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In the Snakepit - The facts and the friction (frontpage)

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The facts and the friction. There is a Motown related anniversary that is not likely to figure in the anals of the current campaign, led by the Universal Corporation, to 'celebrate' the company's bi-centenary. In fact, this milestone is only a measly five years in the making. Yet, in many ways, it exposes how corporate ignorance, deference and indifference have been confronted by a small number of people who care passionately about the less commercial and popular aspects of the label's output. In this case, the incredible music produced by the backing musicians, on songs that didn't necessarily sell by the boatload or were ever released at all, at a time when these talented individuals had been all but ignored by history, the public and their record company. 'In the Snakepit' is a cd containing 20 relatively obscure backing tracks, photographs of the main players and a comprehensive and informative essay about the personnel who actually produced the unique 'Motown Sound.' It doesn't have a label, a number, a barcode or any details of songwriters, producers, arrangers or dates of release. It is a bootleg - an illicit, unsanctioned, unlicensed, unauthorised release. But, if you happen to be an admirer of this kind of music and want to hear more than the tiny number of titles that currently exist, its all there is. The tracks come from a variety of sources - quarter inch master tapes, unreleased material long dismissed as not commercially viable, stereo recordings that could be 'split' to isolate the backing only and, in two cases, songs that were electronically manipulated to remove the vocals. The circumstances surrounding its compilation, manufacture and distribution, and the range of reaction to its release provide a tantalising peep into the somewhat grimy world of corporate manoeuvring and executive posturing.

The motive behind assembling a collection of this kind was simple and sincere. The current owners had no interest, and even less inclination, in searching through their vaults for material of this kind to release - and would never have believed that it would have made the profits deemed necessary to make it worthwhile. (The subsequent success of 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown', to which neither the label nor its corporate master contributed any investment capital, proved otherwise.) At the time (2003) only the British rare soul scene had any inkling of the importance, quality and potential of instrumental backing tracks. Motown executives, responsible for release schedules and product placement decisions, were utterly clueless. The opportunity arose, the material became available, the will and wherewithal was strong and the perceived interest, on the part of fellow devotees, was assured. In an attempt to minimise adverse reaction on the part of the corporate giant, certain precautions were made prior to the start of the operation. An individual, who worked for the specific division of the company affected, was approached and asked to canvass colleagues for their reactions to the feasibility of such a project. Her findings were encouraging. 'Technically we own the tracks I suppose, but nobody seemed overly concerned. Go ahead.' Advice from a different quarter, the US, had suggested that careful attention should be focused on the quality of the packaging, artwork and sound quality. Assembling the photographs proved to be quite difficult, as obscurity tends to translate into scarcity. The front cover was 'doctored' somewhat to create the desired effect. Mike Terry got quite a chuckle out of seeing his head on Dan Turner's body. Jack Ashford wasn't even in the same city when the original photograph was taken (at Robert White's birthday celebration - the board originally said 'Happy Birthday Robert) but replaced a non-musician friend who managed to get on the shot. An error of omission was made in the track listing on both the back cover and the booklet when Track 10 '24 hours to find my baby' was completely missed out. Not many people noticed, nor cared, presumably. A significant amount of money was spent on the graphic components, and in a recording studio to ensure maximum aural fidelity. On the subject of finance, it must be stated, categorically, that profit was never the objective, nor the result (despite what sceptics have theorised). There was, however, a na¯ve hope that this release would prompt the issue of legitimate collections. This was partially achieved when a series of karaoke cds came out containing instrumental 'singalong' versions, but these were only the hugely successful hits (no surprise there) and only available at Toys R Us (?) in America.

The initial reaction to the availability of 'In the Snakepit' ranged from unbridled joy on the part of informed Motown fans, eager to get a copy, to bewilderment, embarrassment and then ire from American company executives. It apparently made it to the desk of the President of the company, who instead of admiring the ingenuity, skill and resourcefulness of its creators, took a slightly different and less diffident approach. A discussion forum topic in Detroit attracted streams of angry rhetoric condemning the temerity of such a move, and promises to track the culprits down and have them publicly flogged. Most interesting was the involvement of attorneys, always the first to sniff out the slightest opportunity of making a quick buck, purportedly representing everyone from the band members themselves to the recording industry and everything and everyone beyond. The frustration levels were almost palpable and seemed to explode off computer screens in the direction of the evil but anonymous perpetrator(s). Funny how their moral stand on this issue conveniently evaporated when the 'Funk Brothers' unity imploded and lawsuits began flying around - meal time for the bottom feeders. It was mildly amusing to read the details of a debate on the 'evils of bootlegging' that had taken place on the British soul scene 30 years before. The same old, self-righteous, 'holier than thou' lollygagging about musicians losing out (no royalties were paid out on re issued original material that were put out to shamelessly cash in on the success of the film incidentally - always wondered whether these tracks would have come out at all if it had bombed), and the supposed immorality of such an act. If company officials had any idea of what potential customers actually wanted, or were informed enough to initiate something like this all by themselves, there wouldn't have been a need for such an initiative. The only constructive criticism that deserves any serious consideration is the charge that the 'Snakepit' was deliberately put out at a time to coincide with the release of 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown' - that some diabolical and cynical plan was dreamed up to maximize profits and deflect sales away from the true recipients. Absolutely and totally wrong. Although assistance had been provided to the producer of the film, in Britain several years before, in a vain attempt to solicit investment capital for the project, all communication had ceased. This would have made it impossible to have coordinated such an action. It was purely coincidental

Most critiques of the cd contained a weird 'guilty pleasure' component where reviewers seem to feel as though they must censure such a shameful and exploitative product, in public, while grudgingly conceding its quality, merit and worth between the lines. Some went as far as to advise readers not to purchase it - pound to a penny they've still got their review copy and play it on a regular basis. Bloody hypocrites. Distribution through the usual channels of specialist retailers became difficult due to the pressure applied by 'the authorities'. A communication was received from the British Pornographic Association ordering the offending article removed from public sale. The cd was manufactured through a company in North Wales, who then sent it to Austria to be duplicated. It was only later, when a different project was brought to this same company, that the full scope of the corporation's anger and concern was revealed. According to the Managing Director of the manufacturing company, he had been visited by a representative, an ex policeman, who was anxious to find the culprit. He also stated that two others had been dispatched to Austria to track down the whereabouts of the pressing plant and retrieve any incriminating paperwork. It was only by sheer luck that the cancelled cheque had been destroyed by the Austrian bank (bless them) or fate would have been sealed. Whether these stories were scare tactics or not is open to conjecture. No matter, it did the trick. The only time 'boot' and 'leg' went together after that was during a football match. The MD was generous enough to share some advice he had received - he was told that this misdemeanour would be excused, this time, but any reoccurrence would result in the full weight of the corporate legal machine at their disposal being brought to bear. Chilling. He refused to sanction the second project for the same reason, even though it was completely legitimate.

Most of the acrimony toward the cd seems to have subsided in recent years. Several tracks have made their way onto You Tube (pity the photos and misspelled text couldn't match the music) or Soul-Source, and there is at least one 'official' Funk Brothers site that displays the 'Snakepit' on the same page as all the legitimate releases. Very little unreleased material surfaces anymore, even though there is still a wealth of music in the vaults. Universal are more likely to reissue known hits or repackage 'greatest hits' under some guise or ruse (nothing new there) than cater to the minority who have loyally supported them, one way or another, throughout the duration. Control of the archives appears to be in the hands of a tiny minority of 'insiders' who harbour and protect the contents as if it were their own. This secretive cult has full knowledge and access to the hundreds, possibly thousands, of unreleased tracks, but chooses to keep it to themselves. No one knows how they came to exert such control or, more importantly, how they came to be chosen in the first place. Can't remember any applications or interviews taking place. Actually contacting anyone in a position of authority or influence at Motown in the UK can be likened to attempting to interview Osama bin Laden, finding Lord Lucan or meeting an honourable promoter in the East Midlands. There seems to be a wall of anonymity, mystery and intrigue surrounding these people. Having said that, a couple of them ventured out into the daylight when Tommy Good, Chris Clark and Bobby Taylor performed in Northampton several years ago. One individual was so paranoid about giving out his email address that he required a sworn (and notarised) promise that it wouldn't be given out to anyone else. (Who?) Contact was made with a slimeball called Nickson who proceeded to harass and harangue in search of photographs and unreleased material he wanted for 'upcoming important Motown projects'. Despite promising to supply two solitary cds, which were the subject of his projects, he gratefully accepted the quarry but never reciprocated. When questioned some time later about it he stated that his solicitor had told him that it was not a binding contract! Ironically, this same scumbag discussed the possibility of organising another 'Snakepit' like project, but this time with the company's blessing and full access to the material in the vaults. No prizes for guessing what became of that.


Original article was posted in the Soul Source Article/News feature

view article in its original format (c/w images etc)

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