In a time when a gig feels like a mere memory, there are a vast number of live recordings we can thankfully listen to while welling up with tears of nostalgia. There are thousands of hours of music recorded in the flesh, from bootlegs to vast boxsets from all our favourite artists.
Recording live performances has been common in all types of music, be it classical or country, and it dates back to when equipment was incredibly basic. However, there was a definite sweet spot with the recording of live rock music. This period manifested itself in the form of the double live vinyl album in the mid-to-late 1970s. Although it’s approaching an unbelievable half-century ago, music fans of my age still get dewy-eyed at the thought of opening the gatefold sleeve, placing the disc on the turntable, dropping the needle and hearing the sound of the crowd before the first chords kick in.
The live album was already nothing new and many still stand the test time. The 1960s was a very productive decade for all genres, with some albums, such as Johnny Cash at ‘Folsom Prison’ and BB King’s ‘Live At The Regal’, regularly appearing in music critics’ top choices. The early ’70s carried on the same way, thanks to improvements in recording technology, which meant that it was possible to capture the atmosphere of a stadium as well as a club. The Who’s ‘Live at Leeds’ is a prime example from this period, despite its basic brown paper bag-style packaging.
Let’s face it, everyone released a live album for better or worse. As the ’70s is the focus here, the decade began with the behemoths of the age all having live albums issued. They all documented the live incarnation of those bands perfectly well. However, one LP sticks out where the concept became more of a marketing tool and less of an artistic creation. Which of those ’70s pre-punk dinosaurs pulled this off? Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones? Nope, Peter Frampton! The solo ex-Humble Pie guitarist sold more than eight million copies of his ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ double live album. Containing the live versions of previously unsuccessful studio tracks, it topped the US Billboard album chart for a whopping ten weeks in the summer of 1976.
It seems that, although Mr Frampton reaped the benefits in terms of income, the format was an answer to a prayer for many a struggling band, particularly those touring huge areas across the USA. Many of these bands had two or three albums out and hadn’t really ‘made it big’. Some were reaching the end of record deals and had one more shot at success. Two LPs covering 80 minutes of their best material recorded live and now being played on national FM Radio was, all of a sudden, a real money spinner. Many of these LPs became the bands’ bestsellers, which led to financial reward and critical acclaim. Either way, the floodgates opened.
What’s more, the tracks themselves were often better than their older studio counterparts. Some were way better. Anyone who’s heard Cheap Trick’s ‘I Want You To Want Me’ from their ‘Live At Budokan’ LP when compared to the studio version will know what I mean. However, this was not without an underlying conspiracy theory about quite how ‘live’ these recordings actually were. It was suggested that many bands added overdubs to live recordings. The ability of the frequently wasted guitarist to nail that solo was obviously a risk not worth taking! Some were even accused of being studio recordings with the audience dubbed in! Some of the most iconic records, such as Thin Lizzy’s ‘Live and Dangerous’, are still the subject of ongoing debate. Looking back, though, who cares? The most memorable live music on record, whether raw or tinkered with back in the studio, is still fantastic. Given that all this was recorded before the digital age where tweaks and editing are expected, makes it even more remarkable.
While the music was the main attraction, the whole theatre of the product you purchased was also really exciting. Nowadays, you buy a download… what great value for money! Even a CD had a tiny booklet with photographs you could barely make out. Yet, the double live vinyl LP was an altogether different beast. Twelve inches of gatefold cardboard sleeve (sometimes with two inner sleeves, too) in full colour enabled bands to package their records effectively in a tour programme (remember those?). Pictures of the band in their natural environment were a fan’s fantasy. Ranging from the sublime (The Ramones’ ‘It’s Alive’) to the ridiculous (Kiss’ ‘Alive II’, which you need to check out, because it’s more like something from a Marvel film!), hours could be spent gazing at the images and wishing you were actually there. For me, the promise of seeing the band live was sometimes better than the actual experience!
The locations where this music was recorded were also really evocative and would lead to many future travel plans. Venues such as the Filmore West in San Francisco, CBGB in New York and the Hollywood Bowl were rather more romantic than Southampton Gaumont. However, some places would turn out to be better in the mind than in the flesh (certainly not the case with Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado!).
Into the 1980s and, before long, the bubble had burst and the phrase ‘less is more’ had lost its meaning. The world and his dog had issued a live album. They no longer topped the charts and had become a natural record contract filler before the onset of the dreaded greatest hits album. Often, they became music-by-numbers with more atmosphere to be found on Venus. Sometimes, there was just too much. Bruce Springsteen’s first live offering was a five-LP boxed set!
Having reached saturation point, new concepts were required to keep the idea going, and the onset of the video age in the ’80s shifted the emphasis onto visual presentation via MTV. It ultimately spawned a brief live music renaissance with the Unplugged (or what should’ve been called Electro-Acoustic) series. Reaching its peak with Nirvana, as well as repackaging older artists like Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart for a younger TV audience, CD sales were certainly boosted by artists exposing their art to less electronic stimulus in more intimate surroundings.
Where are we now then? Just when you thought it was not possible to issue more live recordings, the digital age well and truly arrived. Go and see a tour now and you might just be able to purchase a digital recording of that night’s show. Some larger bands like Pearl Jam even got record companies to release CDs of every night of a tour. Of course, vinyl record sales have made a wallet-crushing comeback, too, but it’s not the same. Even trawling through the vintage shops and second-hand record stores can be an expensive and soul-destroying business when seeking out original albums in good condition from back in the day.
With the future of gigs still somewhat uncertain, it’s impossible to predict what’ll happen in years to come. It’s far easier to take regular nostalgic rearward glance to simpler times, and that Golden Age, whenever that might have been for you!
Guest article contributed by Peter Goulding