Simon Poulter of What Would David Bowie do? Puts the case for the live album…
You’ve bought the singles, bought the album, bought the concert ticket, bought the T-shirt, bought your bus ticket home and now you’re being asked to buy it all over again as a live album of the show you’ve only just returned from. And, yes, you will buy it.
If you were at Newark’s Prudential Center this week, I’m sure, soon, there will be a live CD/DVD/Blu-ray Disc package of this or one of the three other gigs in the Rolling Stones’ run of 50th anniversary shows – two in London, two in New Jersey.
Over their fifty years as a band, they’ve released no less than 22 live performance albums. Such is their relentless self-merchandising under tireless CEO Mick Jagger (eight of the 22 albums are archive releases, brought out since the Stones’ last full tour), that you wouldn’t bet against a 23rd.
Stones live albums have, generally, caught the band in their natural musical habitat and, if you’re prepared to work your way through the 22, you come notice just how much they have evolved, even if you hold some deep-seated prejudice about the band from London’s suburbs who adopted the Chicago blues and went on to become easily the greatest rock and roll band in the world.
You should, then, start with the apostrophe-abusing Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, released in September 1970 (and re-released in 2010 as highly recommended 40th anniversary box set) captured the band in two shows in New York and Baltimore just as they were in the midst of, arguably, their most creative period, with Let It Bleed already recorded and Sticky Fingers about to go into production.
It captures a band in subtle transformation from boisterous, God-help-us-if-your-daughter-brought-them-home British beat and blues merchants into louche, 70s rock monsters.
The Beatles were, it appeared, on the way out, and new, heavier rivals like Humble Pie and Led Zeppelin were emerging from the 60s. Woodstock, Monterey and Isle Of Wight had set the bar for rock performances for the next few years, as had Jimi Hendrix, who died just three weeks after the Stones released Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! to acclaim, with critics hailing it the best live album ever.
Fast forward to 1978 and The Rolling Stones: Some Girls Live, which was released last year along with the repackaging of Some Girls, and you get the full-on Stones in the 1970s, Keith Richards now clearly out of it on whatever laboratory he was living from, Ron Wood enjoying life as the ‘new’ Stone.
Musically, though, the ‘weaving’ of Richards and Wood’s guitar is already starting to become more evident on Some Girls Live. Critics have suggested that the junkie Richards became a lazier guitarist, contributing rudimentary riffs to live performances while the more accomplished soloist Wood made all the effort. Not so: on Some Girls Live you can hear a distinct new Rolling Stones emerge, with Charlie Watts – solid to this day – at the back, Bill Wyman’s often under-rated bass playing holding it together strongly, Richards and Wood over the top of it all with their guitar fabric, and Jagger out front, camping it up for England like Andy Pandy.
Fast forward again to 2004 and the Live Licks album, recorded on their 40th anniversary greatest hits tour and you have the corporate Stones, a polished, sports stadium band who, like some giant human jukebox, pick and choose their set lists on a night-to-night basis and can command guest appearances from Sheryl Crow (on Honky Tonk Woman) and Solomon Burke on their cover of his song, Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.
There may, inevitably, be some dross in the Stones’ 22 live albums, but there are some gems too. But 22 live albums in 50 years: compare that to their great rivals, The Beatles, who barely lasted four years after their first hit record before they gave up touring altogether. The only evidence that The Beatles ever played live at all are the clips of news footage of performances drowned out by pre-pubescent screaming, or the somewhat tired and strained vibe of their 1969 Savile Row rooftop performance. If only someone had only recorded them at Hamburg’s Star Club in 1960, or at the Cavern on their triumphant return to Liverpool two years later.
The case for the Live album
The live album has been one of the music industry’s most contested products, regarded as either cynical plundering of the over-benevolent punter’s bread, man, or pointless filler between studio albums. As the Rolling Stones have frequently demonstrated, the live album has – and continues to be – fittingly reflective of their supreme stagecraft.
Paul Weller, for example, can be similarly compared, having been responsible for some brilliant in-concert releases over the years, from music press front cover flexidiscs (I still own – somewhere – a Style Council EP from Sounds featuring a blistering version of Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up) to numerous plugged and unplugged sets on his own. And I haven’t felt short changed or ripped off by any of them.
While it is true that some live releases are little more than greatest hits collections with added theatrical ambiance, many are deservedly landmark records in their own right. Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison relaunched his career, capturing a raw and emotional performance in front of inmates at California’s Folsom penitentiary, and coming on the back of the legendary country singer’s struggle with drugs.
With this context, a song like Cocaine Blues becomes more than just ironic, and when you hear a tannoy in the background ordering an inmate to report in somewhere, you have a live album as thrillingly unpolished as possible.
Simon & Garfunkel’s Concert In Central Park was another landmark, mostly for the fact it brought the warring duo back together again. The concert wasn’t so much meant to be a reunion as a benefit show for New York’s Central Park itself.
Despite being in the midst of some of Manhattan’s wealthiest real estate, the park was in a state of disrepair. So, apparently, the idea of half a million people traipsing through it for a pop concert seemed to be the answer… Concert In Central Park could be seen as a live greatest hits album of Simon & Garfunkel, which is includes some of their own solo material. It’s rough-round-the-edges (Garfunkel is said to have been unhappy with his vocals), but it superbly reminds you what made them folk-rock’s superstars.
Rough-round-the-edges, on the other hand, is what you want from The Who. Their Live At Leeds album, with its brown paper cover art, epitomises The Who live throughout their entire career – what you see (and hear) is what you get.
A loud – even on an album – run through their late ’60s ‘standard’ set, with hard core performances of Young Man Blues, Substitute, Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues, and a 14-minute assault on My Generation, it has been hailed as the best live rock album ever, but that’s always going to a subjective viewpoint.
There are, obviously plenty of live albums to remind us that some acts are no more exciting live as they were in the studio, which will thankfully explain the absence of One Direction Live From The Budokan in your record collections any time soon.
Gems you may have missed
Other live releases early on in careers, however, give fascinating insight in greatness to come. David Bowie’s Live In Santa Monica ’72 is possibly the greatest example.
It had been available for many years as a bootleg, but in being released as a limited edition CD four years ago, Bowie fans finally had their hands on an official version of a performance by the Dame in the midst of his Ziggy Stardust persona, with guitarist Mick Ronson at his absolute best, with the pair (and the other Spiders) romping through Rock’N’Roll Suicide, Life on Mars, Queen Bitch, John, I’m Only Dancing, The Jean Genie and Suffragette City, the latter presenting punk a full two years before anyone in New York had the idea of getting grungy with rock and roll.
Some live albums have built reputations as notable as many of the greatest studio albums. Frampton Comes Alive! has probably become more famous than any other album in the canon of Pete Frampton, the former Bromley schoolmate of David Bowie and Humble Pie founder.
Released in 1976 it provide to be another contradiction to the era of punk. While, elsewhere, some of Frampton’s own contemporaries were spitting their way through the punk explosion (he’s only a two years older than Joe Strummer…), here was this frizzy blond-haired pretty boy producing one of the biggest-selling albums of the 1970s, a live double album to boot, and one containing extended guitar solos.
Today, Comes Alive! comes across as somewhat pedestrian, the result of endless spins of the album’s Show Me The Way, Baby I Love Your Way and Do You Feel Like I Do America’s myriad classic rock radio stations. But there was a time when virtually every record collection featured that blue-spined double disc package with its distinct full-frame cover shot of Frampton looming out.
Another live album of genuine note is Seconds Out by Genesis. Recorded during their 1976 and 1977 tours for their A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering records, it presented a band in transition.
After Peter Gabriel left in 1975, and Phil Collins stepped forward to become their new lead singer, the band started shifting towards more accessible material. Genesis were still telling stories, rather than performing pop songs (their first ‘love song’, Follow You, Follow Me wouldn’t appear for another year), but Collins had clearly replaced Gabriel’s somewhat aloof theatricality with his own impish, stage school-based cheeky-chappiness, which you can on the likes of Robbery, Assault And Battery and what was, then, their only hit single to date, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe).
Seconds Out is a brilliant live album for its production quality. Plenty of bands have regarded live albums as well-intentioned ‘gifts’ for their hard-core fans, a souvenir of a memorable night, an acclaimed tour or simply a must-have for the collection with extended jams and unreleased cover versions capturing the band in their pomp and prime. Others have regarded them as official mitigations of bootleg recordings. Seconds Out is, even today, a live album I love for its authentic capture of the acoustic atmosphere of a big gig – the crowd’s roar as a band breaks into its opening number, and complicated and intricate songs that fill up the entire soundstage of your home stereo system to the extent you easily replicate the experience of being there at home. Without the beer-sticky floor of course.
But as album sales dwindle (and, perversely mainstream bands make more money these days from live shows), there is a proportionate decline in live album releases too, presumably because there are marketing people advising that “core demographics” no longer go in for them.
It remains, so it would seem, for the old guard to keep the live album flame lit. Like Led Zeppelin. For a band that didn’t really go in for releasing anything other than studio albums in their prime, they have been relatively prolific since their demise, with the awful The Song Remains The Same and How The West Was Won, not to mention Page and Plant’s No Quarter ‘unplugged’ entry. By old, I mean either those old enough to have been on the original Woodstock or Monterey line-ups, or those who wished they’d been old enough to be there.
Led Zeppellin weren’t at either Woodstock or Monterey, but then it’s arguable that by the time they took hold, they’d have been too big for either festival.
It is ironic that the Zepp have released more live material since they folded than was ever available during their career, with the recently-released multi-format Celebration Day capturing their one-off 2007 show at London’s 02 arena in honour of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.
It was, by all accounts of those who were there, a memorable show. But memorable for what? Probably seeing Page, Plant and Jones together again, with John Bonham’s son Jason providing uncannily similar chops to his late dad on drums.
Is it a classic Zeppelin show? Probably not, but this is where the fan’s compromise comes to effect: you know it won’t be quite like Led Zep were at one of their legendary Los Angeles gigs in the early 1970s, at a time when they were the ultimate rock bad boys on the road, but Celebration Day still goes to demonstrate why Jimmy Page has been one of the greatest rock guitarists since he was a teenage session player from Epsom, Surrey, playing on songs by Lulu, Marianne Faithful and, believe it or not, the Rolling Stones and The Who.
This year’s London 2012 Olympics, with its opening and closing ceremonies, perhaps suggested that the big stadium filling acts are in decline. Bruce Springsteen, U2 and their protégés Coldplay are amongst the few truly ‘big’ stadium bands left for whom you might want to buy a live album afterwards. Coldplay are certainly making the most of their elongated greatest hits show at the London 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony, by releasing Mylo Xyloto Live 2012, which captures the junior pomp rockers in their most arena-packing filling, U2 crown-usurping majesty.
The golden age of live albums was, however, without doubt the late 60s into the early 1980s. Hardly anyone who played Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore in San Francisco, or its sibling Fillmore East in New York during the 70s failed to release a live album on the back of such shows. The Fillmore East’s unique acoustics even made for a more pristine recording that captured the hall’s legendary ambience.
And thus, between the two venues, there is an enormous list of live releases from the likes of Henrix, The Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Otis Redding, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, The Doors, Cream (and other Clapton vehicles), The Byrds, Carlos Santana, The Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Pink Floyd. Indeed, there was a time when if you hadn’t released an album with at least one of the Fillmore venues in the title, you really weren’t anything.
Today, do we need them? The live album harks back to an era before everyone carried a recording studio around in their pockets, as they do today. Live albums were meant to prevent bootleggers sneaking shoebox-sized cassette recorders into gigs and making off with second-rate bootlegs.
Today, however, the concert experience is a gymnastic exercise in craning through a sea of smartphones recording shaky but high(ish) definition clips for YouTube and posterity. And often, by the time you’ve caught the bus home, much of the show you’ve just seen will have already been posted online, with reasonably good quality picture and sound.
The only thing you don’t get on a professionally recorded live album is the noise of people next to the iPhone owner, yakking on about their recurring flare-up of cystitis, or arguing about whose round it is…