Why live Rock albums are a lost art and should be treasured
A Strum and Bang Literary Drift
by Kenneth J. McKay
In 1976, an unusual phenomenon occurred that would shine a light on Rock artists in a way that had previously been reserved for die-hard fans, and caused purists and critics alike to reconsider past opinions — a live album dominated the charts (reaching #1 and becoming the best selling album of 1976) and changed the musical conversation for decades to come. The double live album, Frampton Comes Alive!, was released to huge sales and quickly became the bible for generations of guitarists to come. That album, more than others who came before, brought a new legitimacy to live performances, as well as commercial viability to their recordings. It wasn’t the first great live Rock album, but it was such a distinct piece of work that it could not be overlooked. It was the perfect example of the live album as an art form. It wasn’t just live versions of studio cuts, it was an expert offering of improvisation and re-imagining of studio songs. While some other live albums offered versions of songs that were already well known, Frampton Comes Alive! made hits out of songs that were not hits in their original incarnations. “Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way” (#6 and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100) were from his fourth studio album, Frampton, and “Do You Feel Like We Do” hit #10 on the same charts (after being edited from 14 minutes to 7 minutes — a previously unheard of running time for a single, never-mind a live recording…Okay, “Hey Jude” comes in at 7:11, but that was the Beatles. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was 2:52 as a single, before you chime in on that one.) “Baby, I Love Your Way” re-entered the charts in 1993 as a worldwide hit for the band Big Mountain.
The performances on the album transcended its vinyl restraints. “Do You Feel Like We Do” still gives chills after 40 years. The guitar work is literally stunning. Frampton’s tone and dynamic control commanded guitarists’ attention and is still marveled at to this day. The nuance-filled intro to this song is one of the most recognizable pieces of fretplay to come out of the 70s (and is a great way to scratch a guitar itch when you’re just fumbling around for something to play), the solos are a master class in the use of the Dorian scale (uh, mode!…damn purists), and the legendary talk-box interlude is, well, legendary. Even the modified three-pick-up 1954 Les Paul Custom has a mythical back story all its own.
Again, to the artistry of the album, it’s not just about Frampton. The album showcases what great journeymen musicians can add. The late great Bob Mayo handles so many subtle tasks, from the second guitar harmonies on “DYFLWD” to the Fender Rhodes soloing that so perfectly matched Frampton’s solos on that same song just a few minutes later, that he may have just been the alchemist that made the album actually come alive. Even the drum intro to “(I’ll Give You) Money” elevated John Siomos from a relative unknown to “that guy” (oddly reminiscent of “I’m Ready” from Humble Pie’s Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore, Frampton’s last performance before leaving that band).
So what was so special about this album, or any live album? Live recordings allow an artist to show that they are more than the confines of a studio and a producer, that they are more than a record company’s pre-packaged product. They prove, in a way, that musicians are actually living people, and equally important, that music is a living entity that changes and grows with the audience experiencing it.
In the world of Rock emerging in the 1970s, live performances were becoming the thing of legend. The Monterey International Pop Music Festival in 1967 and Woodstock two years later had proven that audiences were drawn to the live music experience in massive numbers. Unfortunately, the soundtracks to these specific events didn’t truly live up to the experiences themselves. They were recordings of live events, but they weren’t expressly “live” albums. They offered some amazing moments from a huge selection of the most important artists of the day, but those albums seemed to miss the intimacy of some of the truly great live albums by individual artists. Jimi Hendrix is the lone exception. His immortal version of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and his killer performance of “Wild Thing” (where he literally killed his guitar) at Monterey might be the standout performances of both concerts and represent the best of live Hendrix. (Band of Gypsys, recorded at the Fillmore East without his original band, was produced to settle a contract dispute. The duress kinda bleeds through the performance. Just sayin’…)
The Who’s performance at both of these festivals just doesn’t compare to their Live at Leeds album — “the definitive hard-rock holocaust” (New York Times review…NYT…really?). Live at Leeds has been cited as the best live rock recording of all time by multiple outlets, including Rolling Stone, and critics’ have said, “Few bands ever moved a mountain of sound around with this much dexterity and power,” and upon the reissue of the album that includes additional content from a second performance, “we now have the two greatest live rock albums…ever.”
Live albums were becoming unique unto their own selves.
If there was one figure who could be singled out as the biggest influence on great live performances, thereby paving the way to great live albums, it was Bill Graham.
Graham’s Fillmore venues (East and West) were the backdrop for some of the greatest live albums recorded. The list is long for the Fillmore shows, (Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and on and on), but for live albums, the following two always seemed to emerge as timeless:
The Allman Brothers Band — At Fillmore East. “Whipping Post”, “Hot ‘Lanta”, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”. Every track is priceless. (Could you even imagine not having this album to immortalize Duane Allman?) This album just confirmed what every Allman Bros. fan already knew — this was a band to be experienced live. The studio albums were great, but merely a formality. This album is in the Library of Congress and is listed in the top 50 of Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time, and was named by one critic, “the finest live rock performance ever committed to vinyl.”
Humble Pie — Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore. The precursor to Frampton’s huge live album is his last performance before leaving the band. The drum opener for “Are You Ready”, Steve Marriott’s vocal riffing during “Stone Cold Fever”, and every garage band’s jammer, “I Don’t Need No Doctor” are classics across the board.
Parts of Frampton’s album were recorded at another Graham venue — Winterland Ballroom (an old ice skating rink, of all things) in San Francisco. Three of the four live parts of Cream’s Wheels of Fire were recorded there. Though technically not a full live album, where would guitar rock (or Clapton) be if not for the version of “Crossroads” that was committed to legend that night?
Another arena which seemed to offer up timeless live recordings was Cobo Hall in Detroit. Literally everybody who was anybody played this arena at its peak: Zeppelin, Sabbath, The Who, The Stones, Hendrix, The Doors…everybody…but certain live recordings captured a few performances that resonated more than the others.
From his home base of Detroit, Bob Seger’s Live Bullet hit the mark dead on. It was his breakout moment. The album is over 5x Platinum and still selling, adding to his eventual career sales of over 75 million, induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The live “Turn the Page” is classic (and another example of a better version of a studio tune) and you could almost put a pin in that live recording as the beginning of his success.
Cobo Hall also gave us what just might be the most controversial live album ever recorded, KISS Alive! Partially recorded at Cobo Hall and several other stops on their Dressed to Kill tour in 1975, KISS Alive! was released in 1975 to great success. It charted as high as #9, ultimately saying on the charts for over 100 weeks. Prior to the live album, KISS’s three studio album were commercial disappointments, and even though they were generating a cult following for their stage performances, their power was undoubtedly their onstage visual element. (I saw them in NYC in 1975 and it remains one of the most memorable shows I have ever attended. I was 12 years old…maybe that should factor in.) Capturing a spectacle is different than recording a great live album. Enter the controversy (here’s where Gene Simmons sues me). As the buzz around the album was peaking, people began to accuse the band of re-recording and overdubbing tracks and even adding pre-recorded audience sounds. In his 2001 autobiography, Gene Simmons said, “There have always been rumors that the Alive! record was substantially reworked in the studio. It’s not true … what we wanted, and what we got, was proof of the band’s rawness and power.” Two years later, the band’s founders owned up. Paul Stanley admitted, “What we felt was necessary was to capture the energy of the performance, not necessarily having it note for note of what actually happened.” Simmons said: “Most people assume it was all live, it wasn’t.” Regardless of the controversy, Guitar World magazine ranks it at #3 on its greatest live albums list. So, Audiens Cave…listener beware.
Another band whose recognition was unquestionably elevated by a live album was The J. Geils Band, a bluesy bar band out of the Boston/Worcester area that started getting some noteworthy opening act gigs in 1970, but couldn’t yet get to top billing. They released two modestly received studio albums that didn’t really capture where the band truly shined — in live performances. In 1972, they released “Live” Full House and everything changed. The album became their first gold record, and their next studio album, Bloodshot, hit #10 on the Billboard 200. Full House notably showcased an evolution of harmonica in rock music. Magic Dick’s performance on “Whammer Jammer” rivaled anything a guitar player had done live up to that point and it stands out even to this day, but it was Peter Wolf’s boundless energy and dynamism as a front man that made the band’s live shows legendary. His intro to “Musta Got Lost” on their second live album, Blow Your Face Out, (a double-album also partially recorded at Cobo) is a two minute long master class in how to make a giant arena seems as intimate as a local bar.
RUSH has released multiple live albums, each one a relevant snapshot of their long progression as a band at the time of the release, but 1976’s All the World’s a Stage, their first live album (released to buy some time in between studio albums) put the power of the Canadian trio on full display and made the music world aware of what Neil Peart was unleashing upon the world of modern rock drummers (Long Live the Professor). It became their first Top 40 album and went gold and eventually platinum. Again, a double-live album breaking the Top 40.
Deep Purple’s Made in Japan is a live tour de force. An unapologetically hard-driving, powerful showcase of each members’ command of their instruments, Made in Japan is a double live masterpiece that predates Frampton’s success by three years. The album went platinum inside of a month of release. Though not a singles driven band, they had a surprising hit with the studio version of “Smoke on the Water” as they were performing the song live on tour. The studio cut hit #4 in the U.S. with the live version as a b-side to the 45. Though “Smoke” became a concert staple for decades after, it’s the live “Highway Star” that really stands out on the album. (Crank it up, fuck the speed limit, take your chances.) Made in Japan sits at #6 on Rolling Stone’s best live album list (every once in a while they get things right). Great album.
Another Japanese success story for live albums was 1979’s Cheap Trick at Budokan. Cheap Trick had failed to chart any singles as of their second album, but on the strength of a rabid fan base in Japan, they recorded the shows during their 1978 tour there with the intent of releasing a live album in Japan only. They released their third studio album, Heaven Tonight, and scored a moderately charting single with, “Surrender”. Epic Records responded by releasing Cheap Trick at Budokan, which quickly went triple platinum and made a #7 hit single out of the previously ignored, “I Want You to Want Me”. Live luck strikes again.
Back to Clapton, his Unplugged album is by far his best selling (26 million sold) and also featured a re-imagined version of his most popular song, “Layla”, but this is where I begin to get a little particular about this topic. Yes, this is a “live” album, but its origin is in the well-planned, pre-packaged and thoughtfully produced concept of MTV’s Unplugged series. It is as close to a studio production as a live album can be. It captures a studio-like performance with a carefully curated audience. Yes, it has some surprise highlights (like “Layla”), yet it lacks the spontaneity that truly great live albums provide. It just seems like a performance you would expect from Clapton at that point in his career. It was designed to succeed.
Now, to contradict what I just said, MTV Unplugged in New York by Nirvana came two years after Clapton’s mega-selling album turned the Unplugged concept and brand into an industry unto itself. Though rehearsed heavily and recorded with a full production team in Sony Studios, the performance managed to ignore all the hype and offer a side to Cobain that was so intimate, powerful and revelatory that its value as a live statement shouldn’t be overshadowed by the money machine that was behind its design. Kurt Cobain gave one of the most honest and soul baring performances on record. The album debuted at #1, being released five months after Cobain’s death, and went on to double-digit platinum sales. The critical reception was fawning and the album is #1 or close to it on just about every top live album list.
An interesting live album that crossed over to the Billboard 200 was Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, a live album recorded in a prison (talk about a captive audience! Sorry, had to say it). The album revitalized Cash’s career at that point (one of many comebacks) hitting #1 on Country charts and #13 on Pop charts, ultimately becoming triple platinum over its lifetime release, and its success predictably led to three subsequent live albums recorded in various prisons. (Was it a live Rock album? No. It was Johnny Cash. Enough said.)
So, for those of you wondering (or expressing some form of outrage), The Last Waltz or The Song Remains the Same are not going to get the same consideration as other albums mentioned here. These albums are soundtracks that accompany films.
The Last Waltz was explicitly developed as a screen project by Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorcese. It is probably the greatest concert movie ever, but that’s where it lives. It’s filled with legendary guest artists and retrospective interviews that highlight The Band’s impact and influence. The performances are fantastic, it is a true moment in Rock history, but its life is on film. If you need to experience The Last Waltz, watch it, don’t simply listen to it.
The Song Remains the Same is a similar case. Yes, it is a live performance and everything Zeppelin did live was a departure from their studio recordings, but this was still conceived as a film performance and will be treated as such. Oddly enough, the footage for this film was from Madison Square Garden, a venue that is historic for its concerts, yet has yielded few great live albums.
Ok, I know you’ve been waiting…The Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead might have the largest volume of live recordings floating around the ether just through the sheer dedication of their traveling fan base (second only to the annual Serengeti migration). Officially, Live/Dead is their first live album, but from that point until this very day, the number of live performances committed to tape, vinyl, cd, digital media (and weed-fueled gray matter) are impossible to count. So, for Deadheads, you know your favorite live performance, you don’t need me.
The great live album is lightning in a bottle. It is fresh every time you listen to it. It is timeless and it allows artists to live on forever. It allows us to return to a time in our lives (ahem…our youth) when that moment was all there was, especially for anyone lucky enough to have been at the show that was recorded. Modern technology may have incidentally robbed us of great live albums by allowing groups to replicate exact renditions of studio recordings, eliminating that tightrope prospect that anything might happen. Improvisation (and even the inevitable mistake) gives birth and rebirth to new and old music alike. It is in those dangerous moments where things don’t sound “just like the record” that gifted artists either sink or swim. They turn unexpected live moments into legendary ones. Find a great old live record and hear it for yourself.