In 2002 The Black Keys mailed a demo recording to many record labels hoping to get a record deal. One of those labels was the small independent Los Angeles-based Alive Records. Patrick Boissel from Alive Records not only took the time to listen to the un-solicited recording, he offered to release The Black Keys’ first album, The Big Come Up.
Patrick Boissel recently explained to The Black Keys Fan Lounge, “I received the demo in the mail. I think I later got an email from Dan mentioning Dr Ross, I thought it was cool. I called him and the rest is history as they say. That’s how I remember it.”
The Big Come Up was the start of The Black Keys’ career which has now spanned six albums. Only one of those was ever released by Alive Records. The album was a visceral statement, recorded in an Akron basement on a 16 track digi recorder by drummer Pat Carney. Many fans have ascribed an almost mythological value to this album. The Big Come Up has elements of all their future releases – hip hop (samples), blues, pop, heavy fuzz and soul – for which they will become popularly known to represent.
Rumor has it that Alive Records simply edited the original recording down, which featured many more samples, to create a releasable version. Patrick Boissel explains it wasn’t quite like this, “No, it was only a demo. I dont think it was meant to be released. They went back to their basement and recorded the album including new versions of the demo. I havent listened to it in years but I think they experimented a little more with electronic stuff. I think they were just trying different things. It’s kinda far away, I may be wrong.”
Patrick points there are no plans to release a re-mastered version of the original demo with bonus tracks although he admits it’s a good idea. Fans will have to be content with The Big Come Up Bundle presently available via the Alive Records website which features The Big Come Up album with the band’s first tour poster – 17 x 11 inches in black and white.
Fans might also be disappointed to know that there are no more recorded nuggets waiting to be released from the Alive Records vaults. The Black Keys track ‘Can’t Find My Mind’ has, however, been re-released on the Alive Records compilation Never Give Up On Your Hallucinations late last year. The vinyl version of the Big Come Up has four tracks not on the CD. It has alternative versions of songs She Said, Heavy Soul, Yearnin’, and a vinyl release only version of the Iggy Pop cover No Fun.
Alive Records released ‘The Moan’ EP after The Black Keys had already switched to Fat Possum Records to record the ‘Thickfreakness’ album. The Moan featured the cover ‘Have Love Will Travel’ which was, of course, featured on the ‘Thickfreakness’ album. You don’t often hear of tracks being released on one label before it is released on another as part of an album. Patrick Boissel clarifies, “We were just trying to bring attention to the Big Come Up, that’s all. Plus CD Digipak is a cool format.”
A significant aspect of the popularity of The Big Come Up was the way it was marketed. The album was not only released on CD, but also on vinyl but not on plain old black vinyl. The album was released in no less than 10 vinyl colours: white, clear, green, pink, purple, red, orange, blue, yellow and black. Patrick Boissel laughs at the rumors that vinyl sales of The Big Come Up allowed Alive Records to survive. “That’s funny, I wish. No, vinyl only counts for a small part of the sales. Some collectors may have various colors of the same album though. We always do color vinyl. I’m not a collector myself but a lot of my friends are. I think people who make the effort to buy the vinyl should get a little something more.”
The first coloured pressing of album was in white. “You can recognize the pressing because the cover was printed on a different stock than the following pressings, the black is not as sharp and contrasted, ” advises Patrick. There were many different colours and batches pressed which makes it hard for fans to know what they are buying. Hard but not impossible, Patrick gives these tips for the collector:
“It’s hard to keep track, but I think the pink, yellow, green, and red were 500 run. Clear, orange and blue were 1,000 each. There’s a sticker on the cover telling which you which color you’re getting. If it doesnt specify the quantity it means the pressing is limited to 1,000, otherwise it’s 500. Once the color is gone we dont repress it. We are now moving towards swirl vinyl territory.”
The Big Come Up vinyl release had those classic yesteryear stylings and and an excellent article by Denise Grollmus, Pat Carney’s future and now ex-wife about the band on it – see below. The look and packaging was typical of Alive Records’ releases but Patrick Boissel doesn’t think it necessarily contributed to the success of The Big Come Up. “It’s a fun concept and it probably helped bring attention to the album. In the end you’re buying music, not a cover.”
Alive Records recently published via YouTube an early Black Keys promo film trailer for The Big Come Up. It was an unexpected gem to see after so many years. Patrick adds that “it dates from the Keys first gig in LA. Probably the only footage that exists from that period.”
Even though The Black Keys’ left Alive Records to record with Fat Possum Records in 2003, Dan Auerbach retains a close personal and working relationship with Alive Records and Patrick Boissel. “We’re very good friends and we have a lot of respect for each other. He brought us Hacienda, Radio Moscow and Brimstone Howl. Dan seems to enjoy producing new bands and I love what he does. I think he still has an independent point of view about music regardless of his success.”
Not a lot of people know that Dan contributed guitar on Nathaniel Mayer’s ‘Why Don’t You Give It To Me’ album released on Alive Records. It’s an excellent album and interesting to listen to in relation to The Black Keys recent Brothers release.
From his involvement with Dan and Pat, Patrick Boissel could see The Black Keys’ sound and career waiting to happen when they were recording on Alive Records. “I always felt they were going places, loved their music from day one, but it’s a weird business and failure is usually the name of the game.” However, “I had no idea they would go that far. Their new album is great. Serious stuff.”
The Big Come Up vinyl Denise Grollmus article – re-printed from Cleveland Free Times – Summer 2002
“For the past twenty years we’ve been living in a world of irony that has made it hard to access the true soul and grit of trembling guitar lines, aching voices, and heart pounding beats. We tens to think that the only “real” rock is siphoned off to the earlier half of the 20th century, a place that we can only be nostalgic for, not one that we can truly experience. With the exception of a few rare talents, one of America’s richest musical genres has been sucked dry off its vibrancy. And with the greatest purveyors slowly dying off, we realize that something is missing.
However, when you place this record on your turntable you’ll suddenly realize that – somewhere, somehow – there are people who are rekindling the life of truly soulful music. At first, the quality of the recording may force you into nostalgic distance. You may be thinking to yourself that it is impossible for two young white men in 2002 to have made such a recording. Think again.
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are fortunate people. Unlike a lot of us, they never stopped knowing how to make music feel like something real, something accessible, something indescribable. Having grown up in a dead city that offers little more than a sense of loss, these Akron kids have had to find life in something other than what has been given to them. From an early age, both Auerbach and Carney found themselves in the life of sound.
Recorded by Carney in a steamy Midwestern basement, the density of the Akron air is perfectly translated through each and every pore of this album. Likewise, Auerbach’s voice astounds and inspires as it speaks of nothing more than his modest experiences, ones that we can all identify with. The songs are humble, like the players themselves, and in no way do these tunes illicit anything less than magnificence inside our souls.
Though heavily influenced by Jr. Kimbrough, Fred McDowell, as well as other Delta blues greats, The Black Keys are anything but an imitation. Their appropriation of the Mississippi greats is entrenched with a sound that is distinctly tied to their surroundings, calling upon Akron New Wave and Captain Beefheart for a sprinkle of eclecticism and the avant-garde.
Hailed by many as one of the best albums of 2002, The Big Come Up has managed to revitalize the indescribable energy that rock music is meant to deliver. Enjoy.”
The Black Keys still recording in the basement circa 2006