Unfinished Yet Influential
How much of the world's great art lies incomplete? How many great albums fell apart before they were complete? We're not to know, but the answer is probably a lot.
Sometimes, however, even an incomplete work can become influential.
The following seven albums are all considered incomplete to some degree. Some of these unfinished albums would see a release in some form, others may see the light of day, but all, for one reason or the other, left an impact on the music industry.
1. 'Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album' by Daniel Johnston
Recorded in September 1983, Indie/Low-fi cult icon Daniel Johnston's sixth self-released album Hi, How Are You would go on to become his most recognisable and celebrated work. Johnston, however, a person living with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, has always insisted the album was unfinished due to a nervous breakdown he suffered during its recording.
As is the case with most of Johnston's work, Hi, How Are You is very minimalist in nature and was recorded entirely onto a home cassette recorder. However, it is considered more sonically varied than much of Johnston's other work.
The album is almost childlike in tone at times, but songs like 'Despair came knocking', 'Desperate Man Blues' and lead track 'Poor You' reveal a darker insight into Johnston's inner struggles.
Years after the unfinished album's release, it would receive an unexpected boost in popularity when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, at the height of his rock stardom, was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing the album's artwork.
Strange as it is, Kurt's choice in attire that night led a new generation of fans to go out and discover Johnston's music for themselves.
2. 'Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk' by Jeff Buckley
In 1996, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley began work on the follow up to his critically acclaimed debut album Grace, set to be called My Sweetheart the Drunk. A multitude of songs would be written and recorded during several sessions over the next year. However, by early 1997 Buckley and his band were still unsatisfied by the results, and the band scheduled additional studio time to begin on the 29th of May.
Unfortunately, on that very day, tragedy struck the young singer-songwriter, and he died of accidental drowning after swimming in the Mississippi River. Recordings made for the album were released posthumously in 98, with the words ‘sketches for’ added to the title by his mother (the heir to his estate), in reference to the fact it was not deemed complete.
Much like Grace, this two-disc album consisted of both original songs composed by Buckley and his bandmates, as well as several covers, including a haunting rendition of ‘Satisfied Mind.’ Despite it being frustratingly incomplete, the album would receive widespread critical acclaim and leave many pondering what could have been.
3.'Smile' by The Beach Boys
Conceived to be a magnum opus of sorts for the Beach Boys, Smile was a bold undertaking that ultimately overwhelmed the band. Mixing psychedelia, spirituality and humour with many genre influences that ranged from country to rock and even Disney movie compositions.
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A multitude of factors would ultimately doom the project from the start. Brian Wilson's deteriorating mental health, the band's frequent drug use, a ridiculously complicated recording process and falling outs with the record label eventually led to Smile being shelved.
A heavily stripped down and altered version of Smile, named Smiley Smile, would end up getting a release instead. Unfortunately, this version didn't live up to critical or commercial expectations (although the album has since gained a cult following.
Decades later, attempts at recreating what the original album would have sounded like, such as Brian Wilson's Brian Wilson Presents Smile and the Beach Boys: Smile Sessions, would see a release. But, while the latter of these used some of the original recordings, both were created with new instrumental and vocal performances.
Even though we'll never hear the actual Smile album as it was first conceived, its grand scope and the mystique surrounding it influences musicians and songwriters to this day.
4.'Get Back/Let It Be' by The Beatles
Conceived by Paul McCartney as an attempt to improve band relations and cohesiveness within the Beatles (following the many arguments and building tension that came from recording 'the white album'), the idea behind 'Get Back' was for the Beatles to "get back" to playing as an ensemble and performing live again.
Unfortunately, the project struggled from the start, primarily due to escalating tensions between the band. Lennon was seemingly more focused on recording music with his soon-to-be wife, Yoko Ono. Meanwhile, other members of the band perceived McCartney as an overbearing leader.
Eventually, plans for a substantial worldwide live concert or tour to coincide with the album's release turned into one rooftop performance by the band. Unfortunately, the rest of the project would be scrapped shortly after that, as the band decided to create one final studio album: Abbey Road.
After the Beatles had all but washed their hands of the album, producer Phil Spector would attempt to piece together an album from the many Get Back recordings, the result of which was the Beatles final album Let It Be.
While the original Get Back was conceived as a stripped down back-to-basics album, Spector's wall of sound production meant that, for better or worse, the finished Let It Be was in stark contrast to McCartney's original idea.
5. The Rock Opera 'Lifehouse' by The Who
Another example of an album with a scope so grand, it would ultimately collapse in on itself.
Influenced by the writings of Sufi musician Inayat Khan and also by Meher Baba (a man who claimed he was the incarnation of a deity), the central idea behind Lifehouse was to create music that adapted to and changed based on the personalities of The Who concert goers. To do this, the band hoped to use various hardware and computerised biographical data.
If this sounds rather out-there, that's probably because it is, but primary songwriter Pete Townshend became obsessed with the idea.
Townshend commissioned a screenplay for a corresponding film and drew up plans to occupy the young Vic theatre with a regular nightly crowd. He intended to create the new album in front of said crowd, with the crowds input influencing the project.
In the end, though, nobody else was on board with Townsend's grandiose vision, including the record company which rejected the screenplay.
Townsend's inability to translate his ideas to those around him led to a nervous breakdown. Eventually, the project was put on the shelf for Townsend's sanity, if nothing else. Instead, The Who would begin work on their highly successful, straightforward studio album Who's Next.
However, Townsend never totally abandoned the project. In 1998, Lifehouse finally made its way to a wider audience, albeit drastically altered as a radio play for the BBC.
A Lifehouse chronicles box-set, which included the radio play and demos for the original Lifehouse, was released in 2000. The Lifehouse-method, an internet site that created synthesiser music based on the user's vital statistics, would debut in 2007. Don't go looking up the latter anymore, though, as the site no longer exists.
6.'From a Basement on the Hill' by Elliott Smith
Known for his unique "whispery" vocal style, multi-tracking and dark lyrics, Elliot Smith first rose to prominence with the song 'Miss Misery,' after it was featured on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack.
More success would follow for Smith, but the songwriter would struggle with personal demons, with his musical output deteriorating alongside his health following 2000's Figure 8 album.
Smith eventually seemed to find himself on the road to recovery in the following years and got back to working on his sixth studio album From a Basement on a Hill. Sadly, that album would never be fully completed, as Smith would die by suicide on October 21, 2003.
The work done for the album would get a release in 2004.
In all truth, it would be hard to tell without knowing that the album, which showcases a grungier and more expansive sound than his prior work, was unfinished. As a result, the album is a suitable, if unfortunate, curtain call to a troubled man's musical career.
7. 'For The Whole World To See' by Death
Though relatively unknown, the band known as Death are considered by some to be the first-ever punk rock band. As a result, the trio's unreleased 'For The Whole World To See' may be one of rock's greatest what ifs?
Death is an understandably odd change of name for a band that was initially known as the 'Rock Funk Fire Express' and originally played Funk music. However, the band of three brothers decided to change their name to Death following their father's passing. The idea behind the name was not designed as a bleak or morbid one but instead surrounded the idea of taking a negative and spinning it into a positive.
Unfortunately for them, others would not be so keen on the name. After entering the studio in 1975, Death would complete seven songs of a planned 12-song album when Columbia records president, Clive Davis, told them they needed to change their name to something more commercially viable. The band refused, and as a result, Davis dropped Columbia's financial support for the album.
The band broke up in 1977, but in 2009 the seven recordings would finally get a release under the apt title For the Whole World to See. The release was critically acclaimed, and the surviving members (guitarist David Hackney passed away in 2000 due to lung cancer) would reform the band with new guitarist Bobbie Duncan to promote the record and even began writing and releasing new material.
Still, you have to wonder what the remaining five songs from the planned LP would have sounded like and just what impact the early punk trio would have had back in the '70s if the album had gotten a release.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Mike Grindle
Mike Grindle (author) on March 08, 2019:
Love Elliot Smith as well. XO and Either/Or in particular are two of my all time favourite albums.
Buckley was great too but we'll never know just great he could have been. Must admit though, I've never really explored much of his father's music.
Kaili Bisson from Canada on March 08, 2019:
Great article Mike!
I loved Elliott Smith's voice...too bad we won't hear any more songs from him. Jeff Buckley had such promise too; I was always a fan of his father's music.
Mike Grindle (author) on February 28, 2019:
To have been a fly on the wall during the recording of those final albums...
Interestingly, there's a 50th anniversary documentary on the album coming out next year with a lot of unreleased footage.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 28, 2019:
There's some pretty fair music wrapped up in all that unfinished business. The Let It Be album never stood a chance, which is really too bad. That group had zero chance of uniting on tour and we all pretty much knew it at the time.