The Top 4 Live Albums Of All Time
Barely more than a collector’s edition or promotional bumph these days, there was time when a solid live album, or performance could make or break a band. In this blog, we look at 4 live albums which made history and served as, either a marker of the band’s crowning moments or the recording which made the music world stand up and take notice.
1. Thin Lizzy - Live and Dangerous
Released in 1978 and recorded across shows in London, Philadelphia and Toronto from 76-77, Live and Dangerous is thought to have captured the pure energy and raw nature of Thin Lizzy. With, what many consider, the line up (the album includes the final performances of guitarist Brian Robertson) which marked Lizzy at their best, translating into a true sound of the band - Phil Lynott described his frustration that Lizzy never sounded right in the studio with the power of the band rarely replicated in those earlier recordings. It is perhaps for this reason that Live and Dangerous has become the marker for live rock albums.
Dangerous it might have been but how ‘live’ was it? As we will discover, through this blog, many live albums have an element of creative, post production ‘white washing’; a little polish here and there - perhaps that bend wasn’t in tune or the occasional wrong chord is overdubbed later. However, with Live and Dangerous there has been a 40 + year furore surrounding the authenticity of the famed Lizzy recordings - producer, Tony Visconti claimed that at least 75% of the album’s instrumentation was performed in the studio after the event. Lynott denies this vehemently, claiming, in truth, the reverse is true, with only 25% of album being overdubbed.
This didn’t prevent fans adopting the album as a shining example of, not only the band, but Lynott’s remarkable stage presence and persona.
The segue between Cowboy Song and The Boys Are Back In Town, which married the two songs using a common chord, became the staple of Lizzy’s future performances. However, most Lizzy fans, will hold up the slower, more soulful version of ‘Still In Love with You’ as the strongest performance Lynott ever gave. For an album which was originally intended to serve as a ‘stop gap’ offering between studio releases, its impact can’t be understated.
2. KISS - Alive!
1975 saw megastars, KISS release the seminal Alive! album, taking inspiration from UK glam rockers Slade and their Slade Alive! release. Recorded over 4 shows, during the same year, Alive! gave fans a chance to witness the intensity which was only afforded by hearing KISS live - rock & roll historians would go on to cite this as the live album which started it all!
Being the mid 70’s, you would be forgiven for thinking that KISS were at their peak of popularity, but with 3 poorly received studio albums and a floundering record label, the fate of the band was uncertain. Paul Stanley often expressed his frustration that (much like the afore mentioned case of Thin Lizzy) KISS were not built for the studio and to truly experience the majesty of the band was to see them live.
Was it really live? Whilst the energy of the performances is genuine, there is no debate surrounding the amount of post production dubbing on Alive! Apparently the original tracks were plagued with gaffs - mic stands being kicked over, opening songs with the wrong chords and not singing directly into the mic all made the list. From this point onwards the band made the decision to jump around less during shows to reduce the frequency of musical blunders.
Of the 16 tracks taken from their first 3 albums, the live version of Rock and Roll All Nite has become a KISS monument, receiving more radio play by far than the studio version. Many years before Rammstein, KISS were also taking pyrotechnics to a whole new level - during the track 100,000 years, the crew ignited the stage using flamethrowers!
3. BB King - Live At The Regal
The earliest album to make our list, BB King’s 1965 release is held up as, not only the greatest live blues album ever made, but possibly the best blues release of all time. In fact, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and John Mayer have all admitted that Live At The Regal was the choice pre show listening which gave them the inspiration to go on stage each night.
Unlike our previous albums, Live At The Regal was recorded during a single show - November 21st 1964 at The Regal Theater in Chicago; a venue King had played ‘100s of times before’.
So what makes this album so special? At the age of 39, BB King had reached a point of ascension with both his vocals, guitar playing and his hard won charisma; having typically performed 300 shows a year. Unlike other future live albums, which required a little after care, Live At The Regal sees an immaculate performance from both King and band. BB King’s bounce, phrasing, crisp guitar tone and time feel are a pristine example of blues guitar playing at its finest. The lively brass (1 trumpet, 2 sax) serves to bring life and punch to every song. Add to this the way King seamlessly blends falsetto with gritty, growling vocals and you have a blues masterpiece.
It is not just the performance which gives this timeless blues album its legendary status, the energy of the crowd and their raucous vocal interaction, which can be clearly heard during the performance, has a raw magic to it. BB stokes the fire and frequently interacts with the crowd like a real King holding court - an example of something which can only be experienced during a live show and a rare moment of unity between audience and performer. Whilst King never saw this show as his greatest performance, he recognised the unique electrical energy of the night and, as he was beginning to lose his exclusively black audience, saw a shift in the deportment of his audiences.
Things start strong with an uptempo version of ‘Everyday I Have The Blues’ and, whilst the momentum builds throughout the show, it is hard to compete with the impact this opener has.
Also, unlike many live albums from our list, this album is truly live - what you are hearing is what took place on the night! Although, organ player Duke Jethro arrived to find a broken organ; he was provided with a piano and, when he complained that he wasn’t a pianist, King told him to ‘just sit and pretend; thats what you do anyway’. Listening to the album now, it is hard to imagine Jethro ‘winging it’ on the night though.
4. Peter Frampton - Frampton Come Alive
Another double album, Frampton Comes Alive has become one of the biggest selling live albums in US history. Having gained some moderate success, a young Peter Frampton was by no means a household name prior to the album’s release in 1976, however the singles Baby I Love Your Way, Show Me The Way and Do You Feel Like We Do, taken from this classic album, became an overnight rocket for Frampton’s career.
Recorded across 3 shows during the summer of 1975, the album doesn’t just contain some smash hits but provides a show case for Frampton’s incredible guitar playing; his phrasing and solo structure displays a maturity beyond his years and you can hear nuances and techniques which would later form the base of many modern players' style.
How live is it? At least Frampton freely admits that there was a conservative amount of studio fixing in post - a pulled cable resulted in the bass drum mic facing the wrong way for the majority of the show and the rhythm guitar on Show Me The Way was re recorded (don’t worry the talk box parts are all live!).
Obviously the single greatest musical moment on the album, and the one which made Frampton famous, is that talk box guitar solo on the, hangover inspired track, Do You Feel Like We Do. A whopping solo in terms of length and a track that, at the time, was unprecedented in terms of length; with the live version clocking in at a mighty 14:15 minutes and a radio edit seeing a shorter, yet still unconventional 7:19. The popularity of the infamous talk box solo can be credited to, not only the innovative use of a new bit of guitar gear, but the misinterpretation of the parts where Frampton is talking to he crowd using his talk box - ‘I want to thank you’ was inevitably misheard (use you imagination) by many and had legions of teens listening intently.
With so many live albums and performances, whittling it down to a list of 4 is not the most accurate summary - MTV’s Unplugged and other historic concerts went on to find their place in the annals of rock history too, so this is by no means a definitive poll. But, if you want to feel the rush and thrill of a live show without leaving your favourite chair, this list is as good a starting point as any.