Raider of the Lost Arts
The Live Album
For the longest time (hell, maybe they still do), Japanese authorities enforced strict regulations at domestic concerts featuring touring rock bands; the audiences were only allowed to applaud between songs, and there was a traffic light system––green, yellow, red––that signified the level of silence desired by the security detail. If someone made noise during a red light, the offender(s) would be singled out and politely escorted from the venue after a warning or two. But as you drop the stylus on the first track of a particular live album allegedly recorded at a sacred site in what thusly seemed the unlikeliest of countries, you can tell all those bets are off.
The punters, mostly young females from Tokyo, can barely contain themselves as the MC enthusiastically introduces the band and they immediately launch headlong into an uptempo rocker. The audience is chomping at the bit, and you can hear them breaking protocol all over the place as the band roar through a high-energy set that was perfectly recorded to capture the resulting visceral excitement, putting you right there in the concert hall with the screaming girls. You can almost smell the pheromones, sweat, and soggy knickers.
Deep into the second side of the LP, the singer steps up to the mic and says very slowly, deliberately, and almost comically, as though guilty of the gaffe of raising one’s voice at someone who is otherwise disabled but not actually deaf:
“I want…you…to want…me.”
Turns out he was just trying to make sure the Japanese audience understood his English, and oh, did they!, singing the even by then classic answering part––“Cryin’! Cryin’! Cryin’!”––after every utterance of the line, “Didn’t I didn’t I didn’t I see you cryin’!”
The singer introduces the following song––a newly recorded tune called “Surrender”––in the same deliberate way: “This next one…is…the first…song…on our new album.” Who knew at the time how much that utterance (not to mention the song) would subsequently embed itself in popular culture (it’s the first thing you hear on the Beastie Boys’ 1992 masterpiece, Check Your Head), and how important 1978’s At Budokan would become for Robin Zander and the rest of Cheap Trick (it’s still their highest-selling LP, and it finally broke them worldwide).
It is one of many streetlights disappearing behind us on the midnight road of music’s illustrious live and recorded past.
In the beginning, every album was a live album, often cut straight to lacquer or wax cylinder via one or two microphones and pressed directly from the resulting master. With no overdubs, “punch-ins,” or editing options yet available, the beyond well-rehearsed group or artist––mostly of the classical genre in the early days––had to get it right in that moment, often recording take after take until perfection was imitated and intimated. The drawback to this system was that the exhausted artists and studio engineers would often be stuck with a mono result of questionable quality, rife with cracks and pops and hissing from the media itself. The benefit was that once they had the golden take locked in place, there was an instant product available, no extra time spent mixing and mastering it. As a result, an artist or group could remain consistently visible to their audience by issuing new recordings two to four times a year.
Technology and technique developed through the decades; magnetic tape eventually relegated crude cylinders to museums with a cleaner stereo signal, and with studio innovators like Les Paul pioneering bounce-down overdubs, and the Beatles and others getting into some of the first multitrack shenanigans, we couldn’t exactly call it live anymore. Studio and live recordings thereafter became two separate animals.
Doing a live album was a two-fold burden. The label engineers usually had to wheel in a cumbersome mobile unit equipped with a tape machine and heaps of extra gear (sometimes including mics to capture crowd noise) and be doubly vigilant about sound checking the group, not only for the performance hall but also to ensure the sound quality and level before committing the results to celluloid. The band had to be on it under even more stressful than usual conditions; whatever they played was what ended up on tape, mistakes and all. This is undoubtedly why the majority of live albums released during its inchoate period were recorded by jazz artists, who were insanely well rehearsed, road-hardened, and already inured to the scrutiny (studio albums in said genre were typically recorded the same way: all the way live, straight off the floor). These combos were well-suited to the form (mistakes? What mistakes?! Play it twice and it’s jazz!), but later on, when rock ensembles––often under the influence of one substance or another––embraced the idiom, they would often end up taking the tapes into a studio to touch them up, overdubbing over the occasional mistake here and there to make it more commercially viable.
But oh, the energy they captured! Whereas the studio was stultifying in its solitary scrutiny, live shows released the beast in everyone. In the rawness of the concert hall, the artist and the audience became one, creating a symbiotic feedback loop. The crowd would revel in ritualistic cultural ecstasy, and the performer(s) could do no wrong, rising on the audience’s tide like elevated shamans, feeding the reinforced manna straight back to the fans. That a live album could encapsulate even a fraction of this incendiary synergy is one of the most laudable aspects of the form.
As the preeminent bowsprit of the Famous Flames, James Brown was one of the first mainstream artists to take a gamble on the still somewhat unproven format with the 1963 release of the first in a series of four superlative live albums recorded at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Featuring no new material and funded out of Brown’s own pocket, the higher-ups at King Records prognosticated commercial suicide for Live at the Apollo (Vol. I), but they would be proved heartily wrong by the album’s more than respectable sales––especially in Brown’s southeast stomping grounds––and high chart positions. Rolling Stone went so far as to anoint it the greatest live album of all time in 2015, and for good reason; punctuated by the manic screams of pre-Beatle females, the Famous Flames and their rubber-legged leader were tight as all get-out as they blew through the funk blueprints and soul ballads of their early hits after MC “Fats” Gonder‘s classic introduction.
The MC5’s Wayne Kramer cited Live at the Apollo as the primary inspiration for Kick Out the Jams. Recorded at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom over two consecutive shows on October 30th and 31st, 1968, and released in February 1969, it was their debut––and, as it turned out, final––album for Elektra Records, who sought to distance themselves from the resulting controversy (“Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!!” was not what certain retailers wanted to hear on Side 1, Track 1). Kramer has said the band definitely felt the pressure while they played, and it occasionally shows up in the form of flubbed guitar licks, uneven tempos, and sub-par vocals. But Kick Out the Jams solidified their place as revved-up co-progenitors of punk in the ’60s counterculture firmament, ultimately earning a place on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Right around the same time, and a few genres over, pop-country maven Johnny Cash had been languishing in commercial purgatory, having gone without a hit for several years while he got himself cleaned up. Cash had long been enamored with the idea of recording a show played for simpatico inmates who might experience a positive takeaway from and/or connection to him and his music. “Folsom Prison Blues” had been a hit back in 1955, so that particular correctional facility became the obvious first choice of location. At Folsom Prison, culled from two separate performances on January 13 and finally released May 6, 1968, revitalized Cash’s career, and thereafter sparked a series of successful live documents from various prisons.
The Grateful Dead were never that comfortable in the studio, but if you gave them a wide stage, a wall of sound, and a phalanx of fully authorized bootleggers, then Bob Weir’s your uncle. They were a tie-dyed-in-the-wool live act from the very beginning, a jam-band phenomenon that could only be fully experienced in person, but their show audio still provided a compelling approximation. It’s no surprise, then, that live recordings comprise the vast majority of their commercial catalog; as with some of the aforementioned albums by other artists, The Library of Congress deemed fit to add one such record––Cornell, taped at that University’s Barton Hall on May 8, 1977––to its National Recording Registry.
The Allman Brothers were the Dead’s country bumpkin, southern rock counterparts, also sporting two drummers and transcendent live show delivery. And, like many other artists mentioned hereafter, their first couple of studio albums hadn’t done well. At Fillmore East came to their vocational rescue, featuring the band at its galvanizing best––when it got to stretch out and explore their underlying works through extended improvisation. Barbecued versions of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post” help this record give Live at the Apollo a serious run for GOAT live album laurel.
Though Monterey Pop laid the foundation, Woodstock upped the ante in the sense that a visual component was now being added to the event capture. With the undeniable assistance of both the soundtrack album and theatrically released film, the 1969 Woodstock festival has become lodged in our collective cultural consciousness. It’s difficult now, if not impossible, to hear the National Anthem without thinking of Jimi Hendrix’s early morning rendition during the final hours of the festival. It was both a searing homage and quiet-before-the-storm commentary, with an unpopular war devouring America’s youth in Vietnam, and their drug-addled, protestant hippie counterparts poised on the brink of social and psychological implosion back home (the imitative and ill-fated Altamont festival, as documented in the Rolling Stones-featuring Gimme Shelter, would all but singlehandedly kill the ’60s dream just four months later). It was––and is even now––the sound of an ever-troubled but still somehow great nation coming apart at the seams.
Led Zeppelin, who declined a Woodstock slot, provided the soundtrack for the resulting hangover, presiding over the ’70s like a laced dope smoke miasma over one of their arena throngs. They were very much a Jekyll and Hyde operation, well behaved and cleanly produced in studios back home, but becoming wild animals when touring America’s concert milieus. There were several excellent show bootlegs in existence, but they were all unauthorized; late manager Peter Grant was a beast when it came to cracking down on renegade tour shirt vendors and surreptitious amateur bootleggers alike. Frustratingly recorded and filmed just after their 1972 peak (Plant’s voice is blown out; Page hadn’t yet boarded the H train but is heavily sauced), and finally released with supplemental, self-indulgent fantasy sequences from each member in 1976––the very same year punk rock recast them as obsolete dinosaurs, band and fan alike made do with The Song Remains the Same’s film and soundtrack as the only official document of Led Zeppelin’s live prowess for almost three decades. The Song Remains the Same does have its moments; with a two-plus hour set already peppered with classic epics, it’s still a thrill to watch them blaze their way through the psychedelic blues set piece, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, the jubilant gallop of the title track, the multi-sectioned schizophrenic marathon improv of “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love,” and to watch the as-of-yet unsullied “Stairway To Heaven” endear itself to the cultural mythology as a ’60s coda before it got ridden hard and put away wet by FM radio (“Does anybody remember laughter??”). But when the vaults finally got raided for the 2003 release of DVD, and the subsequent audio-only document How the West Was Won (among several other finally approved bootlegs), one could almost hear the long-suffering acolytes shouting from the rooftops.
Zeppelin contemporaries and Atlantic Records label mates Yes were also a live force to be reckoned with, featuring a more than proficient virtuoso on each instrument and even able to reproduce their stunning two and three-part vocal harmonies onstage. The 1973 Yessongs album and accompanying 1975 film show the prodigies at the tail end of their early ’70s apogee, shining brightly even without the incomparable Bill Bruford––who had just departed the classic lineup––on drums (a full bow goes to the recently deceased replacement, Alan White, who was behind the kit for this outing). More live albums followed, but as their music got even longer and weirder, and then pop-heavy in the ‘80s, and with nearly continuous personnel changes, the more difficult it became to keep up.
The mid-’70s found KISS, the costumed kabuki rockers out of NYC, in the middle of a do-or-die crisis. Their first three studio albums had failed to connect; the band, the producers, and the engineers just hadn’t been able to bottle the heavy intensity of their often sold-out, word-of-mouth live show spectacles. To top it all off, KISS’s record label––Casablanca––was on the verge of tapping out. Their concert notoriety inspired the brainwave to cut a live album that hopefully reflected what the band actually sounded like and would also bail out the record label to boot. Pieced together from four shows on the ’75 tour, and overdubbed to the point where even non-sticklers would be forced to contest its nevertheless bludgeoning authenticity, the 16-track double album Alive! not only saved Casablanca’s ass but also rocketed KISS into the A-list arena stratosphere. You best believe they earned access to better recording studios and engineers for the albums that followed.
British solo artist Peter Frampton simultaneously found himself in the same predicament when, after four middling studio releases, he recorded the lion’s share of Frampton Comes Alive! at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in 1975. Released in January 1976, the album catapulted him into the zeitgeist, talk box solos and all and gave eager listeners the simulated elation of the roach finally arriving at them in the rotation.
Canadian power trio RUSH had a novel relationship with live records, releasing one after every four studio albums like clockwork during their seventies and eighties prime, and with an accompanying film from the second one on. This is apropos for a band whose very livelihood depended almost exclusively on their concert performances (radio support was negligible during their lengthy tour runs). With live shows as their boom-or-bust bread and butter, it’s no wonder their concert documents are so extraordinary. The first two are the best, coming hot on the heels of their most crucial studio albums. 1976’s pulverizing All the World’s a Stage followed the career-saving 2112, and 1982’s brilliant Exit, Stage Left was recorded partially during the tour supporting their most well-known and successful album, Moving Pictures. A Show of Hands, their third live album and movie (not counting the film and soundtrack from their Grace Under Pressure tour), gets an honorable mention for capturing the band at their absolute technical and technological apogee.
There are many who feel Robbie Robertson put a premature end to The Band with the Martin Scorsese-directed, monumental 1978 movie and soundtrack The Last Waltz. But everyone managed to keep whatever emotions in check and rose to the challenge, producing one of the best concert films ever made, and one hell of a star-studded, feather-in-the-cap publicity stunt send-off. In the end, The Last Waltz wasn’t just a farewell ode to an act that epitomized the rootsy authenticity of a generation and its music, it was also an adieu to the era in which they thrived; punk and disco had already taken over, and the synth-laden, video-heavy, coke-addled ’80s were right around the corner.
From the ’80s on, the live album seemed to remain the domain of bands that held steadfast to the performance-based aesthetic and gritty, reactive realism of the recent past, though by then having been inextricably joined at the hip with the visual realm, thanks to the 1981 advent of MTV. Talking Heads had gotten their start piggy-backing punk and new wave, but by 1984 they had become something akin to an arty R&B heritage act. The soundtrack to the movie Stop Making Sense, which was directed by filmmaker Jonathan Demme, is inextricable from the film. It is a complete cinematic experience, almost biblical in its buildup: “In the beginning, there was only David and a beat-box tape machine, and with an acoustic guitar he doth played ‘Psycho Killer’ on an empty stage to the delight of all, then he was progressively joined by more and more band members, risers, and set design, and the people were awestruck…then David left; Tom Tom Club played their one hit, and he returned in an oversized suit, there were choreographed dance moves, and the crowd saw that it was good.” The film, led by the jubilant drill sergeant funk of “Burning Down the House” and shadowed by less traveled but equally up to the challenge PFCs like “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody) ,” “Life During Wartime,” “Girlfriend Is Better,” and “Heaven,” was––and is––significant enough for the Library of Congress to add it to their National Film Registry.
U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky (and, to a lesser extent, Rattle and Hum) might be the last live album and accompanying film that had a significant cultural impact. At the time of its 1983 capture on a rainy tour stop at the now legendary concert mecca of Morrison, Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater (made legendary by the film and soundtrack), U2 were experiencing modest stateside success and were looking to create a marketable moment to cement their place in the zeitgeist. With the venue’s flame torches and inclement camera blur heightening the drama, the band came off like the forthright rock messiahs they were, as a white flag waving Bono led the band through early classics (Rolling Stone listed this particular performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on their list of 50 Moments that Changed the History of Rock and Roll) in front of a way less than sold-out audience of rain-braving die-hards that had been corralled down to the front of the stage as a visual countermeasure. It’s a miracle no one was electrocuted, let alone that Under a Blood Red Sky accomplished its commercial and cultural goals.
Phish became the Grateful Dead’s heirs apparent, coming up in the ’80s and fully flowering in the early to mid-’90s roots boom in synchrony with other like-minded groups under the jam band rubric (Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, etc.). As with the Dead, live shows and the recording of them are Phish’s stock and trade, with almost as many live albums as studio releases, and with fans able to make and trade their own show recordings. During the band’s early 2000s hiatus, their label (Elektra) released the 20-volume Live Phish series, which contained almost 50 hours of music. Other notable releases include A Live One, and the cheekily titled Hampton Comes Alive.
By the late ’80s and early ’90s, DIY bootstrap budgets and Generation X’s jaded shunning of grand gestures began to separate the visual element from the soundtrack, that is if anyone cared or dared to even attempt making a live album. Primus had the justified temerity––and most likely expedient sagacity––to make Suck on This, recorded at the Berkeley Square in 1989 on their own dime and initially self-released on their Prawn Song label, their debut for Caroline records (Jane’s Addiction did essentially the same thing down in Los Angeles with their eponymous 1987 debut on Triple X).
21st Century live shows are by and large a joke with no punchline. The audience, almost to a person, is disengaged, making the previously communal experience more about them as lazy, entitled individuals than submitting to collective cultural ecstasy in interactive celebration of the artist(s) and their music. If they’re not filming all or a large chunk of the concert as part of a detached sea of hypnotically glowing cell phones, relinquishing the series of priceless present moments for future home enjoyment, they’re “checking in” to self-aggrandize and garner envy-inspiring, bragging right attention on social media. Granted, we didn’t have the technology––or the authorization––to personally capture a concert experience during its ’60s to ’90s golden age, so there’s a giddy novelty in being able to record our own bootleg experiences for posterity, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing it in moderation. But it is by and large a distraction; most people who visit the Grand Canyon are content to go to the rim, stay at the local inn, and leave after taking a slew of photos from behind the guard rail, but attending a concert used to be like actually venturing all the way down the twisting switch-back trail as part of a pack mule caravan, camping at the bottom, rafting the river and actively exploring the scenery instead of just offhandedly taking in the natural wonder from afar, posing for and posting the obligatory photos and selfies, and buying the keepsake t-shirt before quickly moving on.
There are also fewer quality artists getting the support and attention they deserve from ever more distracted “Squirrel!!” acolytes and a music industry that entered hospice care back in the ’00s. There are plenty of worthy live acts out there, but they’ve been pushed underground in favor of tired glue-horse nostalgia acts and vapid, digital pop hacks at the forefront of the metastasized music industry’s “look at me!” stepping-stone agenda. One simply can’t make a good live album without sufficient industry backing, let alone baseline crowd participation.
Music-devaluing technology and our steady descent into crisis have created too many new addictions and distractions for audiences to remember their part in the live show equation (COVID certainly hasn’t helped in this regard). This has led performers to the point where they all must feel akin to over-the-hill museum exhibit/Vegas residency acts no matter what city they’re performing in or the size of the venue. That in turn transmogrifies their creative processes into the other-oriented pursuit of keeping their foot-tapping label and audience happy in lieu of themselves, as more of their energy goes into trying to alleviate the “dance monkey” pressure of coming up with a progressively more desperate visual spectacle. Audiences seem to want to see someone set themselves on fire while the flash pots and fireworks burst along in unison, not collectively revel in the mind-altering, heart-affecting music. Artists have by and large succumbed to devaluation and dumbed down their music to dovetail more effectively with the societally isolated era in which we now regrettably reside.
There are still live albums being made, but only the ringers are getting green-lit, and the focus is still weighted toward the visual realm, thanks to YouTube, Tik Tok, and cable TV. The recent ado inspired by Stranger Things’ use of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” during various episodes of the most recent season is indicative of listeners craving more music with genuine substance and even a pinch of harmonic sophistication. But it is still just another look backward, when one hopes for forward motion once more. And it’s certainly no substitute for experiencing the music live, the way it was meant to be.