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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Five-Star Flashback: The Lost Art of the Live Album

MC5, Kick Out the Jams released Feb. 1969
Cheap Trick, Live At Budokan, Feb. 1979

I’ll be discussing the last great contemporary live album later this year, when we celebrate the 15th anniversary of Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York. I mention contemporary because we’ve gotten some great live albums the last few years; they’ve just been archival ones: Neil Young’s last two live albums are gems and the latest Clash live album is probably the best and perhaps last document of the band at its peak.
But there was a time, during the golden age of Rock and Roll (whenever that was, I’ll talk about that in an upcoming post also), where the live album was not just an item for artist completists (those poor, in two ways of speaking, Pearl Jam fans who own all 72 of live albums), but a verifiable and exemplary way of conveying the energy and glory of all that rocked.

In 1968, in response to an overwhelming amount of buzz (they were not a popular opening band with Cream because crowds often asked for encores of the MC5). Elektra records sent Danny Fields up to Detroit to see The Motor City Five, or MC5. Later, the MC5 suggested they check out another popular local band, the Stooges. They band were both quickly signed to Elektra.

The host's analysis at the end is striking-it wasn't unintentional that the band wanted to sound like a war machine.

While The Stooges amped up Garage Rock was in large part fueled by Iggy Pop’s mental angst, MC5 was a politically fueled, left-wing band with street cred. They played an 8 hour straight concert before the 68 DNC riots in Chicago, and had strong ties, through manager John Sinclair to various revolutionary groups including the White Panther movement. Some performances involved the band parading around with guns, and in some cases the staged assassination of front man Rob Tyner-all of this a near decade before The Sex Pistols.

Gang of Four and later Rage Against the Machine would draw heavily on MC5, but to call this proto-punk risks making all of this sound trite, like it was prefiguring the violent, angry, punk aesthetic. The only thing MC5 was proto to was the punk scene. A listen to Rocket Reducer N. 62, or the title track, where Tyner majestically cries out “KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERF%$#@#%S!” which is enough to experience the breadth of the unwieldy punk nature of the band. At times Tyner sounds like a charismatic evangelical through his drug fueled and passionate engaging with the crowd. This energy, a mutual connection between the band and the audience, could never be captured on a studio album, and while the MC5 would release at least 2 more critically acclaimed albums, neither were successes. On this record; loud, profane, at times careening near destruction, the band plays one of the great live sets ever recorded. This is up there with Live at Leeds in my book.

At Budokan may be Cheap Tricks great album. Sure, Heaven Tonight is pure gold, but the songs, the guitar solos sound so much more anthemic love.” I Want You To Want Me,” on In Color is an ok song, but the Budokan version is the” I Want You To Want Me” that is one of the all-time great pop songs, and one takes for granted that the thousands of Japanese girls screaming along to the chorus add a whole other sonic aspect to the song that isn’t present in any other version.

Writing this, I’ve wondered why it is that we don’t get these sorts of live albums anymore. There are bands out there which have a great live album in them (I’m looking at you LCD Soundsystem, and come on Jack and Meg, you can do one), or great ones if they tired (eg. Wilco).

Here are 3 things concerning the modern state of the live-album:
1) Watch the covers. One huge pet-peeve I have is bands, mostly indie bands, who decide to cover songs to be cute. This was most prevalent a few years ago when every lo-fi indie band decided to include a cover of Gnarles Barkley’s crazy in their live set. A casual browsing of the hipster internets reveal a long list of mp3’s of bands singing Bootylicious or any Britney Spears song. We get it already you’re trying to be ironic. But do I really want to spend time listening to Belle and Sebastian to Staying Alive (no, you don’t). Covers are an important part of a live set, but you have to use them in the right places. The Who were masters at this, incorporating old blues standards in their own way, and are perhaps a great place to start at seeing how to incorporate covers into a set (note the differences in their covers of Summertime Blues on the Woodstock Soundtrack and on Live at Leeds). The Who added these songs to their own to add to the narrative flow of a live set, and while Pete Townshend had Utopian theories on audience/performer collaboration (a mix of Brecht, Italian Futurists, and John Cage), the thing of note is that the covers were used not as throw-aways or encores, but as entry points into the thematic nature of the set.

2) Interpreting a song is more than playing a fast song slow. This isn’t just a live performance issue, there are bands which have built careers by doing this (Sun Kill Moon, This Unique Museum, etc.), but live performances are usually where bands pull out the covers most. This may be an outgrowth of a generation that grew up watching Unplugged (for the kiddies that was a show when MTV played music). But note the great unplugged performances. Acoustic doesn’t mean sounding like it’s on Soma. Clapton’s re-imagination of Layla as a classical blues song, using the piano epilogue from the original in an interesting background throw back to the 30’s is exemplary. Another interesting acoustic cover is a live version of Born in the USA Springsteen did years back that sounded like what the song would have been if included on his Nebraska album, played just as fast, but far darker. Really if you want to see how to do a cover there are two places to look: Classic Motown, and Garage Rock in the late 60’s.

3) Visuals. It occurred to me writing this as I was thinking of the best live bands, that they had something in common: their shows were visual heavy. The Flaming Lips have for the last decade been the best live-band in large part to giving their audiences sensory overload. And perhaps the multi-media events which concerts have become suggest a live DVD is the better way to experience a concert more correctly. The problem then becomes how to shoot a concert to give you the experience of being there. The Edit seems to pose a huge problem here. To see how to shoot a concert film, see Jonathon Demme’s two concert films Neil Young Heart of Gold, and the greatest concert film ever made: The Talking Head’s Stop Making Sense. In both cases, he works with the arts to conceptualize a structure and performance but sits back and shoots it all in static shots.

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