A Brief History of Contractual Obligation Albums, Good and Bad

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A couple of weeks back, our redoubtable resident film expert Jason Bailey took a look at the most shameless paycheck performances in cinema history. They’re united by being pretty dreadful, and they got us thinking about similar situations in the world of music — specifically, albums that have been made to fulfill contractual obligations or other legal necessities. Curiously enough, while there have certainly been some terrible records made for such reasons over the years — either disinterested, lackluster or deliberately bad — there have also been some great ones, where legal wrangles and contract-related adversity somehow catalysed artistic inspiration. We’ve rummaged through our record crate and came up with some examples of each — let us know if you’ve got any more to add on either front.

Marvin Gaye — Here, My Dear

The circumstances around the release of this album have become part of musical legend — Gaye’s wife Anna, who also happened to be the sister of his record company boss, had filed for divorce, and Gaye’s epic cocaine habit meant that he couldn’t afford to pay the alimony. As a result, a deal was struck — Anna would get half the royalties from his next album. In an attempt at a spiteful kiss-off, Gaye set out to make an album that was “lazy and bad”. What he ended up making was a masterpiece, an album that catalogued the disintegration of his relationship with forlorn candour and genuine anguish. One thing did work out as Gaye planned, though — on its release, Here, My Dear was met with bewilderment from his fans, and sold very, very badly.

The verdict: Good. Great, even.

R.E.M. — New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Back when Q magazine was still worth reading, it started its exhaustive two-page review of this album with the tagline “Oh, that all contractual obligation albums were this good.” The writer had a point — this album was assembled hastily on the road and made to satisfy the terms of the band’s existing deal with Warner Bros (just prior to REM signing a new $80m contract that was at the time the largest in history). And somehow, it turned out to a highlight of arguably the strongest period of the band’s career — the mid ’90s sequence of albums that included Automatic for the People, Monster and also the hugely under-rated Up.

The verdict: Good.

Prince — Chaos and Disorder

If the title doesn’t give some sort of indication of how Prince was feeling about his contract with Warner Bros at this point, consider that he’d taken to writing “Slave” on his face in public, and had also changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in a heartfelt but legally dubious attempt to extricate himself from the label. And that his self-released follow-up to Chaos and Disorder was called Emancipation. Anyway, this album was his final release for Warners, and unsurprisingly, it wasn’t one of his finest moments.

The verdict: Pretty bad.

Van Morrison — Contract Breaking Sessions

Morrison signed with New York-based Bang Records in 1967, and for a while, all went reasonably well — amongst other things, he released his biggest hit, “Brown Eyed Girl”, on the label. However, when label boss Bert Berns died later that year, Morrison got into an almighty dispute with Berns’s widow Ilene. Warner Bros eventually bought out Morrison’s contract, but after the deal was done, he was left with one obligation to fulfill — he had to produce 36 songs for Ilene’s publishing company. He recorded them all in one session, and… Well, let’s just say his heart wasn’t really in it. The album he delivered included songs with titles like “Ring Worm”, “Twist and Shake”, “Scream and Holler”, “Blow in Your Nose”, “Nose in Your Blow” and, best of all, “Big Royalty Check”. It didn’t get released. Meanwhile, Morrison’s first release for Warners was his magnum opus Astral Weeks. Oops.

The verdict: Hilarious. But terrible.

Jimi Hendrix — Band of Gypsys

Releasing a live record is a time-honored way to deliver on the obligation to deliver an album. With his band The Experience having broken up in mid-1969, Hendrix put together a new band — the eponymous Band of Gypsys — in order to make this record and get it out as quickly as possible, but even though the motives were entirely pragmatic, the results were pretty amazing. Recorded over two nights at the Fillmore East in New York City (specifically, New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970), the album finds Hendrix at his incendiary best. The band went their separate ways a few weeks after, and barely six months later, Hendrix would be dead.

The verdict: Excellent.

Neil Young — Landing on Water

Young’s last studio album for Geffen was rather lackluster, but given that David Geffen had sued him the year before for making albums that didn’t sound enough like Neil Young, who could blame him? Landing on Water sounded like Neil Young, alright — albeit a rather jaded and disillusioned version thereof.

The verdict: Wan.

Todd Rundgren — The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect

The cynical title suggested that Rundgren’s last album for Bearsville Records wasn’t exactly one that he was taking seriously, but in the event, it turned out to be the last album he’d ever make to crack the US Top 100. Its sales were driven by the rather silly novelty song “Bang the Drum All Day”, which may or may not be about masturbation.

The verdict: Surprisingly good.

David Bowie — Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

Bowie’s contract with RCA was due to expire after Lodger, or so he thought — but that’s because he was counting double live album Stage as two records. RCA, understandably, were having none of that argument, and demanded another album to fulfill Bowie’s obligations to them. The result was arguably his last great studio album, and the home to one of his all-time great singles, namely “Ashes to Ashes”.

The verdict: Very good.

Lou Reed — Metal Machine Music

Is it genius, or is it a case of Reed deliberately pissing in the pocket of RCA Records? The man himself still stands by the record after all these years, which means that he’s either dead serious or he can play out a joke for way longer than we could ever dream of.

The verdict: Uncertain, still.

Monty Python — Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album

It really was a contractual obligation album, y’know.

The verdict: Ha.