I generally don’t like most “live” LPs. Never have. They usually sound just like the studio albums. But bad. Very bad. Like, “why are you ruining your own songs?” bad.
Sometimes it’s enough to make me question my allegiance to the band in general. Are they really that bad? Is it all just engineering and FX? Maybe I should just follow the record producer instead of the band. Oh, Lord, they can’t even sing…
So, yeah, generally speaking, not a fan. The vast majority of the better ones, the actually listenable ones, are close approximations of their studio counterparts. Except not as good.
Which raises the question, why do live albums even exist?
The first answer is the most obvious and most evil. It’s an extremely easy way for record companies and/or artists to make more money. It’s right up there with “Best Of” albums for classic methods to milk a little more money out of all those gullible fans.
It’s also a sometimes a way for artists to meet their contractual obligations to a label. Sick of being a tied down in a ridiculously unfair deal with a major label? The kind that has you selling millions of albums yet still has you owing them twenty-eight million dollars in “costs”? Put out a “Best Of” and a “Live” album, fulfill the minimum requirements of the contract and move on.
Don’t forget to bad mouth the label on every media channel you can on the way out. It’s certainly a better strategy than simply refusing to release anything good during your most prolific years like Prince did.
Anyway. So there are plenty of business reasons for “Live” albums to exist. But what do the fans get out of it?
Usually, they get to listen to it once or twice and then put it away satisfied that they have completed their collection. Or, they listen to that great track they heard once, over and over again, and try to forget how horrible the rest of the LP sounds.
I suppose some people buy it almost like a souvenir as well. A reminder of a show they actually went to, or wish they had been to, if they had been born twenty years earlier.
Oh, God, just writing this has reminded me of all those LPs which capture the audience “singing.” Why? I mean, it’s kind of fun if you’re really high/drunk/etc and at the actual show I guess. But why would anybody really want to hear that? Or hear that guy that starts clapping after three notes to show everybody else what a fan he is, only to realize that he has misidentified the song? Why? Just why would you want a record of such stuff?
But sometimes, ever so rarely, “live” albums aren’t so bad. Possibly even pleasant.
And sometimes, we’re talking like winning Lotto here, sometimes, they can be quite good. Fantastic even. Unique and wonderful recordings unlike anything the artist has ever done before. Reminders of how incredible a band can be if untethered and left to run wild.
Which is what this post is about. Those ever-so-rare live albums that bring something worthwhile and new to the table. LPs that are stand alone triumphs of rock n’ roll.
That rarest of rare creatures, Great Live Rock Albums.
THE WHO, LIVE AT LEEDS
I’ve always had a hard time taking The Who seriously. At least as seriously as I should, given their place in rock history.
When they acted all punk and destroyed their instruments at the end of their shows, it just felt kind of comical to me. Absolutely nothing about The Who cried out angry or violent. They were nice boys making nice music. I really didn’t understand why they needed to put on this whole act of being violent rebels.
It all felt so forced.
When I was growing up, way back when, The Who were considered one of rock’s most elite bands. They were mentioned without irony in discussions about The Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Established Rock Royalty.
When the not-remotely-great city of Detroit, where I spent part of my youth, did their annual “fan favorite” radio shows, The Who were always assured a large chunk of the top twenty spots and at least one in the top ten (usually “Baba O’Riely”).
And then they faded.
Music history may still have loved them but they were never taken that seriously again. In fact, what brought about a return to the public eye was the use of Who songs as themes for the CSI TV show franchise. Surely, a double-edged sword. Yes, they got a whole new generation of fans and made a lot more money, but at what cost? Theme songs for CBS shows your mom watched?
It was all kind of tragic. And almost enough to make me dismiss them forever. And then I listened to LIVE AT LEEDS again and I was reminded. I was reminded that The Who really were a great rock n’ roll band.
When you hear Pete Townsend play “Shakin’ All Over” you realize that he actually was an angry young man once. A true rock and roller pissed off that the world was such a mess. A man who might have impulses he can’t resist to smash things.
In fact, the most remarkable thing about LIVE AT LEEDS is that, at times, the entire band sounds filled with explosive energy and ready to fck stuff up.
Who would have thought?
Be aware that there are a several versions of LIVE AT LEEDS out now. Yes, they were probably put out to “exploit the existing catalogue” and make more money. But, in this rare case, it’s actually not a bad thing.
There is a LIVE AT LEEDS “Expanded Edition” from 2010 that features four, yes four, discs of live material. Ironically, half of it isn’t from concerts in Leeds at all. It’s from shows in a small English city called Hull. But whatever.
For years, there were fans that insisted that as good as LIVE AT LEEDS was, it actually wasn’t accurate in representing how great The Who were live. The four volume version of LIVE AT LEEDS helps bolster their case. There is some terrific new stuff included in the set. Not all of it is great. But enough.
LIVE AT LEEDS will remind anyone that The Who are worthy of respect. And that they were just a little bit nasty and, once upon a time, could actually put on a concert that made people want to burn things.
And they seemed like such nice boys.
CHEAP TRICK, AT BUDOKAN
I sometimes have a hard time thinking of Cheap Trick as a real band. I actually like them. And listen to them. But as I wrote in my post CRAP I LISTENED TO IN 2020, they are a band which trend a little too close to pop bubblegum nonsense to take seriously sometimes. Not to mention, after their first few albums, they were totally embarrassing for decades to come.
But BUDOKAN snaps me out of all that. It’s an album which appealed to a lot of people when it came out in 1978 and still does. It’s gone triple-platinum and become accepted as a staple of “classic rock.”
More importantly, BUDOKAN proves something a friend of mine said, a friend who is a true Cheap Trick fan and respects the hell out of them….
Cheap Trick are a much better live band than a studio band.
Cheap Trick rocks in concert. BUDOKAN takes sugary sweet songs like “Surrender” and makes them thoroughly enjoyable. Its other hits, “Want You to Want Me” and “Ain’t That a Shame,” seem fresh and buoyant compared to their overly constrained and polished studio source material. Not to mention, there’s cuts like “Need Your Love” which sound downright heavy.
It also turns out these guys could really play their instruments. Who knew?
I never went to a Cheap Trick concert when I was young. They were already putting out pure crap and embarrassing themselves. If only I could have seen them in 1977.
But at least there is AT BUDOKAN. An LP to get me through all those dull and never-ending evenings. Evenings I can now pretend I was at a great concert in Japan having the time of my life.
LED ZEPPELIN, HOW THE WEST WAS WON
I am a huge Led Zeppelin fan. They are up there with The Beatles, Radiohead and David Bowie for my favorite of favorites. Desert island picks.
But I hate “SONG REMAINS THE SAME.”
I always have. I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. For decades. I just can’t get into it. In fact, if there were as single live album that made me turn on the whole genre it was this one.
It’s just bad.
I liked the fact that there were some different versions of the studio tracks, sometimes very different. The problem is/was it just didn’t seem like a very good concert. Robert Plant’s quips and Jimmy Page’s improves feel anything but spontaneous.
It’s Led Zeppelin just going through the motions.
For all the stories of how legendary Led Zeppelin shows were supposed to be, I would feel forever baffled. Thanks to THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME, I just didn’t get it.
And then I heard “HOW THE WEST WAS WON.”
HOW THE WEST WAS WON doesn’t feel like some half-assed version of the studio albums, it feels like a concert. More importantly, it feels like a really, really, good concert. A great one, in fact.
Whereas THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME feels like a night Led Zeppelin would rather have been with their groupies in the hotel, HOW THE WEST WAS WON sounds like a band having a blast. There’s an energy there that is just lacking in THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME.
As a listener, it puts you there, right in the audience, stoned out of your mind (if you do that sort of thing) watching those guys on stage doing things that humans just shouldn’t be able to do.
HOW THE WEST WAS WON features Led Zeppelin songs you thought you knew and loved and tears them to shreds. The concert versions are sometimes almost nothing like the song on the album.
There’s versions that are similar to those that appear on SONG REMAINS THE SAME. But they’re just better. A lot better. Better execution. More feeling. A classic rock concert the way it should be.
It features an amazing, nine-and-a-half-minute version of “Bring It On Home. A very nice twenty-minute-plus version of “Dazed and Confused.” A dirty, bluesy version of “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
The band, all of them; Bonham, Page, Plant, John Paul Jones, shine. Being on a stage worshiped by legions of stoned fans brought out something extraordinary in them that night. And on this recording you can hear it. You are reminded how exceptional this band really was.
It’s not perfect, by any stretch. There are some moments of true silliness on HOW THE WEST WAS WON that seem like something out of THIS IS SPINAL TAP.
This is especially true of certain things Robert Plant improvises. Not to mention, there’s the super-long version of “Moby Dick” featuring John Bonham beating the crap out of his drum kit. A drum solo which is perfect for taking that bathroom break you were putting off so you wouldn’t miss anything, just like you were there!
If all adds to the feeling that you are actually in the crowd watching. There for the genius. There for the ridiculousness. There in the audience, smelling the weed, drinking the over-priced beer and wondering why you can’t come back to Earth reincarnated as Jimmy Page.
And that’s what makes a live album so damn special.
Really too bad so many of them suck.