What Makes A Good Live Album?
I recently obtained a copy of R.E.M's “39 Songs” album. Released late last year, it's comprised of the finest cuts from five successive nights at Dublin's Olympia. Right at the start, Michael Stipe insists through a megaphone that “this is not a show”. Rather, the crowd were invited along to what were, to all intents and purposes, live rehearsals. “This is what we do when nobody's looking,” he later says. The shows were organised in order for the band to test out some of their natty new material in a live environment. In doing so, they revisited some of the more obscure offerings from their back catalogue. No “Losing My Religion,” no “Man On The Moon”, no “Everybody Hurts” - but a whole lot of stuff from “Fables Of The Reconstruction”. A casual fan's nightmare; a hardcore fan's nirvana. That said, though, the thirty nine songs as archived on the album – played with such passion and energy – might also be interest for those only familiar with the aforementioned “classics” as a means of investigating as to why they're one of the most cherished bands in the world today.
Not including bonus discs, “39 Songs” is, by my count, R.E.M's second live album. Their first harboured the most unimaginative title of “R.E.M Live” and was released in 2008. It was recorded during the “Around The Sun” tour and, unlike its successor, it does contain such crowd favourites as “Losing My Religion” and “Imitation of Life”. It's no cop-out of a setlist, though. They don't just rely on the big-guns. Indeed, they choose to kick off their set with a duo of quasi-obscure gems from their back catalogue - “I Took Your Name” from “Monster” and “So Fast, So Numb” from “New Adventures In Hi-Fi” - instantly catering very much there for those who love them beyond their singles.
But despite such inspired setlist choices, as a whole the package is rather stale. It's a little too polished and, apart from anything else, just feels somewhat pointless. Anaemic, I'd say. It's not the songs. No. These are some of the finest songs to have been written by any band. It's just the way they're played – perfectly. It's a little workmanlike and, despite a mildly different gravity to the sound, there's very little indeed to separate these recordings from their studio counterparts.
The same cannot be said of “39 Songs”. Compared to “R.E.M Live”, “39 Songs” feels like a real gift for the fans. A Christmas treat, as it were. Right in the middle of June. Its appeal is obvious. First, there's the curio-appeal of hearing “Accelerate” material played in such embryonic, unpolished forms. “Supernatural, Supercilious” is still referred to as “Disguise”. “Man-Sized Wreath” is introduced as a future b-side – and there's even room for the unreleased “Staring Down The Barrel of the Middle Distance”. But beyond this new material is a whole lot of obscurities, most of which is plucked from their I.R.S years – plus a few cuts from their very first EP release.
I wondered – by what criteria did they choose their setlists? It soon became obvious, though. They chose to play their personal favourites. “New Test Leper” is introduced somewhat apologetically before it's revealed that it's a song which everyone in the band professes to love. “Feeling Gravity's Pull” is paired with an anecdote concerning the harness Stipe used to wear when performing it. Most moving, however, is the story concerning his grandfather which precedes “Auctioneer”. He used to have his grandchildren place pennies on the rail track before he departed by train. These crushed pennies would then act as a reminder of this absent grandparent. Suddenly, a song which may have appeared particularly incidental in the context of quite a murky album is cast into a whole new life – some twenty-five years after its original release. Powerful.
Beyond even this, though, is the feeling that, onstage, the band are having the time of their lives. Several times Stipe's vocals falter as he stifles a laugh whilst singing. He's apparently using a laptop as a point of reference for remembering the lyrics to songs unperformed for decades; and on several occasions comments upon how little sense they make to him now, and how he's often amused when reading back that which he wrote years ago. The band play with a looseness and energy all but absent on “R.E.M Live”. They may sometimes hit a bum note, but that's part of the appeal. It's the “warts and all” approach which makes this such an essential purchase for any R.E.M fan. This is them at their rawest, but also at their most playful. They're completely exposed. But, guess what? It's not some kind of monster. It's a party.
This got me thinking as to what exactly makes for a “good” live-album. The quality of the material on “R.E.M Live” is proof that it has nothing at all to do with the songs. Rather, I believe it has everything to do with intentions. Sometimes, live-albums are released as contract-fillers. Sometimes they're released as an awful means of milking as much money as is inhumanely possible from a cash cow boon. Sometimes they're released to quench the first for novelty in the down-time between releases. In short, sometimes they're awful, cynical, moribund vehicles for evil with no merit at all. These ones, however, are pretty easy to spot. Usually (though not always) they bear criminally unimaginative titles. “BAND X – LIVE” - look out for those. Also, be wary as to at what point in the band's career these live documents were released. If it were just after their debut album, they're generally to be avoided. If, on the other hand, they are the debut album...
Ultimately, though, the overall quality of a live recording boils down to but one factor – does it make you wish you were there?
I have compiled a list of my favourite live-albums. As is always the case when I compile such lists, there are some disclaimers. I would first like to make it clear that this list does not represent “the best” live-albums. Rather, it represents my favourites. And that's why you'll find no “Who – Live At Leeds” or “James Brown – Live at the Apollo”. It's for the crucial reason that I've not heard them. I know, I know.
Second, it must be stressed that these are all official releases. I'm not including bootlegs. Nor am I including such releases in which the live material came packaged with extra recordings. This is why you won't find Pink Floyd's “Ummagumma” (it came with a disc full of bizarre studio experiments) or the second disc of The Best of The Beta Band (because, obviously, it was the bonus disc on a best of). Most annoyingly, perhaps, is the fact that this disqualifies Big Brother & The Holding Company's “Cheap Thrills” as, apparently, not all of it was recorded live.
No – this list has a very specific criteria. All were released as strictly live-albums, and all create that yearning within – the yearning that I was present at the recording.
They're in no particular order..
Spiritualized – Fucked Up Inside
1998's Royal Albert Hall recordings contain almost the entirety of “Ladies And Gentlemen Were Floating In Space” and are, as such, devastating. But I personally prefer this rare, limited edition release. This is not, I stress, included as a means of winning any kind of “indie cool” points. It's not even as though it's particularly “rare” any more, either. It can be downloaded with ridiculous ease. No blood on my hands.
Rather, it's included because it contains recordings of Spiritualized at their most blissful. Whilst a damaged , desolate rage is never far away on the Royal Albert Hall recordings, here the band seem quite happy to be floating in space. And, as glorious as the version of “Shine A Light” is on the Royal Albert Hall album, here it's twice as long and contains about seven additional gorgeous minutes of spaced-out meanderings.
You hear stories of Spiritualized gigs from this era where crowd members found themselves so mesmerised that they unconsciously allowed for cigarettes to burn unsmoked right down to the filter. Hearing this, such tales as told in hushed, awed voices are pretty easy to believe.
Lou Reed – Rock'n'Roll Animal
Lou Reed's released quite a few live albums in his day. They're all, in their own individual ways, worth a listen. 2008's document of his “Berlin” shows features a soul-destroying rendition of “Candy Says” with Antony on vocals (and, you know, one of the most harrowing albums ever recorded played in its blistering entirety). 2004's “Animal Serenade” encapsulates perfectly the stately dignity with which his contemporary shows are infused, and 1984's “Live In Italy”, with the help of tearaway guitarist Robert Quine, contains several savage renditions of material which sounds comparatively limp on record. It's here, for instance, where you'll find the ultimate version of “Kill Your Sons”.
1974's “Rock'n'Roll Animal”, however, is a defining release not just in the Lou Reed canon, but also in the entire 1970s rock repertoire. Here the Lou Reed of Transformer/Berlin revisits his Velvet Underground days in leather, black eyeliner and a studded dog collar – and a backing band potent enough to strip the paint from the walls. In order to hear the full set you need, in addition, 2003's “Extended Versions”, but the five tracks which make up the original release – and the additional few cuts from the CD remaster – are sufficient in themselves. It's certainly the most terrifying version of “Heroin” ever recorded.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Live Seeds
Remember how I suggested that it's perhaps the pragmatics that separate the “good” live albums from their cynical counterparts? Very good example, here. 1992's “Henry's Dream” is quite rightly lauded as one of Cave's finest. The man himself, however, was famously dissatisfied with its overall sound. To his gargoyle ears it apparently sounded too tame, too polished. Hence, Live Seeds.
Here the “Henry's Dream” material sounds vicious. Strings are replaced with wailing organs, guitars that twanged now crunch and the vocals – snarling and caustic as they were – are rendered somehow even more so. Cave frequently sounds livid, possessed, demonic...I defy you to not quake a little when hearing this version of “Papa Won't Leave You Henry”.
In addition, “The Mercy Seat” is howled with brutal, brooding intensity whilst “The Ship Song” is graced with heart-stopping tenderness. There's even enough room for an unreleased gem in “Plain Gold Ring”.
My Morning Jacket – Okonokos
In which, over the course of two CDs, My Morning Jacket tear and meander through a flawless setlist which flows so beautifully. After a glorious opening trio from “Z” begins the unmistakable cymbal rush opening of “One Big Holiday”. The vocals are screamed with unrestrained euphoria and, by the time we reach the solo, I like to picture the hair of every person in the audience as billowing in the face of the sheer force of nature that is this band in full swing.
This segues wonderfully into “I Will Sing You Songs” - in many ways the polar opposite of that which came before. Where the previous song charged – knocking down all in its path – this one soars languidly and seductively. Immerse yourself in the spaces between the notes; it's hypnotic.
To sum up: Spellbinding.
Hawkwind – Space Ritual
Shorn of the dangerous volumes, the stench of petrol, the intense stroboscopic lights synchronised perfectly with the pummelling bass lines and, of course, the 6ft tall topless dancer painted in day-glo – you could be mistaken for thinking that a Hawkwind live album represents a watered-down experience which would leave all lacking; wanting more. Not so. The effect is, rather, the aforementioned yearning. Would that we were there. Would that we were there.
The main attraction is, of course, the unrelenting propulsive surges of violent energy – proto-metal, proto-punk – and with all the visceral thrills of ploughing headlong through an asteroid field with only a faulty auto-pilot to guide you.
But it's when the band kick back a level that this live collection really shines. “Space Is Deep” might well be a blindingly obvious sentiment, but never has the debilitating hyper-real wonder felt when witnessing the sheer vast infinity of space been better evoked musically. Also, once you hear “Sonic Attack”, you'll never forget it. This is what all poets dream of – ominously intoning their apocalyptic verses whilst a group of stoned cosmonauts conjure an unholy racket behind you. “Think only of yourself”.
Radiohead – I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings
Presumably this collection was released in order to shut-up all of those sad individuals who winged that Radiohead had somehow “lost it” with Kid A and Amnesiac. Ten years down the line it's easy to forget just how jarring and disquieting those two albums must have sounded on initial release. “I Might Be Wrong” was a none-too-subtle reminder that beneath the treated vocals, jazz freakouts and strange electronic sounds remained a collection of beautifully sung and played songs (yes, songs) of heartbreak, confusion and alienation.
Essentially, this collection reveals the raw humanity behind some of the best bits from their two most difficult albums. The backwards loops of “Like Spinning Plates” are replaced by an unaccompanied piano, and suddenly Radiohead at their most oblique becomes Radiohead at their most exposed.
For most everyone, though, the main draw is in “True Love Waits” - a very old unreleased number which, performed here acoustically by Thom Yorke, is, simply put, one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful love songs as ever written or recorded. Not a dry eye in the house, and all that.
Wilco – Kicking Television
In which Wilco put in a virtuoso performance and, crucially, sound as if they're having a great time. The biggest criteria in deciding the overall quality of a live album is, I realise, in the extent to which you're made to wish as though you were there. Well, with “Kicking Television”, such a yearning kicks in very early on.
Opener “Misunderstood” contains the line “You still love rock and roll”. Upon hearing this, the crowd erupts with apparent spontaneity into a loud cheer. Because they still love rock and roll. And here they are – witnessing rock and roll live – in its purest form.
Essentially, I'd love to be part of such an appreciative audience. The concert as recorded so impeccably here feels more like a religious experience. The band are tight, note perfect – and yet do not sound overtly polished. Countlessly they channel some kind of divine energy targeted directly at those hairs on the back of the neck – they're pure electricity – and I so wish I were there.
Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band – Live 1975-1985
One criteria by which you can judge the quality of a live release is in to what extent it can be of interest to a completist.
Completists in their very nature are, of course, going to rush out and buy absolutely everything ever released by their band or artist of choice. This is not, however, to say that they're not going to be disappointed. Not everything will afford them with something new.
This colossal collection, however, certainly will. Not only is it the only place where you'll find certain essential parts of the Springsteen canon (the rousing “Because The Night” and the desperate “Seeds”), it also contains a number of hyper charged covers (“Raise Your Hand” and “War”) and some devastatingly sparse takes on former barnstormers. The opening “Thunder Road” is heart-stopping enough, but I much prefer the acoustic rendition of “No Surrender”. A fist-pumping celebration of friendship on “Born In The USA”, stripped-down as it is here it's a lot more powerful, a lot more affecting. Springsteen sounds genuinely wistful – as if he knows that the friendship in question is ultimately doomed.
For everyone else, though, this triple-set acts as the perfect means of witnessing the unremitting live power of The E-Street Band in their heyday. It's the same length as the marathon performances they used to put in and is blessed with exactly the same degree of intimacy that Springsteen brings to even the most massive of audiences. His long monologues between songs are painfully honest and have the potential to make every rapt member of a 10,000 strong crowd feel as though they're being addressed personally. That this feeling is replicated perfectly with the distance not just of space, but also of time, speaks volumes of his potency as a live performer. Here he's at his best. His albums subsequently sound weak by comparison.
Essentially, when compared to R.E.M's dual live-albums, this contains the best of both worlds. Like “R.E.M Live” it contains such songs that even the most casual of fans can love. And yet, it scores the same curio-appeal points and wears its heart on equally as exposed a point as does their “39 Songs”. This, then, is how to do it. Guess only Springsteen's capable, though.
Grateful Dead – Live/Dead
When, at an early age, you begin to take an interest in psychedelic music, inevitably you'll see, hear and read much concerning Grateful Dead. Then you'll hear “Truckin'” or “Workingman's Dead” and you'll think – well. It's a little bit country, isn't it? You'll be disappointed.
Then, however, you'll start to hear things about their live show. About Dead Heads who'd follow them across their country – now that's dedication. How ace would a band have to have been live in order to induce such devotion? Well. So ace that every night would have to be different. So ace that you could see them a hundred times and, moments before they take to the stage, still find that you've no real idea as to what exactly to expect.
So you get yourself a copy of Live/Dead, and it's nothing short of a revelation. This is exactly how you wanted Grateful Dead to sound. Hell, this is exactly how you wanted music itself to sound.
For me, this is the ultimate live-album for two reasons. First of all, I'm yet to come across a piece of music more transcendent that the twenty-three spellbound languid minutes of Dark Star. No other band were able to create a sound so amorphous, so mercurial. Even after what feels like hundreds of listens, I still find myself enthralled, seduced and mesmerised by this seemingly effortless ethereal wash.
Second of all, this – like any Grateful Dead live-album – is merely the official tip of a seemingly infinite iceberg of bootlegs. Even to scrape the surface of this murky yet iridescent world is to stumble upon a passionate community which truly values the pure and redemptive qualities of music.
And it all starts here.
A Spotify Playlist of some of the above. Regrettably, the My Morning Jacket is unavailable. So too is the Spiritualized. In the case of the latter, though, I was able to substitute with something from the Royal Albert Hall album.