Is the live album dead?

That 70s Guy

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Jan 21, 2010
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Nova Scotia Canada

As The Rolling Stones release a lost show from 1971, Neil McCormick asks if the age of the great live album is over.


‘I don’t know what we’re gonna do now, we’ll work it out,” drawls Mick Jagger, with an almost comically casual disregard for ceremony. Around him, you can hear guitars plunking random notes whilst drum skins rattle, the cheery onstage cacophony that used to signal a band gearing up to perform back in the days before electronic tuners and specialist instrument technicians.

This is not just any band, of course. This is The Rolling Stones, at the height of their powers, in 1971. They had just released Sticky Fingers, where new boy Mick Taylor’s fluid silver lead playing bedded in sensationally with Keith Richards grit and rhythm, Bill Wyman’s bass locked tight with drummer Charlie Watts jazzy snap, and Jagger was in his pomp, a leonine, freewheeling, erotically charged, superfunky frontman. This band were gods of pop culture, feted as the greatest rock and roll band in the world, yet their onstage demeanour remains extraordinarily informal. “What we doing, Keef?” sniffs Jagger.

What they do is play an absolute blinder, ripping through the taut, mesmeric Bitch, winding through a loose, rude Stray Cat Blues and blowing out all the stops in a leering, snarling, time-bending Midnight Rambler.

The date was March 13th, 1971, and the Stones had brought their mobile recording studio to the Refectory, a student café at Leeds University. This was the same 2000 capacity hall where The Who recorded Live At Leeds the year before, a performance of such explosive intimacy and adrenalised invention it is still regarded by many rock fans as the greatest live album ever.

The scale of the venue plays a crucial part. There is an art to miking, recording and mixing a space to create a living, breathing sense of audience presence. Too many live albums take place at the apex of a band’s career, when they are playing vast arenas, delivering their message from on high to an adoring mass who sound like a thin sheen of sibilant applause mixed in between songs. But as the Rolling Stones slow Midnight Rambler down to a dirty crawl, with a whispering Jagger apparently engaging in **** sex with his microphone, you hear audience members cough softly or murmur with excitement. There’s real joy in the Stones performance, a mercurial looseness indicative of Keith Richards stoned bonhomie that tightens up as all the musicians (including late piano player Nicky Hopkins and late saxophonist Bobby Keys) lock into slick yet wild grooves, driven on by a noisy, appreciative crowd. It’s an absolute blast. The Stones, however, apparently didn’t deem the show to be anything special, and consigned it to the vaults for 49 years.

What makes a great live album? The very notion might seem a contradiction in terms, a recording fixed in time, missing the crucial element of actually being present. Live albums are forced to strip away extra elements that help render the experience so powerful: the volume and clarity of a big PA, the sensory input of lightshows, the actual physical presence of musical heroes and the community of fellow revellers. And what can they replace all this with? Rarely does a live album have separated sound to match studio recordings. It can’t aspire to the kind of perfected performance possible when musicians have the luxury of retakes. It has little recourse to the subtle layering and production wizardry intrinsic to pop recording since The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper in 1967 (not coincidentally made when they gave up performing live). All it really has is the sound of musicians, doing their thing, in front of people. A great live album has to turn this potential weakness into a source of strength.

It is pop music at its most exposed and gladiatorial, where our heroes really have nowhere to hide.

There tends to be a certain orthodoxy to lists of the greatest ever live albums, focusing on recordings from the late Sixties to the end of the Seventies, when rock culture was booming, concerts were developing as both spectacle and ritual, and recording technology had become adequate to live situations whilst musical technology (such as synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines and click tracks) had not yet seriously impacted on performance. (There is a tendency to overlook the minority concerns of jazz, where the spontaneous interaction of players makes live-ness the very essence of the experience but that really is another story).

There are artists whose reputation was effectively established by live albums. The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East (1971) cooked up a sensational southern rock brew of blues, country and soul that would help inspire the improvisational jam band scene in America (where every show is recorded and live bootlegging is encouraged). The growing international profile of Bob Marley & The Wailers was affirmed by Live! in 1975. Thin Lizzy’s Live And Dangerous (1978) is often cited as a benchmark, a slick double that pushed them into the front rank of rock, although producer Tony Visconti has cast doubts on how much of it was actually recorded onstage. The dirty secret of many live recordings is that mistakes are frequently corrected in studio post-production.

For others, sloppiness itself is a kind of virtue, raw energy compensating for ragged playing and poor sound quality on such legendarily live sets as MC5’s Kick Out The Jams (1969), Lou Reed’s snarly, combative Rock 'n’ Roll Animal (1974) and Iggy And The Stooges’ chaotic Metallic K.O. (1976), in which band and audience seem united only in their mutual loathing. If there is less-consensus about the great live albums from arguably the greatest live performers, it may because there is more to choose from. James Brown, The Rolling Stones and Neil Young released dozens of live albums. The Song Remains The Same (1976) offered a flawed glimpse at Led Zeppelin’s prowess during their playing days but it took Jimmy Page’s carefully assembled archive set How The West Was Won in (2003) to really do them justice. The Doors Absolutely Live (1970) celebrated the band’s final outrageous tour but there have been at least 25 shows released since Jim Morrison’s death.

And how do you choose between all the posthumous albums from the always astonishing Jimi Hendrix?

What is striking, though, is how few universally acclaimed live albums fall outside of this Seventies time frame. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York (1994) is an exception, perhaps because it showed the incendiary band in a completely different light but also because (like Hendrix and Morrison) Kurt Cobain’s premature death lent live performances scarcity (and sentimental) value. Yet it is also a filmed performance. Ever since Talking Heads groundbreaking Stop Making Sense in 1984, there has been a tendency for video and multimedia formats to dominate live releases. And as live recording became more hi-tech, so too did live performance. When you attend a big show now, there are questions about how much is actually being played on stage, and how much is being triggered from computers. Live albums rest on the notion of recording performances, but what does that mean when bands are effectively performing recordings? Are we past the golden age of the live album because there are actually fewer truly great live bands?

Get Yer Leeds Lungs Out, as the rediscovered Rolling Stones set has been dubbed, is a reminder of a time when bands had to be able to plug in and play. And the Stones played better, harder and wilder than most. With no digital trickery, nothing overdubbed or corrected, it offers the elusive quintessence of the live experience, an intimate interaction of musicians with each other and their audience. Turn down the lights, turn up the volume. You can almost believe you’re there.

Metal Health

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Dec 22, 2014
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Northern California
It's nearing the end unfortunately. In my heart it's very much still alive though. I love to hear the fans singing along and cheering.


Aug 13, 2015
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They're definitely a more specialist thing now. Archive releases, or special releases that appeal to current fans are really all that's there is.
They probably appeal to people of a certain generation, and I'm glad I'm part of that group.


oh, be nice
Apr 21, 2005
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It's an interesting question that I can't really weigh in on since I don't follow much modern rock. But we were definitely expecting Taylor Swift to release a third live album after her previous tour. It may have been a bit redundant though as it wasn't as unique of a setlist compared to the other two live albums, that may be why they skipped it. We could see a third one from her current tour.

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