3 Tales of The “Unreleasable” Album: Nirvana, The Beach Boys, and Billy Joel

Ah yes, the age old tale of the “unreleasable” album. How many times have you sat back in your chair, staring longingly at the glossy inserts wondering how many channels it had to pass through to end up in your hands? Here we take a look at three albums that almost didn’t make it.

Nirvana - In Utero

In Utero, airbrushed cover

Nirvana - In Utero

In Utero, original cover

Nirvana – In Utero

Kurt Cobain said that this album would alienate most of Nirvana’s fans. In Utero entered the Billboard charts at #1. Prior to its release, Nirvana’s label DGC deemed the album unreleasable due to two tracks, “All Apologies” and “Heart Shaped Box”. Hiring Scott Litt of R.E.M fame to remix the two tracks caused quite a stir with the album’s original producer (credited on In Utero as “recorded by”) Steve Albini. In addition to In Utero being deemed unreleasable it was also pegged as unlistenable. Apart from the sound of the album, the front and back covers were scrutinized as well. The front cover depicts a transparent woman with wings. Big name retail stores found this image offensive, much like that of Nirvana’s previous album Nevermind which featured a naked baby swimming under water. The back cover shows plastic figures of babies In Utero, turtles, body parts, flowers, etc. along with a track listing. Track four titled “Rape Me” was changed to “Waif Me” so that the album could be sold in larger stores such as Wal Mart, and K-Mart. The back cover was airbrushed as well so that the only visible items were a turtle and flowers, all other “offensive” material was removed. Both versions of the album are available with the airbrushed back cover and the song title change as well as the unedited version. As far as the unmixed versions of “All Apologies” and “Heart Shaped Box”, those have sprouted up on bootlegs since the albums release back in 1993.

Beach Boys - Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds

Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Brian Wilson heard Rubber Soul by The Beatles and the fluidity and theme of the album as a whole blew him away. He then set out writing one of the most influential albums of all time, Pet Sounds. Helping him was friend Tony Asher. Brian was left to write in the studio while the other Beach Boys were out on the road using Bruce Johnston as Wilson’s replacement. Wilson’s fear of performing live kept him out of the spotlight and where he belonged, in the studio. In the midst of a nervous breakdown which hadn’t fully exposed itself, Brian had free reign to write and compose new material. What transpired was a collaboration with some of finest studio musicians including Carol Kaye on bass and Hal Blaine on drums to create what is to this day one of the most awe inspiring albums in musical history. Paul McCartney stated that he weeps every time Pet Sounds is played. The Beach Boys, upon returning from shows in the Far East were not enthused by what Brian and crew had come up with while they were away. Al Jardine and Mike Love in particular were afraid of the album’s lack of surf anthems and the non-commercialism of what they heard. Fearing the same, the Beach Boys’ record label, Capital, released Pet Sounds in conjunction with the release of two “Best Of” records. Capital’s plan was of course to turn people away from the Pet Sounds record and appeal to the more “die-hard” fans who were solely interested in surf themed songs. Calling Pet Sounds unreleasable was in actuality never done, but rather the album was looked upon as a diversion from the group’s formulaic method and was therefore considered a flop even before its release. To the surprise of many, three singles were issued off of the album and all scored within the top ten on the Billboard charts. Regardless of any negativity towards the album the members had at the time – and deny having today – the range of influence Pet Sounds had on the musical world is astounding. Artists such as Paul McCartney, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan all cite Pet Sounds as a major influence. Dylan himself is quoted as saying that “Brian Wilson’s ear belongs in the Smithsonian”. The Beatles owe many thanks to Mr. Wilson due to Pet Sounds gearing them towards the recording of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heats Club Band. Kudos to Wilson also came from Mick Jagger and crew as the recording of Her Majesties Satanic Request was heavily influenced by Pet Sounds. Since its release on May 16, 1966, Pet Sounds has gone on to be re-released and re-issued on CD and vinyl numerous times, as well as the release of a box set titled The Pet Sounds Sessions. Rolling Stone named Pet Sounds the second greatest album ever made. Although Pet Sounds was released in a normal fashion, the process, thought and intent were heavily discarded by many at the time who are now praising the album as a masterpiece; a title it deserved from day one.

Billy Joel - Cold Spring Harbor

Billy Joel - Cold Spring Harbor

Billy Joel – Cold Spring Harbor
This was the first solo album from the then unknown Joel. An error in the mastering process caused the album’s speed to increase a half step, thus making Joel’s vocals higher than normal. An updated version was released in 1983 by Columbia Records with added instrumentation leaving the original producer to bow out on the credits. The original album was released in 1971 on the Family Productions label despite the error. Songs such as “She’s Got A Way” and “Everybody Loves You Now” just didn’t sound the same back in 71. Although Cold Spring Harbor was never deemed unreleasable, the original version makes for an interesting collector’s item. Today, the original LP release on the Family Productions label fetches anywhere between $15 to $60.

Brad Tilbe About Brad Tilbe

I am 35 years old. I was born and raised in Central New York. I currently reside in Seattle, WA.