Jun 132008

We’re Only in it for the Funny

Do artists even make these albums anymore? At least years ago, when I was more tuned into the major record label status of big artists, there were sure signs that an artist was nearing the end of a long-term contract. A hastily compiled album of lesser material, often packaged on the cheap, would be rushed to market with little fanfare. The Contractual Obligation Album (COA) might be loaded with cover songs or padded out with live tracks. I believe an entire live album was a pretty cheap way to fulfill a contract as well. The artist wouldn’t do much press for the album, or what interviews were granted centered on how excited they were for their next album.

I’m not sure if Greatest Hits and Best of collections could count toward an artist’s fulfilling a contractual obligation, but I believe to this day they still serve as the old label’s last shot at making a few bucks off the departing artist. Does anyone know the ins and outs of these deals? Too bad Links Linkerson keeps himself in the basement and can’t send us some Billboard links to fill in the details.

The Way Contractual Obligation Albums Were Meant to Sound!

Some contractual obligation albums were outright “F-U” affairs: F-U to the old label, F-U to the buyers, F-U to the coming Greatest Hits/Best of repackaging options. Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music is reported to have been one of those F-U COAs, maybe the most brazen of them all.

I wonder what artist has cranked out the most COAs? Do you have a favorite COA, one that works despite – or because of – its tossed-off nature?

I Only Made it for the Honey

Marvin Gaye produced a COA that fulfilled two obligations with one album. Technically it was a double album. His Here, My Dear album not only fulfilled a contractual obligation to Motown, but Marvin parlayed it into serving as his alimony payment for his first wife, Anna Gordy. I wonder how Papa Berry felt about his daughter’s settlement. As much as I love Marvin Gaye, I’ve never gotten around to buying or even hearing this album. The cover art is so bad I can’t help but judge the album.

You know, Led Zeppelin first toured as The New Yardbirds to fulfill a contractual obligation, but a COA was not part of the deal.

Bland Slam!

There’s that whole stretch of Bob Dylan albums following Nashville Skyline that I never have the urge to spin: Self Portrait, New Morning, and the soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. They’re his last three Columbia albums, and they play like a “COA trilogy.” Columbia capped off the COA trilogy by compiling outtakes from two of the three previous turds and releasing it as Dylan. Has anyone ever listened to this album? I haven’t even seen a copy in a dollar bin for 25 years.

Man, someone felt it necessary to work up this chart…

Dylan’s COA trilogy was followed by what I’m sure was great fanfare, for his one intentionally recorded and released studio album with The Band, Planet Waves, on his new label, Asylum. I’m sure the label was thrilled. The results, however, were not exactly thrilling. A couple of good songs, but recorded with about as much color as the cover sketch. I’ll leave it to someone else to examine whether there’s typically a noticeable bounce to New Label Albums.

WFMU’s Beware of the Blog did a good piece on Van Morrison‘s COA to satisfy the bubblegum contract he couldn’t wait to get out of with Bang Records. They piece includes mp3s of all 31 songs he cranked out!


  31 Responses to “Contractual Obligation Albums”

  1. You cannot top Van’s Bang demos as a COA, and it’s foolish to even try. I actually almost prefer them to his actual album for the label.

    A great Fuck You Album — which I consider an entirely different genre usually born of different circumstances, often a fluke hit with the preceding effort — is Harry Nilsson’s SON OF SCHMILSSON, which toys with the audience’s expectations by proclaiming in the title itself that it’s a continuation of the smash hit album just before it, before becoming one of the most spitefully self-indulgent albums ever released on a major label.

  2. Neil Young’s Landing on Water must be one such album, no?

  3. saturnismine

    If memory serves, The Electric Love Muffin toyed with calling their 3rd album “Contractual Obligation Album”.

    After their first, on Buy Our Records, they had moved on to Restless, for whom they recorded “Rassafranna”. But they were still contractually obligated to record a second album for Buy Our. Thus, their third album was really their second, or their second their third. So they called it “The Second Third Time Around” (probably shoulda been called “The Second Second Time Around”, but whatever). It’s hardly a “fuck you” album, and while it does scrape the bottom of the barrel of their repertoire at the time, even those songs are pretty good. Unfortunately, it was their swan song.

    Kilroy, I think you’re right about “Landing on Water”. Neil burned alot of tape to get out of his Geffen deal. There’s also that album called “Life”, which is from the same period and also best forgotten.

  4. saturnismine

    Forgot to say, John Lennon’s “Rock and Roll” isn’t quite a COA, but it was recorded out of an obligation of sorts. It was a Lawsuit Avoidance Album.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    Good extension of the discussion, Sat!

  6. Band of Gypsys is another “lawsuit avoidance album” (LAA?). Can’t fault that one…

  7. BigSteve

    Radiohead’s old label is doing the contractual obligation thing in reverse right now. The band did not want them to put out a best-of, but they were apparently powerless to stop it.

  8. Oh yeah… Beach Boys “Party” – a fake “live at a party” album, loaded with covers and containing the unexpected hit with “Barbara Ann”.

  9. saturnismine

    How about a Contractual Obligation Movie? Wasn’t Yellow Submarine animated because Brian Epstein had a clause written into the Beatles movie contract stipulating that one of their films could be animated, just in case they didn’t want to fulfill their contractual obligation by being on set? I could be remembering this incorrectly.

  10. saturnismine

    on the subject of the Beach Boys, “Smiley Smile” is at least some form of COA: the label’s stance was “for god’s sake…puh-LEEZE give us SOMETHING resembling that god damned album we’ve been hyping for over a year now!!!”

    Mod, forgive me if I’m stretching things a bit…

  11. Mr. Moderator

    I can’t forgive you for that one, Sat:)

  12. You want see a stretch? How about The Beatles and The Clash, who released double (and triple in The Clash’s case) albums partially to hasten the end of their contracts.

  13. saturnismine

    Mod wrote: I can’t forgive you for that one, Sat:)

    I write: ahhh….but can we forgive the Beach Boys for that one?

  14. saturnismine

    Another stretch: If you watch “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle” with a complete suspension of disbelief, you walk away thinking that the Sex Pistols were conceived entirely to exploit the contractual obligation situations that labels were foisting on their artists.

  15. Oats wrote “The Beatles and The Clash, who released double (and triple in The Clash’s case) albums partially to hasten the end of their contracts. “

    My understanding from reading a Joe Strummer bio, was that one of the reasons Strummer and Mick Jones never really worked together again was that *any* work they did together would have to be done under the (crappy) terms of their Clash contract with Columbia – so they didn’t reform due to COA

  16. You cannot top Van’s Bang demos as a COA, and it’s foolish to even try.

    What else could more fully meet the objectives of a COA? It wasn’t released!

  17. I seem to recall that the Stones did a song called Cocksucker Blues as a COS FU.

  18. alexmagic

    I think Extra Texture was George Harrison’s contractually obligated final album for Apple.

    Prince lived a contractually obligated life for about five or six years.

  19. I think Extra Texture was George Harrison’s contractually obligated final album for Apple.

    That’s gotta suck, having to make a COA for a label that you helped found. I wonder if Sinatra ever had to make a COA for Reprise.

  20. Just thought of another: THE KING by Teenage Fanclub. They had an American deal with Matador Records that they wanted to get out of so they could sign to DGC, so they booked one day in the studio and made an absolutely terrible improvised and almost entirely instrumental album. Understandably pissed, Gerard Cosloy rejected the album and demanded they pay off their contract. Creation later released it as a limited edition.

    I don’t think COAs really exist anymore to the extent they once did because as a general rule, recording contracts are a lot shorter than they used to be and labels have no qualms about kicking an artist to the curb whenever it suits them, so they’re much less likely to hold artists to contracts to the extent that a COA is needed.

  21. Anybody ever heard The Parkerilla? I’ve always wanted to.

    Also, the album Dylan has to qualify as one of those utterly wretched COA’s. I take occasional perverse pleasure in listening to Self-Portrait, but it’s stunning how Dylan is so much worse even than that.

  22. Mr. Moderator

    What you say about COAs these days, The Great 48, is what I have suspected. It’s more like the NFL, where an 8-year contract really isn’t worth a dollar of guaranteed money than the signing bonus.

    BigSteve, I figured you’d be familiar with that Dylan album. You don’t have it stored digitally, do you? That could make for a fascinating group listen one of these days.

  23. i LOVE Sandinista
    or as Red Burns calls it, “The Clash Smoke Pot”
    That’s a pretty cool band to just let fly with the tape rolling.
    For a COA, I think Lennon’s Rock and Roll is pretty good too!
    and Beach Boys Party as well.

  24. BigSteve

    I thought the story on ‘Dylan’ was that Columbia released those tracks against his wishes after he had gone over to Asylum, as a way of shaming him back into the fold. And it worked — he came back to Columbia after that one album (Planet Waves).

    I do indeed have a digital rip of that slab of vinyl. There are a couple of really fine tracks on it — Sarah Jane and his version of A Fool Such As I — a couple more so-so, and then some pretty dire stuff. I wouldn’t exactly propose a ‘critical upgrade’ except for those two tracks, but if you want a group listen I got it covered.

  25. BigSteve

    I used to have Parkerilla but no more. It looks like it just got reissued, mwall, so you can get your wish:


    Like Live Sparks it doesn’t really live up to the live reputation of GP and The Rumour.

  26. Mr. Moderator

    I’m pretty happy with the Live Sparks bonus disc that was released with Squeezing Out Sparks a few years ago. I never took the plunge on Parkerilla. The one time I heard it I was not thrilled, and the cover bummed me out.

    We’ll be in touch about Dylan! Yes, the story I heard and tried to convey was that Columbia released that one without his involvement. I didn’t realize how quickly he came back to Columbia! Did that make Planet Waves a COA?

  27. I believe that Before the Flood, the live album of the Dylan/Band tour in support of Planet Waves was also an Asylum release.

  28. The Parkerilla got reissued? That’s crazy. I appreciate the info greatly, but while I’d be interested in hearing that record, I doubt that I’m interested in paying to own it.

  29. Hello, everyone. New here. First time response/post.

    Oddly enough, I write for a website called We Like Media, and I just submitted an article about overlooked “gems” from our favorite artists. This isn’t a plug for the site, but I am familiar with most of these titles.

    I actually like Self Portrait, but Dylan is certainly for the most hardcore. I think it’s decent enough, but I see the world through Dylan-colored glasses. I even sat through Renaldo and Clara.

    I’ve always been fascinated by the circumstances surrounding Marvin’s Here, My Dear. That cover is very telling. Thing is, this could have been a complete throwaway. Instead, it’s a brilliant soul-baring record.

    I tend to lean toward the underdogs in a major artist’s catalogue. It’s a fault of mine. You can have your Pet Sounds and your Who’s Nexts (I like those records fine and dandy), but give me Love You and Who By Numbers anyday. Only the most diehard can appreciate those.

    I look forward to possibly writing more here and a hearty “nice to meet ‘yall” from the Deep South.


  30. BigSteve

    Pince nez’d by Oats! That smarts.

  31. Mr. Moderator

    Welcome aboard, TB! Nice intro post. I’m reminded of Townsman 2000 Man, who entered the Halls of Rock wearing Stones-colored lenses. I’ll have to check out your site. Keep ’em coming!

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