Classic Rock: Got live if you want it!

This month’s post by author, Calgarian, Habs fan and armchair music historian Geoff Moore is all about the way that live music  from Rock God Mount Olympus was once lowered down to the masses; two platters the size of dinner plates robed in all of their cardboard, gatefold glory!  It’s the double-live album, folks.  An artifact of a bygone age.  Let’s take a trip into the deep, dark, circular, crackly-pop past…

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The single format seems to have spun back into fashion. Downloadable solitary songs and back catalogue tracks ripe for cherry picking compressed to ooze through earbuds have driven down sales of the tactile CD format (which slew vinyl) so much so that chain music stores, the few still standing amid the smoking ruin of the recording industry, now devote their premium floor space to games, ersatz merchandise and DVDs.

But there’s no rush to be had browsing Kurt Cobain figurines or Diff’rent Strokes Season 1 – 2 sets for everyday people of a certain demographic who are already smothering inside a post-recycled fibre Lululemon bag of ageism. It’s an unsettling epiphany to realize the market has passed you by.

So let’s venture out into the wind-scoured badlands and dig some dinosaur fossils. Dust off some extinct 70s major label marketing leviathans, an armful of those double live gatefold LPs that dropped into record racks like the Acme anvil that regularly accordionized the spine of a certain biped coyote.

Some bands were just that much more superior on stage – we tip our hats to seminal single live albums by the J. Geils Band, Ramones, Cheap Trick and Bob Marley, who also released the brilliant Babylon by Bus(1978) just three years later.

Artists at their peak dropped a souvenir document on their fans with appropriate gravitas (including a weighty triple set from an ex-Beatle with a chip on his shoulder, maybe) to buy themselves a little breathing room before going back into the studio to wax their next, hotly anticipated, masterpiece.

The watershed, of course, was 1976. But before the flood generated by Frampton Comes Alive! there was Before the Flood (1974) which documented Bob Dylan’s electrifying 1973 reunion with the Band – who had already released a New Orleans New Year’s Eve show as Rock of Ages (1972). These two albums, along with Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1973) and Neil Young’s Live Rust (1979), still sound as immediate the fragments of the very evenings they preserved.

Frampton Comes Alive! is the double live equivalent of boxer and grill shill George Foreman, who names his sons George, it begat a bandwagon train of lesser selling but arguably better sets from other rockers seeking a wider audience: Dave Mason’s Certified Live (1976), Bob Seger’s Live Bullet (1976) and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s One More from the Road (1976), southern scion to the Allmans’ edited and abridged landmark At Fillmore East (1971).

The weary brave gracing the cover of ‘Surf’s Up’ is reborn on the cover of The Beach Boys in Concert (1973), exposing his torso and upturned face to the warmth of the sun, his arms outstretched. And rightly so. While Brian is absent (likely in his sandbox hoovering acid faster than Oswald can synthesize it) and ‘Holland,’ the LP the tour was promoting, was no ‘Pet Sounds,’ … In Concert is probably the last relevant Beach Boys album.

They were a fully functioning American band with fresh, solid material to perform. And so was Grand Funk Railroad two years later when the Flint, Michigan group was Caught in the Act (1975) at their absolute peak of popularity. Live Bootleg (1978) captures Aerosmith at the highest point of their career, just as the train wreck kept a-rollin’. Supposedly undoctored, raw Bootleg may have been a barroom chin chuck to Kiss Alive (1975) which most certainly is not, right down to the cheesy, posed cover portrait.

Kiss Alive II (1977) could only have been conceived by Casablanca’s marketing department, three sides of ‘live’ and a side order of new studio tracks. ‘Still Dangerous’ is currently being trumpeted at Thin Lizzy.org as ‘the real’ Live and Dangerous (1978), touting additional tracks, no overdubs and no post-production, a stark contrast to its original beloved incarnation.

The 70s cannot be revisited without acknowledging a penchant for wretched excess during the decade. ‘From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee’ for releasing a 12:46 version of ‘Moby Dick’ and a ‘Dazed and Confused’ that sure lives up to its title at 26:52. There’s not enough hashish left on the planet to re-absorb Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same (1976), although the soundtrack’s packaging was exquisite. It seemed dated upon release though, perhaps because the live footage was from 1973 and the band had moved on – Physical Graffiti and Presence were already in record stores. But one documentary soundtrack always worth revisiting is Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971).

Other scree reached us from Olympus. Love You Live (1977) apparently was a Plan B olio for which Andy Warhol phoned in the cover art. The Stones had planned to release four sides from five nights (according to speculation and rumour at the time) at Toronto’s El Mocambo Tavern, but Jagger’s strategy was disrupted by the Mounties and Mrs. Trudeau who were just doing their jobs. Se we settled for side three, damn them!

Bowie sandwiched his plastic soul and coke-addled Nosferatu phases between David Live(1974) and Stage (1978). The Doors are like your high school wardrobe, something you soon grow out of. Absolutely Live (1970) has aged about as well as the Lizard King himself, it’s just sort of stuck in the tub.

The double live died (Sounds like a discarded Ian Fleming title, eh?) as the 80s progressed (although the Stones and the Who never got the memo). Twenty-five years ago when digital technology was in its infancy a single audio compact disc was an expensive enough consumer proposition and record marketers began to realize that lightning rarely strikes twice.

The exception being (and there always is one) Springsteen’s mammoth Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live 1975-1985 which came down on record store racks like Sunday morning or like that skit-squashing animated foot in Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The double live set was sort of a place marker in an artist’s career, a consolidation of achievement to that point in time. For a low charting or regional act, the double live album served up a buffet of their best for the uninitiated and unconverted.

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Geoff Moore is a novelist and ad man,  living and working in Calgary. I get the feeling he misses the wonderment of gatefold packaging…

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2 comments

  1. Just read a little piece on Tom Petty in Rolling Stone. He’s releasing a 4-disc Live Anthology in November. He dismissed his own Pack up the Plantation (1985) as a “tour souvenir” & went on to describe most live albums as “greatest hits played faster.”

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