The live album is a strange, ugly beasty viewed as little more than a cynical cash in or a handy way of plugging a creative gap until the real album turns up. And yet, as unpopular as they may be, we have all indulged at one time or another. If you care to check out your collection, I guarantee you will find at least a couple of live albums gathering dust, unless you’re a Grateful Dead nut, in which case you’ll find nowt else and most of those will be bootlegs.
However, the fact remains, no matter how many tricks or overdubs are used to tidy them up (and in some cases the ‘live’ tag is downright fraudulent), live albums will always be regarded as second class citizens. Outside of the actual live experience itself, very rarely do live tracks surpass or even match the studio versions we’ve become accustomed to.
Nonetheless, in the spirit of File Under Unpopular, here’s ten I found hidden in the darkest recesses of my iPod. And I must admit, as historical documents go they do sound rather good. But would I pick them over their studio counterparts? You must be joking!
VELVET UNDERGROUND / 1969 (Recorded late 1969 Released April 1974)
FAVOURITE TRACK ‘What Goes On’
1969 appeared after the Velvet’s collapse, but in 1974, my curiosity aroused by Bowie’s constant namedropping, it was like nothing else around. A glorious, shambling yet melodic racket, not only was it another essential step on my road to enlightenment, it also gave me that initial push to join a group and take up the drums. If Mo Tucker could do it so could I, except I soon found out that I couldn’t. Featuring radically different versions of Lou Reed standards like ‘What Goes On’ and ‘White Light/White Heat’, played to what sounds like ten bystanders who just happened to wander in, it’s still the best introduction to the Velvets there is and quite possibly the greatest live recording of all time. I should make the effort to play it more often.
CURTIS MAYFIELD / CURTIS LIVE (Recorded January 1971 Released May 1971)
FAVOURITE TRACK ‘Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)’
Curtis Live found its way onto my iPod during my initial, mid noughties downloading orgy, but it’s only recently that I’ve really begun to appreciate Curtis Mayfield’s huge influence on seventies soul both as a radical artist and a thinker. A naturally humble man, he spent his entire life obscured by the gargantuan shadows of such icons as James Brown and Marvin Gaye, who released their own perfectly good live albums around the same time. But whether it’s the intimate atmosphere of The Bitter End Club, or his remarkable, stellar playing, with a trawl through The Impressions back catalogue, a handful of solo tracks and a bizarre rendition of The Carpenters ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’, Curtis trumps them both.
DAVID BOWIE / DAVID LIVE (Recorded July 1974 Released November 1974)
FAVOURITE TRACK ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’
In 1974 I thought being so ravaged by cocaine that you resembled one of the living dead on your album sleeve was the coolest, most glamourous thing in the world. Consequently, to me, the condemnation of David Live, even from Bowie himself, didn’t mean a thing. At 14 years old, I was hungry for anything he cared to chuck my way, and if that happened to be an enormous double live album, then so much the better. I couldn’t get enough and grew to love it, despite its soulful inflections being such a radical departure from Diamond Dogs and the glam years. At the time I wasn’t entirely convinced, but having dragged it out again recently after the old chap’s demise, it does seem to have aged rather well.
BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS / LIVE! (Recorded July 1975 Released December 1975)
FAVOURITE TRACK ‘Lively Up Yourself’
Bob Marley is not my favourite reggae prophet, not by a long shot, but like most white folk my age, it was he who gave me my first lesson in roots; what it was, what it meant and what it could be. And it was Live!, or rather the single version of ‘No Woman No Cry’ that finally established his reputation as a spiritual figurehead. Aided and abetted by The Wailers tight rhythms and The I Threes sweet voices, it is certainly a great listen, cloaked in an atmosphere of unity and celebration so infectious that by the time the opening hook of ‘Lively Up Yourself’ kicks in, you have no choice but to submit to the sheer joy of it all.
THE FALL / TOTALE’S TURNS (Recorded late 1979 - early 1980 Released May 1980)
FAVOURITE TRACK ‘Rowche Rumble’
Back in 1980 while I was formulating my plan for an underground cassette label, I would drag my suitcase sized double cassette recorder around to as many local band gigs as I could get to and record the lot. I like to think it was Totale’s Turns that planted that seed, even though The Fall were nothing like any local band I ever heard; a fucked up mess of crazed rockabilly and driving motorik topped by the big mouth, sarky wit of Mark E. Smith, who even at this early stage of his extraordinary career had no problem telling a confused audience of dumb arse, prole punters: “The difference between you and us is that we have brains”.
THE CRAMPS / SMELL OF FEMALE (Recorded February 1983 Released November 1983)
FAVOURITE TRACK ‘Thee Most Exalted Potentate Of Love’
The Cramps were the primordial spirit of rock’n’roll writ large, at least the sleazy, dirty sex and death bit that comes along every so often to liven up our mediocre lives. So perversely influential that they turned the deranged sound of rockabilly into the even more frenzied chaos of psychobilly, by 1981 they were on an enforced hiatus due to a legal dispute with their label. Our thirst for new material was finally quenched two years later by this live six track mini album. A shuddering slab of pulsating energy, it was everything we wanted it to be; wacked out vocals, twanging a go go and a bucketful of fuzz. Lux ‘n’ Ivy went on to record for another twenty years but never again would they sound this far gone.
TALK TALK / LONDON 1986 (Recorded May 1986 Released February 1999)
FAVOURITE TRACK ‘Living In Another World’
From the ridiculous to the sublime, Talk Talk were about as far away from the trashy, rock’n’roll aesthetic of The Cramps as you could get. A group known for their leader Mark Hollis’s refusal to play their avant-garde, later period albums live, London 1986 proves how good they really were, their earlier material treated with a gravitas and potency absent from the more commercial studio versions. Almost belying the theory that live recordings are never as good, the immaculate ‘Living In Another World’ in particular literally bursts with an effervescent energy that is astonishing.
FIELDS OF THE NEPHILIM / EARTH INFERNO (Recorded August - November 1990 Released April 1991) FAVOURITE TRACK ‘Last Exit For The Lost’
In 1986 I started promoting bands at the 1,000 capacity Majestic ballroom where Reading’s show starved youth would turn out in force every Wednesday for whichever top notch indie group we could afford. Fields Of The Nephilim were regulars, starting out as a support before headlining numerous times in their own right. Harangued as goth nitwits, their cause not helped by a fetish for sprinkling Mothers Pride all over their faux spaghetti western togs, the atmosphere at their live shows was spellbinding. I picked up Earth Inferno years later to find out what had become of them only to discover that somehow they had transformed their early sub Sisters Of Mercy meets Ennio Morricone goth pick’n’mix into a compelling, other worldly nightmare of dread, texture and rhythm, the only downside being I wish I’d been there to witness it for myself.
SPIRITUALIZED / ROYAL ALBERT HALL (Recorded October 1997 Released October 1998) FAVOURITE TRACK ‘Oh Happy Day’
Live albums may never improve on a studio recording but some come real close and Royal Albert Hall is one of them. Released in the wake of the immaculate Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, it was designed to work as a continuous symphony, Jason Pierce conducting fifty plus musicians and choristers through his singular history of gospel, blues, psychedelic and rock’n’roll in a little over 90 minutes. A testament to his far reaching sonic vision, the highlights are a superlative treatment of Spacemen 3’s ‘Walking With Jesus’ and the joyous delirium of ‘Oh Happy Day’, which is infinitely superior to the studio version only because he never recorded one.
BJORK / LIVE BOX (Recorded February 1997 - December 2001 Released August 2003)
FAVOURITE TRACK ‘All Is Full Of Love’
Bjork is someone to be admired and cherished as one of the few artists who continues to challenge and push the boundaries. But when she chose to release Live Box I began to question my faith in her. Four CD’s of recordings pulled from her various tours and the odd TV appearance were a seriously daunting prospect, even for the most committed fanboy. Not surprisingly, I have yet to wade through it all but I have listened to Vespertine Live. Long considered the runt of her litter, I found the original albums glitch pop architecture and music box melodies intriguing. Yet while the live versions of ‘Aurora’, ‘Unison’, ‘Hidden Place’ and ‘It's in Our Hands’ are no less captivating, ironically the best track is Homogenic’s sensual, but surely misplaced, ‘All Is Full Of Love’.