In 1975, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired The Stationary Ark, a documentary miniseries shot at the Jersey Zoological Park in the Channel Islands. The show was noted for its haunting theme music, composed by John Mills-Cockell.
In 1984, programmer Georg Feil started developing Synth, a music composition system for the Commodore 64. (The sound synthesis chip in the C64 was, at the time, the most sophisticated of any commonly available home computer.) Owing to difficulties with Feil’s publisher, Synth was never commercially released, but Feil used a prototype of it to produce a demo track—a rendition of the Stationary Ark theme, as improvised from memory by a friend of his. Feil shared the demo with another friend of his at the University of Waterloo. That copy got shared with the friend’s friends, and with the friend’s friends’ friends, and so on, until soon the track started popping up all over the world on BBSes and other early online networks. Today Feil’s arrangement of the Stationary Ark theme remains one of the most well-known pieces of music ever to have been produced for the Commodore 64. (And keep in mind that up to 17 million C64s were sold worldwide; the number of C64 users that would have heard Feil’s Synth demo at some point likely dwarfs the number of people who ever saw the original TV series.)
With the renewed interest in The Stationary Ark generated by the Synth demo, people reached out to the CBC and to Mills-Cockell to ask for the original recording of the song, but nobody could find a copy. Apparently neither CBC nor Mills-Cockell had thought to keep any tapes. Mills-Cockell has heard Feil’s arrangement, which he says doesn’t bear much resemblance to his original composition. (When Feil’s friend improvised the tune for him back in 1984, he probably also hadn’t heard the original for nearly a decade, so it’s likely much of it was misremembered.)
I find it fascinating that what became such a popular and well-loved piece of music seems to have been completely lost in its original form. In fact, the best-known surviving version is at best only loosely based on the original. Today you can find a dozen or more renditions of the theme to The Stationary Ark on YouTube but (notwithstanding the fact that some of them are mislabelled as being Mills-Cockell’s original) all of them are in fact arrangements or reinterpretations of Feil’s version. The comments sections of these videos are full of people pining for the version they remember from the TV series.
Can anyone else think of a fairly recent musical recording (say, from the 1950s onwards) that achieved great fame or popularity in its time, but has no known surviving copies today? Note that I’m not talking about songs like the Beatles’ “Carnival of Light”, which has never been released (not even on bootlegs) but whose tapes are still in existence (in this case, in Paul McCartney’s possession), nor songs that some artist cut but ended up shelved or relegated to some obscure but extant B-side or compilation release. I’m thinking more along the lines of famous lost films, where a recording was publically released, and maybe even became quite notable (either in its own right or through later cover versions), but where no copies are known to exist in the present day.