A Live Album is often a route into a band if you don't want to go down the Best Of compilation road.
And it is often a fine route as the Live Album (certainly when released as part of the band's main lifetime) will capture them at the very top performance power with a ravenous supporting crowd.
And the venue is important too - a general rule of thumb is that the best live albums will come from theatre shows, rather than enourmodomes. One where you can almost feel the sweat, feel the thump of the bass bin, taste the watered down/over priced beer, and get lost in the show.
And a live album can act as a definitive moment in time, showcasing the confidence in songs and performance. Live Albums are often inserted in the main catalogue to fulfill a contractual obligation, or when there is no new material recorded (or even in progress). But whatever the reason, there never seems to be a perfunctory or lacklustre performance issued.
(OK, I admit it - many Live Albums are touched-up, cleaned up, and/or overdubbed in the studio).
The Live Album is an even better proposition if:
(a) it's a full show, warts and all, rather than a selection from different recordings, and
(b) you were at the recorded show
The nearest I personally have to (b) is Iron Maiden's 'Live At Donnington 1992'.
I started writing this thinking "oh yeah, that will be an easy post - I'll highlight 5 or 6 essentials, say why they are essential, and post a couple of vids.
And then I started assembling the list - the long list runs to about 40 albums, and I can't cull it to a (more manageable) 10, so here's a selection and the reasons why they deserve a mention.
Each one follows the "band/artist at the top of their game" principle (but not all abide by the "warts and all" and/or "sweaty theatre" rules)
The Who - 'Live At Leeds'
Often cited as the number 1, object lesson how to do a Live Album. And they're probably right. Coming off the back of Tommy, The Who toured University Campuses for 3 months in early 1970 (before returning to the US for more dates).
Recorded on the opening night, the original 6 track album shimmers with power and aggression, including a 15 minute version of "My Generation" and a return to roots with incendiary versions of "Summertime Blues" and "Shakin All Over". The later CD re-issue restores the entire set including a well rehearsed and delivered 'Tommy'.
Arguably, the following nights 'Live At Hull' is an even better performance, but remained lost following damage to the tapes and the loss of the bass track - until it was matched and re-dubbed from 'Live At Leeds' - so well in fact, you can't see the join.
Thin Lizzy - 'Live and Dangerous'
And another rightly near the top of the lists. OK, there is an argument how much of it is live and how much of it was re-done/re-dubbed in the studio (producer Tony Visconti suggest "most of it" with only the drums and the audience noise being otiginal recordings - the band suggest otherwise).
However it came into being. what you have is a document of what a fine rock & roll band Lizzy really were, and Phil Lynott the consumate frontman/rabble rouser.
On record, Thin Lizzy never quite managed a "perfect" album apart from perhaps 'Jailbreak' - this set shows how strong the base material was. Maybe it was red light fever, maybe the production was too harsh, but Thin Lizzy swang like never before (or sadly again)
Iron Maiden - 'Live After Death'
In retrospect, it's hard to believe that this album was only 5 years into their recording existence.
From London's East End Pubs to Long Beach Arena in half a decade. 3 sides of this album come from Long Beach Arena, Side 4 from the more intimate Hammersmith Odeon.
This one breaks 2 of the rules - it's not a full show, and its an enormodome (or 75% of it is), but all that is forgivable when confronted by the sheer attack of the performance - the band playing at the op of their ability, and Bruce Dickinson leading from the front. An entertainer as much as "just a singer".
The sound an recording is clearer than anyone would expect from a live album - very little (if any) bleeding of instruments into each other, no moments of feedback or monitor bursting into the red. And I think that has much to do with the man who produced it - Martin Birch. He knows a thing or two about Live albums (as you will see later)
Motorhead - 'No Sleep Til Hammersmith'
If the aliens landed and said "what is this Heavy Rock thing?" you could do worse than play them this album - just look at their little faces as the double bass drum thump of "Overkill" kicks in.
Culled from a short 5 date tour (which, despite the title, never even got to Hammersmith) this showcased just what a powerful band they were on stage.
The previous year a Live EP had snuck into the Top 10, by the end of 1980 "Ace Of Spades" had breached the Top 20, and the tiular album sat in the Top 10. And just before this jaunt, Motorhead were back in the Top 10 (and on Top Of The Pops) with Girlschool.
The album debuted at Number 1 in the album chart, and spawned a further Top 10 single with the eponymous "Motorhead". Not sure "Pop Star" was ever on Lemmy's bucket list, but for a brief moment they were the biggest selling band in the UK.
Stiff Little Fingers - 'Hanx' / 'Live In Aberdeen'
Originally conceived and released to crack the US market (where Chrysalis could get to, but previous record company Rough Trade fell short). The album was released in the UK at a reduced price which can't have harmed it's chart performance, but full price/half price the content of 'Hanx' is worth it.
Basically a "greatest hits" of their first 2 albums, the performance is never less than 110% (a feat they continue to deliver to this day - I've never seen a half-arsed or duff performance from SLF).
On the same tour which spawned 'Hanx', a couple of other shows were recorded, but later disregarded due to sound quality issues.
'Live In Aberdeen' had found it's way onto the bootleg market (titled 'Broken Fingers'), until finally getting a clean-up and official release in the 2002.
You can't go wrong with either, but 'Live In Aberdeen' just has more of the "full show" experience.
Deep Purple - 'Made In Japan'
By 1972, Deep Purple were surely one of the biggest bands in the world - if not by sales, then certainly by live attendance. They were one of those bands that were seldom off the road.
Like many bands of the time (Led Zep and Pink Floyd being 2 prime examples) they were keen to get some official live product out there if only to stem the flow of bootlegs.
Their last 2 albums had sat at number 1, so commercially this one was unlikely to fail - unless it was a really duff recording.
Enter Martin Birch to supervise and engineer the recordings, and then work closely with the band to ensure that the best performances made it onto the record.
It may not have performed as well as previous albums (chart-wise) despite selling for a fixed lower price, but it is a perfect encapsulation of Deep Purple Mark 2 ant their powers on stage.
AC/DC - 'If You Want Blood ... You've Got It"
AC/DC's own brand of heads-down/balls-out relentless riffing boogie found a home not only in the bars of Australia, but also in the pubs of London. A band as good, and committed to live work, as this was never going to stay in the pub circuit forever. And so it was that 2 years after arriving in the UK, they were headlining the Glasgow Apollo to a rapturous crowd (no doubt even further enraptured by the Scottish heritage of 3 band members).
Opener "Riff Raff" flys out of the speakers, and there is no let up over 2 sides and 40 minutes - even the slower "Ride On" becomes incendiary as the crowd sing along.
And talking of crowd chants - the introduction to "Wjhole Lotta Rosie" with the shout of "Angus!" as the riff breaks is still an integral part to this day. As is the 5 minute Angus solo walkabout in "Let There Be Rock" - all present and correct here.
The album title was such a good song title, it was written up and appears on their next (huge selling) album 'Highway To Hell'
Ramones - 'Its Alive'
The Ramones first came to London on 4th July 1976 playing the Roundhouse in Camden. Many writers cite this as the moment Punk started in the UK. There are stories of how The Damned, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, and all other prime movers were in attendance. A nice story, but The Clash and the Pistols were in Sheffield that night, so that's that myth de-bunked.
The Ramones influence and reception was great enough that just 18 months later they were selling out the Rainbow Theatre on New Years Eve. and recording their first live album.
This album is basically the first 3 albums squeezed onto 4 sides of vinyl - with nary a pause for breath.
Arguably it's as close to a template for "how to do Punk", if not "how to do a Live Album". Or would've been had it not been kept on the shelf for 18 months, finally seeing the light of day (in mid 1979) just as the punk flame was slowly being extinguished and the moment had passed.
Neil Young - 'Rust Never Sleeps' / 'Live Rust'
Neil Young never shied away from performing live shows composed of new material. And so it was for the release of 'Rust Never Sleeps' - a live album, split into "acoustic" and "electric" sides featuring brand new material.
The production on 'Rust Never Sleeps' attempts to remove as much audience noise as possible, but still has that live feel. Young (under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) also recorded a companion documentary of the tour, that was issued at the end of 1979 (6 months after 'Rust Never Sleeps') under the name 'Live Rust' with an album of the same name also released.
'Live Rust' restores the audience noise, and expands the set to include some of Young's greatest back catalogue moments. Of the two, I prefer 'Live Rust' is the definitive Neil live document, but you need the both as 'Rust Never Sleeps' contains 5 tracks not available elsewhere.
1991's 'Weld' performs a similar trick and is worth a listen - it may be 12 years later, but Neil Young and Crazy Horse retain the same power on stage (and the additional 35 minute disc 'Arc-Weld' is an interesting exercise in 35 minutes of feedback, guitar noise, experimentation, and musique concrete)
U2 - 'Under A Blood Red Sky'
As a band, U2 were "doing OK" in 1983 - 2 relatively well received albums, able to sell-out theatre shows, and starting to move to larger venues. 1983s 'War' underlined/confirmed the bands progress - still 4 or 5 years from being the biggest thing about, but travelling in the right direction.
Their status (and US adulation) was underlined by the venues chosen for the 1983 Tour, including the open-air, 10000 capacity, Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
The plan was to film the event - which did happen - but torrential rain almost forced the show to be cancelled. There was a break in the weather just before the band came on stage, but a virtual lake on the stage and the Colorado climate did not make it look the most welcoming. But they soldiered on, got through the show, and assured their place in US adulation (which would only increase in future years).
Only 2 tracks come from Red Rocks, but the full show is available on the attendant film.
The performance(s) herein are a combination of prowess and rough edges and makes for a great listen (remember the "warts and all" rule)
Dire Straits - 'Alchemy'
Dire Straits fist major UK tour was supporting Talking Heads - sounds incongruous now (and then I suppose), but this was just before "Sultans Of Swing" broke the Top 10, and subsequent albums began lengthy stays in the album charts (with sales to match).
By 1983s 'Love Over Gold' the music was becpme more moody, and the arrangements more complex - adding a whiff of Prog to the Rock, Blues, Soul, Jazz, Americana (before it was called Americana, and any other style they fancied into the mix.
Alchemy was recorded on the 1983/84 tour - the album can sometimes feel a bit slow and drawn out (particularly Side 1 of the original vinyl, now "pepped up" on CD with the insertion of "Love Over Gold"), and the crowd applause and cheers don't always match the mood of the song, but one can't help admire the technical excellence or the delivery of the songs - close enough to the original versions, yet differently arranged enough to be unique
Status Quo - 'Live!'
On which the Frantic Four have never sounded so Frantic. I've seen the Quo several times, and always wished they'd be like this - it was close, but never quite the same.
Interestingly, Francis Rossi doesn't rate this album (but Francis has also said that "Marguerita Time" is one of his favourite Quo songs, so...).
Maybe this isn't a go-to for a fair-weather Quo fan with more "deep cuts" than big hits, but this is the sound of a committed tight band flexing their chops and extending songs as far as they can be taken - "Forty Five Hundred Times", "Caroline" (plus a drum solo) and "Roadhouse Blues" are all the thick end of a quarter of an hour, but never hit the point where the listener searches for the skip button.
Heads Down, No Nonsense, MindFUL Boogie - Indeed!
Queen - 'Live Killers'
Queen's reputation (and legacy) had been pretty much assured following the double releases of 'A Night At The Opera' and 'A Day At The Races'. And for all their studio capability, they were also a hugely capable and in demand live draw.
With no new product to support, and between albums, they embarked on a 3 month Tor of Europe, followed by 2 months in Japan, under the title "Live Killers" (can you see a plan emerging?).
Many of these shows were recorded, and Queen - always big on Quality Control - sifted through these recordings to find the best takes to represent the Live set, opening up with the peerless fast (and rocked up) version of "We Will Rock You", and this album certainly does. It also follows the title of track 2 "Let Me Entertain You" being thoroughly entertaining.
Just 7 years later, they stopped touring and this was marked by 'Live Magic 86' and (the full show) 'Live At Wembley 86' - both those albums are fine documents of Queen on stage, but 'Live Killers' is (for me) the best live outing.
Rolling Stones - 'Get Yer Ya Yas Out'
As their Decca contract came to a close, it was noted that they owed the company one more album. The solution? Fulfill demand with a Live recording (and also kick back against the number of Bootlegs doing the rounds).
The album includes Mick's question to the audience "Charlie's good tonight?". After a brief pause, he replied "Charlie's good every night".
And so were the whole band, and Mick Taylor's input can be clearly heard pointing the way to the stadium filling "Greatest Rock n Roll Band In The World" they soon became.
And this is where the legend starts
Bruce Springsteen - 'Live 75 to 85'
In 1974, Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone that he had seen the future of Rock n Roll, and that future was Bruce Springsteen. And on the evidence of this 3 and a half hour compilation, that pretty much sums it up. Despite the title, only one track comes from 1975 ("Thunder Road") but that's a minor point. As is about 40% coming from the 84/85 period, but one can only assume they were the best recordings available.
Here is a band (note: band, not band and singer) who want to do nothing else than play their hearts out for as long as possible, entertain the crowd, and never give less than 100%
In 2021, Bruce Springsteen released the 1979 No Nukes concert from Madison Square Garden - arguably containing even better performances, and acting as a perfect accompaniment to this 5 vinyl/3 CD box set.
The Band - 'The Last Waltz'
The former backing band for Bob Dylan broke away from their paymaster and re-formed themselves simply as "The Band", and with Bob Dylan began to explore roots americana and folk music, culminating in the album 'Music From The Big Pink' - maybe not huge selling, but latterly recognised as hugely influential. The follow-up album simply titled 'The Band' and complete with an old-timey sepia toned cover set a new template for american music and it's influence (including The Byrds, The Eagles, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and many more).
Americana: invented by Canadians.
By 1976, The Band were growing tired of touring and conceived one last showpiece event - The Last Waltz - to be filmed by friend and fan Martin Scorsese, and featuring an all-star line-up including Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, and Neil Young.
If The Band were tired of touring and playing on stage, 'The Last Waltz' somewhat de-bunks that.
Peter Frampton - 'Frampton Comes Alive'
'Frampton Comes Alive' is one of those rare albums that rises from seemingly nowhere, sold by the bucketload, but then the success is not repeated. Humble Pie did something similar with 'Performance Rockin' the Fillmore' featuring a guitarist called ... Peter Frampton.
It's one of those albums that just "is" - there's plenty to like (the near 8 minute version of "Jumping Jack Flash" for example) and very little not to like. The songs are great, the band strong (despite the loss of keyboardsman Andy Bown the night before), and the crowd full of support.
And if that's not enough, there's always the Talkbox to marvel at.
Johnny Cash - 'At Folsom Prison' / 'At San Quentin'
'Folsom Prison Blues' was written in 1955 based on Johnny Cash's thoughts and perceptions of being in Prison. Later he had the idea of performing shows in a Prison, but his record company were unwilling to support the idea. That is until a change of producer thought it a good idea and both Folsom and San Quentin were contacted. Folsom Prison were the first to reply, so Cash and his band trooped off to perform 2 daytime shows for the inmates.
Cash was no stranger to an indiscretion or two, and you almost get the idea the inmates viewed him as "one of their own". Cash responded by delivering a relaxed, but never sloppy, set which the captive audience lapped up. As the show progresses the closeness between audience and band grows ever nearer.
A year later he repeated the event at San Quentin Prison, found much the same reception, recorded an equally strong (if not stronger album), and (as Folsom Prison had it's own track) wrote and delivered "San Quentin" to a rapturous applause (even playing it twice).
'San Quentin' also includes an impropmtu/busked version if what would become one of Johnny Cash's best known tracks - "A Boy Named Sue", He had told the band he might play it, but part way trough the set struck up the opening chords, read the lyrics from a notebook, and the band followed without confusion or diversion.
Cheap Trick - 'At Budokan'
Whilst homeland success in the US was limited, although critically lauded, Cheap Trick were achieving incomparably high success in Japan.
After the release of their second album, a tour was arranged to capitalise on this adulation.
And when they got there, even Cheap Trick were surprised at the level.
The tour ended with 2 sold out nights at the 15,000 capacity Budokan arena - the second of which was recorded for this album.
There are points when the crowd makes so much noise they are almost drowning out the band. And the band reply with a masterful performance.
The success garnered in the US with this release did lead to a couple of years of continued success before Management and record company problems saw them back to "critically lauded" (meaning, doing OK, remaining popular, but not really selling much anymore)
Oasis - 'Familiar To Millions'
In 1999, things were a bit fraught in the Oasis camp - the expected high of 'Be Here Now' had not been delivered, 3 original members has departed, and they had still not cracked America (which was high on the "to do" list). The 2000 album 'Standing on the Shoulder of Giants' had been recorded by the remaining members, with Noel Gallagher playing just about everything, and then when released the reception was relatively lukewarm - it still sold in large numbers and spawned hit singles, but the reception was generally "meh!".
The accompanying tour took in America, Japan, Europe, South America, and included 2 sold out nights at Wembley Stadium. This album comes from the first of those 2 nights (thankfully not the second night where Liam was somewhat the worse for wear).
Despite the reception to their latest album (which is represented by 4 songs here), and the obvious (omnipresent) tensions on stage, on this night they are definitely Rock n Roll Stars
The White Stripes - 'Under Great White Northern Lights'
Recorded on the White Stripes last tour of Canada, and released as an accompaniment to the documentary of the same name, it stands as testament to the White Stripes power as a band. Do you really need more than a voice, a guitar and a drum.
There was "something" special about the White Stripes, and these performances and the crowds response proves it. Unfortunately when the band went into hibernation and subsequent cessation, Jack White started to believe and present himself as a bit more important than he actually is/was.
I never got to see the White Stripes live, and this album makes me rue the missed opportunity every time I play it.
And as I scan back over that list, I ask myself "have I missed something?" - only 2 of the albums come from the 21st Century. Is the Live Album a dying form? As just about everything (both audio and visual) is now recorded, does the planning for a Live Album no longer happen, And with footage (official or otherwise) available on YouTube and other platforms mean there is no more clamour for official product?