Today we finish our second instalment of Turntable Talk. We hope you liked the first one we ran last month which dealt with why the Beatles were still relevant. This time around, we’ve had six guest writers discuss The Live Album. Some people love ’em, some hate ’em. Some musicians put out some of their best work in live, concert recordings, others seem to use them as a stopgap to fulfill contractual obligations and little else. So we’ve asked our panelists to discuss live albums, however they see fit. Do they enjoy them? Do the records live up to the experience of seeing an act play live? What are their favorites? So far we’ve had rave reviews of live records by the likes of the J.Geils Band, Who and Aerosmith.
Today, we wrap it up with a few thoughts about the concept from me here at A Sound Day:
I want to thank our six guest contributors this week who’ve looked at the Live Album, and shared some of their favorites. It shows that some bands can indeed put out great records straight from the stage with a minimum of studio enhancement, and at their best they can really give listeners a sense of the excitement of being there as well as great music to listen to for its own enjoyment.
For the most part, I share the sentiment a few of our other contributors had – I’m not usually a big fan of live albums. I’ve bought quite a few in my day, and had a big percentage of them gather dust more than most LPs or CDs in my collection. I think there are several reasons for this.
One is that most are merely live sets of songs we already knew. If they play the song like it was on the original record, it rarely sounds as good … it always sounds just a bit “off” compared to what we “know” it should sound like. The vocals are off a little or the drums are too prominent, or they add in a few extra bars of the bridge that jar my ears. But then, if they reimagine the song and make it something entirely different-sounding than the song we “know”, usually it seems wrong too. And then there’s the whole fact that while being at the concert is probably fun, hearing it later doesn’t match up. We might be happy and love hearing the singer scream out “hey Winnipeg, how ya doin’? Who wants to rock” if we’re in Winnipeg in the crowd and want to rock, but after hearing it a hundred times on the record later, it tends to get a bit tedious. And all the more the singers who break in the middle of a song to tell some story. Fun in person, annoying to listen to repeatedly, yes, Gord Downie notwithstanding. Funny, unexpected, adlibs or side stories are great when you’re there…but get tiresome when you hear the same adlib every single time you hear the song. Even the crowd noises often come across as distracting and superfluous.
All that said, there have been a few live ones I’ve listened to a lot and liked. Early on, two of the ’70s biggest come to mind – Cheap Trick at Budokan and Peter Frampton‘s Frampton Comes Alive. Both were huge sellers and I loved both. One reason for that is to me, they were new artists. I hadn’t heard the originals of the songs so the live ones sounded right. To this day Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” should be the Budokan one, not the rather sleepy studio original from a couple of years earlier. Same goes for Frampton and songs like “Show Me The Way”. Plus, his talkbox feature on the guitar (best heard towards the end of that track) was undeniably cool…it would get tired fast if every guitarist decided to use it, but it was a novelty that worked.
Earlier this week, Christian wrote about a live J. Geils Band album, Full House. In the early-’80s, I became a big fan of them through their (overdue) commercial breakthrough hit albums, 1980’s Love Stinks and especially ’81’s Freeze Frame. So I quickly grabbed a copy of Live Showtime, their 1982 live album (the third of their career). It had been recorded on the Freeze Frame tour earlier in that year, and it turns out probably was a mere place-holder. Like many live albums, its primary purpose might have been to buy the band some time between releases and fulfill a contractual obligation to EMI Records. Singer, frontman extraordinaire Peter Wolf had quit the band after that and they were scrambling to come up with a new direction and new album, so they put out another live recording. But to me, it was a rather cool, energetic effort. While the versions of the singles “Love Stinks” and “Centerfold” both suffered compared to the studio originals I knew, most of the other songs were new to me – even though old, and showcased how good a live act Geils had always been. I especially took to the new single off it, “I Do”, an old ’50s R&B song, and “Land of A Thousand Dances”, a song popularized by Wilson Pickett two decades prior. To me, the band seemed almost dual-personalitied… smoothly produced, fun pop singles (like “Centerfold”, “Come Back”) in studio and high-energy, party rockers and on stage. If not for this album, I might have missed out entirely on that other part of their presence.
Close to the same time in the ’80s a couple more live albums caught my attention and hold up well to me. One was Roxy Music‘s The High Road, which was really an EP more than an album…a four-song release. It appealed to me because I was really getting into Roxy Music at that time and had seen them on the same tour (for Avalon) which was the first real concert I went to. So there was a sentimental component for me but it was a good record and it had the advantage of having a couple of “new” songs on it, their cover of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” and the John Lennon cover “Jealous Guy.” They played both all through the tour. Now, before you British readers shout at me, let me point out that they had a #1 single there with the studio cut of “Jealous Guy”. But it wasn’t on an album of theirs and unfortunately flopped in North America, so it was pretty much a new song to us over here. Another was U2‘s Live Under A Blood Red Sky. U2 is a bit of a rarity among “new wave” bands or those labeled as such by being one who had a reputation for putting on exceptional live shows – high energy, interesting commentary from Bono. This one showcased them at their best, at least for the early part of their career, and at least one track, the singalong “40” their traditional closer in that time period, seems to be a lot stronger and more emotional than in its studio version.
One more recent live album that I, maybe to my own surprise, like a lot and have listened to frequently is The Stranglers Friday the Thirteenth, a ’97 release. It was the ninth live album put out by “The Men In Black” which gives an indication that their fans really like their live sets. I saw them twice in concert, once in the ’80s and once in the early-’00s. Both times they were fantastic live players and a fun show. But as I’ve pointed out, that doesn’t always translate onto live records. But with The Stranglers, it often does. I think that is primarily because of the nature of the band. Unlike most rock (or punk if you prefer) acts, they’ve always been dominated by bass and keyboards rather than guitars and drums. J.J. Burnel plays the bass like a lead instrument and is wildly entertaining to watch as was the late Dave Greenfield in his jet-cockpit like bay of keyboards he spun around to play simultaneously. Often though, their contributions were muted a little in the studio mixes, but on their better live recordings they really come through front and center. This album also had a string section behind them, which added another layer to a few of their songs that worked nicely. Any fan of the band needs at least one record with their live version of “Down in the Sewer” (a possibly tongue-in-cheek “punk” anthem which has always been a standout in their concerts), for me this was mine.
That all said, there have been a number of other acts that I absolutely love, and in some cases enjoyed seeing live whose live albums really… well did very, very little for me (except at times curse myself for spending money on them.) I won’t bother to badmouth any of them, because as I said, they’re acts who do a lot of things right. Just putting out live albums isn’t one of them. So for me, my final take is, live records can be good and on rare occasions can outshine the studio originals. But it takes a certain flair and energy on stage, good recordings and perhaps a set list that isn’t merely one old hit single after enough to make them memorable or worthwhile. That’s my take, I’d love to hear yours, dear readers.