Got live if you want it!

I’m going to come right out and say it.  By and large, live albums just aren’t very good.

In my conversations with friends and family during the COVID upheaval, when I ask what everyone misses the most, one of the things mentioned most often is the opportunity to attend a concert and hear live music.

Listening to great music performed right in front of you at a small club or street fair, or even at an arena or stadium, can be extraordinary.  It’s potentially thrilling to hear and see them offer their live versions, perhaps with subtle or major changes in tempo, arrangement or length, therefore making it a unique experience that you share with the others in attendance.

That’s what we miss:  Seeing and hearing live music simultaneously.

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Live albums, on the other hand, attempt to recreate the concert experience without the crucial visual component.  They’re immediately handicapped by that shortcoming, which is the main reason why they are so often disappointing.

Ever since the introduction of concert DVDs, it seems to me the live album should be a dead concept.  What’s the point?  Why merely listen to a band in concert when you can listen AND watch a band in concert?

In the formative years of the ’60s and ’70s, though, virtually every band eventually released a live album, sometimes two or three or more.  It was considered something of a bellwether, an indication that the artist had become a Big Deal and was justified in putting out an in-concert LP.

So what was wrong with that?  Several things.

Too many live albums came with way too much applause and crowd craziness.  It’s so boring, and annoying, when a live track begins and/or ends with 30 seconds, 45 seconds, maybe a whole minute or more of clapping and whistling.  Some even interrupt the flow of the track with crowd noise during the song.

Many live LPs were shoddily produced and hurriedly released to capitalize on a band’s popularity.  Even the packaging was substandard.

Some live albums were fraudulent.  They actually took studio recordings and grafted on some concert applause to make the track appear live to the undiscerning listener.  Others included substantial dubbing of re-recorded guitar or vocals to cover up errors or so-so performances.

Still, they could be fun to listen to, they’re part of rock music history, and lots and lots of people bought them.  So I’ve compiled my list of a dozen live albums from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that bring back fond memories for me for their indelible performances and their ability to transport me to their concerts.

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“At Fillmore East,” The Allman Brothers Band, 1971

81TiDFSXXAL-1._SL1400_I would argue that this is rock’s finest live album.  The Allman Brothers’ first two studio albums had great original songs but the limp production gave the tracks a hollow sound.  This was a band that sounded far better in concert than in the studio, so they recorded a few nights at the Fillmore East in March 1971 and released this ferocious double album.  Original tracks like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post” were transformed into magnificent extended versions with Duane Allman and Dickey Betts both showing off their best licks.  Just as impressive were their renditions of such blues classics as “Stormy Monday,” “You Don’t Love Me” and “Statesboro Blues.”  A very “alive” sound with minimal crowd intrusion.

“Waiting for Columbus,” Little Feat, 1978

R-1329675-1329852272-1.jpegThis talented band never really got past cult status, but that cult was sizable and fiercely loyal.  Most of their six studio LPs sold respectably, and they filled small halls when they toured, but widespread acceptance seemed out of reach.  Their record label sought to change that with this gorgeously produced double live album, promoted the hell out of it and had it serve a dual purpose as a greatest hits collection.  It’s a solid effort that is widely praised as one of rock’s best live LPs, although it was revealed years later that Lowell George wasn’t happy with some of his guitar parts and later overdubbed them in the studio.  Another way that live albums are sometimes not as “live” as they seem.

“Stop Making Sense,” Talking Heads, 1984

41C1CZQFQJLAnother sonically superior concert LP is this soundtrack from the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” concert film, directed by the great Jonathan Demme.  Critics raved: “A perfectly measured snapshot of a widely loved and respected band playing at the height of their powers,” said Neil Jeffries of Empire.  “No other music movie soundtrack sounds this good.”  Leader/songwriter/singer David Byrne retained control of the recorded musical product, and it shows.   Such a fine selection of songs from their catalog:  “Psycho Killer,” “Girlfriend is Better,” “Take Me to the River,” “Burning Down the House,” “Once in a Lifetime”…  It’s one of very few live albums to be included among Rolling Stone‘s Top 500 Albums of All Time.

“Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne, 1977

R-1542309-1537728584-2463.jpegUnique among live albums is this entertaining release by one of L.A.’s best singer/songwriter of the Seventies.  He conceived a collection of new songs about being on the road, and recorded all of them live.  Half were recorded on stage in various U.S. venues, while others were recorded as little more than demos in various locations:  on a tour bus (“Nothing But Time”), in a hotel room (“Cocaine” and “Shaky Town”) and  a backstage rehearsal room (“Rosie”).  One of the best tracks is “The Road,” whose first half was taped in a hotel room and grafted to a second half from a stage show.  It was a novel idea that worked remarkably well; the album peaked at #3, spawned two hit singles and stayed on the charts for more than a year.

“Europe ’72,” The Grateful Dead, 1972

Unknown-625Early on, The Dead quickly realized they sounded much more like themselves in concert than in the studio, so they released an unprecedented seven double live LPs in their long career.  One of those was actually a triple album, “Europe ’72,” a fantastic sampling of music they performed during their tour of England and continental Europe in the spring of 1972.  European audiences tend to be more restrained and polite in their crowd response, which makes for a better listening experience here.  Check out their 13-minute “Truckin'” and the medley of “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” to see what I mean.  I personally think the band never sounded better, on stage or in the studio, than they do on this LP.

“The Concert in Central Park,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1982

810HYDgn1NL._SL1500_As a huge fan of this iconic duo during their 1965-1970 heyday, I was thrilled when they announced they would reunite for a free benefit concert in Central Park in September 1981.  It ended up attracting half a million fans and became a defining moment in the rock and roll pantheon when a film of it was shown on HBO the following year.  The concurrently released double album (#3 on the charts) featured smartly produced performances of the duo’s unparalleled vocal blend, with five songs from Simon’s solo works and one new Garfunkel tune (“A Heart in New York”), but the rest was a fabulous look back at the songs that tantalized a generation, from “The Boxer,” and “Homeward Bound” to “America” and “Mrs. Robinson.”

“Wheels of Fire (Disc 2),” Cream, 1968

4714641While Cream came up with some pretty great studio tracks on the four LPs they made in their two years together, it is the recordings of their live performances that really define what Cream was all about.  Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were each virtuosos on their respective instruments, and when they embarked on extended jams of some of their songs, look out.  If Cream had put all their best live tracks on one album, it would’ve been a slam dunk, but instead they’re spread out among several LPs.  Still, I’m going to include the live Disc 2 of “Wheels of Fire” on my list because of the phenomenal production which captured the improvisational brilliance of “Spoonful” and “Crossroads.”

“Woodstock,” multiple artists, 1970

Woodstock_Original_Soundtrack_1970This one’s a big, glorious mess of a live album — six vinyl sides of performances, both sharp and ragged, by an all-star cast of bands from the summer of ’69 — Joe Cocker, The Who, Ten Years After, Sly and The Family Stone, Santana, Country Joe and The Fish, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Jimi Hendrix.  There’s plenty of crowd noise, dialog, stage announcements, occasional feedback, flat notes and whatnot, but that’s part of what made the triple live LP and the film into award-winning documentaries of a watershed event in rock history, warts and all.  The sound quality of the album is, frankly, hit or miss; some bands sound muffled or distant, while Santana, a new band to many in attendance, comes across better than most.

“Miles of Aisles,” Joni Mitchell, 1974

R-5951388-1407193994-3473.jpegThis wonderful record captured one of rock’s most wondrous artists at her commercial peak just as she was ending one period and embarking on another.  Joni had been a folk singer whose own songwriting matured by leaps and bounds throughout her first five albums, and with “Court and Spark,” she began to use a full band (the jazz-infused L.A. Express) in the studio and on tour.  These live performances offered a cross section of old Joni, basically just her voice with guitar or piano, and new Joni, with the band, showing hints of the full-blown jazz material she’d be doing within a couple of years.  Almost all tracks were recorded at Universal Amphitheatre, and the sound is pretty damn good.

“Four-Way Street,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1971

81n4hBljrvL._SL1500_These hippie gods were so talented, and yet so maddeningly egotistical, that they were doomed to break up less than a year after they got together.  There simply wasn’t enough space on an album for all the great songs these four musicians were cranking out in this incredibly fertile period, but they put one tour together, and recorded most dates.   A year after the breakup, they selected 16 performances and assembled “Four-Way Street,” where the crowd noise is a bit loud for my taste, and the vocals aren’t as pristine as we had come to expect from their studio tracks.  But the album made it to #1 and makes my list because there are wonderful acoustic tunes new to the audience at the time (Crosby’s “The Lee Shore,” “Nash’s “Right Between the Eyes” and Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”).

“Frampton Comes Alive,” Peter Frampton, 1976

Unknown-626If there’s a live album you can blame for the glut of double live LPs that cluttered the record stores in the late ’70s, it would be this one.  Frampton had intended “Frampton Comes Alive!” to be a single LP, but A&M Records actually encouraged him to make it a double, and it ended up soaring to #1 in the US, where it sat for 10 weeks in 1976 and became the biggest-selling live album ever.  There’s way too much intrusive crowd noise here (it’s particularly annoying during the talk-box guitar solo on “Do You Feel Like We Do”), but the production is crisp and pure throughout, and Frampton and his band are in fine form on “Something’s Happening,” “Lines on My Face” and the hit single “Baby I Love Your Way.”

“Big World,” Joe Jackson, 1986

Big_World_coverThis final selection offers another unique take on how a live album could be recorded.  In this case, Jackson wrote 15 great new songs, thoroughly rehearsed them with his touring band, and then booked a concert hall — Roundabout Theatre in New York City — for three nights.  But here’s the kicker:  He requested that the audience refrain from any response until each song’s recording had been completed.  The intent was to capture the intensity and spontaneity of a live performance, but without the distraction of noise from the crowd.  “There was plenty of applause,” said Jackson, “but they were asked to hold it until they were sure a song was finished.  They understood this, and it all went surprisingly smoothly.”

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Honorable mention:

Live at Leeds,” The Who, 1970;  “Live at the Harlem Square Club,” Sam Cooke, 1963;  “Live 1975-1985,” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 1985;  “Delicate Sound of Thunder,” Pink Floyd, 1988;  “In Concert,” Peter, Paul and Mary, 1964;  “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” Joe Cocker and friends, 1970;  “Live at the Apollo,” James Brown and His Famous Flames, 1962;  “Band of Gypsys,” Jimi Hendrix, 1970;  “11-17-70,” Elton John, 1971;  “Before the Flood,” Bob Dylan and The Band, 1974;  “Live at the Hollywood Bowl,” The Beatles, originally released in 1977, but the 2016 remixed version is the one to get;  “How the West Was Won,” Led Zeppelin, not released until 2003, but captures the band in 1972.

Gonna make you, make you notice

Here in 2020, we’ve seen a whole bunch of “50 years ago” lists and tributes to albums, songs, bands and events from 1970.  I wrote my own blog about it several months ago.

This week, I thought I would instead focus on what was going on in music 40 years ago.  Here’s what I found:  1980 was a year of transition, when many artists of the Seventies were losing their clout and new artists were leading the industry in a different direction.

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Techno-pop.  The drum machine.  The morphing of punk into “New Wave.”  The death of disco.

In reviewing the list of more than 500 rock albums released 40 years ago this year, I found that nearly half were by artists who had been around for a while, while the other half were by newer bands, working on their debut or second LP.  I listened again to as many as I could and whittled down my list of the Best Albums of 1980 to the 25 or so that most inspired and influenced me.  My list has a similar split between established artists and new upstarts, reflecting my passion for Seventies styles while embracing the best of the new.  The hard part was selecting the final dozen; most of my “honorable mentions” could easily have made the cut on someone else’s list.

My accompanying playlist includes four tracks from each of the dozen albums on the list, plus two tracks each from the honorable mentions.

Crank it up!

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“Pretenders,” The Pretenders

Unknown-374Of the new contenders who first emerged in 1980, the most pleasant surprise was The Pretenders, led by the indefatigable Chrissie Hynde, one of the most talented badass women rock music has ever seen.  A product of the rough-and-tumble milieu of Akron, Ohio, Hynde moved to London in her early 20s and was profoundly influenced by not only the energy of the British punk scene but its defiance and “up yours” stance as well.  The difference between The Pretenders and the lame “pretenders” who had similar ambitions, in my view, is Hynde’s ability to write great songs with pop hooks that made their stuff palatable to old-school skeptics like me.  Their debut LP came out the first week of 1980 and went immediately to #1 in England, while in the US their popularity grew more slowly until the LP reached #9 mid-year.  “Brass in Pocket” became their signature hit single, although just as interesting were “Kid,” “The Wait” and “Stop Your Sobbing,” among others from this fine record.

“Arc of a Diver,” Steve Winwood

Unknown-382When he was still just 15, Winwood wowed critics and fans with his amazing voice on Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man.”  At 18, he formed Traffic, the British band who came up with a dazzling mix of folk, jazz and rock.  He took a break to join forces with Eric Clapton in Blind Faith for a short spell, and then reformed Traffic for another four-album run that included the exemplary “John Barleycorn Must Die” and “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.”  A first attempt at a solo album in 1977 was surprisingly flat, although not without great moments.  Late in 1980 came “Arc of a Diver,” a phenomenal LP which featured Winwood playing every instrument and singing in fine form on a great batch of songs.  The album reached #3 on US pop charts, led by the #7 hit single “While You See a Chance.”  Other strong tracks included “Spanish Dancer,” “Night Train” and the title song.  He followed it with three more strong albums in the same vein — “Talking Back to the Night,” “Back in the High Life” and “Roll With It.”

“Empty Glass,” Pete Townshend

Unknown-375Since forming The Who with singer Roger Daltrey in 1964, Townshend had assumed the responsibility of writing nearly all of the band’s material, which took its toll on his physical and mental health.  His never-easy relationship with Daltrey became strained, largely because Townshend would occasionally insist on handling lead vocals on certain tracks.  When drummer Keith Moon died in 1978 after the release of their “Who Are You” album, the band wasn’t sure how to proceed.  Townshend took the opportunity to gather some intensely personal songs about alcoholism, drug abuse, marital strife and the death of friends and release them as a solo album, “Empty Glass,” which reached #5 in the US.  This further rankled Daltrey, who felt the songs were superior to the ones Townshend offered to the band for their lackluster concurrent album “Face Dances.”  I think he’s right — “Rough Boys,” “And I Moved,” “Gonna Get Ya” and “Empty Glass” are superb tracks that might have been even better if The Who had recorded them.  Still, Townshend’s solo effort is a fine piece of work on its own.

“Zenyatta Mondatta,” The Police

Unknown-376I remember first hearing this Brit trio’s debut hit, “Roxanne,” and thinking it was an enticing blend of reggae and punk.  “Message in a Bottle” from their second LP grabbed me as well, but I wasn’t motivated to buy either album.  By the time “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” was released in September 1980, I was far more open to the New Wave styles that were beginning to reach the mainstream, so I bought “Zenyatta Mondatta,” The Police’s strong third album.  It became a popular soundtrack at the crazy parties my roommates and I were throwing, where we danced up a storm to these songs, sometimes on the furniture!  The mix of Andy Summers’ guitar stylings, Stewart Copeland’s jazzy drumming and Sting’s bass lines and vocals created an indelible sound that only grew more compelling  with their subsequent albums — “Ghosts in the Machine” and the phenomenal “Synchronicity” — before they disbanded.  On “Zenyatta,” tracks like “Man in a Suitcase,” “Canary in a Coal Mine” and the hypnotic “When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” stay with me four decades later.

“One-Trick Pony,” Paul Simon

Unknown-380Following the success of his 1975 LP “Still Crazy After All These Years,” which won a Grammy as Album of the Year, Simon took some time off.  Never a prolific writer, he suffered through one of his bouts of writer’s block by turning his attentions to film.  He had a small role as a music industry luminary in Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning “Annie Hall” and then began work on his own film project.  He not only composed the songs for the soundtrack but also wrote the script and assumed the lead acting role.  “One-Trick Pony” is the story of a once-popular folk musician who is struggling to record a new album in the face of pressure from record label execs and a wife who is pulling away from him.  The poignant movie flopped at the box office, which affected sales of the accompanying album, which is a crying shame.  “Late in the Evening” was a hit, but there are so many other fine tunes that flew under most people’s radar.  “God Bless The Absentee,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Jonah” and the title song all deserve your attention.

“Gaucho,” Steely Dan

Unknown-379Over the course of six outstanding albums in six years, from “Can’t Buy a Thrill” to “Aja,” Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had taken Steely Dan from an actual band to a two-man project involving dozens of session musicians.  Then 1978 and 1979 went by with no new album, and fans wondered if they’d heard the last of them.  Turns out the period was full of personal and professional problems that affected recording sessions and relationships.  When “Gaucho” finally appeared in the fall of 1980, it was cause for celebration.  To me, the seven beautifully produced songs carried on logically from the sound heard on “Aja,” and lyrically, they continued the Steely Dan tradition of creating character studies about sketchy outliers and woeful ne’er-do-wells.  Sadly, “Gaucho” would be the last Steely Dan album for 20 years, but with songs like “Babylon Sisters,” “Glamour Profession,” “Time Out of Mind” and the hit single “Hey Nineteen,” they surely went out with class.

“Making Movies,” Dire Straits

Unknown-7I found the first two LPs by this band mildly interesting, mostly because of the spare, delicious guitar playing of Mark Knopfler.  His singing left me cold and some of his songs were kind of dull.  But boy, did I sit up and take notice when Dire Straits’ third LP, “Making Movies,” arrived in late 1980.  Knopfler had been writing more sophisticated, more personal songs, and with the stunning contributions from The E Street Band’s Roy Bittan on piano, the arrangements and production quality took quantum leaps forward.  Even Knopfler’s singing had improved, to the point where I no longer wished they’d hired a different vocalist.  Dire Straits would go on to become one of the biggest sellers of the decade, thanks to the 1985 blockbuster “Brothers in Arms” and its mega-hit single “Money for Nothing.”  But I will always be partial to the outstanding tracks on this album, especially the gorgeous “Romeo and Juliet,” “Tunnel of Love,” “Skateaway” and the aggressive rocker “Solid Rock.”

“Hotter Than July,” Stevie Wonder

Unknown-381Following the unparalleled success of his 1970s albums (“Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and “Songs in the Key of Life,” three of which won Album of The Year Grammy awards), Wonder tried something new and wrote a soundtrack for a documentary called “The Secret Life of Plants.”  That album had some fine tracks like “Send One Your Love” and “Black Orchid,” but overall, it didn’t click with most fans.  So it was a welcome return to form when he came roaring back in September 1980 with “Hotter Than July.”  Critic Stephen Holden accurately described Wonder as “our most gifted pop muralist because of his evocative, unique synthesis of pop and African musical elements.”  He dedicated the album (and the song “Happy Birthday”) to his effort to have Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday, which came to pass only three years later.  “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” was a fabulous dose of reggae in honor of Bob Marley, while “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” “Rocket Love” and “All I Do” stand out as the best tracks.

“Boy,” U2

Unknown-385From 1980 onward, few bands have had the impact or the sales success of U2, Ireland’s most popular rock band.  I wasn’t hip to their music from the get-go, but I joined the party around the time of 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire.”  The combination of innovative guitar work by The Edge and passionate vocals by Bono have served the band very well throughout their 14-album catalog.  Just as important is the songwriting, which the band claims is credited to all four members, though it’s clear that Bono writes the lyrics and The Edge is responsible for most of their musical direction.  U2 has evolved into international superstars, both in concert and on record, but you would be well advised to go back to their humble beginnings, where you’ll find “Boy,” a remarkably mature album for a bunch of 20-year-olds.  The songs deal largely with childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, including “I Will Follow,” “Stories For Boys,” “Out of Control” and “Twilight.”  It’s a damn good record — overshadowed by later works, perhaps — but well worth your time.

“Shadows and Light,” Joni Mitchell

Unknown-383I’m not much of a fan of live albums.  In most instances, the crowd noise serves as an annoying distraction, and too often the band is encouraged to turn a five-minute song into a ten-minute excuse for endless soloing.  There are exceptions, of course;  The Allman Brothers Band’s “At Fillmore East” immediately comes to mind.  In 1980, no less than nine major artists saw fit to release a live album (and they’re always double albums, by the way, increasing the risk of boring the listener).  Nevertheless, I was thoroughly taken by Joni Mitchell’s “Shadows and Light,” which beautifully captured her creative genius as she performed with jazz greats like Pat Metheny on guitar, Jaco Pastorius on fretless bass and Don Alias on drums.  (There’s a great concert video of this show available that you should definitely check out).  Mitchell drew mostly from her more recent jazz-influenced tunes like “Amelia,” “Shadows and Light” and tracks from her 1979 collaboration with Charles Mingus, but she included favorites like “Free Man in Paris,” “Raised on Robbery” and “Coyote” as well.

“Remain in Light,” Talking Heads

Unknown-384I have a difficult confession to make.  David Byrne and his amazing band from New York City weren’t really my cup of tea when they were new.  There, I said it.  I loved “Take Me to the River,” but that was about it.  It took me until sometime in the late ’80s when I saw the astounding live concert film “Stop Making Sense” to appreciate the great songs and excellent sonics of this band.  In 1992, I bought “Sand in the Vaseline,” a 2-CD anthology of the best of Talking Heads, and finally brought myself up to speed on their catalog.  Since then, I have delved back into the original albums, and decided that “Remain in Light,” released in the fall of 1980, is probably their best work.  “Once in a Lifetime” is easily my favorite, but I was impressed with unfamiliar tracks like “Seen and Not Seen” and “Houses in Motion.”  I’ve been jazzed by Byrne’s more recent solo stuff, which I’ve been listening to lately, but the Talking Heads tracks here are not to be missed.

“The Turn of a Friendly Card,” The Alan Parsons Project

Unknown-377Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, if you went shopping for new speakers for your home stereo, you made sure to have some albums by Alan Parsons Project to test their quality.  Parsons, you may know, was engineer for The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and producer for Pink Floyd’s sonically perfect “Dark Side of the Moon,” so he knows what he’s doing in the studio.  Much like Steely Dan, Parsons and his musical partner Alan Woolfson wrote songs together and then brought in dozens of different players to turn the tracks into aural gold.  “I Robot” from 1977 is many fans’ favorite APP album, but I have always been partial to the majestic tracks heard on “The Turn of a Friendly Card,” released in the waning days of 1980.  Side two (remember album sides) was largely devoted to the titular five-song suite, of which I’ve included the final section on the playlist.  Just as strong are the sax-dominated instrumental “The Gold Bug” and the two Top 20 hits, “Games People Play” and “Time.”

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Honorable mention:

The Up Escalator,” Graham Parker;  “Duke,” Genesis;  “The River,” Bruce Springsteen;  “One Step Closer,” The Doobie Brothers;  “Double Fantasy,” John Lennon & Yoko Ono;  “Crimes of Passion,” Pat Benatar; “Back in Black,” AC/DC;  “Hold Out,” Jackson Browne;  “Sandinista!,” The Clash.