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The Rockologist: Whatever Happened To The Live Album?

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Whatever happened to the live album?

If it’s not exactly the million dollar question burning holes deep into the minds of music enthusiasts and rock aficionados everywhere these days, it’s still worth a good buck fifty of ink all these years after the fact.

You see, back in the sixties and seventies, live albums ruled.

In fact, for a time there in the early to mid seventies, live albums were considered so crucial to a rock band’s career, as to be a make or break proposition.

Consider the case of an otherwise mediocre seventies rock band called Grand Funk Railroad. Grand Funk, at least up to this point, we’re not known for making great records. But they absolutely packed them in on the concert trail. And by the time of their third album, Closer To Home they were also finally beginning to get a lot of airplay on FM rock stations, primarily because of the single “I’m Your Captain.”

Grand Funk’s manager/svengali Terry Knight knew it was time to strike while the iron was hot. And Grand Funk Live Album — released not six months apart from Closer To Home — became an instant phenomenon, built as it was on months of the band’s relentless touring. For a minute there, Grand Funk was as big as the Beatles — they even sold out Shea Stadium.

From that point forward, Grand Funk’s success became the blueprint for the model of the two-disc live album that served as the prototype for mid-level rock bands to achieve breakthrough success to the multi-platimun ranks of the really big leagues.

The most obvious example of this was Frampton Comes Alive, a two-disc live album which transformed the 3000 seat act Peter Frampton, to sold-out stadiums in less than a year, and, again for about a minute there, made Frampton the biggest selling act on earth.

Of course, all of this was not at all without precedent. Never mind the fact that these days Peter Frampton serves as the punchline to a movie joke where Tommy Chong asks “didn’t you used to be Peter Frampton?” — and whether or not such wanton disrespect is appropriate or not.

It doesn’t matter. Frampton Comes Alive set young Peter for life.

Like I said, in the seventies the double live album was a business model that flat out worked miracles. Just ask the Allman Brothers (Live At Fillmore East). Or better yet, the numerous bands Frampton’s manager Dee Anthony led to similar success using the very same model, like J. Geils Band (Full House, Blow Your Face Out) and Frampton’s own previous pre-solo career band Humble Pie (Rockin’ The Fillmore).

So what happened?

The thing that is most curious about the sixties and seventies live album phenomenon is that some of the greatest live bands of that time never really made a definitive live document — a fact that can be summed up in one word.

Bootlegs.

By the time of 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour for instance, Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band had all but been universally acknowledged as the greatest live act on the planet. Yet, an officially released live document of that legendary tour remains to see the light of day.

The latter day live albums have come of course, but with mostly mixed results. The Bruce Springsteen Live 1975-1985 boxed set is a nice enough carrot — but pales in comparison to the still widely available bootlegs of legendary shows like Winterland 1978 or Nassau 1980.

Led Zeppelin also remains one of the most widely bootlegged artists — largely because nearly everyone agrees that The Song Remains The Same captured the mighty Zep on an off-night. Bob Dylan has been playing catchup for awhile with his Bootleg Series (although the 1974 tour document Before The Flood is actually quite good).

The Rolling Stones have released scores of live albums, and to this day there is only one that truly matters.

That would be the 1969 tour document Get Your Ya Yas Out. Which despite being a fairly sloppy sounding recording (which bootleg fans could credibly argue is bested by recordings like Liver Than You’ll Ever Be and Rock Out, Cock Out), remains the definitive live Rolling Stones album.

The Who were much smarter, officially releasing not one, but two great live albums in Isle Of Wight 1970 (a must-have DVD for Who fans) and Live At Leeds — the latter of which is thought by many to be the best officially released live album of all time.

It definitely gets my vote.

Curiously, some of the more visually oriented rock bands of that particular time — Alice Cooper and David Bowie for example — have never released what could really be called definitive live documents. Why settle for David Live for example, when the 1980 Floor Show is just a click away?

Which leads us to the present.

If whatever happened to the live album is the question, then once again I have to point to the bootleg. If the internet has made music more instantly accessible than ever through the various torrents, downloads, and what-not that are readily out there, why bother with a proper live album?

Take Radiohead for example.

They are argubaly the best live band in the world right now. Yet their officially released live output is limited to the relatively pathetic EMI release I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings.

As the more informed fans of this band no doubt know, pro-shot DVDs of Radiohead live on every tour from OK Computer forward are readily available. These are not your standard grainy-ass bootlegs, but rather HBO special quality concerts, complete with the obligatory Dolby 5.1 sound in many cases.

So whatever happened to the live album?

Like most other things in the era of the internet, it’s long gone to the reaches of cyberspace.

In other words, in the immortal words of that Stones live album, “Got Live If You Want It.”

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • irv

    “Got Live If You Want It” is NOT a bootleg. Perhaps you’re thinking of “Live’r than you’ll ever be”?

    Also, interesting that this article comes on the heels of coldplay announcing that they are giving away copies of their live album at their shows and on the ‘net starting in a coupla weeks.

  • JC Mosquito

    Grand Funk’s Live Album sounds like it was recorded in a toilet while it was still flushing. This is not necessarily a bad thing – during the final song, the 12 minute version of Into the Sun, the guitar squelching feedback, cymbal wash, fuzz bass and audience shrieking combine to reach the same level of sonic assault as the middle of the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray. Who’d’ve thunk it?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    You are absolutely correct on that count irv, and I will make the appropriate adjustment. Thank you for pointing it out.

    -Glen

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    yeah, i miss ‘em too, and do wonder if the availability of online boots is what stops artists at the majors level from issuing live recordings.

    it’s really a shame because, taking my recent Springsteen show in boston as a prime example, it would be just heaven to have an official release of something like that.

    from my post on live albums way back when:

    Stones – Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out
    Who – Live at Leeds
    Little Feat – Waiting For Columbus
    Grateful Dead – Dead Set
    Hendrix – Band of Gypsies
    Skynyrd – One More For/From the Road
    Cheap Trick – Budokan
    J Geils – Full House/Blow Your Face Out
    Foghat – Foghat Live
    Nugent – Double Live Gonzo
    Tubes – What Do You Want From Live
    Frampton – Comes Alive
    Kiss – Alive

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I agree with Irv,but, who in the hell wants a live Coldplay album?? *Ugh* Bore me to tears & the singer is fucking tone-deaf! Maybe that’s why they are giving it away?

    “and do wonder if the availability of online boots is what stops artists at the majors level from issuing live recordings.”

    To be honest, a ton of those bootlegs you can download may be in a lossless format but the original mixes are pretty horrible to begin with. The fidelity is just not there. Even a lot of the “Soundboard” copies seem to be missing something – Probably, the quality of the unit they were being transferred to?

    Personally, I think the art of live recording has been lost along with the pride in equipment.
    I don’t think a lot of the bands today really care about matching or adapting the tonality of their instruments nor the actual quality versus the brand name.

    Anyways, I think the artists could stand to benefit from releasing more live material. And, with these releases consisting of double CDs containing quality egineered shows, proper booklets/media & packaging,I think people would gobble ‘em up.

  • http://blogcritcs.org/writer/clarence-yu Clarence Yu

    Live albums (undoctored) really show you how good a band was. Hope that bands start releasing them again!

  • Don

    At some point the live albums being released changed from a document of the band/artist at a particular phase of their career, to a “greatest hits” album.
    There are still some great live albums being released, although the only one that comes to mind right now is Wilco’s Kicking Television.
    Regarding GFR, I think Homer put it best,
    “Grand Funk Railroad paved the way for Jefferson airplane, which cleared the way for Jefferson starship. The stage was now set for the Alan Parsons project, which I believe was some sort of hovercraft.”

  • JC Mosquito

    Yes, parts of GFR Live sound like a hovercraft, that’s fer shure.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    With bands making whole tours available for sale, doesn’t seem to be much incentive to just make a single album to document it like in the old days.

    I am surprised more bands/artists don’t take advantage, though. They are losing a revenue stream.

    There’s a rumor that Bruce is thinking of releasing an album entirely of the covers he is performing on this tour.

  • http://fromthepew.wordpress.com Warren Kelly

    I wonder if it’s because of the way music is sold today. A live album was often the only way you could hear all of your favorite songs from a band on one record/tape/CD. Today, all I have to do is head over to iTunes (or a Torrent file) to get all the singles that I want. I can even create my own set list if I want to. I don’t need to have a recording of a live show.

    I also think that modern production has killed the live album. People have a specific standard in mind when they buy a CD, and live albums are not usually as well produced as their studio counterparts. Never mind that you miss out on a lot by listening to the produced version; never mind that the music is more raw or genuine played live.

    AND, ultimately, the DVD killed the live album. Why just listen to a live performance when you can listen AND see it?

  • Greg Barbrick

    “Consider the case of an otherwise mediocre seventies rock band called Grand Funk Railroad.”

    This is an absolutely unconscionable abuse of editorial prerogative! I will be assisting Sir Terry Knight in defamation proceedings shortly.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Nice list Mark. But you forgot these:

    Uriah Heep Live
    Black Oak Arkansas – Raunch N Roll Live
    Deep Purple – Made In Japan
    Blue Oyster Cult – On Your Feet Or On Your Knees
    Genesis – Seconds Out
    Rush – All The Worlds A Stage
    Yes – Yessongs
    Emerson Lake & Palmer – Welcome Back My Friends
    Aerosmith – Live Bootleg
    Ramones – Its Alive

    ….and the list goes on and on.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Greg,

    So sorry to offend your oh so delicate sensibilities. Tell Mr. Knight to bring it.

    -Glen

  • http://www.thrasherswheat.org/wheatfield.html thrasher

    Great rundown Glen!

    How about Neil Young’s Live Rust!

    Hey, think you can change that ad on your review? Important subject, but kinda gross.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’m truly embarrased that I missed Live Rust Thrasher — consider that faux pas corrected with my humble apologies. Definitely one of the great ones.

    As for those damn ads, unfortunately that faux pas is a bit out of my control…

    -Glen

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    There’s a rumor that Bruce is thinking of releasing an album entirely of the covers he is performing on this tour.

    I think I heard Josh Hathaway’s head explode.

    Officially I’ll say I’d love to see more officially released live shows as well. But I can’t make myself care too much with the over abundant amount of high quality bootlegs out there.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I think they should call that one, “Cover Me.” Okay, maybe a bit too obvious….

    -Glen

  • JC Mosquito

    A few more for the listologists (pardon any repeats):

    Dream Syndicate – The Day Before Wine and Roses
    Ten Years After – Recorded Live
    The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – Live!
    Rain Parade – Beyond the Sunset
    Television – The Blow Up
    The Band – Rock of Ages
    The Guess Who – Live at the Paramount (reissue)
    The Replacements – The S*** Hits the Fans
    Jefferson Airplane – Bless Its Pointed Little Head
    Mott the Hoople – Live
    Golden Earring – Live

  • Greg Barbrick

    Where is Rush “All The World’s A Stage”

    Dude??

  • Guess I Oops There

    Trade ya a bootleg “Metallic KO” fer a pass…

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Greg,
    See comment #12
    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Pointed Head is definitely a great one Skeeter…great call there.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    Cover Me has already been used.

  • http://johnpeltier.wordpress.com JP

    I’d also throw in that the Muse release “HAARP” from last year is quite good and reached as high as #2 in the charts in many countries outside the US.