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The Rhymes And Reasons Behind Re-Recording Your Own Classics

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Taylor Swift, onstage during the Fearless Tour at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 27, 2009 in New York. Swift released a re-recorded version of her 2008 album <em>Fearless </em>on April 9, 2021.
Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Taylor Swift, onstage during the Fearless Tour at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 27, 2009 in New York. Swift released a re-recorded version of her 2008 album Fearless on April 9, 2021.

One Direction were always known for their insightful covers and interpolations, whether it's the Blondie-Undertones mashup "One Way Or Another (Teenage Kicks)" or snippets of pop songs they'd sprinkle into live shows. Throughout their 2013 tour, a setlist staple was their version of the band Wheatus' 2000 hit single "Teenage Dirtbag," a heartfelt song about two teenage misfits finding love.

In addition to delighting One Direction fans, the boy band's cover gave Wheatus a boost (although "Teenage Dirtbag" became a global hit upon release, it was only a modest alternative radio hit in the U.S.). In fact, the song started gaining more stateside traction in recent years thanks again to SZA and Ruston Kelly covers and Wheatus ramping up touring. At some point, however, Wheatus' founder, vocalist and songwriter Brendan Brown realized he no longer had a copy of the multi-track masters of the band's 2000 self-titled debut album. Brown remembered that during the Y2K era, he had given four separate copies of these masters to his label at the time, Sony – however, Wheatus had been recorded using now-obsolete machines and an obscure tape format. If the label didn't archive or transfer these masters at some point, they may not be recoverable.

"The tapes that the multi-tracks existed on were this transitional format," Brown says. "And they were not long for this world. I mean, nobody maintains those machines now." Panicked, he went to a studio with the version of the multi-tracks he had — an incomplete, penultimate set missing his vocals — and spent two weeks "dumping them into Pro Tools, one at a time, just [to] try and get them right. They were so glitchy, and so buggy."

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Brown was able to recover "approximately 66 to 78 percent of the record, depending on what song it was," albeit with none of his vocals. "And that's our first album," he says. "That's something that people care about and that we cared about. I thought to myself, 'Remake this. Fix this. Fill this hole in your life,' " He laughs. "We spent so much time trying to get this right from 1995 until 1999 to 2000. Make it right again. Make it complete."

Since 2016, Brown and his bandmates have been working on a painstaking re-record of Wheatus. The intended reissue, which he's dubbed "an alternate-universe first album," has 21 songs: 10 from the original, plus B-sides and other songs the band's amassed that have the "vibe" of this era. Luckily, he still has a lot of the same gear he used to record Wheatus, although reconstructing exactly how he used and manipulated this gear originally has been more challenging.

"We sort of forensically went through how to do it, like, 'Oh, we had the click track from this one, but all we have from this one is the drums, so we have to recreate the click track,' " he says. "So it's a lot of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again."

Wheatus isn't the only artist embarking on such an ambitious reconstruction. On Friday, Taylor Swift released Fearless (Taylor's Version), a much-anticipated re-record of her 2008 pop breakthrough album that arose after her objection to her masters being sold. True to her tireless work ethic, Fearless (Taylor's Version) revisits not just all of Fearless, but also includes six songs from her vault — what amounts to a deluxe expanded edition of the record.

Neither Swift nor Wheatus are the kind of artists content to stop creating and coast on their own nostalgia, so why would they spend the time, money and effort to re-record older material so meticulously? The reasons are both very simple and very complex.

Bands remake and remodel songs in their catalog all the time. Phoebe Bridgers added orchestral parts to four songs from 2020's Punisher on the recent Copycat Killer EP, while a whole array of classic rock and new wave acts have issued collections of orchestra-augmented hits. Lineup changes also often precipitate new recordings, such as when Journey cut 11 of their biggest singles with new singer Arnel Pineda for 2008's Revelation. Sometimes musicians revisit older work after signing record deals; for example, R.E.M. and The B-52s re-cut their independently released first singles ("Radio Free Europe" and "Rock Lobster," respectively) when recording their debut albums.

Re-records, however, are a much different and complex kind of project that often falls closer to note-for-note replication. These are commonly associated with hit singles (a la Styx's "Lady '95," a re-record of Naughty By Nature's "Hip-Hop Hooray") and greatest hits albums (KISS, Blondie, DMX and Toad The Wet Sprocket all released hits albums of re-records). Artists decide to do re-records because "they want to have a copy of the masters of the songs that they own themselves," says Mara Kuge, president and founder of Superior Music Publishing, a music publishing company that collects royalties for songwriters and represents their work creatively.

These can be used for syncs — the term for music being used in TV shows, films and commercials — and also to "bypass [an artist's] label for any reason," Kuge says. "Either the [label] rights issues are tangled up, or [artists] are unhappy with a previous deal that they signed and are trying to find a workaround of some sort." For example, in 2012, Def Leppard re-cut several of their hits, which they dubbed "forgeries," as they were then at odds with their record label, Universal Music Group, over finances and a stringent contract.

One of the first major examples of re-records began with another artist unhappy with his label situation, says Andy Zax, a music producer specializing in historical and archival releases. In 1960, Frank Sinatra left Capitol Records and founded Reprise Records; in the process, he ended up re-cutting new versions of previous hits on the new label. Zax points out that this practice was common at the time. "If you look at the bulk of the pre-Beatles rock artists — certainly, anybody who had hits from, say, '57 to '63 — if you went and looked at their discography, I would say 90 percent of them must have re-recorded their hits at some point or another in the last half century. You could just go down the list and check them off. Little Richard did it, Chuck Berry did it. Lots of lesser-light-type people [also] did it."

In general, the reasons for these re-records are simple: financial control and creative ownership. "It always sort of comes down, in most cases, to contractual stuff, business affairs stuff, and the perception — or the reality, really, because it's the music business — that people's contractual arrangements have not always been artist-friendly," Zax says. "Artists have generally been disadvantaged by, certainly, historically by the contracts that they've signed. At various points, people have made moves to try to reclaim some territory."

Kuge echoes this. "A lot of record deals, especially record deals from past decades, have given complete ownership and control of the master recording rights to the record label. That is because they would pay for the recordings up front and the artists would have to recoup that payment. But in exchange for that upfront advance, [labels] would basically sell [artists] the rights to their masters."

"You have artists out there who have done deals for recordings that they have poured their heart and soul into, based on their own lives, and they don't actually own those recordings, because of the structure of how the music business has been for a long time."

At the same time, there's also an emotional and creative side to re-records. For example, although Swift's re-records started as a business maneuver, she also later added that revisiting the Fearless songs was "more fulfilling and emotional than I could have imagined, and has made me even more determined to re-record all of my music."

Wheatus' Brown found sifting through his archives to be occasionally intense, especially in the case of "Mope," a song he wrote about commuting to an all-boys high school. "I was a really dark kid — I was sarcastic and combative, and super-cynical. I relished opportunities to piss off adults. In an unhealthy way, I have to say, in retrospect," he says with a laugh. "I was always afraid to put concepts like that on a record. There was a lot of anger on the first album, but there was nothing quite like this, nothing so personalized.

"Going back through that was scary. It was scary to remember what kind of teenager I was and sing like that, sing from that place. You can't fake that s***. You just have to feel like that again."

Portland-based singer-songwriter Steve Barton co-founded the band Translator and is also a solo artist who recently released a new album, Love & Destruction. Just before the early 2020 pandemic lockdown, Barton and the rest of Translator convened to re-record two older songs, "Everywhere That I'm Not" and "Everywhere." The experience was surprisingly moving; in particular, Barton realized the lyrics of the former song have shifted in profound ways over time. "When I first wrote it, a relationship I was in was breaking up, and that's maybe kind of what it was about," he says. "But then it turned into more of an existential kind of song. When my dad died in 2009, the first time I sang that song after that, it was like, whoa — it hit me in a whole other way. And then in the pandemic, and the lockdown, it's a whole other kind of context."

Gloria Gaynor has experienced a similar personal evolution with her "autobiographical" 1978 dance-floor anthem "I Will Survive." She first recorded the song during a challenging period in her life, right after having spinal surgery. "I was in the hospital and lost my apartment, didn't know when I was ever going to work again — or if I was going to ever work again," she says. "I was really in a bad place."

When she started to read the lyrics to the song, intended as a B-side, she immediately knew it was a hit. "It's a timeless lyric. Everyone's going to be able to relate to that. I'm standing here relating this to the fact that I just had surgery and was wondering if I'd ever survive. I'm relating this to the fact that my mother had passed away just a few years ago, and it was something I never thought I'd survive." Gaynor personally delivered a copy to Studio 54 and told the DJ to play the song — and it soon caught fire.

In 1990, she re-recorded the song, pairing a forceful and urgent vocal performance with contemporary dance beats. "I wanted to introduce it to a new generation," she says. "It had become like a family heirloom, and people were passing it down. Women were playing it for their daughters, and the daughters were playing for their friends. And so I just wanted them to have their own recording."

A decade-plus after initially cutting the song, she found herself relating to the song's themes and lyrics in a much different way. "In 1990, I was really surviving my own career," she says, sharing there were career-related conflicts with her manager at the time, who was also her then-husband. "That was very, very private and personal to me at the time. Nobody knew the struggle I was having with my management." (Gaynor laughs and notes she did a "marathon version" of the song at her 2005 Dance Music Hall of Fame induction, which took place a few days after when she got divorced.)

In light of these emotional wrinkles, defining the success of a re-record is murky. Many simply don't have staying power.In many cases, people still prefer the original for money-generating sync uses: In 2019, Glenn Tilbrook said Squeeze has "not had a single uptake" on licensing something from their album of re-records, Spot the Difference.

Still, possessing a re-record gives artists leverage. "Especially if a major label is dragging their heels on clearing something for perhaps a lower-budget film, like an indie film, a re-record can really save the day at the last minute," Kuge says, noting this happens especially when an artist wasn't necessarily a massive act to begin with and isn't a "priority" for labels anymore. Someone who owns their publishing ("the artist's work as a songwriter, the words and music of the song," Kuge says), or has a clause where they need to approve licensing requests, can also use the re-record to their advantage. "Something that artists do is they will say, 'You can clear the publishing of this song, contingent on the use of my re-recorded master,' " she says.

Released in 1970, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band's "Express Yourself" was a Grammy-nominated pop and R&B hit. Since that initial success, the song has appeared in a staggering number of movies, TV shows, and commercials, as well as on other tunes. N.W.A. sampled it, and a take by the rapper/producer Labrinth was a 2012 U.K. hit.

Wright, who wrote the song, vividly recalls the Sunday afternoon he recorded the original version: He enlisted his bassist and drummer, and a recording engineer—a difference from other sessions, where he'd also have a horn section in the studio—and nailed the track. "It came out perfect," Wright says, while adding other musicians weren't as fond of the song as he was. "Thank God I listened to my heart."

Over the years, Wright has re-recorded "Express Yourself" himself "quite a few times," he says with a laugh, perhaps seven or eight. (One of these re-records, from his 2007 album Finally Got It Wright, can be heard in the teaser trailer for 2017's The Emoji Movie.) Many of these takes hew close to the original, although he has cut a slightly more laid-back version. "I can't top that first one, though," he says. "I keep trying. Those versions are good, but that one's always gonna be special."

What's driving him is the idea that maybe one day he will top that, of course. But while "Express Yourself" has provided him financial livelihood and stability, it's clear Wright also feels deep pride in the song and its incredible longevity. "I don't know what I'd be doing were it not for 'Express Yourself,'" he says. "It's really a blessing. I'm glad I stuck to my guns and put it out as a single even though nobody else liked it."

For artists, the emotional significance of owning your work, especially a song you believed in so strongly, can't be understated. "To have something that is so identified with you actually belong to somebody else — imagine you went out to a party, and everybody was admiring the dress that you had on, but it belonged to your sister," says Gaynor, who also owns a version of "I Will Survive" she licenses out, including on her viral 2020 TikTok challenge.

The first fruits of Wheatus' re-records, "Teenage Dirtbag (2020)," emerged last year and is such an impressive replica of the original that Brown says they received a copyright notice from Sony Music after uploading the song to YouTube. "Which meant that they thought they thought it was their master." The pinned tweet on Wheatus' Twitter account right now represents another longed-for triumph: "Teenage Dirtbag (2020)" is in Rock Band 4.

To Brown, who's in the home stretch of finishing the Wheatus re-records, finally having multi-track masters will be a gigantic relief. "This is something that I lived and died by," he says. "My whole entire purpose of living and being in person at all is tied up in from the age that I first picked up a guitar when I was eight or nine years old till now.

"And it's not there anymore. This thing that I made with other people is gone. There's an artifact of it online that you can stream and listen to. But that's not it, the multi-track, the interplay of the different elements, was no longer available to us. And I wanted that back."

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