To some, live albums are the worst kind of fan exploitation, playing upon the dedicated fan’s completist impulses, labels reselling the kids songs they already own as superior album versions without even having to pay for studio time (indeed, the artist probably got paid for the live performance itself). Not a bad gig: you bet the music industry wishes it could get away with it today.
To such critics, the live album is, at best, unnecessary discography clutter, though live albums commit more serious sins as well. There are the fake live albums, studio sessions over-dubbed with canned audience noise and passed off as verité concert recordings. James Brown’s 1970 double set Sex Machine is one such counterfeit: while touted as a concert album “Recorded live at home in Augusta, Georgia with his bad self”, only the second disk was taped at Augusta’s Bell Auditorium in 1969. The entire first disk was instead recorded in the studio in Cincinnati, Ohio with the Godfather’s new band the JBs almost a year later (though perhaps the crowd sounds date from the Augusta gig). Doesn’t make the performances any less electrifying, though Sex Machine does remind us that the Hardest Working Man In Show Business could be one of its canniest businessmen as well.
Then there are the live albums that aren’t quite as live as they should be, where the artists’ egos have pushed them back into the studio to tweak imperfect performances with overdubs. This, of course, defeats the purpose of the live album – to capture the artist in the moment, their talents unadorned by studio trickery – though many celebrated ‘live albums’, including Thin Lizzy’s Live And Dangerous, are rumoured to be guilty of this misdeed. And perhaps tidying up the bum notes in the studio delivers a ‘better’ listening experience than serving up the warts and all, although in Jimmy McDonagh’s masterful biography of the grungefather, Shakey, Neil Young’s longtime producer foil David Briggs argues that Young’s sweetening of the vocal harmonies on the 1991 Crazy Horse live album Weld robbed the raw tapes of their rustic bite).1
Perhaps the worst live albums are the ones the preserve for perpetuity an artist’s off-night, concert recordings that add nothing to the studio originals, and maybe even subtract from them. Quite why Mick Jagger decided the world needed to hear him breathlessly yelp and bark noises that only vaguely approximate the lyrics to If You Won’t Rock Me on the Stones’ pedestrian Love You Live from 1977 is anyone’s guess, though I’d wager the answer came with a dollar sign at the end of it. And Love You Live is by no means even the worst Rolling Stones live album out there.
Live albums can also hold a freakish fairground mirror to an artist’s worst qualities and grotesquely magnify them. Case in point: the soundtrack to Led Zeppelin’s 1976 concert movie The Song Remains The Same. Now, I’ve a hard drive full of illicit soundboard recordings from Zep’s first few US tours that attest to their lean, leonine majesty, and I’ll concede that there are some tracks on Song that are keepers, even their infamous half-hour descent through Dazed & Confused, which in places summons a furious dread akin to Miles Davis’ Agharta. But seriously… Moby Dick? I’m a man who loves drum solos – a man who once purchased a bootleg CD that was just an hour of John Bonham rehearsing his drum parts for In Through The Out Door – but without the movie’s accompanying visuals of Bonham hammering a tom with his Barnsley Chop fists, Moby Dick is everything clueless rock hacks used to pillory Led Zeppelin for: leaden, bloated and pretentious. I’m stunned to discover that it lasts only eleven minutes, as it has always felt at least twice as long as Dazed.
Regardless, I love live albums. I love everything about the live album format, the idea that the moments or evenings they document are epochal and worthy of preservation, the narratives they aim to present and the stories they sometimes tell in spite of themselves. I love them, bum notes, indulgent solos, excessive stage banter and all.
I grew up in a home where music was forever playing somewhere. My dad had spent the Swinging Sixties as a young man in Swinging London, first as a Mod and then as a Hippie (of sorts), but at all times an omnivoracious music lover who made the very most of his teens and early twenties in what must have very much felt The Right Place at The Right Time. Dad was out every night of the weekend, and weeknights too when he could afford it, staying out as late as amphetamines would allow.
Shortly before I was born, dad had developed multiple sclerosis, and was often confined to a wheelchair. He liked nothing better than to spin yarns about his wild, golden youth, when love was free and thrills were cheap and he could get within arm’s reach of rock and pop’s greatest legends. He saw them all: The Who and The Stones and the Small Faces, the Cream and Vanilla Fudge, Georgie Fame and Geno Washington, the Pink Floyd and the Jimi Hendrix Experience and so many more. He saw them at clubs like the Ricky-Tick, the Marquee, the Bag O’Nails, the Roundhouse, bringing these magical evenings to life in his reminiscences. And, as some classic album spun on the stereo, he’d swear that it didn’t sound anywhere as good as ‘the real thing’, live onstage.
By the time I was old enough to rifle through the family record collection on my own recognizance, it had been somewhat impoverished by what my dad alleged were a series of light-fingered house-movers who’d pilfered his Led Zep and Velvets albums (but had curiously left all his Manhattan Transfer and Leo Sayer records exactly where they’d found them). When, as a budding young rock freak, I started to get curious about The Who, the only album of theirs dad still owned was Live At Leeds. With its paltry six tracks and warnings on the hand-written label of “crackling noises”, it scarcely seemed an ideal introduction to the band. But the internet wouldn’t be invented for several more years, so I made do and laid the vinyl on the turntable.
In my memory, what followed was much like the scene in Almost Famous where the young ‘Cameron Crowe’ experiences some kind of nirvana sat beside his sister’s record player, but that might just be the power of cinema at work. What’s for sure is I was immediately swept up by Live At Leeds’ unbridled power, how very loud it sounded even at modest volume, the opening thunder-crack of Young Man Blues, and the epic, adventurous detours of the album’s sixteen minute excursion through My Generation. I can, have and shall again wax at length about the brilliance of Live At Leeds, but for this introduction, suffice it to say it was enough to win me over to the live album’s cause.
As I began my own journey through music, live albums became the route via which I explored the gaps in our family record collection, the ocean of sounds that lay beyond it. Live albums were a better first taste of an artist than a Greatest Hits, I reasoned, because the performances were often wilder, the solos often longer and because – precocious rockist that I was – if a band couldn’t ‘cut it’ on the live stage, they probably weren’t worth hearing in the studio. As theories go, well, it wasn’t watertight. But I did get to hear a lot of great live albums along the way.
One of the reasons I started this project of writing a series of essays about the most memorable, remarkable live albums was because I thought that the live album was pretty much dead as a format.
That’s not exactly true, though. While the record store shelves might no longer creak under the weight of standalone live albums by the stars of the day, the live DVD has replaced them, fulfilling the purposes of the album with the added dimension of visuals. Unheard live recordings are regularly excavated to bolster the track-listings of deluxe reissues, further incentive for the fans to repurchase albums they already own. Pearl Jam press up and sell ‘official bootleg’ albums of every show they play, Fugazi are in the process of making hundreds of hours of archival live tapes available to fans, while Concert Live is just one of a number of companies who set up next to the merch stand at concerts, offering freshly-burned CDs of the show the fans have just seen.
The arrival of the internet, meanwhile, has liberated the formerly-underground world of bootlegs, illicit live tapes recorded without the artists’ approval.2 Formerly, to get your hands on a muddy audience recording of your favourite band in concert you’d have to lay down heavy cash at a record fair or trade with a stranger via snail-mail, hoping you weren’t about to be ripped off worse that the bootlegged artist. Now there exist a plethora of online file-trading networks and sites offering Recordings Of Indeterminate Origins from the past, helping establish a vast communal library of unofficial tapings, enriching our knowledge of modern music’s history, if not the artists who performed it. And many current artists share a more benevolent attitude towards the tapers, authorising fans to make and share their own live recordings, since it clearly never did The Grateful Dead any harm.
Clearly, fans still want live albums, and not just so they can own a further relic of their heroes. Sometimes they serve simply as mementoes, aides de memoire of a wonderful show the purchaser might have attended. Sometimes they capture artists performing with a freedom, an abandon suffocated by the studio, the roar of the fans urging them on to perform wilder solos, curios from their back catalogues, choice cover versions or radically different readings of familiar favourites.
Some chronicle a key moment in an artist’s development, illuminating the narrative like a chapter from a particularly fine biography, affording the listener the chance to listen in on some history happening, like James Brown performing Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud at Dallas Memorial Auditorium a mere three weeks after he cut the single, during the fiery Summer of 1968, or a reformed Johnny Cash singing Cocaine Blues before the cons of Folsom Prison, or, in the case of one Stones bootleg, Mick Jagger preening through Under My Thumb as Meredith Hunter is murdered in the audience at Altamont Speedway.
Some serve to fill the void left by an artist’s sudden passing. Jeff Buckley’s slim catalogue has been swelled by several posthumous live releases; the best, by far, is the Legacy Edition of his 1993 EP Live At Sin-E, expanding the 4 song original to 34 tracks of originals, unlikely covers and banter that bring to life Buckley’s legendary pre-fame coffee house shows in all their impromptu, mercurial glory. Some further reveal the skill of the artists who performed them, as they play without the aid of studio wizardry, flying without a net, recreating their opuses with only the tools before them and making their achievements all the more impressive.
Some evoke a unique context and ambience that complements the music, be it Iggy Pop dodging beer bottles thrown by angry bikers as his Stooges play some of their sleaziest material near the end of their career, or the Velvets providing background music as New York street poets order drugs near Brigid Polk’s tape recorder, or a newly-solo Curtis Mayfield performing a hushed intimate set at legendary folk club The Bitter End and proving that, stripped of the expertly orchestrated strings that upholster his excellent studio albums, his songs were still sublime.
Some are simply those artists’ definitive statements. High Time is one of the greatest rock’n’roll albums ever, but it’s the MC5’s debut album Kick Out The Jams – a chaotic set of “liquid frenzy”, feedback and free jazz-fried rock’n’roll recorded live at the group’s regular hangout, Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, in 1968 – that articulates their revolutionary, incendiary mission best out of their whole discography. And Live At Leeds, the disk that first sold me on live albums, captures the primal, adventurous might of The Who better than any of their studio releases and, in its original vinyl incarnation, contains not a wasted second.
Its live albums like these that I want to celebrate in the essays and postings that will follow. Some albums you’ll already be familiar with; others, perhaps, you won’t. Most will be commercially available live albums, though I also have in mind a few ROIOs and concert DVDs that I also want to talk about. Hopefully I can throw some new light on this maligned genre. At the very least, again, I’ll get to hear a lot of great live albums along the way.
1 The cut’n’paste work isn’t just limited to the artists’ performances, either – I swear that if you listen closely enough to The Rolling Stones’ 1991 live album Flashpoint you can hear a pissed-off girl in the audience shouting “Paint It Black… Paint It Black… Paint It Black, you assholes!”, which seems unremarkable – Paint It Black is, after all, an awesome song, perhaps even when performed by Steel Wheels-era Stones – until you spin the Stones’ far-superior 1970 LP Get Yer Ya-Yas Out: The Rolling Stones In Concert and hear exactly the same voice begging for Paint It Black before that album’s version of Sympathy For The Devil.
2 For a thorough exploration of the phenomenon, I rabidly insist you read Clinton Heylin’s excellent tome Bootleg.