Dickensian London Victorian characters John Rowlands Mayhew

Things You Don’t See Anymore #2: The Bootleg Tape Market Trader

Victorian London Dickensian Mayhew John Rowlands
“Young man, would you care to buy a Sex Pistols bootleg live from the 100 Club? Just three guineas to you…”

Bootleg recordings of live shows can now be found on-line – but this wasn’t always the case. Bootlegs used to be under the counter – or more often, on market stalls in cassette form or (if you were really keen / wealthy) on vinyl at bootleg record fairs.

After Queen’s triumph at Wembley, I began to buy records with all the enthusiasm of a Goldman Sachs trader piling in to short positions in Greece. However, there were never enough records to fulfil my needs.

I had just stared working, and had a little money in my pocket. I spent most of it on records and beer, and as the saying goes, the rest I wasted.

Aside from the record stores, one of the places I found to spend my hard earned was The Bootleg Tape Seller at Chelmsford Market.

A latter day equivalent of a Dickensian Muffin Man……..

Dickensian London Victorian drawings Mayhew John Rowlands
He lives in Drury Lane

……Cat’s Meat Woman…

Victorian London Dickensian Mayhew John Rowlands

……….or Hurdy Gurdy Man……

Dickensian London Victorian characters John Rowlands Mayhew
He failed his Arcade Fire audition…

……the Bootleg Tape Seller is an anachronism: someone to be read about like in Henry Mayhew’s London Characters and Crooks.

His market stall – sitting proudly amidst purveyors of cheese, broken biscuits, sweets, wool, sewing patterns and cheap cuts of meat – quite openly flouted copyright laws by selling illegal live recordings of recent gigs. Great news for a new and slightly wet behind the ears rock fan.

Of course, it is fair to say that the sound quality wasn’t always the greatest. If you’ve never heard a bootleg tape before but you want to recreate the experience, I would suggest the following experiment:

  1. Take a radio or speaker system and turn it all the way up (to eleven, if possible).
  2. Take your iPhone, Flip camera or other modern device and hold it right next to the speaker (important: it must be right up against the speaker).
  3. Press record, and then at regular intervals shout and whoop loudly into the microphone. Say things like “Excuse me mate” or swear. During quiet moments, scream loudly and inappropriately directly into the mike.
  4. Record for ninety minutes, then play back to yourself, in a dark room with a relaxing mug of cocoa.
  5. Turn off after three minutes when you realise the whole thing is virtually unlistenable and is giving you the mother of all headaches…
  6. Jump up and down on the tape out of frustration until it breaks – perhaps whilst singing a comic song.

To cater for all tastes, the tapes were graded A-E, plus “Soundboard” which was the best recording: taken straight off the mixing desk. Anything graded below B was for the desperate however. A grades and even soundboards were bad enough. The holy grail was a “Radio Show”, usually from the USA. These were rarer than memorable performances on X-Factor.

The tapes came with poorly xeroxed inlays on pastel coloured paper with a track listing (occasionally accurate and correctly spelled) and the cover would be a badly photocopied (black and white) photo of the band (often the same band as featured on the tape – but not always) usually taken ten years prior to the gig in question.

My copy of Kiss recorded live in 1983 for the first tour they had done sans make up featured a picture of the band…in full make up. I’m sure the band still remember that crucial gig on that famous night…at The Ipswich Gaumont…

I had a copy of the tape of my first gig (Dio – see previous post) but it is fair to say the state of the art recording equipment used (most likely a three year old Sony Walkman) was not always up to the job.

The tapes made the current glut of YouTube recordings of gigs look like Martin Scorsese-directed epics…

One of the better tapes I had was the Queen Live at Wembley bootleg of the night I went. I paid about £5 for it. Ironically, about two months after I bought it, the band released the Live Magic album (£5) and a VHS of the whole (Saturday) concert in superb quality for £9.99. As soon as I bought that, it was shown on TV. Oh well…

Bootlegs still exist of course. The internet has made it easier to obtain these riches, without parting with money. Bands like The Black Crowes have tacitly encouraged fans to swap CDs of live recordings, and some fine gigs have been preserved. I have a truly superb George Harrison demo tape called “Beware of ABKCO” recorded shortly after he left The Beatles – only part of which has just seen an official release over forty years later. There’s also Concert Live – a company that sells recordings of live shows straight after the gig has finished (although why anyone would want a Steps live recording is beyond me). The Stones Archive is going one better and selling (at a low price) the best live concert recordings of The Rolling Stones previously only available from The Bootleg Trader at Chelmsford Market. And for collectors, record fairs trade some of the better (or more in-demand) bootlegs on vinyl…

So I won’t lament the demise of the Bootleg Tape Trader. Let him go the way of the cats-meat woman, Hear’Say and Big Brother Housemates into well-deserved obscurity. After all who needs bootleg tapes when there’s Spotify, Last FM, Tune-in Radio, YouTube…..

Record #42 – George Harrison – Run of the Mill (from the Beware of ABKCO Bootleg)

pictures copyright EveryRecordTellsAStory


11 responses to “Things You Don’t See Anymore #2: The Bootleg Tape Market Trader”

  1. 80smetalman Avatar

    When I first came to the UK, I thought Camden Town market was some sort of paradise for all the bootleg tape sold there. I remember buying live recordings of Jimi Hendrix and Hanoi Rocks. Cool memories


    1. every record tells a story Avatar

      Camden market was good for that – you’re right. Later it was a great place for ‘shrooms, apparently…


  2. 70dayweekend Avatar

    Genuinely made me laugh at loud. Loved it!


    1. every record tells a story Avatar

      Thank you! You can come back again…


  3. HipsterApproved.net Avatar

    I only bought one bootleg tape, but I have a bunch of vinyl ‘boots’.
    I got the tape when I was in the U.S. Navy and we had a port-of-call in France.
    I bought a double Cure tape of a concert there. I really like when Robert Smith says ‘Merci’ between songs.
    It’s the Disintegration tour.


    1. every record tells a story Avatar

      Do you still have a tape deck to play it on though? Merci for reading…


      1. HipsterApproved.net Avatar

        No…I don’t think so. I may have a Fisher Price ‘boombox’ for my kids. With a built-in mic!


      2. every record tells a story Avatar

        The sound is probably better on the Fisher Price…


  4. […] all the enthusiasm of Russell Brand berating a Spanish Waiter by telephone. I had a bootleg tape (one of the better ones) of one of the band’s 1984 Christmas shows recorded before Misplaced Childhood was released. […]


  5. Stevo Music Man Avatar

    I’m wondering with the rise again of VINYL, will the bootleg on this medium again pick up


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      Good question. There are bootlegs of our Of print records, but Discogs has banned the online sale of bootlegs on its site, which will make it more difficult for bootleggers. Online distribution remains, but it’s hard to make money from that…

      Liked by 1 person

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