Although the heyday of the live rock album was the late 60s to the late 70s, there have been many live albums released since then that have captured the public’s imagination, topped the chats, or stood out as absolutely crucial releases within an act’s discography.
Here then is the second instalment of what we hope will be an ongoing series of buyers guides to live albums from down the decades, with this particular article focusing on the live albums released in the decade that saw the live album face serious competition as the music industry started to increasingly concentrate their efforts more towards the promotional music video due to the rise of MTV.
Warren Zevon – Stand in the Fire – 1980
Warren Zevon is perhaps not the first name that comes to mind as an electric live performer, though anyone who did witness the great man’s performances in the flesh will beg to differ. So too will anyone who has been fortunate enough to hear 1980’s Stand in the Fire, recorded during a residency in The Roxy Theatre at a point where Zevon was at the peak of his performance powers with a smoking hot rock and roll band behind him.
Originally a lean and rocking ten tracks, Stand in the Fire was a concentrated hit of Zevon tearing through some of his more raucous numbers, but the album was arguably enhanced when it was re-released in 2007 including four additional tracks which effectively act as an encore. The live version of “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” makes much more sense as a live performance rather than the relatively contrived sounding studio version, while “Play it All Night Long” smartly dials down the intensity in preparation for bare-bones versions of “Frank and Jessie James” and “Hasten Down the Wind”, which showcases Zevon’s more mellow sounding material.
With the expanded version still only clocking in at barely over an hour, it is all the evidence you need to confirm hat Warren Zevon is one of those performers you wished you had seen. The only thing missing is a piano version of “Desperados Under the Eaves”.
Supertramp – Paris – 1980
Released in late 1980, Supertramp’s Paris is a throwback to the previous decade, a time when most major rock acts worth their salt released a double LP live recording in a gatefold sleeve at some point. While Supertramp may not be the most obvious candidates for releasing a strong live album, what with their polished studio sound and a distinct lack of charismatic frontman, Paris is still an effective live greatest hits set. While the four sides of vinyl do note find Supertramp straying far from the arrangements of the studio originals, the live performances throw in a bit of extra grit, and even muscle to familiar songs, with Bob Siebenberg revealed as one of the most curiously underrated drummers in rock and roll, and John Helliwell coming across as a particularly effective Master of Ceremonies.
If you’re a fan of Supertramp’s 70s albums, then Paris is a must buy, but equally, if you’re looking for an effective introduction to the band outside of the various compilations out there, then this is a great place to start, though frustratingly the band were never able to capture a halfway decent live performance of one of their biggest hits, “Give a Little Bit” on this tour.
Although recently re-released as part of an expanded package with a DVD of live performances from this tour, the original live double album of Paris is pretty much definitive.
Motorhead – No Sleep ’til Hammersmith – 1981
While the live double album was an icon of the 70s, there were a select handful of acts that could argue their case as all time great live acts over just two sides of vinyl. Slade had Slade Alive, Cheap Trick had At Budokan, and in 1981 Motorhead had No Sleep ’til Hammersmith.
It is perhaps fitting that Motorhead’s definitive album is a live one, as it was the same case for Motorhead frontman Lemmy’s previous band, Hawkwind, whose “Space Ritual” captured the spirit of the band better than they ever managed to do in the studio. An unashamedly raw and loud rock album, No Sleep ’til Hammersmith told you everything you needed to know about Motorhead in under 41 minutes without an ounce of flab on it.
Even if you never listen to another Motorhead album, if you’ve even the vaguest interest in rock and roll music, then you owe it to yourself to listen to No Sleep ’til Hammersmith at least once.
Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense – 1984
There is an argument to be had that it is 1982’s The Name of This Band is Talking Heads that is the definitive Talking Heads live recording, however the much expanded re-release of 1984’s Stop Making Sense in 1999 dragged what was once a rather badly edited 40 minute single live album up to a level where it is in serious consideration as one of the greatest live albums of all time.
Effectively the soundtrack to arguably the greatest live concert film of all time (something else which competed against the live album in the 80s and beyond), there are few live albums as life-affirming as Stop Making Sense. From David Byrne performing the opening acoustic “Psycho Killer” solo with a boombox, to each member of the band coming out one by one, number by number to fill out the band’s sound, to definitive performances of some of their greatest songs (the aforementioned “Psycho Killer” and “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” in particular), Stop Making Sense is simply one of the all time great live albums. True, if you have seen the concert film of Stop Making Sense, it is almost impossible to listen to the album without visualising the show, particularly Byrne’s performance of “Girlfriend is Better” in the iconic Big Suit. In that sense, then maybe you are better off buying a DVD of the concert film, however the 1999 expanded CD reissue of the Stop Making Sense has to be considered among the all time great live albums even without the visuals.
Iron Maiden – Live After Death – 1985
While punk wanted you to abandon the rock music that went before it, New Wave of British Heavy Metal was much more comfortable harking back to rock bands that had pioneered the sounds that had influenced them. As the live double album was a staple of 70s heavy rock, then it was only natural that Iron Maiden would want their own live double as well.
Recorded at the height of Iron Maiden’s Heavy Metal powers and before the guitar synths started creeping in, Live After Death was the first of a string of ten live albums, is arguably their best live release, and genuinely does hark back to the classics of the 70s. The only trouble is, it almost does it too well, as it emulates the negatives as well as the positives, as it falls into the same pitfalls of stretching solid songs to uncomfortable lengths.
Where Live After Death hits its stride is the sheer level of energy sustained throughout the four sides of vinyl, with Bruce Dickinson in particular proving exactly why so many Iron Maiden fans consider him the band’s definitive vocalist, inspire of his tendency to ask the audience to scream for him. The 80s was a solid time for live Heavy Metal albums, but Live After Death pretty much set the bar that almost none of Iron Maiden’s contemporaries can match.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Live 1975-85 – 1986
While the single live album could give a sense of flab-free economy, and the double live release was the iconic format, precious few live albums that went beyond these parameters could ever be considered a success. Releases like 1973’s Yessongs, a triple live album, only displayed how thinly stretched the ideas were, and how badly an act like Yes needed to reel in their excesses and remember that sometimes less is more. Evidently nobody told Bruce Springsteen this in the mid 80s.
While it was obviously released to scupper bootleggers, Live 1975-85 charted the rise of Bruce and his celebrated backing band over the course of a decade. A 5 LP box set, Live 1975-85 showed that live albums could be more than the double album, if, and only if, you had the material and recordings of performances of said material to justify the release.
Making no effort to con you into believing that this was a single live performance, Live 1975-85, boasts material played in sweaty clubs, all the way up to open air stadiums. It’s not an album that is easy to digest in one sitting, but as a monument to live rock and roll performance, then this five LP monolith is hard to beat.