David Browne
August 01, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Pre-Madonna

type
Music
Current Status
In Season
performer
Madonna
Producers
1-800-HARMONY
genre
Pop

We gave it a C-

These aren’t the best of days for bootleggers. First, the Grateful Dead, one of rock’s few boot-friendly acts, disband. Then, this June, two New York record-store owners become the first manufacturers and sellers of illicit recordings to be convicted under a new amendment to the state’s penal code; each faces up to four years in prison. As this zealous pursuit of copyright pirates spreads, where can collectors go to buy bootlegs of their heroes’ unreleased studio scraps and concert recordings, or material the artists prefer not be issued? How about your neighborhood Virgin or Tower? In the last few months, a wave of unauthorized superstar discs have infiltrated the racks at major chains.

Pre-Madonna brazenly announces its contents on its cover: ”1980-81 New York City — Unauthorized.” The core of the disc consists of six songs Madonna and her then collaborator, drummer-keyboardist Stephen Bray, recorded in her pre-Material days. They document Madonna literally finding her voice: She tries on everything from throbby dance-club rock (an early version of the great ”Burning Up”) to trendy new wave (”Laugh to Keep From Crying,” on which she morphs into Chrissie Hynde). Those recordings — along with early, sluggish demos of ”Everybody” and ”Stay” — are low-fi postcards from her days in New York’s downtown club scene, all urban grime and lust. And the otherwise unrecorded ”Crimes of Passion,” a slice of twinkling club music, comes closest to the city-beat pop of her first album.

How do you make an album out of a handful of songs? For Bray, the answer is simple: pad — and heavily. He’s constructed ”new” songs by recording updated backing tracks for Madonna’s old vocals, and he fills out the disc with extended (and dull) club mixes. Pre-Madonna accomplishes two near-impossible feats: It’s a new high in album filler, and it almost makes you feel sorry for Madonna. C-

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