full swing, with endless opportunities to capitalize on in the licensing world. Most artists were pretty up-front about the less than artistic nature of the beast: Def Leppard went as far as to call their own re-records “forgeries” as they released them, knowing they’d still yield higher royalties than the original masters they had blocked from digital distribution. British rockers Squeeze “challenged” fans with the title of their re-recorded hits album—a bit perplexing, as a) vocalists Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook (and Paul Carrack, returning for his lead on “Tempted”) certainly sounded decades older, and b) the sheen of, say, 1987 hit “Hourglass,” originally mixed at the Hit Factory, could never be replicated in a modest studio. Maybe the band’s heart wasn’t fully in it either: Spot The Difference is sequenced alphabetically.
Even Jeff Lynne couldn’t resist the siren call of a re-recording. The co-founder of Electric Light Orchestra was no stranger to re-entering the studio out of necessity, cutting a solo version of “Xanadu” for a 2000 box set when the Olivia Newton-John-led original couldn’t be licensed. In 2012, necessity gave way to desire, when Lynne re-did 11 ELO hits “to get them to sound better” and better reflect his evolution as a superproducer. Did it work? Put it this way: When Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 opened in 2016, you can probably guess which master was used in that opening credits sequence.
Leave it to a woman to do 21st century re-recordings right—all while earning some retribution along the way. JoJo Levesque captivated the pop charts as a teen in the early aughts with hits like “Leave (Get Out)” and “Too Little, Too Late.” Unfortunately, she did all this while signed to notorious label Blackground Records, which kept her under a draconian contract and couldn’t hold onto a distribution deal long enough for her to issue a third album. After extricating herself from Blackground, JoJo returned with 2016’s Mad Love; two years later, she surprised fans with excellently re-done versions of her first two records. If Taylor can remake her hits half this good, she won’t have a thing to worry about.