We had been distractedly conversing amongst ourselves during "Custard Pie" and another equally bluesy track off of Led Zeppelin's 1975 double album Physical Graffiti; we were so distracted, in fact, that we didn't even realize the album was on shuffle until it ended. But some time after another set of "Jimi Page channels the Delta blues" A-chord progressions and riffs ending, the folksy intro of "Ten Years Gone" segued in, and my stoned roommate picked up his mandolin and began playing along by ear.
Not quite a real Zed Head, he hadn't heard the record before, but the rapidly shifting and chameleon-esque melodies Page was constructing were more than his musician's heart could pass up. After another song, we paused the record and grabbed my electric guitar so he could jam along on the proper instrument. It wasn't like having Page in my living room, but the act of musical inspiration and education in a natural, unplanned state was occurring in my living room. My roomie did his best to keep up with the blistering complexity of Page's songcraft, and I laid on the couch lost in two grooves: the glory that was perhaps the peak of one of the defining acts of rock & roll as well as the simple pleasure of an amateur twenty-something millennial absorbing and emulating one of rock's true gods.
This was meant to be a different article — an article lamenting our "re-release culture." You can't go more than a week without hearing about an established album in the canon of classic rock getting a deluxe/remixed/bootlegged/demos/ultra re-release. No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom turns 20 this year, and don't be surprised when you hear word of a remastered vinyl re-release, packed to the gills with previously unreleased features to celebrate its second decade of existence. I love Tragic Kingdom as much as the next kid that grew up in the 90s, and I'm sure the true Gwen Stefani fans out there will eat up each second of whatever extras accompany the re-release, but it exists for one singular purpose — to get us to spend money on a record that we already own.
All re-issues exist for that reason. We live in the digital music age, and minus the booming vinyl industry, music sales are down in practically every category. Why spend $15 on a new CD when I can just pay $10 a month and listen to it, and virtually any other song I desire, on Spotify? Re-issues are a ploy by advertising teams to make something old and already owned seemed new and desirable again. If you're the type of person that's going to buy the deluxe three LP release of Physical Graffiti, you already own Physical Graffiti; you just want the alternative takes and unreleased tracks. Record companies could just sell you the extras to add to the collection, but they make more money if they can get you to buy the whole deal again, at jacked prices, because of the intentionally curated rarity of their product.
I'm a raging leftist at heart, and that sort of blatant capitalist money grabbing scheme should enrage me. And it does but not as much it could. At their core, re-releases are a classic example of Stringer Bell from The Wire's notion of "same product, different name." But, despite that, these re-issued albums do serve a positive purpose. They're an invitation to return to albums that fall outside the purview of our established comfort records, and while that invitation could come in a form that doesn't cost music lovers exorbitant gobs of money, it's a valuable invitation nonetheless.
I can say with some degree of certainty that there is no scenario in which I would have left my comfortable, well-heated attic to spend time in my drafty living room and ask my roommate "Hey, how about we listen to a record that neither of us has heard before, that also came out 14 years before we were born?" had this re-issue not just been released. Not a chance. Hell, how often do any of us sit down and listen to full record, track by track, with our friends if they aren't new? And, honestly, how often even when they are new? Our generation listens to shuffled playlists and internet radio stations designed to serve as pleasant background noise. And with so many records released each year, it's hard to keep up with all of the new music, let alone find time to constantly explore the classics.
But the re-release was out, and it had been the impetus for the original tone of this article, and so I put it on, and my roommate, his girlfriend, and I had an unexpectedly delightful evening that would have otherwise been comprised of episodes of Broad City on Hulu. Music is at its best as a social experience—minus heartbroken personal plays of our go-to breakup albums—and, if nothing else, re-releases are the perfect excuse to share music we love with our friends and family or, in this case, discover classic music for the first time.
The Beatles wouldn't be such an important band to me if their compilation record 1 hadn't been released while I was in middle school. I shudder to think of the number of times I listened to that album on my Sony Discman (I'm old) on my 40 minute bus rides to school. I am ashamed to admit that I had never even heard of the Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I until Pitchfork reviewed its 2011 re-issue. Now, I think it's an easy pick for one of the top 10 records of the 90s. I would kill to be able to play the slinky main guitar riff of "A Life of Possibilities" on my guitar.
Imagine it's 12 years from now. It's 2027, and god forbid this actually happens, but I have a kid of my own. It's the twentieth anniversary of Arcade Fire's Neon Bible. It's the album that turned me onto modern music after having spent the 18 years of my life prior to that listening exclusively to my Dad's classic rock collection, and the 80s pop/rock soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. And it's getting re-released on whatever crazy, futuristic music device we'll have by then (could you have imagined Spotify and iPhones in 2003?). There's total certainty that I would take that opportunity to introduce my hypothetical future child to the album that sparked the love that began my career as a music journalist. Sure, Merge—or whatever corporate behemoth that absorbs them someday—gets to fleece me of whatever the album will cost since I already have it, but I get to share a passion that will by then have spanned decades with the people closest to me.
If Physical Graffiti weren't celebrating its 40th anniversary, I might have listened to it at some point in the future, but it certainly wouldn't have been tonight. The eventual first listen most likely would have just been background noise while I worked on some writing project. But, the re-issue provided an evening where concrete memories were formed. I'll remember my roommate getting his ass handed to him by the solo on "Trampled Under Foot." I'll remember dancing like an extra at the Moontower party from Dazed and Confused as "In the Light" rocketed back and forth between full-barrel rock and spaced-out psychedelia. And maybe those memories aren't worth the bloated price of admission that is currently $60 for the deluxe vinyl edition on Amazon, but they'll stick around a lot longer than any hard feelings about the cost.