Whenever I do discography deep dives for Listen to This, Not That or profiles of rock bands on here, I almost always skip live albums. I never really talk about live albums on here. I have my reasons and I’ll talk about it. Like with anything, I try to keep an open mind and there are always exceptions, live albums that I quite like. In this blog post, I’ll talk about why I was hesitant to listen to live albums, the allure of live albums, the history of live albums, and finally 10 favourites of mine. While writing this, I wrote more than I expected to (this always happens with me because I have a lot to say, I’m obsessed with classic rock), so this will be done in two parts. Let’s call these live albums for people who hate live albums.
Why I hate live albums
Well, this is just a clickbait heading to shock you. I don’t hate live albums, because you’ll see that I like a bunch of them – but a select number. I just prefer listening to studio albums. There are a few reasons I am live album hesitant, rather.
The first reason comes down to my disability. I am on the autism spectrum and something that often accompanies it is liking routine and not having unexpected curveballs show up. Maybe that explains why I have an affinity for all things vintage. When I hear a song for the first time, it’s usually the studio version. You listen to the radio or search for a song on YouTube or Spotify, or however you prefer to listen to music, you find the studio version first. That’s the version I fall in love with and I can’t really enjoy that song any other way. Everything else sounds off. Kind of like how I’ll hear a cover of a song first and the original doesn’t have the same magic. Or maybe I listened to the original first and the covers don’t have that same spark.
The second reason is technology in the classic rock era. Modern music fans have it so good compared to fans of older music (here I go sounding like a boomer). There are more media outlets now than ever before, and that means more TV and radio appearances, or rather YouTube and podcast appearances. Everything is archived now and storage now isn’t a space concern, it’s practically infinite and anyone can archive anything broadcast. The BBC and ITV stupidly didn’t realise the historic significance of classic rock and failed to preserve all the Oh Boy!, Top of the Pops, and Ready Steady Go recordings. Ever see those fancams that k-pop fans post all over the place? I feel jealous that their fancams are in 4K, while I am just happy to see any grainy potato quality videos of my favourite classic rockers. Now this doesn’t stop at visual quality, audio quality is way better now. Professional quality recording technology is now more accessible today than it has ever been, democratising music creation and broadcasting. Sound quality and production value is king. If the sound sucks, it’s jarring and difficult to listen to. The antiquated sound quality and medium does add character to classic rock, to be fair. I just like the audio to be as close to perfect as possible – maybe that’s the perfectionist in me.
The third reason is I don’t want to hear the audience screaming. Like any millennial fan of music from before their time, I get FOMO looking at concert videos, photos, and posters from the classic rock era. Hearing the audience screaming is a distraction from the sound (and sort of a reminder of haha you were born 50 years too late). When I listen to an album, I want to hear the band, not fans screaming or singing along. I like going to concerts, but live albums aren’t the same, it’s not the whole experience. There are some live albums though where you can’t hear any audience and I’ll share an example of that when I get to my favourites.
The fourth reason is not every band are great live. Some are way better than others. You might be surprised to hear that if I were to pick one band to see in their prime, it wouldn’t be The Beatles, as much as I love them. I’d probably pick The Who, Led Zeppelin, or Queen because they have way better stage presence. If you’re only listening to the audio, you don’t see the musician’s facial expressions or their moves or slideshows or sets on stage or pyrotechnics, which is why I wish there were more concert films from the 60s and 70s. I’m just a visual person. The visuals and the experience are a big part of the fun of going to a concert.
This isn’t my own criticism of live albums, but famous music critics like Robert Christgau have accused most live albums as being a cash grab and easy filler material to release for a discography. The benefit of live albums is they are cheaper to record than in the studio because a concert is typically 2 hours or less, while you’re going to be in the studio way longer than that.
Why do people love live albums?
This is where I put myself in other people’s shoes and try to understand their perspective. I’m definitely not like this writer for NME who thinks live albums are pointless. There is a point and an audience for live albums, it’s just not for everyone. I think the appeal and allure of live albums come from the fact that being in the studio is quite constricting physically and creatively, live albums are more spontaneous and you’ll hear some things that you won’t normally hear in the studio: improvisations, extended solos, re-workings of old songs, things like that. As well, sometimes songs were only ever performed live, and never in the studio. Hearing different versions of a song can give people a better appreciation of it.
There’s a different energy to a live album – you’re in front of thousands of fans and you need to put on a show – not just straight play the album start to finish. I think people also like to hear the crowds because it gives you a sense of that atmosphere and it’s a piece of history. Imagine a football, hockey, baseball, or basketball game with no audience cheering. Wait, you don’t have to do that because of the pandemic – athletes played games in practically empty stadiums last year. The vibe isn’t the same, that’s for sure.
If you want to hear a classic rocker making a good case for live albums, here’s a clip of Slash talking about Rory Gallagher. At 2 minutes in, you can hear how he credits live albums for being the reason he got into Rory’s music. He calls live albums the best bang for buck, because you can find them quite cheap at used record stores. He also said it’s a good metric for determining how good a musician is. If they’re great live, then they’re a great musician for sure! One more reason Slash loves live albums is the musicians have no inhibitions, they’re unreserved and you can hear their guitar playing at its best.
As with any opinion posts here, this is just a discussion and my opinion only. I’m not god. I’m just a classic rock enthusiast who dedicates basically all her time to writing a blog. I’m always curious to hear your opinions and I always encourage you to disagree and share your opinions. I think that we can learn a lot from others’ perspectives.
The History of Live Albums
As this is an informative and educational blog and not just me sharing my opinions, I want to take this opportunity to talk about the historical side of this topic. Music history is one of the most interesting things to me and why I write this blog so this is the last section before we get into the live albums I love.
If we want to get technical on the definition of a live album, it’s a recording done in one take with no overdubbing. It doesn’t have to be a concert album, sometimes in the studio, the producer wants to go for that ‘live’ sound. Live albums, as you typically think of them – if you will, concert albums, can be recorded at one concert or multiple concerts. Many live albums are a hodgepodge of recordings from different shows.
The 60s were a time of change in many ways: fashion, music, and norms. Before the 60s, with music releases, you got what you got. Bonus tracks, outtakes, alternative versions? What are those? Nowadays you can have it all, but not so in the pre-internet days. In the 60s, you started seeing bootlegs from concerts show up and people liked them, so record labels thought, why don’t we release live albums officially? We make money, the band make money, fans are happy, and it’s cheaper to produce than a studio album. Of course, not every musician was thrilled with bootlegs, but you know who encouraged it? The Grateful Dead.
The first rock and roll live album was Ritchie Valens at Pacoima Jr High, where he performed at his old school in December 1958. The album was released posthumously in 1960. Here you can hear him answering questions about touring life right before his signature song and biggest hit:
Usually, the concert is recorded using the remote recording method, where they use high quality multitrack recording equipment outside a studio setting. Some early attempts with this method did quite well like Ray Charles’ Live in Concert from 1964 and recordings of the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Both of these recordings had the celebrated recording engineer Wally Heider working on them. Woodstock was also recorded using 12 track recording equipment in a recording truck and the tapes were mixed at Record Plant. Two years later, Record Plant cut their teeth with their first remote truck, recording The Concert For Bangladesh.
Below, Ray Charles Live in Concert is linked. You gotta listen to the live version of “What I’d Say”, starts at 34:26.
Stevie Wonder’s first #1 hit, “Fingertips – Part 2” was recorded live and on the album: Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius. A short live album recorded at the Regal Theatre in Chicago.
Now, not all early live recordings were well received. One example of which is Bo Diddley’s Beach Party, one of the earliest live remote recordings. Chess Records shlepped their recording equipment to record Bo Diddley’s 4th of July weekend concert in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Now this isn’t to say that the music is bad. It was just a commercial flop in the US. The sound isn’t perfect, but the year was 1963!
I mentioned The Concert For Bangladesh above and live shows can be a great opportunity for musicians to raise awareness of social justice issues. That show is considered the first big charity concert, raising almost $250k, and it was historic for that and for having an all-star cast of musicians: George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Klaus Voormann, Jesse Ed Davis, and Badfinger. Another example of a live album that raised awareness of social justice issues is Johnny Cash’s famous 1968 live album, At Folsom Prison. At Folsom Prison is definitely not your typical live album and I think it deserves a special mention in this blog post.
Prisoners are seen as an afterthought, or not even a thought at all in people’s heads, that is until they see it for themselves firsthand or know someone who has been to prison. Johnny Cash was an advocate for prison reform and didn’t just stop with At Folsom Prison, he also recorded live albums at San Quentin, Tennessee State Prison, and Österåker Prison. He’d regularly play for prisoners and never took money for it. He advocated for prisoners when no one else would because he identified a lot with the underdog. He struggled with drug addiction and if you’ve read my blog post about rock stars who have been busted for drugs, the colour that matters most on whether you get a slap on the wrist or hard time is green. Had Johnny Cash been an ordinary man with a drug addiction, he might have been one of those prisoners in the audience.
There’s a lot of discourse now on prisons, but it’s not new. People knew about this in the 60s. There were some progressive people who were against the War on Drugs and tough on crime laws that resulted in destroying working class peoples’ lives, tearing apart people’s communities, and not making society any safer because the main focus was on punishment and not rehabilitation. Prisons are modern day plantations. What people often forget about the 13th amendment is that it doesn’t completely abolish slavery. There is one condition where slavery/involuntary servitude is allowed, as a punishment for a crime.
Sometimes live albums go for that unplugged sound. In the 90s, MTV started the series Unplugged, where musicians play their songs in an acoustic style. Some musicians who appeared on MTV Unplugged include Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and Nirvana. Before all that was the 1965 Beach Boys live album, Beach Boys’ Party, an album full of covers and considered the first unplugged album. Technically, it’s not exactly a live album because it was recorded in the studio, but it does go for that vibe because it mocks the party vibe with overdubbed chatter. The biggest hit from that album was “Barbara Ann”:
Now that you have the history and context of live albums, it’s time to get to the opinion portion and what you came to this blog post for, hopefully! The list of my favourite live albums! Like any other list I do, there is no particular order. If there’s a live video as a companion to the live album, I’ll link to it. Sadly though, these aren’t always available.
Angie’s Picks: Classic Rock Live Albums
1. Live At Leeds – The Who (1970)
Considered one of the GOAT live albums, it’s a favourite among many Who fans. It’s a live album for people who hate live albums. Some will say that it’s better than their studio albums! I’ll let you decide. The year 1970 was The Who at their best, they had just done Woodstock, they released Tommy, Isle Wight was coming up that year, and two legendary albums were yet to come: Who’s Next and Quadrophenia.
The reason this album was released is The Who needed to cash in on Tommy, which was at the time THE rock opera. Sure, it wasn’t the first, but it was the greatest, but it had competition coming with Ziggy Stardust and The Wall, but that was a few years away. The Who weren’t just amazing in the studio, they were even better as a live act because every band member put on a show, and then you had John just standing there and playing bass, but he was still fun to watch because his bass playing skills beat pretty much everyone. Roger swings his microphone looking like a rock god in his fringe leather outfits. Pete jumps up and down like a gymnast and does the windmill. Keith was just crazy on the drum kit – he proved people who said “drummers are boring” wrong.
The album is perfect from start to finish and I love how they update old favourites with a harder rock sound like “I Can’t Explain”, “Substitute”, “Happy Jack”, I’m a Boy, and “My Generation”. Some great covers like “Fortune Teller”, “Young Man Blues”, “Shakin’ All Over”, and “Summertime Blues” (the best track on the album – you need to listen to this one). “A Quick One”, “My Generation” (what a medley!), and “Magic Bus” are even better live. I love the jam on the “Amazing Journey/Sparks” medley.
The Who are the perfect example of a live act. This is how you do live music! Only wish Live At Leeds was on video!
2. At Budokan – Cheap Trick (1978)
How many times have you heard the studio version of “I Want You To Want Me”? Probably zero and for good reason. The live version of that song is superior and leaves the studio version sounding lacklustre. A rite of passage for every classic rock band is the Japanese tour. Japan has some of the most passionate and dedicated fans and it’s really a joy for bands to play there! You can really hear the enthusiasm of the crowd on this one and in this case, it works! Power pop really goes well the audience cheering. The highlights are their cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame”, “I Want You To Want Me”, and “Surrender”.
You can find a video of their performance of “I Want You To Want Me” below:
3. Live and Dangerous – Thin Lizzy (1978)
Thin Lizzy at their best, the twin lead guitar era! This is their last album with Brian Robertson, who left the band in 1978. Now there’s a little controversy here because there were some studio overdubs done in Paris and Tony Visconti says the album was 75% studio and other sources say it was 75% live, but that doesn’t take away the brilliance that is this album. The reason they released a live album in 1978 is because they were working with producer Tony Visconti and he didn’t have the time to work with them on a studio album, so they released this instead.
When they were playing the live shows on the album, they had just found success with “The Boys Are Back in Town”, Bad Reputation was doing well, and they gained a reputation for being a really good live band. It must have been difficult choosing the best from over 30 hours of archive recordings – you have a lot of choice! You need to listen to the deluxe edition with all the songs. Picking favourites here is like picking your favourite kids but I love “Jailbreak”, “Emerald” – Phil Lynott famously introduced it with “Is there anybody with any Irish in them? Is there any of the girls who would like a little more Irish in them?”, “Rosalie” – way more energetic than the studio version, “Dancing in the Moonlight”, “Massacre”, “Warriors”, and “Suicide”.
The 70s were such a great time for live albums! Lots of gems and you’ll see even more of them in this blog post!
Below is a live video of them playing “Emerald”, one of my favourite songs of theirs:
4. Frampton Comes Alive – Peter Frampton (1976)
Another classic 70s live album. Is your record collection really complete if you don’t have Frampton Comes Alive? Like I said about Cheap Trick, these live versions are superior to the studio versions and there’s a reason you’ll hear Frampton Comes Alive on classic rock radio. “Do You Feel Like We Do?” live is basically the smoke/potty break song. I always liked playing this song whenever I needed to rest my voice when I had a radio show in university.
So many highlights on the album but I love “Somethin’s Happening”, “Doobie Wah”, “Baby, I Love Your Way”, “Show Me The Way”, “Shine On”, “White Sugar”, and the star of the album “Do You Feel Like We Do?” – that talk box guitar solo. So much energy and a lot of character. It made Peter Frampton a superstar. Too bad though that his career declined after this and he wasn’t exactly happy being a teen idol and not being taken seriously. He’s a talented guitarist and shouldn’t be seen as just a pretty face.
5. Au Zénith – Indochine (1986)
As you can guess from the title, we’re looking at French music. Indochine are one of France’s most loved rock bands and their music is most similar to The Cure. Another thing I love about them is they weren’t afraid to sing about LGBT issues – and the 80s were really not a kind time to the LGBT community. The two best known members are twin brothers Nicola (main songwriter, lead singer, and guitarist) and Stéphane Sirkis (keyboard player, passed away in 1999). To celebrate the band’s 5th anniversary, they played a show at the Zénith in Paris and released a live album of it. The previous year, they released 3, an album where they departed from singing Asian themed songs and started singing about a wider variety of things. Lots of fan favourite songs on this album. My personal favourites on it are “À l’assault (des ombres sur l’o”, “Canary Bay” (a lesbian anthem), “3e sexe”, “L’aventurier”, “À l’est de Java”, “Miss Paramount”, “Trois nuits par semaine”, “Kao Bang”, “Dizzidence Politik”, and “Tes yeux noirs”.
Below is Indochine performing androgynous/gender non-conforming anthem “3e sexe”.
6. One For The Road – The Kinks (1980)
Well it’s only natural for me to go from one band of brothers to another band of brothers, who also sang multiple songs with LGBT themes. 60s gay icons if you ask me. If you’ve read my Listen to This, Not That on The Kinks, you’ll know that I think their best years were 1966-1970. They recorded a live album during that era, but I prefer One For The Road since it has a lot more songs, although a large number of these are from Low Budget, which isn’t a bad album (certainly better than their mid 70s albums), but it’s no Village Green Preservation Society. Kinks fans who like the older stuff, don’t worry, there’s plenty of it on here. What I especially like about this album is that they update the sound of the oldies but goodies! Ray Davies has a talent for writing songs that can be played in so many different styles and it still sounds natural and like it clicks.
Not every musician can do that. I watched a documentary where he played his songs on the piano in a bluesy/jazzy way and then hear the original juxtaposed and both sound amazing. In my opinion, the best Kinks covers are done in a punk style: The Jam with “David Watts” and The Fall with “Victoria”. It’s no wonder, they’ve been called the original punk rockers. If you’ve ever wanted to hear the old Kinks songs performed by The Kinks themselves in an “updated” (for the time) style, then this is what you’ve been looking for. My favourites on this album are: “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” (clock the “Jumping Jack Flash” guitar riff), “Where Have All The Good Times Gone”, “Lola”, “Stop Your Sobbing”, “Low Budget” (what a relatable song during an economic depression), “Till The End of the Day”, “You Really Got Me” (the guitar intro here is amazing, people need to stop sleeping on Dave – he made a lot of contributions to the band over the years), “Victoria”, and “David Watts” (it’s a gay anthem and basically an OG Virgin vs Chad meme).
Only complaints I have are too many songs from Low Budget, not enough of their 60s classics, and those synths/keyboards sound cheesy and like a product of its time. Otherwise, great. They may have been rock dinosaurs by this point, but as you can see in the video below, still had the same energy as the 60s! If you’re going to do a live album not in your peak years, do what The Kinks did and rearrange the old favourites.
Below is their energetic performance of “All Day and All of the Night”:
7. Mint Jams – Casiopea (1982)
We’re going from one great live album to another. Now this one is especially the live album for people who hate live albums. The sound quality on this one is Mint, as the title suggests, no audience noises, no chatter. This is basically a studio album, but live. This is as good as their studio albums, maybe even better. If you’re not familiar with Casiopea, they’re a Japanese jazz fusion band. Their name comes from the constellation Cassiopeia. Very prolific band, who released 40+ albums in a time period of 40 years. Mint Jams didn’t just get its name because the audio quality is mint (and almost no studio overdubs – your fave could never), but because that’s what the band members initials are: Issei Noro, Minoru Mukaiya, Tetsuo Sakurai, and Akira Jimbo. Don’t you love anagrams (not sure if this counts as an anagram, but close enough)?
The only crime here is that the album isn’t long enough! I could listen to Casiopea for hours! The album is perfect and not a long one so I recommend you listen to it all, but if you like funky bass moments, gotta listen to track 5, “Domino Line”! A+ overall.
8. Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads (1984)
Staying in the 80s a little longer, we have another favourite live album, Stop Making Sense by the Talking Heads. Luckily, this one wasn’t just an album but a concert film, and considered one of the best concert films of all time. The introduction is so memorable with David Byrne walking out with a boom box saying he wants to play a tape, but really a drum machine plays while he plays an acoustic version of “Psycho Killer”. One by one, the band members join him on stage, first, Tina Weymouth on “Heaven”; second, Chris Frantz on “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”, and third, Jerry Harrison on “Found a Job”. Little by little, the show comes together and backing musicians join the stage. At one point, David Byrne leaves the stage to let Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz perform their big hit “Genius of Love” from their side project, the Tom Tom Club. Great performance and it looked like a lot of fun! Once again, funky basslines here from Tina Weymouth. Bernie Worrell of P-Funk plays keyboard at this concert too and all the backing musicians were great. David Byrne is as crazy as ever and I wonder how many calories he burnt in this concert. OVER 9,000! to reference Dragon Ball Z.
My favourite songs on this album are “Psycho Killer”, “Slippery People”, “Burning Down The House”, “Life During Wartime”, “Making Flippy Floppy”, “What a Day That Was”, “This Must Be The Place”, “Once in a Lifetime”, “Genius of Love”, “Girlfriend is Better” (when David Byrne comes out in that oversized grey suit jacket), “Take Me To The River”, and “Crosseyed and Painless”.
Below, you can find the entire concert on video. It’s a must-watch! *Epilepsy warning at 1 hour and 2 minutes in during “Genius of Love” – flashing lights – goes on for about 30 seconds*
9. Live at the Rainbow ’74 – Queen (2014)
We’re coming back to the 70s. This live album though wasn’t released at the time it was recorded, but 40 years later. As you may know from reading my Listen to This, Not That for Queen, my favourite era of Queen is early Queen. The first three albums were amazing and you’ll be hearing music from those three albums here. Queen are one of the bands that if I had a time machine to see live, they’d be high up on my list of bands I’d want to see in their prime. But since time travel isn’t a reality, live albums will have to do. Freddie Mercury’s stage presence is like no one else’s and I think if you’re reading this blog, you know about it and have an appreciation for him. Lucky for us, there’s video of this show!
This show was part of their Sheer Heart Attack tour, so you can expect a lot of songs from that, but their first two albums are not neglected. I also love the banter with the audience and hearing Freddie’s song introductions and banter with the audience. My favourite moments on this album – and I have a lot of them – are “Now I’m Here”, “Ogre Battle”, “Father to Son”, “White Queen”, “Flick of the Wrist” (Freddie’s first diss track to Queen’s managers in their early part of their career), “In The Lap of the Gods” (I love Roger’s falsetto), “Killer Queen”, “Guitar Solo” (which is really “Brighton Rock” – almost 5 minutes of Brian May flexing his guitar skills), “Keep Yourself Alive”, “Seven Seas of Rhye” (I love Freddie’s piano playing), “Stone Cold Crazy”, and “Liar” (Deaky’s bass solo is amazing). There are some nice covers on here too like “Big Spender”, from the musical Sweet Charity and a medley of
If I had to find a fault in this, I’d say I wish they performed “March of the Black Queen” in its entirety. It’s their best epic, in my opinion, but “The Prophet’s Song” is tough competition. Yes, I tend to like the road less travelled, not that I don’t like the hits. The tracks are a bit divided with drum solos and guitar solos being listed as separate tracks on Spotify, but overall, a great setlist. Can’t complain about the setlist! Every band member shines here and that’s what I love about Queen.
Below is Queen performing “Stone Cold Crazy”, an one of the first thrash metal songs:
10. Yessongs – Yes (1973)
We’re going to end this blog post on a strong note with another favourite of mine, Yessongs. At a little over two hours long, it’s easily the longest on this list. Yes are another one of my favourite bands in general, definitely a top favourite of mine in prog rock. In prog rock, everyone’s a master of their craft and Yes are no exception to that. Incredible lineup on this album: Jon Anderson on vocals – I love his elf-like voice, Chris Squire on bass – one of my all time favourite bassists – the “Roundabout” bassline is god-tier, Steve Howe on guitar – makes the acoustic guitar sound cool and I love his Spanish and country inspired guitar playing, Rick Wakeman on keyboards – one of the greatest of all time and I love the classical influences he brings to the table, and Bill Bruford on drums – brings in those jazz influences. I especially like early Yes from their 1969 self-titled debut to Close to the Edge, definitely their best work in my opinion so this setlist is ideal and also a good start for anyone looking to get into Yes.
Everyone shines on this album! The best moments in my opinion are: “Siberian Khatru”, “Heart of the Sunrise”, “And You and I”, “Mood For A Day” (Steve’s acoustic/Spanish guitar moment), “Excepts from The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (some of the best work I’ve ever heard from Rick Wakeman and it’s hard to pick), “Roundabout”, “I’ve Seen All Good People” (one of my all time favourite Yes songs), “Long Distance Runaround/The Fish” (the latter is Chris Squire’s nickname, is it because a bass is a type of fish, he’s a Pisces, or because he liked taking long showers? – the extended jam version of “The Fish” really showcases the rhythm section, one of my favourites in all of rock and roll), “Yours is No Disgrace”, and finally “Starship Trooper” (I love the synthesisers and Steve Howe’s guitar work on this one).
If you are more of a visual person, like me, you’ll love that there’s an accompanying concert film! Below, you can see “Yours is No Disgrace”, one of my favourite tracks. I love Chris Squire’s butterfly looking outfit and Rick Wakeman’s shiny cape. Steve Howe’s guitar solo is so good and I think it’s better live than in the studio, much more aggressive. You also should check out the video where Rick Wakeman plays excerpts from The Six Wives of Henry VIII – an excellent solo album. I can’t link just one video from Yessongs, that’s how good this album is.
Below, you can find the playlist:
Want to see more live albums? Check out Part 2 here! 🙂
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