The Beatles, Bootlegs, Artificial Intelligence and ‘Rockin’ Roxburgh’

I’m a lifelong Beatles fan. I discovered Meet the Beatles in my parents’ otherwise kinda-square record collection and was knocked out. That would have been in the late ‘60s, right around the time they broke up. I had already heard “Hey Jude” when it was on the charts. I received The Beatles 1962-66 aka the red album on cassette as a gift, and bought the companion “blue album” 1967-70 double LP on vinyl not long thereafter. By the late ‘70s my interest in The Beatles had grown to such a depth that I was acquiring bootlegs of their unreleased material.

Fast forward 20 years. By the mid and late ‘90s I was a serious trader/collector of bootlegs, initially through tape trading and then via CDR trading and “trees” (an egalitarian crowd-sourced method of distribution/dissemination). It was in those years that my collection grew to massive proportions, eventually including such items as the 83 CD(!) set of January 1969 Twickenham/Apple recordings. I also got into the unreleased work of many other bands (Pink Floyd and SMiLE-era Beach Boys in particular) but the Beatles’ music always remained at the center of it all for me.

With changes in life and work, my focus on what we in the scene called ROIOs (recordings of illegitimate/indeterminate origin) waned in the ‘00s, but I still listened to select titles with some regularity. And in recent months, as I began to come to terms with my collection of physical media growing large and unwieldy, I initiated the process of archiving all of my boot CDRs into lossless FLAC format. I also set up a system by which I could stream those high quality audio files wirelessly through my proper home stereo with some nice old-fashioned Cerwin-Vega speakers.

That conversion/archiving process reintroduced me to a lot of great and fascinating music (not just Beatles). And while in the intervening years a great deal of it had found official release, a remarkable cache of it had not. It was against that backdrop in late 2023 that I – along with countless others – experienced the official release of the Beatles’ “Now and Then” single.

I need not weigh in with great detail on that release, especially since most everyone else has already done so. In short I’ll observe – from the perspective of someone who first heard the raw source recording nearly three decades ago – three things. One, admittedly, “Now and Then” isn’t a particularly great song. If it were, it might have ended up in finished form on Double Fantasy or at least Milk and Honey. Two, and more significantly, the existence of a listenable version of “Now and Then” is nonetheless a gift to us all, take it or leave it.

And three, and I would argue most importantly, this new release of “Now and Then” is the tangible result of inspired use of groundbreaking technology. The fact that Peter Jackson’s audio process helped make “Now and Then” listenable is nothing short of miraculous. And it has ramifications that hint at breathtaking possibilities for the future.

Now, I have as many reservations about AI (artificial intelligence) as the next reasonably well-informed punter. In short, I view it as I would many other emerging technologies: neither good nor bad in and of itself, but filled with potential for both.

And here’s where all the above backstory elements come together for me. Earlier this year a news item attracted some attention around the globe. As the story went, an audience tape had been discovered, one that documented a Beatles performance dating from the period after Ringo joined but before full-fledged Beatlemania took hold. The thing is, the article told us, few had heard it – Beatles biographer Mark “get busy with Turn On and Tune Out, will ya?” Lewisohn among the short list – and there were no finite plans for that to change.

Now, I’ve been busy with other matters these last several months, so it completely slipped by my notice when those tapes inevitably leaked and found their way into the hands of intrepid collectors. The recordings were, well, okay, but not earth shattering. The fidelity was poor, the vocals were buried, and in general, they fell into the “about as good as the Star Club recordings” category.

And I also wasn’t aware of it in October when one of those collectors, a gent who goes by the pseudonym of Lord Reith, put in the time and effort to reprocess the raw tapes through AI software that boosted the vocals and essentially remixed a one-track monaural recording.

Re-read that italicized phrase again if you will.

The AI process applied to what is now known as the Rockin’ Roxburgh tape has transformed it into something that is not only quite listenable, but revelatory indeed. The story of how the recording came to be made is fascinating enough on its own, and the circumstances in which the Beatles played make it especially remarkable. In short, the audience did not scream incessantly, drowning out the music. They clapped, they sang along, they applauded at the end of each song. The result is a recording that captures the group when they were still hungry, right-right-right on the cusp of worldwide fame.

And it’s great. The band play with power and cohesion like you’ve rarely heard, and their set list mixes up the mostly-covers approach of Star Club and BBC dates with a bunch of material off the recently-released Please Please Me LP.

Will Rockin’ Roxburgh ever get official release? Who knows? And ultimately, who cares? We have this, and for fans, Lord Reith’s AI-assisted “remix” is nothing short of essential. Equally as important as the fact that it exists is what it means for the future. AI-assist technology is now clearly in the hands of home enthusiasts, and so if, say, Apple Records decides not to bother to apply it to the Star Club tapes (I’m betting they will, though), some enterprising fan most surely will. I suspect they’re working on it this very moment, in fact.

And the possibilities are endless and tantalizing for other music of historical import. Those who know and appreciate Pink Floyd’s post-Syd / pre-Dark Side body of work know that the band used their home-built Azimuth Coordinator live in concert to create an immersive, three-dimensional sound space for concertgoers that added to the thrill of “The Embryo,” “Cymbaline,” “Fat Old Sun” and other gems. And dozens of monaural audience tapes exist of those shows. (About a year ago, Pink Floyd posted nearly a dozen said shows – unenhanced – on Spotify, then took them down, all likely in an effort to establish copyright.) I predict here and now that before long, either the Pink Floyd camp or enterprising collectors will apply AI technology to those tapes and create immersive (if not Dolby Atmos) versions of those concert recordings.

It all takes my breath away, really. And ultimately, using this world-changing technology in service of rescuing important music is a worthy endeavor. And in the meantime, Rockin’ Roxburgh is both an object example of what may lie ahead and a terrific listen. If you want a sense of what The Beatles were like in early 1963, there’s nothing – absolutely nothing – that compares to this tape (in its Lord Reith-tweaked version).

Hunt around online and you’ll find lossless versions of it, but if you just plain want to hear it, check out the link below. It won’t surprise me a bit if this file gets taken down off YouTube, so listen quickly.

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