It was a time before the Internet--beforefile-sharing and downloading left much of the rock discography only amouse-click away--and I was a budding rock obsessive, haunting the racks of BigStar Records, my local second-hand vinyl emporium, poring over sleeve notes andtrack listings, planning a voyage of discovery across a mysterious classic rockcanon.
My preferred point-of-entrywas the Live Album, a strategy inspired by a summer spent obsessing over mydad's battered copy of the Who's Live AtLeeds: a scrappy faux-bootleg housing a sheaf of photocopied Whomemorabilia and six sonic monsters that the band struggled to control. It wasthe epic, excursive "My Generation" that reallysent me, Pete Townshend's riffs leading the group through a series ofhigh-drama instrumental vignettes the studio version had never even hinted at.
Live At Leeds convinced me of this: a Greatest Hits compilationmight contain a group's most famous tracks, but Live Albums delivered the same,only louder, wilder, and with longer solos. Ergo, Live Albums were objectively,unquestionably better.
At their best, Live Albumsfreeze the moments we all wish we'd witnessed: unexpected cover versions, guestappearances, performances that utterly eclipse the studio originals. Momentslike Nina Simone and a gospel choir re-interpreting "My Sweet Lord"as a 20-minute anti-war hymnbefore an audience of GIs at Fort Dix military base on 1972's Emergency Ward;like the feverish interplay between drummers Clyde Stubblefield and Nate Jonesthroughout a 13-minute "Cold Sweat" off James Brown's Say It Live And Loud: Live In Dallas 08.26.68;like Aretha Franklin walking Ray Charles onstage for her encore on At TheFillmore West, trading verses with him throughout the sinfully funky gospel of Spirit In The Dark.
Live Albums possess anunguarded intimacy, the warts'n'all the studio aims to airbrush away. TheRolling Stones of 1970's Get Yer Ya-Ya'sOut! played loose and dropped plenty of bum notes, but there's a raggedviolence to "Jumpin' Jack Flash"that punches harder than the chart-topping studio take. Candid between-songbanter is always a highlight, be it Lou Reed excoriating rock critic RobertChristgau on his Take No Prisonersset ("What does Robert Christgaudo in bed? Is he a toe f***er?"),or George Clinton's confession that he's "higher than a motherf***er" onFunkadelic's Live: Meadowbrook, Rochester, Michigan12th September 1971.
The greatest Live Albumsfeel like key scenes from a Rockumentary; their performances aren't justanother night on the tour, but landmarks, milestones, moments that illuminatethe artist's legend somehow. The revolutionary chaos of MC5's Kick Out The Jams--and the frenziedparties at Detroit's Old Grande Ballroom that the album documents--was socrucial to the mythos of the group that it remains the definitive MC5 album--detunedguitars, feedback and all.
In the hilarious musicvideo for Yo La Tengo's "Sugarcube," Bob Odenkirk (playing headmaster of animaginary School Of Rock) lectures hisstudents on the 'Foghat Principle,'that your every fourth album must be "Double Live." While Foghat Live was, infact, the blues-rockers' seventh release, and a single disc at that, the FoghatPrinciple seemed to rule the Classic Rock era, when cutting concert albums wasa staple of a touring rock band's career. Today, groups like Pearl Jam and theWho sell soundboard recordings from every concert via their fanclubs, whileBritish company Concertlive have hooked up withartists like the Raconteurs, Brett Anderson and Roots Manuva to sell recordingsof that evening's performance at the merchandise desk minutes after the gig'sfinished. The Live Album as we once knew it, however, now seems a rarity, andrecent efforts by multi-platinum rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers and Oasis arelittle better than tepid Greatest Hits packages with crowd noise tacked on.
Illicit live recording,however, still thrives, with modern technology offering digital recordingdevices that are easily hidden from venue security; indeed, most of us couldadequately bootleg a concert ourselves on a mobile phone. The advent of theinternet, however, means these modern bootleggers are more likely to be sharingtheir recordings with fellow fans for free, rather than trying to turn a sneakyprofit on a stack of Xerox-inlaid C90s down the local flea market.
Not so the mysterious collector who, earlier this year,pressed up 100 copies of a previously uncirculated Velvet Underground show atNew York City Gymnasium, 1967, andsold them on ebay. Claimed to be John Cale's final gig with the band, itsauthenticity has been questioned by fans, with one web site suggesting the tapemight be the work of an imaginative Velvets covers band; but the searing19-minute "Sister Ray" sounds like the real thing to me.
To some, the interest stirred by the discovery of a40-year-old recording of a pop concert might seem puzzling. But for those of uswith a fascination for rock's evolution, such recordings are precious relics, offeringthe invaluable opportunity to listen in on history being made. There's very fewof us who could claim of such epochal gigs, "I was there;" but at least,sometimes, we can better imagine how it must have sounded.