The death of the live album

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

Next week The The release The Comeback Special, a 24-track live album documenting the band’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall in June 2018. Meanwhile, Steely Dan’s last man standing, Donald Fagen, has just released two live albums recorded in 2019.

Their musical qualities notwithstanding, these releases feel like relics from a lost world. Much like the fondue set, the live album is much reduced from its 1970s and 1980s heyday, when a pretty blonde sideman-turned-solo artist called Peter Frampton could somehow shift eight million copies of the anodyne Frampton Comes Alive!

The stand-alone contemporary live album is now an endangered species; MTV’s Unplugged series in the 1990s offered a final down-home twist on the format. These days, in-concert releases tend to be ancient archival recordings, or else bundled into ‘deluxe’ versions of endlessly repackaged old studio albums.

The reasons for their decline are obvious. The prevailing genres of our time — pop, hip hop, R&B and their derivatives — are not particularly live-orientated mediums. Modern listening habits skew towards either the immediate now or the long-ago past. Recent history rolls into the deep ditch between the two; preserving it as a physical document seems oddly superfluous. Technology has played its part. Back when a live performance required our physical attendance, live albums (and their loveable bastard offspring, the bootleg) opened a window into an otherwise inaccessible world, transmitting magic from around the globe. Now, the concert experience is porous; it has leached out into the ether. Smartphones and social media have led to an online glut of shaky hand-held audience footage of your favourite band playing your favourite song right now. It looks like progress, but sounds like a spell breaking.

The combination has more or less done for these once-big beasts of the industry ecosystem. Rock bands with long hair and longer guitar solos adored live albums — preferably, for some reason, recorded at a cavernous Japanese judo arena called Budokan. For one thing, they offered a convenient solution to writer’s block and contractual demands. ‘I’ve always thought live albums were cop-outs,’ reckoned Whitesnake singer David Coverdale, not unreasonably, but occasionally they have added real value to an artist’s catalogue.

When asked to recommend a James Brown album, I’m hard pushed to see past Live at the Apollo. Too Late to Stop Now is the distilled essence of Van Morrison as a performer. Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Live!, recorded at the Lyceum in 1975, contains definitive versions of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ and ‘Get Up, Stand Up’. Johnny Cash singing ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’ to an audience of felons on At Folsom Prison crowned him the counter–cultural maverick he remained until his death. On Live at Leeds, The Who slashed and burned in a way they never quite managed in the studio.

More often, live albums are flat and patchy. Many good bands have struggled with them. The Smiths and The Jam released pretty desultory efforts; Bowie never made a brilliant one, despite releasing several. Even Tom Waits and Kate Bush, two of the greatest performers I’ve seen, have struggled to overcome the basic quandary of the live album: for those who were there, a recording can never sound, or feel, quite as good; for those who weren’t there, an aural approximation is a poor second best. Even the most auspicious occasions don’t necessarily translate. Bush’s series of Before the Dawn shows at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2014 were extraordinary. The ensuing live album, running to 155 minutes, captured only a fraction of the intrigue and power.

The The have taken the approach favoured by Bush: release the whole damn show in multiple formats and throw in a book, bespoke artwork and sundry other goodies. Like Before the Dawn, The Comeback Special documents an artist returning to the stage after a prolonged lay-off. Though there is plenty to savour in the music, this is live album as luxury souvenir.

The more common approach to the concert LP in its pomp was the cut-and-shut affair which gathered recordings from multiple shows, later polished in the studio to a suspiciously high sheen. This seems to me the most honest route. The tapes for Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, an outstanding album, were copiously reupholstered in post-production.

Who cares? Long after its origins have been forgotten, Live and Dangerous still stands as the band’s most essential record, an alternative greatest hits collection with added verve and drama. Concert recordings can never replicate the experience; great shows become mythic as they are happening and myths don’t necessarily warrant forensic examination. If listening to a live album is, at best, almost like being there, why shouldn’t the music we hear be almost live, too?

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