Mojo

Classic Albums, Live!

Doolittle: yes please. Metal Machine Music: no thanks. The current vogue for "heritage" acts delivering their best albums live, in their entirety, is a double-edged sword, says Martin Aston.

Tomorrow, The Who (or Who's Left anyway) perform Quadrophenia at London's Royal Albert Hall for the Teenage Cancer Trust charity, while Primal Scream revisit Screamadelica at Olympia in November. At this rate, it's quite possible that every single famous act will have showcased their undisputed "classic" album by the end of 2010. Should we be worried? When I read the headline "Lou Reed Brings Controversial Metal Machine Music To Life" I certainly was.

Actually, Reed's shows aren't exact reproductions of his four-sided electronic squall mass from 1975 (thank f**k). Rather, it's an evening of what Reed terms "no songs and no vocals" under the title "Nights Of Deep Noise," with his demonic-sounding colleague Sarth Calhoun on "live processing and Fingerboard Continuum" (oh, yummy). But he's been here before, touring the entirety of Berlin (1973) in 2007 with a large ensemble that swamped much of the original's fragility and opulence.

Does the 'classic album live' phenomenon, initiated by Arthur Lee's Forever Changes and the "Don't Look Back" series in 2005, deliver less than it appears to promise? Shudder To Think's Craig Wedren argues that "there's something wax-museum, mausoleum-esque," about the experience. Milwaukee writer Keith Brammer, anticipating Steely Dan's performance of Aja and The Royal Scam last year, added, "I don't want to see some cobbled-together band with a substitute bass player and drummer. I don't expect to see it replicated exactly. Why see the band live if they're up there sort of miming to the record?"

Critics and fans like their artists to look ahead, and to be spontaneous, but we also like them to play their hits, so why not their hit albums? Surely, some albums are so structurally sound and filler-free that brand-new live versions can only amplify their magnificence? And with the perceived value of recorded music plummeting so drastically of late, it's as if music fans would rather consume their classic albums at a gig than in their sitting rooms.

Ironically, former Reed cohort John Cale's recent orchestral version of Paris 1919 (all 30 minutes of it!) was a joy. The Stooges' Fun House and Pixies' Doolittle shows were incendiary experiences; Sparks' canonical 21-album canon run in London 2008 was an unrivalled event--and a ton of fun. Forever Changes and Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds brought tears to my eyes and raised the hairs on my neck.

And yet there are other records so inimitably set in aspic that reproduction is far too risky. Take Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. Its autumnal fug is so site-specific, its narrator pitched so exquisitely between spiritual agony and sexual ecstasy, that one daren't imagine the music's now sixtysomething creator overhauling it for stage purposes (the trailer looks painful enough). Likewise, ABC's Lexicon Of Love live show may have shone light on a record that even fans have in mothballs, but did we really need Martin Fry's turn as a holiday camp entertainer?

The fact is, for various reasons, some classic albums should be left well alone. Would Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans be endurable in one dense sitting? Could every single song from The Magnetic Fields' sublime 69 Love Songs be bearable? There are even bits of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation you could live without (although not this bit, obviously)?

And while some albums are too long, too complex, or simply too rubbish to tolerate live, others just wouldn't fit the environment. For instance, while Bruce Springsteen may have played Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town in one night (7 May, 2008), Nebraska would never work in an arena--which means he'd have to play 40 club nights to satisfy ticket demand.

Proof that the genre can go too far is encapsulated by http://www.classicalbumslive.com/, a concert series based in Toronto but exported across North America. According to the website, Led Zeppelin II, Abbey Road, The Joshua Tree and Dark Side Of The Moon are among recent recreations--by tribute line-ups, of course http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classic_Albums_Live.

Over in Australia, a promoter assembled four singers and a 17-piece band to tour The White Album because, like everyone else, he'd never heard his fave Beatles album live. And possibly because he could make money at the same time. Ultimately, the concept is a guaranteed cash cow, giving the audience what they want instead of what they might need and helping musicians feel safer looking back at what helped make them famous. But 60 years after Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock," is this really where rock'n'roll has found itself? Rocking the clock backwards, into seeming perpetuity?

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