Mike is a freelance writer with a Punk Rock ethos. He specialises in current and historical music scenes and subcultures.
Writing an album is a lot like writing a book. Sometimes that "book" is a series of chapters designed to link together to tell a story and other times they are more akin to an anthology of short stories or poems. For every finished, edited, and published book on a library shelf there’s at least a few hundred (and I venture that’s a low estimate) drafts or manuscripts that are never completed. The same is true for albums. For this list I’ll be taking a look at seven albums that, for one reason or another, were never truly finished but left their mark on the music industry regardless.
"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 arguably become his most recognisable and celebrated work. Johnston however, a sufferer of 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, though it is considered more sonically varied then 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 to Johnston’s inner struggles. Year’s after the unfinished album’s release, it would receive an unexpected boost in popularity when Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain, at the height of his rock stardom, was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing the album’s artwork, leading a new generation of fans to go out and discover Johnston’s music for themselves.
"Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk" by Jeff Buckley
In 1996, Singer-Songwriter Jeff Buckley began work on the follow up 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, but by early 1997 Buckley and his band were still left unsatisfied by the results and further studio time was scheduled to begin on the 29th 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.
"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 a multitude of genre influences that ranged from country, to rock and even Disney movie compositions. Ultimately though, multiple factors led to the album’s cancelation, including primary songwriter Brian Wilsons deteriorating mental health and creative dissatisfaction, inner turmoil amongst the band, drug use, the difficult recording processes used and multiple falling outs with the band’s record company Capitol records. A heavily stripped down and altered version of Smile, named Smiley Smile would end up getting a release instead to negative critical reception and poor commercial success (although the album has since gained a cult following) and the original Smile project was all but scrapped. Decade’s later attempts at recreating what the original album would have sounded like in Brian Wilson’s ‘Brian Wilson presents Smile’, and the Beach Boys ‘Smile sessions’, were released, but while the latter used some of the original recordings, both were created with new instrumental and vocal performances. Despite the fact that we’ll never hear the true ‘Smile’ album as it was first conceived, it’s grand scope and the mystique surrounding it influences musicians and songwriters to this day.
"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, with a lack of focus on what exactly the project entailed and tensions between the band continuing to escalate, with Lennon seemingly being more focused on recording music with soon to be wife Oko and McCartny coming across as an overbearing leader. Eventually plans for a huge worldwide live concert or tour to coincide with the album’s release, turned into one rooftop performance by the band, and the project was all but scrapped in favour of creating one last hurrah with the album ‘Abbey Road.’ After the Beatles had all but washed their hands of the album, Producer Phil Spector was brought in 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 however, 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.
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 essentially claimed he was the incarnation of a deity), the principal idea behind Lifehouse was to create music that adapted to and changed based on the personalities of The Who concert goers, using a variety of different hardware and computerised biographical data. If this is sounding rather out-there then that’s probably because it is, but primary songwriter Pete Townshend became obsessed with the idea. A screenplay for a film that would coincide with the album was written up and plans were drawn up to essentially occupy the young Vic theatre with a regular nightly crowd, who would influence the album and its film counterpart as it was created bit by bit in front of them… or something… Who knows? In the end though, nobody was truly on board with Townsend’s grandiose vision, including the record company who rejected the screenplay. Townsend’s inability to truly translate his ideas to those around him led to a nervous breakdown and eventually the project was put on the shelf, for Townsends own sanity if nothing else. The Who would instead begin work on their highly successful, straightforward studio album ‘Who’s Next’. Townsend never totally abandoned the project however, and in 1998 Lifehouse finally made its way to a wider audience (albeit in a drastically altered form) as a radio play for the BBC. A lifehouse chronicles box-set which included the radio play and demo’s for the original life house was released in 2000, and the lifehouse-method, an internet site which 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.
"From a Basement on the Hill" by Elliott Smith
Known for his unique “whispery” vocal style, use of multi-tracking and dark lyrics that referenced his struggles with depression and substance abuse, 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 continue to struggle with personal demons, with his musical output deteriorating alongside his health following 2000’s Figure 8 album. Smith did eventually seem 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 commit suicide on October 21, 2003. The work that was done for the album would get a release in 2004, and in all truth, it would be hard to tell without knowing that the album, which showcases a grungier and more expansive sound then his prior work, was unfinished. As a result the album is a suitable, if unfortunate curtain call to a troubled man’s musical career.
"...For The Whole World To See" by Death
An example here of a band that refused to compromise on their vision and suffered the consequences of holding their ground against a record company. Originally known as the ‘Rock Funk Fire Express’ and playing mostly Funk music, the band of three brothers would eventually head into a more rock/proto punk direction. In fact the band could be considered one of the first true punk bands of all time. As well as the stylistic change, the band would change their name to Death, following the passing of the three brother’s farther. The idea behind the name was not designed as a bleak or morbid one however, 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 twelve 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 had 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 wander 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 been given a release.
Mike Grindle (author) from UK 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) from UK 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.