Let’s just do it LIVE
by Rev. Walter Beck
Live albums are sort of an oddball in the music world, sometimes they’re really nothing more
than a filler album, some contract obligation record to boost sales or shamelessly plug an artist (Garth Brooks’ Double Live is probably the best example of this, a live record so synthetic and spliced together that it brings shame to the concept of a live LP). Some are debated endlessly in their respective subgenres, trust me, hard rockers and headbangers will forever debate Kiss’s Alive and Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East over just how much of the albums are actually live and how much was done in the studio.
And sometimes, live albums break out of the mold of studio-creations or shameless plugs and become iconic in their own right. Here are a few mini-reviews of the Rev’s Favorite Live Records.
Jerry Lee Lewis- Live at the Star Club Hamburg, 1964
Jerry Lee Lewis, nicknamed “The Killer”, was poised to upstage Elvis as the next King of Rock N Roll in the ‘50’s. Unfortunately, a scandal of him marrying his teenage cousin pretty much derailed that. His record sales plummeted, his label dropped him and he went from performing in sold out theaters to doing gigs in bars. In 1964, he recorded what many “serious” critics call the best live rock n roll album of all time. He did a string of shows in Germany with a back-up group called the Nashville Teens and ripped through a blistering fourteen song set featuring covers of Ray Charles, Hank Williams Sr and of course, his own hits including “Great Balls of Fire”, “Whole Lot of Shaking Going On” and “Lewis Boogie”.
If you ever wondered what musical therapy sounded like, this is it, this is The Killer conquering his personal demons and taking out his frustrations on his piano. He was burning that night, as alive as a man could be on stage.
MC5- Kick Out the Jams, 1969
The sixties were a time of extreme social upheaval in America and music was no exception with bands like Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and folk artists such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan singing songs of social protest, often calling for peace, love and co-existence. But not all the bands were so hung up on peace and love, some bands wanted to burn the system down and piss on the ashes, the main band on that trip was Detroit’s MC5.
Recorded in the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, Kick Out the Jams was the debut album of the band and it remains a sonic landmark in rock n roll rebellion. Lead by singer Rob Tyner, this band was punk before punk existed, the guitars are full blast, burning everything in sight, thanks to Fred “Sonic” Smith and Wayne Kramer and the drums are pounding frantically. This is hopped up revolutionary blues shoved through a distortion pedal, this is the sound of musical violence in rock n roll.
The title track, most famous for Tyner’s shouting intro, “Right now, it’s time to kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” (pretty controversial for an album released in 1969), has been covered by numerous artists including Rage Against the Machine, The Presidents of the United States of America, Blue Oyster Cult, Monster Magnet and others.
Motorhead- No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, 1981
Recorded on their break-out Ace of Spades tour, this album shows Motorhead in their early prime; young, lean and dirty as hell. Ask any headbanger to name their top live records and I guarantee you this record will be in the Top Five (unless they’re a poser-core douchebag).
Surprisingly, none of the album was actually recorded at the Hammersmith venue (although the band did perform there), but on their home turf in England, Motorhead rises like the filthy gods they are. After getting silver records for Overkill, Bomber and Ace of Spades, Motorhead was at the top of their game, this record would peak at #1 on the British Charts, proving that not everybody there was into the depressing post-punk thing at the time.
Motorhead has continued to play dirty rock n roll and has released several live albums since, but none of them became as iconic as this one. This is the audio essence of a band driven by amphetamines, whiskey and wild women, living the rock n roll lifestyle to a T and never showing any signs of slowing down.
Grand Funk- Live Album, 1970
Loved by fans and despised by the critics (at least at the time), Michigan’s Grand Funk packed stadiums and sold millions of albums without having a major radio hit in their early days. While their early studio albums certainly had their charm, Closer to Home is definitely a stellar LP, Grand Funk was at their best playing live and no live album released by them captured the gritty glory of their music quite like this one.
Recorded raw and live without any edits, this album showcases the power trio of Mark Farner, Mel Schacher and Don Brewer ripping through bluesy cuts such as “Are You Ready?”, “Paranoid” (no relation to the Black Sabbath song), “Inside Looking Out” and the best cut on the record, the eleven-minute jam of “T.N.U.C.”. Listen to Brewer’s drum solo on that one, one of the best ever cut on stage still to this day.
This was actually the first live album I ever listened to, my old man was a huge Grand Funk fan and he had this on the original vinyl. I guess I should thank him for introducing me to one of the greatest power trios to ever play American rock n roll.
Throbbing Gristle- TG24, 2002
A massive box set containing the first twenty-six performances of British industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle during their initial run from 1976-1980, this box set is a definitive document of the early days of industrial music.
The audio quality of this box set isn’t the “best” in the technical sense; most gigs were done guerrilla style in the tradition of the early British punk scene that TG came out of and the band sounds like it’s being recorded in a basement with a junk-encrusted mic, but that’s part of the atmosphere, what really makes this box set stand as a live document. The music itself is often droning; a mix of noise, dissonance and the strange voice of band leader Genesis P-Orridge. This redefined what could and could not be music as the band smashed all boundaries both in the music set and the intensity of the live performances.
Obviously a massive box set such as this is aimed at die-hard fans and not for casual listeners, but it’s one of the best examples of music as art to come out in decades. If you have the patience and endurance to listen to it, it’s well worth the effort.
Well, that’s all for now, kids, these are just a few of my favorite live albums from my ever-growing archive of music. I’ll leave you with a few honorable mentions and then get back to my whiskey and brooding.
Tom Waits- The Orphans Tour Akron, OH (2006)
The Velvet Underground- The Bootleg Series Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes (2001)
Stevie Ray Vaughan- Live at Montreux 1982 & 1985 (2001)
Rammstein- Live aus Berlin (1999)
Pete Seeger- We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert (1989)