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The Rockologist: Whatever Happened To The Live Album?

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.”

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, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen’s work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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