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Holy Grails: a look back at some of music’s most memorable lost property

As a worldwide search for Paul McCartney's missing bass is launched, we look at other musical oddities lost - and in some cases, found

By Joe Goggins

Cardi B wearing her now-lost wig, Paul McCartney and his Höfner bass and Alex Turner, minus his lost lyrics (Picture: Getty/Aaron Parsons/Rolling Stone UK)

Keep your eyes peeled: this week has seen the launch of a concerted global search effort for Paul McCartney’s original Höfner bass guitar, which is being labelled as “the most important bass in history”.

The search, spearheaded by The Last Boss Project, is a reminder of the enduring power of music’s biggest mysteries to enthral, as well as the mystique that legendary instruments take on. And rightly so, Macca purchased the axe in Hamburg for £30 in 1961 and used it to create some of the Fab Four’s formative hits – including ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘She Loves You’.

In the case of that particular instrument, part of the intrigue stems from the lack of drama in its disappearance; it’s not known to have been stolen, instead simply going missing after the 1968 recording sessions that were chronicled in Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary in 2021. It was after last year’s headline set by McCartney at Glastonbury, meanwhile, that The Lost Bass Project was born, with fans wondering about the instrument’s fate getting in touch with Höfner, only two find that McCartney had already beaten them to it, and that internal discussions had been ongoing about tracking the bass down.

Now, with an army of Beatles purists and their intimate knowledge of the instrument onside, the manufacturer should be well-placed to finally locate the bass – assuming it still exists. But the case of Macca’s lost Höfner is far from unique. The recent history of rock is littered with lost curiosities, some of which have resurfaced, and some of which remain missing. Let us take you on a magical mystery tour of some of them.

Billy Corgan’s Gish Guitar

For dedicated followers of the Smashing Pumpkins, the holy grail, for decades, was an early 1970s Fender Stratocaster, one that helped define the sound of their debut album Gish and was featured in the video for ‘I Am One’, before vanishing in June 1992 in Detroit, when an opportunist thief disappeared out of the back door of Saint Andrew’s Hall with it. A $10,000, no-questions-asked reward dangled by Corgan was not enough to convince its new owner to part with it, and for years, it remained in the ether, with a litany of reported sightings coming to nothing and Corgan himself beginning to lose hope of ever finding it. “It got to the point where you started not believing it, because you heard it so many times,” he told Rolling Stone“It was like the lost treasure of Blackbeard or something.”

And then, in 2019, his luck changed. This time, a potential lead regarding its location turned out to be the real deal; it had been hanging on the wall of Beth James’ basement in Flushing, Michigan, about 80 miles from Detroit, for over a decade, after she bought it a yard sale for $200. When Corgan inspected it, he saw a number of details, like cigarette burns, that he’d never disclosed in the press, meaning they couldn’t have been copied, and he was reunited with the guitar that, because of its violin-like neck, had informed the Gish sound more than any other – leading to heartwarming footage of Corgan showing off the guitar to bandmate James Iha, himself lost to Corgan for many years before a 2018 reunion. On the topic of whether he regretted his lost years with the Strat, though, Corgan was sanguine, pointing out the the replacement instruments he was forced to buy went on to inform the sound of mainstream breakthrough Siamese Dream.

Alex Turner’s lost lyrics

Such is the transient nature of being a touring musician that there’s always a risk of losing belongings to the back of tour buses, to green rooms, to bars and to airport lounges. When Alex Turner took his eye off his bag in late 2008, he paid a heavy price; it was stolen, along with the book of lyrics it contained, which were destined for Arctic Monkeys‘ 2009 LP Humbug. As he related to NME, he bought a couple of Moleskine notebooks the next day and tried to recreate the lost book as closely as possible, and whilst some of what went missing ended up on Humbug, some of it was inevitably lost to history. For now, anyway; in 2004, Bono was reunited with a book of lyrics he’d lost in 1982, meaning there’s hope yet for the distinctive book belonging to Turner; it was brown, and bore the image of a fox on the front.

Alex Turner at Glastonbury 2023 (Picture: Aaron Parsons/ Rolling Stone UK)

For Turner’s part, like Corgan, he found that the whole ordeal may have been a blessing in disguise; the process it forced him into, of trying to recall al album’s worth of lyrics from scratch, inevitably led to fresh ideas he wouldn’t otherwise have had. Being able to remember everything, though, would have been close to impossible, as Guy Garvey related when discussing his own lost lyric book from 2002, which disappeared somewhere between Manchester and London. “Some people say ‘Can’t you remember what you wrote and just re-write everything from memory?’,” he told The Sun. “The thing is, I often write my lyrics when I’m drunk and can’t even remember them the morning after I’ve written them, never mind months later.” He colourfully illustrated this in 2021, when he told Dutch broadcaster NTR the story behind Elbow’s ‘Grounds for Divorce’.

Inspectah Deck’s original Uncontrolled Substances

Those well-versed in nineties hip hop will know that, after announcing their arrival with now of the all-time great rap debuts in 1993, Wu-Tang Clan went on to prove that Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was not a case of individuals creating something that was bigger than the sum of its parts. In the mid nineties, the individual members of the Clan went on a stunning run of records that showcased their individual chops, including Ghostface Killah’s incendiary Ironman, Raekwon’s mafioso masterwork Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s wildly idiosyncratic Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and perhaps the highest watermark of them all, GZA’s brooding, cerebral classic Liquid Swords. At the heart of all of them was RZA, the self-described ‘abbot’ of the Clan, who was in the midst of one of the great production purple patches in hip hop history.

What is sometimes lost in the re-telling, though, is that another record should have joined that pantheon of greats; Uncontrolled Substances, the debut solo effort by Inspectah Deck, who was a often held up to be the most technically-skilled rapper in the group, something evidenced by his unforgettable opening verse on 1998’s ‘Triumph’. The album would have followed those mentioned above with a 1995 release, but when RZA’s studio was flooded, he lost more than 300 beats, including those destined for Deck’s record, which was then shelved. It eventually saw the light of day in 1999, but met with middling reviews, suggesting that RZA had failed to recreate the magic that was washed away by the floodwater. “Every member of Wu get a chance to be the best, I think. And at one point, he was the best. His sword was the sharpest,” he told The Breakfast Club in 2019. “If we would have had the production and the vibe of what his album would have been, I’m sure he would have had a classic in the ranks of Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords.”

Cardi B’s wig

In the case of Cardi B, may we present a cautionary tale about the perils of getting caught up in the emotion of live performance and doing something you might quickly regret. The singer was performing at Wireless Festival in 2019 when she whipped off a presumably pricey wig at the end of her set and threw it straight into the crowd as a special keepsake for one fan. She quickly regretted the move. “I GOT CARRIED AWAY…… I want my wig back:/ DM ME,” she tweeted days later.

The hairpiece never showed up, but one prankster attracted bids of up to almost $14,000 (£11,180) when they created a fake eBay listing for it.

Jimmy Page’s ‘Black Beauty’

If McCartney is looking for reassurance that his bass might still be recovered even after all these decades, he needs only look to the epic story of Jimmy Page’s 1960 Gibson Les Paul, which vanished in April of 1970. The black guitar accompanied Page on Led Zeppelin’s notorious U.S. tour of that year and, he long believed, had been stolen as it crossed the border into Canada. He began his search for it by placing a monthly ad in Rolling Stone, which garnered no leads; as years rolled past and became decades, the chances of it ever turning up were looking incredibly forlorn, especially after a near-miss in 1993.

Page last played the guitar onstage in Minneapolis, and 23 years after it went missing, a man claiming sold a black Les Paul superficially matching its description to a local vintage guitar store, Willie’s American Guitars, claiming that Page had played it. The store reached out to Page with photographs, only to be told that it didn’t match the description of the one missing; Page had added extra holes for additional toggle switches, and there was no sign of them on the guitar in question. The store’s owner, Nate Westgor, then sold it to an employee, Paul Claesgens, for $5500, a little more than he’d paid for it. Claesgens kept it for years, playing it at shows with his own band. Only in 2014 did he take it back to Westgor for repairs, by which time Westgor had taken to putting guitars under a blacklight to reveal past imperfections.

When he did so with the Les Paul, he could see that whoever had stolen it from Page had tried to cover their tracks; two additional toggle switch holes had been covered up, confirming the guitar as Page’s. Claesgens did the honourable thing and returned it to Page via an intermediary, driving 15 hours to Dallas to hand it over. “On the way down there I slept in hotel rooms that had two beds,” Westgor told CBS. “Jimmy Page’s guitar had its own bed. God forbid I get up and step on it, I’ve never driven so careful in my life.”

A$AP Rocky’s stolen hat

All recent evidence points to A$AP Rocky, now a doting father of two, having mellowed in recent years, but ten years ago, an incident in which his hat was stolen at aa show in Germany was enough for him to bring an early end to the performance. His Supreme-banded cap was whipped off by either an over-zealous fan or perhaps an opportunist thief, and so pleased were they with their new headwear that they refused to hand it back over, even after Rocky asked politely, made reassurances that there would be no repercussions. 

“Who took my shit?” he demanded. “I came to party with y’all, give me my hat so I can [continue]. That’s a one-of-a-kind hat!”We ain’t gonna fuck you up, just give me my shit back.” When that failed, he resorted to some disapproving-teacher passive-aggression: “Nobody know nothin,’ huh? Germany, it’s been good. Thank you; I’m out this bitch. Peace!” The cap never resurfaced, and neither did Rocky ever elaborate on why it was more valuable to him than, say, the $15,000 Rolex that was snatched from his wrist at an earlier show in London – one he went on to finish.

Searching for Sugar Man

If you’ve never seen Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, then now would be the time to stop reading and start watching; its stranger-than-fiction true-life tale is best enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the revelations within. But those familiar with the film will know that it reveals to us who Sixto Rodriguez perhaps represents the biggest of all rediscovered musical treasures. A seventies troubadour who released two bafflingly overlooked albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, before vanishing into obscurity, little was known of his fate for decades afterwards, although the urban myths about him were lurid; one story that had stuck was that Rodriguez, despairing at his lack of commercial success, had taken his own life onstage.

The scarcely believable truth was much happier; that he had left the music industry behind, taken a job in a factory, and lived an unassuming life in a house he purchased at government auction for $50 in 1976, apparently oblivious to the fact that he had become a folk hero in South Africa. He passed away last month at the age of 81, but not before the success of the documentary afforded him a second shot at stardom; he spent his final decade touring the world, playing Glastonbury and the Royal Albert Hall, and reconnecting with the fans who for so long had assumed him long gone.