By Dave Thompson
David Bowie’s 1978 European tour was not a glorious affair. First, he butchered his image — baggy pants and skewed sailor hat are never a good look, even if you are the chameleon of rock.
Then he butchered his songs. When your last two studio albums were semi-impenetrable slabs of Krautrock-inspired instrumental meanderings, the last thing you want to do is sing “Suffragette City.” And it showed.
And then, when he realized that the mini-Zigs in the audience were still having a good time, he butchered the live album that was supposed to document the occasion.
Out went the one truly inspired performance of the entire show, a dissolute swagger through Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song.” Out went whatever internal logic had dictated the original set list, as he realigned the songs in loose chronological order. And finally, out went the audience, and, although he still had the temerity to title the ensuing double album “Stage,” he could just as easily have titled it “Me and My Mates Mucking About In An Empty Room.” Because that is what it sounded like.
Live albums are a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, their purpose is simple — to offer audiences a takeaway taste of a singular occasion, and a chance to relive a concert in the less-sweaty surroundings of their own home. And on the other, they are a shop window for the as-yet-unconverted, a chance to show the doubters what an act is really made of.
To this, you could also add the less salubrious reasons for releasing one: running down an old record contract (“you still owe us three albums” or “my next one’s a triple live”); filling a creative void (“I’ve not written a decent song in three years; I’d better dig out the old ones again”); and, beat bootleggers to the punch (at least, that was the reasoning behind some of the best live albums of the early 1970s). Famously, The Stones’ “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out” and The Who’s “Live At Leeds” were both official responses to ultra-popular bootleg discs, while Dylan and The Band’s “Before The Flood” was so titled because they hoped it would be in the stores before the flood of souvenir boots.
Then something happened.
“Frampton Comes Alive” happened. And long before it had chalked up even a fraction of the 10 or 11 million copies it inexplicably went on to sell in the USA alone, every band on the planet was suddenly rolling the tapes and then redubbing the solos (and the vocals, and the drums, and the bass), in the hope that Frampers-shaped lightning might strike them as well. Suddenly, what had been a comfortable cottage industry of megastars rewarding their fans for being faithful became as much of a marketing gimmick as anything else that the mid-1970s could conceive, from 12-inch singles to picture discs, and on to the free razor-blade-sharpening cardboard pyramid that came free with Todd Rundgren’s first Utopia album. (I am not making this stuff up.)
Live albums changed overnight. In the past, live albums were an event. For a band to even dream of cutting one, they needed to have attained a certain level, whether of popularity, acclaim or simply critical kudos. The disc itself might still have been a stopgap between regular releases, but there had to be a meaningful gap that needed to be stopped. Now, they were inevitable. The modern mantra of “I tour, therefore I release a live album” was born here.
Double live albums, too, had been rare (triples even rarer, but beyond the proggy circles trod by the likes of Yes and ELP, nobody really took that amount of time to play a handful of songs in those days). Now, they were de rigueur.
And lousy, horrible, please-don’t-ever-make-me-listen-to-that-drum-solo-again live albums could be counted off one by one: The Stones’ “Got Live If You Want It” (1966), with the screaming audience seemingly captured at twice the volume of the band itself; The Kinks’ “Live at Kelvin Hall” (1967), where the equally irritating screaming was matched only by the sheer ineptitude of the performance (never record a concert if you can’t actually hear yourselves play) and, surprisingly, because it should actually have been a lot of fun, the Plastic Ono Band’s “Live Peace In Toronto.” Side One — Lennon and friends jam some old rock ’n’ roll standards. Side Two — Lennon and friends watch Yoko writhe in a bag. Yeah, maybe you had to be there.
Personally, I always thought Dylan’s “Before The Flood” was a slapdash affair, as well, wasting wax and electricity that would have been far better saved for 1976’s “Hard Rain.” But the world’s favorite septuagenarian had far worse in store, if only you stuck with his career long enough. “Real Live” (1985) was real boring, and “Dylan and the Dead” (1989) suggested Dylan was dead, and in those last months before “Oh Mercy,” maybe he was. But to single out Dylan as a serial purveyor of dodgy concert recordings is to overlook the contributions made to the genre by far less forgivable souls than he. 10cc, for example. Irreproachable geniuses in the studio, even they admitted that their live show left a lot to be desired unless you came from that peculiarly American Midwestern school of “When in doubt, muthas, boogie.” But “Live and Let Live” (1977) caught the boys throwing caution to the wind regardless, and it emerged almost defiantly unlistenable.
So, three years later, did the first live offering by the one U.S. band whose studio perfectionism matched 10cc’s. How could anybody even have imagined that an Eagles live album (“Eagles Live”) would be a good idea?
In 1977, The Rolling Stones followed up their most divisive studio album yet, the love-it-or-hate-it “Black And Blue,” with a double live set that actually made up your mind for you; “Love You Live” wasn’t simply a flaccid run through of a bunch of songs that were already well past their sell-by date. It suggested that the Stones themselves knew it, which is why they gave one entire side over to a semi-secret club date where they went back and played the blues. And that is the side that people still play today. The rest of the disc is filed away as a gruesome prophecy of the future that awaited Mick and the gang, who now seem to release a new live album every time they leave the house. It has yet to be confirmed, but “Keith Pops Out To Buy Some Cigarettes” (2009) is earmarked for release next summer.
We could go on. Any live disc The Who has released since they stopped being a band and turned into a pension-renewal scheme can be safely discarded. Likewise for 90 percent of the coasters that bore the dread Unplugged logo; seriously, if you really needed to hear Bon Jovi play without an electrical supply, you could just unplug the CD player.
Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains The Same” (1976) disappointed on release and, that admittedly stellar “Stairway To Heaven” notwithstanding, still creaks out loud today. While we probably shouldn’t poke fun at archive releases that were actually blocked by their creators during their own musical lifetime, The Beatles’ “Live at Hollywood Bowl” takes a lot of beating in the “Dear Santa, I hate you” thank-you letter stakes.
But if there is any one live album that, more than any other, advocates the immediate incarceration not only of the band that made it, but also of every single person in the room who encouraged them while they were doing so, it is — the one that you, the Goldmine readership, nominate. So, get going! Drop us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.