Never mind the gigs and festivals – who killed the live album?
Once a crucial part of an artist’s career, these days the live album is all but extinct
Live wire: Bob Marley onstage in London in 1980
A certain well-known singer brought half of his/her vocals to Glastonbury this year on a disk. Other acts had ProTools playback rigs hidden away. Some were clearly miming, and a few had keyboards on stage that weren’t even plugged in. It’s the live music season and festivals and stand-alone gigs are generating huge sums of cash. So, at a time when people won’t pay €10 for an album but will happily pay five or 10 times that amount for a gig ticket, why is the live album dead?
Once a crucial part of an artist’s career trajectory (three studio then a live one was the rule), the live album has become extinct. It could be that because of all the technological smoke and mirrors on the average stage now, there is, paradoxically, less “live” music, but it could also be that if punters could hear on a live album just how crap a band sounds, they wouldn’t be so quick to pay €50 to hear the same nonsense in some godforsaken field. It’s a crying shame as the live album has brought us some of the very best music of the past few decades. From James Brown’s Live at The Apollo to Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and onwards to The Who Live At Leeds (growing up I always read that as meaning The Who lived in Leeds) and Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, there’s a whole sub-genre there that has been wiped out by the record company accountant’s pen.
In 1975, a still-bubbling-under Jamaican reggae star was about to break through worldwide thanks to what was captured on a hot July evening in a London theatre. Bob Marley and the Wailers Live is, by common consensus, one of the best live albums ever. It’s just seven songs long, but it is these versions of Marley’s songs that are still played today, rather than the original studio recordings.
But the following year everything changed for the live album. A journeyman English guitarist released a double live album called Frampton Comes Alive. It spent 10 consecutive weeks at number one on the Billboard charts, sold gazillions and moved Frampton from playing clubs to headlining in front of 100,000 people. The songs on the album had all been released on earlier Frampton solo albums but no one had bought them. Once he threw a bit of live magic dust over them, though, the pressing plants couldn’t keep up with demand.
Shortly after, Paul McCartney and Wings went one better than Frampton and released a triple live album called Wings over America. It sold and sold and sold – way beyond the level of a Wings studio album. To the best of my knowledge Wings over America is to this day still the only triple album release to go to number one in the album charts.
The last hurrah for the live album was the release of the 1990s MTV Unplugged series. They’re still shoving these out but the fact that the last one was by Miley Cyrus tells you all you need to know about the moribund state of the live album.
Big names are still releasing them but they tend to be two disc affairs – one the live album, the other the DVD of the show. But seeing a Botoxed star in High Definition miming to a pre-recorded backing track will never have anything on lighting up a herbal cigarette and listening to the Bob Marley and The Wailers Live album.
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