Bloated, over-indulgent and long winded. But that’s enough about (insert the name of your least favourite politician here), let’s talk about Double Live albums.
When Noel Gallagher talked about double albums to Rolling Stone Magazine recently he was referring to studio albums, but he still made the colourful point that they tend to go on a bit: “Anybody that comes back with a double album, to me, needs to pry themselves out of their own a–” said Noel “This is not the Seventies, okay? Go and ask Billy Corgan about a double album. Who has the f- time, in 2013, to sit through 45 minutes of a single album? How arrogant are these people to think that you’ve got an hour and a half to listen to a f- record?”
Were they just over-indulgent product for the masses, or were they the purest way to hear your favourite rock band, free of studio constraints and trickery? I grew up listening to live albums – in my teenage years at least. Some, like Deep Purple’s Knebworth show and AC/DC’s Live at the Atlantic Recording Studios I taped off the radio. Others, such as Molly Hatchet’s Double Trouble Live and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Live Alive I bought on the day they were released. Still more (Humble Pie’s Rockin’ The Fillmore – recently re-released over four CDs, and Blue Öyster Cult’s On Your Feet Or On Your Knees) I borrowed from friends.
But in 2013? I thought that the (double) live album was dead. It has come as quite a surprise to me to find myself having bought a couple of double live albums in 2013. I thought double live records had gone the way of those other eighties phenomena such as rah-rah skirts, The Kids From Fame and predatory light entertainers.
On Record Store Day 2013 The Mystery Jets released their Live At The Festival Hall double LP in a lovely gold vinyl limited edition of 500 some of which were even signed by the band. Gold double vinyl? Signed? For twenty quid? You could hardly say no could you? I saw the band live last year – they were excellent and this is a great record, featuring Laura Marling sharing vocals for a couple of songs.
Even so, one swallow does not make a summer and that, I thought, was that.
Then Jack White (who else?) began to release some double live albums – first with The White Stripes with their “Northern Lights” LP and then in his Vault series. There’s an excellent Jack White solo double live album, a 2003 White Stripes double live red and white coloured vinyl album called Nine Miles From The White City, and most recently of all, a Raconteurs double live album in a fetching autumnal gold colour.
When it comes to the greatest live albums, however, you have to delve a little further back in time, to the seventies and eighties. The very best double live albums can define an artist’s career, transcending all their studio work. Has anyone ever listened to a Peter Frampton album that wasn’t “Frampton Comes Alive”? More than once, I mean.
So what are the greatest double live albums? And what makes them great?
Here’s what I look for:
- Performances better or different to the original studio recordings. Studio recordings done less well are not what we are looking for. That’s what tribute bands are for.
- Career defining. Are you two albums into your career? You’re not ready. Stick to a single live album to capture that rare explosion of energy that you probably won’t have five albums later after the booze, touring and recreational drugs have taken their toll on your liver and sanity.
- Gatefold sleeves and luxurious packaging. Please don’t present me with a career spanning album in a white paper sleeve. There are clear “rules” about this. At the very least there should be a lavish gatefold sleeve covered with more pictures than an Operation Yew Tree “most wanted” notice board.
- A bad pun, usually relating to the word “live”. There’s a protocol and centuries, well – decades, of tradition to observe here. (See “Frampton Comes Alive”, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Live Alive”, Iron Maiden’s “Live After Death” and Kiss “Alive”).
- Absence of drum solo. Unless its a Rush album, when it’s kind of the whole point of the album.
One thing that has never worried me too much was a bit of “touching up” in the studio afterwards. Exhibit A in this is Judas Priest’s (single) live album “Unleashed In The East” which is a brilliantly brutal and fast paced album, but which some call “Unleashed In The Studio” because it (allegedly) had more work done to it than Joan Rivers’ face. Every track on it stands up to, or surpasses the studio original though.
Exhibit B is The Beatles’ 1965 Live At Shea Stadium film which was secretly overdubbed in its entirety by the Fab Four at CTS studios in 1966 because the Ed Sullivan team which had beautifully shot the event with twelve cameras had failed to pay as much attention to the sound (which was terrible). The Beatles never told a soul they had overdubbed the whole shebang, not least because of union rules and The Beatles’ exclusive contract with EMI. *
So without further ado, here’s my own “Top Ten Double Live Albums” list. (Because the world doesn’t already have enough top ten lists, right….?)
UFO – Strangers In The Night: UFO never sounded better than on this record, which has all their good tunes and which begins with an inimitable “Hello Chicago! Would you please welcome from England: U-F-O!!” The remastered version gives us more tracks and in the actual order they were played on the night, but I like the original LP starting with “Natural Thing”… File under “Career Defining”.
Thin Lizzy – Live And Dangerous: This album is one where the live versions are all better than the originals. If you were to buy only one Thin Lizzy record, this is the one.
Iron Maiden – Live After Death: Heavy rockers almost gave up releasing double live albums after this one (except Iron Maiden, sadly). Aside from a rather too long audience participation bit (which never works on record) during Running Free, Maiden are absolutely in their prime on every track.
The Allman Brothers Band – Live at the Fillmore East: Essentially a showcase for some sublime slide and blues guitar playing and an archetype for how a double live album can transcend the studio versions to become a band’s finest hour.
Humble Pie – Rockin’ The Filmore: “We go home on Monday but I wanna tell you – we’ve all had a gas this time… It’s really been a gas.” declares Steve Marriott during this early classic, the enjoyment of which depends upon your liking for earnest white-boy blues. Still Peter Frampton’s best live album.
Aerosmith – Live Bootleg: This album takes a different approach to many. Instead of capturing one grand stadium performance, it takes songs from various shows – including a small club gig during which the band are playing James Brown covers (Mother Popcorn). With the concept of a “bootleg” recording (including fake coffee stain on the cover and an incorrect track listing) this is a perfect live record of America’s finest. The record still shines – despite the impending implosion of the band.
Deep Purple – Made In Japan: Perhaps the Grandaddy of live recordings, from 1972. The band went on musical explorations and improvisations every night, so we get very different versions of the songs to their studio counterparts. A ten minute version of Lazy and a nineteen (yes, 19) minute version of Space Truckin’ is the result. There’s something quite special about seeing a double live album track-listing and realising one song takes up The Whole of Side B…
Kiss – Alive: Like a few of the bands here, Kiss had released a few patchy studio albums by this point, but had just enough songs to make a really good double live album. Result: A career saving document capturing them at their best. The cover sums it up – they look thin as rakes and hungry for success.
Prince – Sign O’ The Times: Only Prince could break all the rules of double live albums and release one with All New Material. And it still be great…
Scorpions – World Wide Live: A band I always felt had too much filler in between the good songs on their studio albums, this double live record acted as a perfect filter.
- Queen – Live Killers
- Rush – Exit Stage Left
- Van Morrison – It’s Too Late To Stop Now
- Neil Young – Live Rust
- Journey – Captured
It would be nice to think that more bands will look to release live LPs. Record Store Day in 2012 saw a single live album from The Vaccines – perhaps there will be more around the corner? I suspect not. Not because live LPs aren’t a great listen – but probably because you can get an even better sense of what the gig was like if you watch a live DVD. Certainly when Led Zeppelin reformed, that live DVD was a must-see (and so much better than their “Song Remains The Same” double live album from the 1970’s).
Have I missed your favourite? Do you miss double live albums? Let me know in the comments below…
Record #261 : UFO – Only You Can Rock Me
* Source: Tony Bramwell – “Magical Mystery Tour: My Life with the Beatles
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