Note: This article was originally written in January-March 2014 as a serialized, twelve-part feature. This post compiles all twelve of the original articles into a single piece, running in the proper chronological order (e.g. the conclusion is at the bottom, not the top, as happens in blogs) to help avoid spoilers if you weren’t reading along with the original posts in real time. This version of the article preserves structural relics from the original series in noting things like “yesterday we did . . . ” or “tomorrow we will . . . ” and with re-introductions of each of the sections, so hopefully those aren’t a distraction. The entire piece is copyright 2014, J. Eric Smith, Wilson Smith and Robert Beveridge, and should not be reproduced in digital or print formats without the authors’ specific authorization, and proper attribution back to this website.
PART ONE: UNLOADING THE VAN
Much of my internet notoriety (such as it is) stems from a series of articles that I wrote in the early 2000s that took interesting musical questions, and used them to frame NCAA-style, head-to-head tournaments, pitting records or artists against each other over a long series of blog posts to (in theory) reach arguably definitive answers to the questions posed.
The first one I did was called The Worst Rock Band Ever, and it ran in 2004, and generated no small amount of online fire. I still get hate mail from this one, and expect it to increase when the winning/losing (depending on your perspective) band appears in Des Moines this summer, on their farewell tour. When The Worst Rock Band Ever was over, I felt somewhat bad about wallowing in awfulness for as long as it took to produce this piece, so the next one I did evaluated a more enlightening scenario — the best band that few people have ever heard of — in a series called Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands. Then, once again, I pivoted and evaluated Best of the Blockbusters: The Greatest (Popular) Record Ever, which sought to identify the highest quality album among the 64 most purchased records in history. I started a series called Slaughtering the Sacred Cows, designed to pick the most over-rated albums in rock history, but I aborted that one, since I decided that I knew what the likely answers were going to be before I wrote it, and I didn’t want to spend two weeks getting there. Then I took on a real labor of love: a 26,000-word essay called March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever. That’s probably the defining gem of the bunch, if I say so myself.
Last December, I decided (after a long sabbatical from such things) to tackle Great Out of the Gate: The Best Debut Album Ever as a impassioned response and rebuttal to Rolling Stone magazine having recently named The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill as their choice as best debut ever. Ugh. That essay ended up being quite the epic: over 34,000 words, running to 54 printed pages with normal MS Word fonts and margins. The original of this series, The Worst Rock Band Ever, only ran about 12,000 words, for comparison, so I’ve certainly gotten more wordy, if not more entertaining, over the years as I’ve written these things.
When Great Out of the Gate was over, I was kicking around results and ideas with a private/invite-only online community called Xnet2 that I’ve been involved with, in one form or another, for almost 20 years. We’re an international group of music, film and culture geeks with a membership that’s expanded and contracted over the years from single digits up to our current roster of about 30-something folks. While we all love our arts and culture, our tastes are really all over the place, so there are some interesting conversations there between people with radically different, strongly held tastes and opinions, though we (usually) manage to peacefully co-exist.
As we were knocking around ideas, the concept of doing a “greatest live album ever” tournament gained some traction, but after my marathon on Great Out of the Gate, I wasn’t really up to tackling something so epic again, so soon. But that didn’t stop us from amassing a great list of well over 100 fantastic live albums, which, with some give and take, we were able to parse down into the obligatory 64 required for one of my tournaments. The generally agreed-upon rules that we used to make the cuts were as follows:
- No MTV Unplugged or other contrived television studio affairs were considered; we would only want to consider reviews of real, live on the stage records, played the way the artists wanted their songs played, and not tailored to some commercial construct.
- No “Various Artist” albums should be considered, even if they are commonly attributed to a single artist, e.g. The Last Waltz is credited to The Band, but contains many other performers, so should be excluded, as it’s a document of a revue show.
- No Dick’s Picks or Beat the Boots or King Crimson Collectors Club type records that are put out directly by artists (or those close to them) for their inner circle, hardcore followers; the albums to be considered should be albums issued for general listeners, normally under label auspices (meaning they were expected to have some real world market value), and not self-released records targeted specifically to the geekiest collector fans.
- The whole record (with possible exception of maybe one bonus studio track) has to be live, so no half-and-half beasts like Seminal Live by the Fall or Wheels of Fire by Cream, or other albums like those should be considered.
- One record per artist should suffice; though in cases where a particular player performs with radically different support players, exceptions might be made, since those groups are legitimately different.
- Records considered should be concert documents of shows played in front of real, paying punters, not invite only/live in the studio albums, so Throbbing Gristle’s Heathen Earth and other albums like it would not be included.
- Records considered should be of the rock n’ roll era, where studio albums and concert albums are legitimately understood to be different beasts with different aspirations; while we recognize that many great albums from the 1920s through the 1950s were essentially recorded in front of live audiences, we wouldn’t want to consider them.
While I was liking the list of 64 that we developed, I still wasn’t feeling up to the task of taking one of these essays on so soon after the (massive) last one, so I proposed an alternative scenario: would some of my fellow Xnet2 writers be willing to take a slate of albums, with me doing the same, to generate a final four? As it turned out, the answer to that hypothetical question was “yes.”
So this tournament is going to have three distinct voices (plus a group mind, which I will explain below) until we get to the final four, to add a new twist to the model. Here are our judges:
- I’m one, obviously, and if you don’t know me or what I do, then read the 1,000+ blog pages behind this one for an introduction. I will handle a bracket of 16 albums, and compete them head to head down to a Final Four contender.
- Second up is Wilson Smith, the founder of Xnet2. He and I have been romping and stomping around together in various online spaces for 20+ years, so we go way back. Our musical tastes are often strikingly non-overlapping (he says “Patti,” I say “Prog;” he says “Dylan,” I say “Death Metal;” etc.), which always makes things fun when we find our weird points of mutual musical interest (e.g. Wire, David Bowie, Beach Boys, Hot Tuna, Velvet Underground). Wilson will also take 16 albums.
- Third: Robert “Goat” Beveridge and I have also had a very long internet affiliation, since the mid-’90s. He’s one of a very small number of people with more extreme musical tastes than I, and also one of a miniscule number of people who writes online more obsessively and frequently than I do. Goat will, again, take 16 albums down to one via head-to-head contests.
- Since 64 does not divide evenly into three manageable chunks, we’re doing to do the fourth block of 16 albums via a “Group Mind” approach, just for a further twist. Each of three of us will cast a vote in each of these contests, so this bracket will require a little consensus building as we go forward.
The three of us each picked 32 of the 64 candidate albums that we would most like to review, and I then ran something like a Fantasy Football draft to assign 16 records to each of us for our personal brackets, ideally trying to make sure that we all got things that were most in our areas of expertise and interest. The items that remained were assigned to the Group Mind bracket.
When we get to the Final Four, there are six possible head-to-head match-ups, so each of us will take two of those pairings, assigning two points for a winner, zero for a loser, and one each in cases of ties, with a short explanation of why we picked as we did. Whichever album has the most points will then be declared the winner. If we have a tie, then I will work with the other guys to do a song-by-song, head-to-head run off to help us get to the finish line. If we’re still tied at that point, then I will pick a winner. Because.
This one may move to a different publication cycle than my usual frantic rush to the finish, since there are three people contributing, but I’m looking forward to a fun tournament with some great albums to be considered. And with all of that as preamble, I am now happy to unveil the contenders in their first round match-ups . . . ladies and gentlemen, please meet the greatest live albums ever. What’s your pick for a champion?
- Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills vs Peter Frampton, Frampton Comes Alive
- Cramps, Smell of Female vs Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke
- Grateful Dead, Europe ’72 vs Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Live Rust
- 801, Live vs Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico and Eno, June 1, 1974
- Johnny Winter, Live Johnny Winter And vs Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails
- Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert vs Velvet Underground, Live at Max’s Kansas City
- Kinks, Live at Kelvin Hall vs Rolling Stones, Got Live If You Want It
- Leon Russell, Leon Live vs Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now
- Allman Brothers, At Fillmore East vs Lynyrd Skynyrd, One More from the Road
- Bob Marley and the Wailers, Live! vs Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus
- Bob Seger, Live Bullet vs Focus, At the Rainbow
- David Bowie, Stage vs Roxy Music, Viva!
- Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Welcome Back My Friends . . . vs Genesis, Live
- Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Roxy and Elsewhere vs Utopia, Another Live Utopia
- Hawkwind, Space Ritual vs Jefferson Airplane, Bless Its Pointed Little Head
- Good Rats, Live at Last vs Wings, Over America
- Blue Öyster Cult, Some Enchanted Evening vs MC5, Kick Out the Jams
- Antietam, Comes Alive vs Traffic, Welcome to the Canteen
- Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour vs Queen, Live Killers
- Simon and Garfunkel, The Concert in Central Park vs Deep Purple, Made in Japan
- Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous vs The Who, Live at Leeds
- Rush, Exit Stage Left vs Jackson Browne, Running on Empty
- J. Geils Band, Blow Your Face Out vs Yes, Yessongs
- Motörhead, No Sleep Till Hammersmith vs Ted Nugent, Double Live Gonzo
GROUP MIND REGIONAL:
- AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It vs KISS, Alive
- John Cale, Sabotage/Live vs Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal
- Elvis Presley, Aloha from Hawaii vs James Brown, Live at the Apollo
- Stooges, Metallic K.O. vs Judas Priest, Unleashed in the East
- Ramones, It’s Alive vs Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan
- Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense vs Led Zeppelin, The Song Remains the Same
- Neil Diamond, Hot August Night vs Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs and Englishmen
- John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, Live Peace in Toronto vs Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
PART TWO: GOAT’S FIRST ROUND
So here we go. As reported yesterday, this particular Indie Moines Rock Music Tournament features three writers each handling 16 great live albums (plus a “Group Mind” round on another sixteen, where we all weigh in) to get us to a final four. Click that link in the prior sentence and scroll to the bottom of the introduction for the full list of first-round pairings, if you need a refresher.
First up today: Robert “Goat” Beveridge takes us through his first round. I should note that the four of us independently established our pairings, once we had been assigned our albums. Some of our pairings were randomly chosen, which some were chosen thematically (e.g. the John Cale vs Lou Reed first round in the Group Mind Bracket). Goat chose to stick true to the NCAA bracketing model by actually seeding his field from 1 to 16, hence the numbers next to his picks below.
And with that as intro, let’s get into the carnage and start knocking off some live albums . . .
(1) Blue Öyster Cult, Some Enchanted Evening vs. (16) MC5, Kick Out the Jams: This battle ended up a lot harder than one would expect given a 1-vs.-16 match-up, in part because I had already determined BÖC and MC5 were going up against one another before deciding on the seeds thanks to the Cultists doing a version of “Kick Out the Jams” on Some Enchanted Evening. And so when I knew BÖC were going in the top two, by default that put MC5 somewhere in the bottom two—a place they decidedly do not belong. MC5 are often remembered as one of the bands who ushered in punk, but there was so much more to them than that, and Kick Out the Jams showcases a number of facets that kiddies today expecting a proto-punk record will play, stare at the turntable with the dog-who-doesn’t-understand-your-command cocked head, and then either never listen to it again or fall totally in love with it. “Starship”, especially, is psychedelia-soaked Hawkwind in the making, presaging those album-length Yes noodlers by a good four or five years. Its inclusion on Kick Out the Jams, though, is kind of problematic, given Wayne Kramer’s statements that the title track in part referred to “British 1960s bands playing at the Grande who MC5 felt were not putting enough energy into their performances.” (However, I have to kind of balance that with the mid-nineties jam-band explosion and how topical the song became about three minutes after Blues Traveler found themselves with a #1 hit.) Contrast this with Blue Öyster Cult, who also dabbled in a number of different genres over the years, both before and after this 1978 live release—but Some Enchanted Evening is a stripped-down hard-rock record, focused and specializing in one fact of Blue Öyster Cult’s impressive repertoire. I say this as someone who fully expected Some Enchanted Evening—the first live album I ever owned—to be my contribution to the Final Four here, but looked at in that light, I really have no choice but to promote Kick Out the Jams over what I would still say is the single best live album of the sixty-four represented here. MC5, please report to the second round. Winner: MC5, Kick Out the Jams.
(8) Antietam, Comes Alive vs. (9) Traffic, Welcome to the Canteen: I spent eight months of last year doing a massive series called Desert Island Disc, starting with an unconscionable 688 songs in various brackets before ending up with twenty-two that make up my as-near-as-perfect-as-possible personal desert island disc (which can be found here, and contains not a single live track), and one of the things that I found in those last couple of rounds is that the toughest battles were, invariably, the 8 vs. 9 seeds. You expect No. 15 to get trounced by No. 2, but by definition, unless you randomize, the pieces you ranked 8 and 9 are going to be the closest of the bunch. Such is the case here, though ironically, in this bracket, 8 vs. 9 turned out to be an easier decision than 1 vs. 16. As much as I like Antietam, I have always been more of a fan of Tara Key’s solo efforts (“Bender”, from Key’s 1993 solo elpee Bourbon County, had the misfortune to get paired up against a behemoth in the first round of DID). Traffic are the opposite; they were magic when they were together, but the solo careers, well, not so much. Since we’re going band vs. band here, the choice is obvious: Traffic jam their way to the second round. Winner: Traffic, Welcome to the Canteen.
(5) Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour vs. (12) Queen, Live Killers: Rory Gallagher never got anywhere near the accolades he deserved on this side of the pond; he’s sold millions upon millions of albums in Europe and Asia, but his career went by in America with barely a blip. Contrast that to Queen, Gallagher’s neighbors from across the Irish Sea, who started big worldwide and only got bigger as time went on. But even if you put aside my enduring love for the underdog in most such matters as this, Gallagher typifies the blues-rock part of what we have since come to know as Celtic rock (as opposed to, say, Silly Wizard typifying the traditional side of things), a genre of which I am inordinately fond. Queen, with all their bombast and audience banter, created one of the last essential double-live albums of the seventies, but then, by 1979 the format had already been codified and conventionalized; they did what they did and they did it exceptionally well, but they didn’t attempt to do anything new with it. Nor did Gallagher, but Irish Tour feels more intimate, and more deserving here; the first non-upset according to the seeds, though something tells me the masses will feel different. Gallagher rolls on through. Winner: (5) Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour.
(4) Simon and Garfunkel, The Concert in Central Park vs. (13) Deep Purple, Made in Japan: This was an easy decision until I sat down and listened to these two albums—neither of which I had heard all the way through in some twenty years—at which point it became an equally easy decision the other way. I have never forgiven Warner Bros. for their decision to leave off what was, for me, the centerpiece of the entire concert, “The Late, Great Johnny Ace” (presumably because, during the performance, Paul Simon was accosted by an angry fan who thought it was too soon to write about the death of John Lennon). I had entirely forgotten it wasn’t on the album, and once I discovered that, my mind flipped that coin over to its other side, and Deep Purple find themselves going on two Round Two in a walkover. Winner: Deep Purple, Made in Japan.
(3) Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous vs. (14) The Who, Live at Leeds: One of the toughest things to do in a competition like this is decide whether you’re going to look strictly at the original releases of the albums in question or later releases (remastered, bonus material, blah blah blah). One of the few that’s even tougher is sticking to that decision. Few places in these sixteen albums make that clearer than The Who Live at Leeds. The original album is slim, muscular, and contains just six songs, three of which are covers. The fortieth anniversary collectors’ edition is a 4CD monstrosity containing sixty-five tracks, slightly under half of which were not, in fact, recorded live at Leeds (they were recorded at Hull the following evening), including two full renditions of Tommy in its entirety. That makes me want to flee back to the original album, since Tommy has always struck me as The Who’s weakest work, and it was prominent in my mind when I was coming up with the list of do-and-don’t-do by which I judge concept albums. (I came up with it in 1987; I still use it today with no adjustments.) But then I flee back to the original album and it’s half covers. Of the three original songs, well, “Magic Bus” is just loathsome and always has been, and if there’s a poster boy for excess on live albums, it’s extending “My Generation” to fourteen and a half minutes. I mean, yeah, it’s a great song, and there’s a reason that to this day Roger Daltrey can still sing “hope I die before I get old” and get away with it even if he passed that mark decades ago. But dude. That’s four times longer than the original song. And then I look at Live and Dangerous and the only criticism I have of it in this regard is that it’s missing my favorite Thin Lizzy song . . . which the band didn’t record until three years after this, so I can’t really call that a valid criticism, can I? The boys will be back in Round Two. Winner: Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous
(6) Rush, Exit Stage Left vs. (11) Jackson Browne, Running on Empty: Spoiler alert: I need to apologize to Jackson Browne. Seriously. But every time I listen to Running on Empty, which is such a singer-songwriter landmark and one of the few successful blends of pop and politics, it makes me regret that I didn’t push harder for the inclusion of one of the very few that is even more successful on both counts, Bruce Cockburn’s Live from 1990, which to me is the definitive live singer-songwriter folk-rock gig. And thus it is impossible for me to judge Running on Empty with anything remotely related to objectivity. The dice, however, made the blow a little less by putting Browne up against Rush, who managed to record the best live album in their discography just before kicking off the string of albums that would be their best work. How does that work? I don’t know, but it does, and it’s glorious. Jackson Browne must exit stage right. Winner: (6) Rush, Exit Stage Left
(7) J. Geils Band, Blow Your Face Out vs. (10) Yes, Yessongs: Another one that ended up being far tougher than I had anticipated after seeing this matchup come up on the dice. The obvious (at least to me) strength of Yessongs is that while the band were obviously experimenting with much longer songs here (six are over ten-minutes, including a side-length rendition of “Close to the Edge” on the third record), this is still a year or so before the band would devolve into ridiculous side-length monstrosities only enjoyable whilst chemically altered, an unfortunate state of affairs that would last until 1977′s Going for the One. Originally it seemed like an easy task for Yes to outlast J. Geils Band; Blow your Face Out, especially with Peter Wolf’s onstage banter quickly taking over many tracks, looked like it was going to take a dive for crack money. And yet Blow Your Face Out, despite being yet another of those seventies double-live extravaganzas and not doing a great deal different with the format, has just refused to go away as I’ve been shuffling through these over the past couple of weeks. I think that is in part because so much of the material on Blow Your Face Out got lost in the shuffle when the band hit it big with their final two studio albums in the eighties; there is zero crossover between this and 1982′s Showtime!, their final live album (and last record of any sort with Wolf), even standards like “Must of Got Lost” and “Southside Shuffle”, both of which are given the royal treatment here (once you get past Wolf’s interminable intro on the former). And, man, “Houseparty” never, ever sounded as good as it does here. But does it sound good enough to get past “Long Distance Runaround” and “Roundabout”? That is a very tough call…and ultimately, I don’t think it does, for purely personal reasons that I will end up talking endlessly about next round, probably. Yes takes this one, but they do so in a squeaker. Winner: Yes, Yessongs.
(2) Motörhead, No Sleep Till Hammersmith vs. (15) Ted Nugent, Double Live Gonzo: I mentioned earlier on in this round, obliquely to be sure, that it is well-nigh impossible to go back and listen to these recordings the way they were originally intended these days; everything has been remastered and released with bonus material and blah blah blah blah blah. But here we have an extra layer of complexity, and one that is, frankly, impossible to see past: how the hell did the acid-drenched hippie who recorded “Journey to the Center of the Mind”, one of the defining tracks of the psychedelic era for me, become a guy who would have auditioned for Who’s Nailin’ Paylin if the former veep candidate had actually been starring in it? Now, I am not someone who has ever shied away from right-wing bands (despite my professed love for Bruce Cockburn, above); Breaking Benjamin are still in constant rotation on my mp3 player, for example. But to have started in one place and switched so dramatically, and fanatically, to the other… reminds me of a lot of ex-smokers I know. That pall hangs over this entire album, which was a constant companion during my own somewhat addled high school career, since my best friend (and supplier of all things smokable) had an older brother who was a huge fan of this album, and we listened to it a lot. (Trivia: said older brother was an ex-drummer for the Powers Run Band, whose most famous alumnus, Reb Beach, would go on to play guitar for eighties hair-metal sensation Winger.) But you will never quite understand the subtleties of Lemmy Kilmister’s songwriting—and yes, I did laugh aloud typing that—until you put them up against the Nuge’s. Compared to “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”, “Jailbait” (yes, I know, that’s from a remastered-bonus-material edition) is positively Shakespearean. Also, like Exit Stage Left above, No Sleep Till Hammersmith is another of those albums that got recorded just before the band would enter a massive creative surge and start turning out the best music of their career. How is this album so good without anything from Iron Fist, March or Die, or any of the albums in between? And yet there you have it. Motörhead easily take this one. Winner: Motörhead, No Sleep Till Hammersmith.
So there we go, eight albums gone, with Goat’s second round pairing looking like this:
(16) MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. (9) Traffic, Welcome to the Canteen
(5) Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour vs. (13) Deep Purple, Made in Japan
(3) Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous vs. (6) Rush, Exit Stage Left
(10) Yes, Yessongs vs. (2) Motörhead, No Sleep Till Hammersmith
Standby for further transmissions. Over . . . for now.
PART THREE: JES’S FIRST ROUND
Alright, so this afternoon, it’s my turn to roll out my own first round of in-concert carnage as Goat, Wilson and I move forward toward declaring one lucky record as the Greatest Live Album Ever. Ready, steady, go!
Allman Brothers, At Fillmore East vs Lynyrd Skynyrd, One More from the Road: This contest pits the twin titans of Southern Rock against each other in an epic double-live duel of soaring guitars, rollicking keyboards, rumbling rhythms and soulful singing. At Fillmore East was the Allmans’ third album, and in its original configuration, it featured a mere seven songs stretched out over four sides, with the Gregg Allman original “Whipping Post” and a cover of Willie Cobbs’ “You Don’t Love Me” each covering a full side on their own. (Note: as a general rule, I am going to review my live albums based on their original release configurations, not on later box set, CD, or expanded issues). Interestingly, the only other original songs on this sprawling set of Southern swing are Dickie Betts’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and the band jam “Hot’Lanta,” with the remainder of the album being given over the Allmans’ extended jam interpretations of classic blues, R&B and soul numbers. One More from the Road, on the other hand, featured 14 songs in its original vinyl issue, with only “Freebird” passing the 10-minute mark. The cuts generally stretch out over their studio incarnations, but they don’t overstay their welcomes, the way that some of the Allman Brothers tracks do. And while, yeah, “Freebird” has become something of a joke at this point, this is the version that makes people still scream its title 30 years on: amazing triple guitar madness, a huge build, and an album-concluding climax that most bands would kill for. Also noteworthy: 11 of the 14 cuts on One More from the Road are band originals, and, wow, what a collection of songs these guys had amassed by this point in their career. Duane Allman died soon after At Fillmore East, and Skynyrd’s classic run came to end within a year of One More from the Road‘s release when their plane went down in Mississippi, so these two records stand as live memorials, of sorts, to two great bands that were decimated in their primes. As I look at this match-up, and think about how well these albums have aged (or not), I’m going to surprise myself (and you, probably) right from the git-go, and give the edge to the band that wrote great songs and played them tight, over the band that stretched blues classics over entire sides of albums. You may tie me to the whipping post now. Winner: Lynyrd Skynyrd, One More from the Road.
Bob Marley and the Wailers, Live! vs Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus: Watching old concert footage of Bob Marley and the Wailers is really revelatory, if you’ve never seen what they looked like doing what they did. They had amazing stage presence, and were as pleasing to the eye as they were to the ear. Little Feat, on the other hand, were not: while they were known as a musician’s band, and their songs came alive on stage in ways that their studio recordings rarely captured, the sextet captured on Waiting for Columbus veered perilously close to sneaker-gazing during their performances, and stage attire and presentation were not strong points, to say the least. The Wailers’ single-disc Live! was recorded at a single show at the Lyceum Theater in London in 1975, while the Feats’ double-live Columbus featured the best bits from seven shows in London and Washington, DC, all captured in 1977. Live! offers a tight set of seven Marley classic, virtually every song now readily recognizable . . . though I would not pick any of them as definitive versions, given how strong their studio versions are. Columbus gives us 17 tracks, many of which are easily better than their studio incarnations. While I probably would have enjoyed watching The Wailers live in 1975 more than I would have enjoyed watching Little Feat in concert in 1977, albums are (by definition, in a pre-video world) sonic artifacts, and the aural experience of Waiting for Columbus is easily finer than that offered by Marley and associates. There’s a fat man in the bath tub, moving on to the next round. Winner: Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus.
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet vs Focus, At the Rainbow: At the point when Bob Seger recorded and released Live Bullet with his then relatively-new Silver Bullet Band, he was bigger than Jesus in Detroit, but couldn’t get arrested in many other markets beyond the Motor City. Six months later, Night Moves became a huge crossover hit for the hard-rockin’ veteran, which led to an explosion in his back catalog sales that eventually elevated Live Bullet into a position it holds to this day as one of the ten best-selling live albums ever. (Interestingly, as best I can ascertain, only one of the live albums that sold more than Live Bullet did — Frampton Comes Alive — is in the running in our contest here. Those other high sales titles include Garth Brooks’ country-by-the-numbers Double Live, Bruce Springsteen and the East Street Band’s bloated Live ’75-’85, the mostly harmless Eagles Live, and the MTV Unplugged sets from Eric Clapton and Nirvana, which we excluded on principle). Where Live Bullet caught a great singer with a pretty good (if largely anonymous) backing band right at the point where they were breaking big, Focus’ At the Rainbow captured the eccentric Dutch band at the peak of their fame, following the international success of singles “Hocus Pocus” and “Sylvia,” both featured here in an awesome closing medley, which I would readily cite as one of the most most thrilling fourteen minutes of live music ever captured on vinyl. Seriously. Unfortunately, while Focus demonstrate tasty chops and exquisite skill throughout their live set (guitarist Jan Akkerman is especially noteworthy), none of the other jazz-based, long, instrumental songs rise to the titanic energy of “Hocus Pocus”/”Sylvia”/”Hocus Pocus (Reprise),” leaving the album feeling a bit unbalanced, when all is said and done. While I absolutely detest both the sentiment and sound of the Seger’s “Turn the Page” (the version from Live Bullet is the one you know, alas), there’s not really any way to keep this punchy live product from punching its ticket to the second round, and declaring Focus the beautiful loser in this contest. Winner: Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet.
David Bowie, Stage vs Roxy Music, Viva!: David Bowie’s Stage captures the chameleon-like singer at a particularly rich phase in his career (the Isolar II tour of 1978, which fell between “Heroes” and Lodger), fronting an absolutely amazing band: his then-regular rhythm section (Carlos Alomar, George Murray, Dennis Davis and Sean Mayes), along with guitarist Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa), keyboardist-violinist Simon House (Hawkwind) and synthesist Roger Powell (Utopia). Live performances heavily featured challenging material from then-recent albums like Station to Station, Low and “Heroes,” with a quick mid-set spin through some classic Ziggy Stardust era hits, just the leaven the load a bit. So this should have been an incredible live album when it was released . . . but it was not. The Ziggy material was re-sequenced to open the album, while most of the ambient pieces were packed together on Side Three, which (as everybody who survived the ’70s knows) is the side of the double live album that no one ever listens to, usually because it features the drum solo. The sound of the original record release is exceptionally antiseptic, with most of the instruments recorded via direct input, and very little room or audience atmosphere evident on the album. It was widely panned upon release, and deservedly so . . . though in 2005, it was re-released as it should have been originally (proper sequence, better recordings, etc.) and garnered fulsome praise from most quarters. But as noted above, I am reviewing these live albums based on their original configurations, so ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please strike that last sentence from your frontal lobes. Roxy Music’s Viva! was a stop-gap album, released during the band’s 1976 hiatus, and featuring tracks recorded over three separate tours, with three separate bass players from 1973 to 1975. All of the recordings post-date Brian Eno’s departure, so they generally find Bryan Ferry smoothing off the earlier rough edges on his way to lounge lizard dominance of the world, though give Phil Manzanera credit for igniting some occasional sparks, most especially on the killer solo from “In Every Dream Home a Heartache.” None of these cuts are essential, at bottom line, especially absent the costumes and visuals that defined Roxy Music in their heyday. While numerous live Roxy Music documents have been issued over the years, nobody has ever bothered to go back to attempt to turn Viva! into something that anybody needs in their record collection, making it pretty clear just how superfluous to their canon it really is. So in this contest of severely flawed records from sublimely talented artists, I’m going to have to pick the one that at least had some vision behind it, and at least the potential for greatness, rather than the one that still feels like a contractual obligation album. Sing it: and we will be heroes . . . just for one round. Winner: David Bowie, Stage.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Welcome Back My Friends . . . vs Genesis, Genesis Live: This all-prog contest is a classic case of “too much” vs “not enough.” First, let’s look at the titles: I’ve truncated it here, but the full name of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s second live album is: Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends . . . Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Yeah, I get it, if Peter Sinfield had written that song for me, I’d have probably used it on my own live album, too, but, still. Come on. Genesis’ 1973 concert document, on the other hand, has about the shortest, least imaginative name possible for a Genesis live album: Genesis Live. It doesn’t even have an exclamation point, like Bob Marley’s Live! Ho hum, don’t mind us English public school chaps as we play our concert. Shhh. You’ll miss the quiet bits. And the musical box. Oh, bother. Then there are the contents of these albums themselves: Welcome Back My Friends is a bloated three disc set that originally came wrapped in elaborate, die-cut packaging that invariably tore and/or fell apart after you took the records in and out a few times. If memory serves, there was a poster and stickers inside, too. (Yeah, I bought it went it came out, duh). Three slabs of vinyl allowed Carl, Greg and Emmo to stretch “Karn Evil 9″ (that’s the “Welcome back, my friends . . . ” song) over a full album, to expand the already side-long “Tarkus” onto a second side by incorporating the chorus of King Crimson’s “Epitaph” (originally sung by Greg Lake), to toss in as 12-minute piano solo, an 11-minute version of “Take a Pebble” (incorporating “Lucky Man” and “Still You Turn Me On”), and some shorter songs, as leavening. I get tired just typing about it all. Genesis Live, on the other other hand, was but a small, single disc, with a short, weird story by Peter Gabriel on its backside, and five songs, all in the eight to eleven minute range. Oh, please, sirs and madams. Please, sit gently, and quietly, and listen. There are quiet bits. Shh. Okay, we’ll just all sit down while we play, so as not to distract you. Peter! Peter! You stop that! That’s no way for a proper English public school boy to behave! No! Interestingly enough, the epic “Supper’s Ready” was already the cornerstone of Genesis’ live show at this point, but, well, modesty and all that. Mustn’t put on airs or show off by playing a 28-minute long song. Masters wouldn’t like that one bit, no sir. Mind you, it has some nice quiet bits, though. Shhh. At bottom line: better to keep listeners wanting more (even of the quiet stuff) than to cram them full to bursting, and then trying to shove in just . . . one . . . more . . . tiny thin wafer at the end. Ka-boom! Winner: Genesis, Genesis Live.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Roxy and Elsewhere vs Utopia, Another Live: Our opening Allmans vs Skynyrd contest featured an all-star guitar orgy with Dickey Betts and Duane Allman on one side of the ring, and the triple-headed Allan Collins, Gary Rossington and Steve Gaines guitar hydra on the other. This contest is equally riveting from a six-string superstar standpoint, though there are but two guitarists in play: Frank Zappa in one corner, and Todd Rundgren in the other. Rundgren had already proven himself as an acclaimed performer, killer guitar player, ace songwriter, in-demand producer, and all-around pop star (“Hello, It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light” anybody?) by the time he decided to get together a synth heavy band (Utopia) and make long-form, dense, live progressive rock music. The first, self-titled Utopia album featured four songs (one of them live) totaling 59 minutes spread over two sides of a single album, resulting in poor vinyl fidelity, a chronic problem with Rundgren albums of the era. Another Live breaks things up a bit, with eight tracks covering 46 minutes, so it sounds a bit better, though some of the song selection is dodgy, e.g. a cover of Jeff Lynne’s “Do Ya” (then known only as a song by The Move, as it was not yet a hit for The Electric Light Orchestra), and a histrionic run through “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. Ennnnhhhhhh, not really very moving. After this disc, Rundgren put Utopia on the shelf for a couple of year, eventually re-emerging with two fewer keyboardists and a new bass player as part of a line-up that proved far more commercially and critically successful than the band captured here. Roxy and Elsewhere captures what I consider to be the best live band Frank Zappa ever fielded, playing awesome versions of some of the best cuts in his catalog. So there’s not really much of a contest here, really, and I am going to save my Roxy superlatives until a future round, when they may be better deployed against a higher-quality opponent. Just one victory . . . for Frank. Winner: Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Roxy and Elsewhere.
Good Rats, Live at Last vs Wings, Wings Over America: I moved with my family from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York in the bicentennial summer of ’76. That fall, I went to some kind of outdoor autumn festival event at Eisenhower Park and caught my first sight and sound of the amazing, wild and wooly Good Rats, Long Island’s favorite band. A few months later, I was delighted to open a package on Christmas morning, and to find Wings Over America inside it. At the time, if asked to name my favorite band, it certainly would have been Wings, and this triple live album heavily featured tracks from the then-new Venus and Mars, which is still my favorite Wings album. I played this thing to pieces, accordingly, and to this day, its sequencing is embedded in my brain, so that when I hear certain songs from it on my iPod, it seems weird to not immediately hear the tracks that followed on Over America. I didn’t care as much for all of the old retooled Beatles songs that were in the package, mind you, nor for the odd cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory,” since I knew the original too well already, but it’s safe and accurate to say that I wore this one out, happily. And during that period of time, I also went out of my way to see The Good Rats live whenever I could, which was surprisingly often for a kid, since they would play anywhere and everywhere they were invited. I saw them at school events. I saw them at festival shows. And I saw them blow Rush off the stage at the Nassau Coliseum. In 1980, I moved from Long Island to Newport, Rhode Island, but right before I left, I scored a copy of Live at Last, the Rats’ first concert recording. It offered a great cross section of some of the band’s best songs, and the recordings were pretty good, but somehow it never managed to embed itself in my regular rotation the way that Wings Over America once did. I suspect that if I’d actually seen Wings as many times as I saw the Good Rats that I might have had a less rabid reaction to their own live product, since when you get right down to it, no concert recording can really reproduce the full in-the-flesh experience of a big rock concert. In any case, I still listen to both Wings and Good Rats a lot, though I rarely listen to either of these live discs anymore. From both a personal and a professional front, it’s clear which one deserves to advance: it’s the rock show at the Concertgebouw. Winner: Wings, Wings Over America.
Hawkwind, Space Ritual vs Jefferson Airplane, Bless Its Pointed Little Head: On some plane, it is utterly remarkable that Jefferson Airplane had any commercial success whatsoever, because you’d really be hard pressed to come up with a more improbable combination of players, singers, sounds and interests in a single band. That sense of things pulling in opposite directions while somehow holding the middle together may be at its most audible on the Airplane’s first live album, the wonderfully titled Bless Its Pointed Little Head. You’ve got one of the hits (“Somebody to Love”), sure, but it’s a raggedy version. And then you’ve got a weird 11-minute improvisational piece called “Bear Melt” (huh?), and some of Marty Balin’s classic soulful singing, and loads of crazy Jorma Kaukonen guitar solos, and world-class bass player Jack Casady playing rhythm guitar on the Donovan-penned “Fat Angel” while Balin plays bass (huh?), and a B.B King cover, and a Fred Neil cover, and some weird little noise/instrumental bits, and all of this fits on a single slab of vinyl. Huh? Huh! It’s interesting for completists, at bottom line, but it is not particularly entertaining, it doesn’t really lend itself to repeated listens, and it’s probably the weakest link in the chain of the classic Airplane’s discography. Hawkwind’s Space Ritual, on the other hand, is probably not only their best live album, but their best record, period. It’s a two-disc set that documents the Hawks when they were at the peak of their blanga powers. It features the extraordinarily muscular rhythm section of Lemmy Kilmister (later of Motorhead), drummer Simon King, and guitarist Dave Brock, who just hammer and hammer and hammer like there’s no tomorrow. The space rock fills are delivered by synthesists Dik Mik and Del Dettmar and sax-man Nik Turner, while on again/off again frontman Robert Calvert delivers some wonderful soliloquies between the songs. The whole shebang is packaged in a gorgeous, influential sleeve by the great Barney Bubbles, featuring an image of the statuesque Miss Stacia who, while you can’t hear her on the album, provided live nude dancing onstage during these and other shows of the era. Both Space Ritual and Bless Its Pointed Little Head are rife with hippie mannerisms and psychedelic musical styles that have long since been relegated to quaint nostalgia status, but somehow Hawkwind’s magnum opus remains powerful, visceral, and appealing, while the Airplane’s record just seems weird. Hawkwind were born to go . . . on to round two. Winner: Hawkwind, Space Ritual.
Okay, so there you go, my first round is complete, and here are my pairings for when I return for round two:
Lynyrd Skynyrd, One More from the Road vs. Hawkwind, Space Ritual
Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus vs. Wings, Wings Over America
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet vs. Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Roxy and Elsewhere
David Bowie, Stage vs. Genesis, Genesis Live.
Next up, we’ll have Wilson’s and the Group Mind’s first round regionals, and then we’ll all do it again to get us to the Round of 16!
PART FOUR: WILSON’S FIRST ROUND
This morning we post the third block of eight great first round contests on the road toward declaring the Indie Moines Greatest Live Album Ever. Today’s regional battles are brought to you by Wilson Smith, broadcasting live from one of the most rock n’ roll cities in the universe, the magnificent Memphis, Tennessee. Let’s do this thing . . .
1. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills vs Peter Frampton, Frampton Comes Alive:
What a match-up, huh? One of the first live rock and roll albums versus the best-selling live rock and roll album!
Frampton Comes Alive: This thing was a monster, demolishing every other live album in its path and setting the bar, never bested, for bestselling live rock and roll album (sadly, Garth Brooks outsold it years later, but that ain’t rock), for which it gets special, collectible rock critic points. To quote one of the many quotables that will litter this exercise, Robert Christgau wrote: “All right, Peter, you’ve made your point — tour enough and smile enough and the tunes sink in. I’ll rate your fucking album — it’s been in the top five all year. Now will you please leave?” And with his nose in the air he turned on his heel and sniffed, “B minus.”
Cheap Thrills: Another monster, though not one of the “we get the point, now get out of here” variety. This was, we believe, one of the the very first live rock albums, and for that it gets a few of those special rock critic points alluded to earlier. It was also one of the first live rock albums to have additional correctional studio overdubs applied after the fact. (And if the question should arise, “What was the subtext of that live album behemoth thing that I just worked my way through, the answer is “studio overdubs.”)
Oh, Lord, I once had a daddy, he said he’d give me everything in sight.
Once had a daddy, said he’d give me everything in sight.
Yes, he did
So I said, “Honey, I want the sunshine, you take the stars out of the night.
Come on and give ‘em to me, babe, ’cause I want ‘em right now.
Per Janis’ request, we anoint Cheap Thrills better Than Frampton Comes Alive. Winner: Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills.
2. The Cramps, Smell of Female vs. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke:
Per Wikipedia: “A shtick (or schtick) is a comic theme or gimmick. ‘Shtick’ is derived from the Yiddish word shtik (שטיק), meaning ‘piece’; the closely related German word Stück has the same meaning.”
Although I wouldn’t go so far as to label — much less dismiss or denigrate — the work of the Cramps or Dictators as schtick, there is such a level of love for the genres they embrace so wholeheartedly, and even helped create, that the word definitely comes to mind when trying to describe them.
The Cramps — stop me if you’ve heard this before — mine a self-made genre of music called psychobilly, a weird mix of rockabilly trash and, oh, let’s say The Twilight Zone.
The Dictators, who put the “oo” in “stoopid,” have a full-blown attraction for the underbelly of American (sub)culture. White Castle Hamburgers, pizza, and last but not least, cars and girls.
Both put on fantastic live shows, among the best that rock/shock has to offer. Picking the better of the two really comes down to selecting the subculture of which the selector (that’d be me) is most fond. And I come down firmly for stoopid. Winner: The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke.
3. Grateful Dead, Europe ’72 vs Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Live Rust
Neil Young took Rust Never Sleeps, a perfectly great live album (albeit one with a few studio overdubs) (A+ per our colleague Robert Christgau), then re-recorded it a year or two later, interweaving a bunch of older tunes and releasing it as Live Rust. On the original Rust, per Wikipedia: “Audience noise is removed as much as possible, although it is clearly audible at certain points, most noticeably on the opening and closing songs. The album is half acoustic and half electric, opening and closing with different versions of the same song: ‘Hey Hey, My My’”.
A few years earlier the Grateful Dead had pulled a similar stunt by taking a perfectly good studio album (albeit one that didn’t actually exist) and recording a live version of it, likewise interweaving a bunch of older tunes. That’d be Europe ’72. The songs on Europe ‘72 were intended to comprise the third in a series of studio albums starting with Workingman’s Dead, arcing to American Beauty, then culminating with Rambling Rose. But the money wasn’t there for a third studio album, so the Dead did what the Dead do best and recorded it live, then added a few longish tracks (“China Cat Sunflower” and “It Hurts Me Too” to name two) to try the patience of even the most die-hard Dead Heads.
My, My, Hey, Hey: Live Rust advances. Winner: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Live Rust.
4. 801, 801 Live vs. Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Eno and Nico, June 1, 1974:
These are two albums that every critic worth his salt is supposed to know inside out but which I don’t think I’ve ever heard all the way through. Mea culpa.
Wait! “Baby’s on Fire” is on 801 Live? I’ll go with that, then. Oh it’s also on June 1, 1974?!? Yeesh. Photographers snip snap: June 1, 1974.
Winner: Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Eno and Nico, June 1, 1974
5. Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails vs. Johnny Winter, Live Johnny Winter And
A liver album than Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails you simply won’t find. There are sections where the band participation is just about zero, leaving it all up to the audience. If you were to mix the audience all the way down and the band all the way up you’d have . . . silence.
Side One is a kick-ass version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” It’s a really long one that clocks in at 24:19 and is broken up into six sections to confuse us. “Who Do You Love?” is the bragging song to beat all bragging songs. “I use a cobra snake for a neck tie.” Yikes! The band mostly does away with Diddley’s trademark chunka chunka rhythm, but that’s fine: more confusion.
Up against Happy Trails is an entry I quite simply can’t abide. Johnny Winters’ Live Johnny Winter And. I actually listened to some of it, just to make sure. Next!
Winner: Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails.
6. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert vs Velvet Underground, Live at Max’s Kansas City:
Both cut from unauthorized recordings, but both issued under major label imprints and not “fan only” artist/vanity presses (thereby qualifying for this contest), these two truly live albums represent the two artists at their best. Recorded by Andy Warhol friend and protégé Brigid Polk on a small cassette recorder, the Velvets’ Max’s album came out only a couple of years after its recording (and it’s worth noting that its amateur provenance and consequent somewhat degraded sound quality prompted the record company to sell the album for a dollar or two less than a “real” release), and it captured the band at its peak, playing on its home turf.
The Royal Albert Hall Concert, by comparison, was bootlegged for 32 years before it was officially released. Wikipedia: “The set list consisted of two parts, with the first half of the concert being Dylan alone on stage performing an entirely acoustic set of songs, while the second half of the concert has Dylan playing an ‘electric’ set of songs alongside his band ‘The Hawks.’ The first half of the concert was greeted warmly by the audience, while the second half was highly criticized, with heckling going on before and after each song.”
Audience chatter differed wildly between the two albums. “Judas!” screamed one irate Alert Hall attendee, upset that Dylan might be abandoning his folk roots. At the other end of the spectrum, per Wikipedia, “author Jim Carroll can be heard speaking on the album, ordering drinks and inquiring about drugs between songs as he was the one holding the microphone.”
For getting there first, and for everything that came after, we give the nod to Bob. Winner: Bob Dylan, The Royal Albert Hall Concert.
7. The Kinks, Live At Kelvin Hall vs. The Rolling Stones, Got Live If You Want It:
If you’re hankering for a horde of hollering, hysterical teenage girls, these are the go-to records for you. Wikipedia, “on . . . Kelvin Hall: On 3 April, post-production was underway for the scheduled live album. The group also took part in sessions to ‘enhance’ the recordings.” Writer Andy Miller notes that “. . . Kelvin Hall is perhaps not as live as all that. Sessions were undertaken to ‘sweeten’ the original tapes. Close listening seems to reveal that the audience hysteria is an extended, repeating ‘tape loop.’ It is also notable that an entire fourth of the 4-track mix was devoted to the crowd’s screams and yells.” Doug Hinman, in his 2004 book All Day And All Of The Night, also states that “it appears that overdubs [were] made (noticeable… on the released album’s guitar solo on ‘Till The End Of The Day’, and the differing guitar solos between the mono and stereo mixes of ‘You Really Got Me’).’”
Both of these were made due to the old “contractual obligations.” The record company needs fresh product every X months so the group coughs up whatever they can. If the group can’t cough up 12 studio tunes, in some cases they put together a live album, and in some cases a not-so-live album consisting of the original versions of the group’s most recent hits overdubbed with those shrieking girls. There are at least two overdubbed studio cuts on Got Live If You Want It (“Fortune Teller” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”).
Musically, there’s no contest between the two. Kelvin Hall sports Ray inciting the crowd of screaming teens to sing “Happy Birthday” to brother Dave along with a cover of the theme song to then popular television show, Batman. The Stones’ set is all killer, reaching back to “Not Fade Away” and “Time Is On My Side” and forward to “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” It’s the clear winner here.
Winner: The Rolling Stones, Got Live If You Want It.
8. Leon Russell, Leon Live vs Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now:
Oh boy, this is where it gets really tough. These are two fine, fine albums by two artists at the top of their game.
Both came out in the mid-70s (’73 for Leon Live and ’74 for It’s Too Late) and both are records documenting each artist’s live show. While both of them are comprised of a fairly equal mixture of covers and originals, Morrison’s covers tend toward moderately lengthy blues workouts, while Russell’s (like many of his studio covers), tend toward Dylan.
Morrison’s set is two records and Russell’s set is three.
Now hold it, hold it. Speaking of Leon Live, did we forget Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishman? In this tournament? To quote another album conspicuous by its absence here: “Who’s fighting, and what for?” [JES Editor’s Note: Leaving out Mad Dogs was, indeed, such an egregious error that I rectified it by adding it to the Group Mind Bracket. Thanks for catching that, Wilson!].
From our friend Robert Christgau, re: Leon’s prior solo effort: “Russell knows how to put music together, but he still has trouble putting it across. His Okie-cum-Brooklyn (ersatz Nworleans?) drawl is the outcry of a confused homeboy driven to fuse rootsy eccentricities with masscult shtick and flash, and his meaningful[less]ness clarifies nothing. The Dylan covers here are trying to tell us something, but in the end Russell’s newfound (and competent enough) zeitgeistery [!!] (“Stranger in a Strange Land”) and protest (“Alcatraz”) aren’t as interesting as the injokey “Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Which tells us something else. B
While we’re toodling around his web page, let’s let Herr Christgau wrap this up: It’s Too Late to Stop Now [Warner Bros., 1974]: A
Winner: Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now.
And that’s it for Wilson’s first round regional, setting up the contests listed below for his second round. When next we post, you’ll get the Group Mind bracket, where Wilson, Goat and I all weigh in, just to keep us all honest.
The Rolling Stones, Got Live If You Want It vs. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke
Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now vs. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills
Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert vs. Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Eno and Nico, June 1, 1974
Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails vs. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Live Rust
PART FIVE: THE GROUP MIND’S FIRST ROUND
Today we finish the first round, with the oddball “Group Mind” portion of our tournament. For each of the eight pairings of albums to be considered, each of the three of us (me, Wilson, and Goat) will cast a single vote, and I will offer some brief commentary, with two out of three “aye” votes advancing an album to the second round. While you might not get the same depth of analysis in this part of the bracket that we offer elsewhere, you will instead get a little bit more by way of a consensus vote. So to some extent this bracket is the one designed to keep us all honest until the Final Four, something of a control group to balance our own out-of-control proclivities when left to our own devices. This bracket has some major critical favorites in it, so it’s probably wise that we don’t slaughter these sacred cows before they are ripe. And with that, let’s pass judgment!
AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It vs. KISS, Alive
- JES: Both classic ’70s live rock albums, and both high water marks in these group’s early catalogs. The KISS album, though epic, involves a lot of cherry-picking from multiple shows and a whole lot of studio polish, whereas the AC/DC album is a better record of a single live performance, which carries the day in this contest. Vote: AC/DC.
- Wilson’s Vote: AC/DC.
- Goat’s Vote: KISS.
- Winner: AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It.
John Cale, Sabotage/Live vs. Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal
- JES: Velvet vs Velvet, wow! John Cale’s album was recorded in gnarly punk era circumstances, and featured almost all new material (most of it great), rather than a collection of cuts from prior studio albums. Lou Reed’s album, as originally issued, found four of its five songs culled from the Velvet Underground catalog, though they are reinvented as massive guitar orgies in the hands of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, later of Alice Cooper’s second great band. Both surprising records in their time, and a real tough choice, but in the end the bombast of Reed’s platter out wallops the trashy gnarl of Cale’s. Vote: Lou Reed.
- Wilson’s Vote: Lou Reed.
- Goat’s Vote: Lou Reed.
- Winner: Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal.
Elvis Presley, Aloha from Hawaii vs. James Brown, Live at the Apollo
- JES: Elvis’ album documents a world-wide satellite broadcast aired in 1973 (head to head against the Super Bowl, if you can believe and imagine that!), and at the time it was probably the most viewed television show and the most expensive concert production ever staged. But, you know, it’s 1973 Elvis, whereas James Brown’s Live at the Apollo catches 1963 James, and that’s not much of a contest, by any account. Vote: James Brown.
- Wilson’s Vote: James Brown.
- Goat’s Vote: James Brown.
- Winner: James Brown, Live at the Apollo.
Stooges, Metallic K.O. vs. Judas Priest, Unleashed in the East
- JES: Heresy alert: I can’t listen to Metallic K.O., which captures a legendarily shambolic Stooges concert, because, well, because it’s like listening to a legendarily shambolic Stooges concert. And if I’m not there in person smelling the blood and peanut butter, then what’s the point? Vote: Judas Priest.
- Wilson’s Vote: Stooges.
- Goat’s Vote: Stooges
- Winner: Stooges, Metallic K.O.
Ramones, It’s Alive vs. Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan
- JES: I saw the Ramones several times over the years, and enjoyed all of the shows, but I have no desire to listen to live versions of songs that sound much better, for the most part, in their awesome studio versions. Cheap Trick’s Budokan, on the other hand, takes a bunch of so-so studio cuts and turns them into pop dynamite, and that’s what live albums are supposed to be all about, right? Vote: Cheap Trick.
- Wilson’s Vote: Cheap Trick.
- Goat’s Vote: Ramones.
- Winner: Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan.
Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense vs. Led Zeppelin, The Song Remains the Same
- JES: I think both of these albums are a bit over-rated, and I think the Led Zeppelin movie from which this live soundtrack was culled is essentially unwatchable. The Heads’ movie, however, is spectacular, so I’m going to let its glow carry this album forward, for now. Vote: Talking Heads.
- Wilson’s Vote: Talking Heads.
- Goat’s Vote: Talking Heads.
- Winner: Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense.
Neil Diamond, Hot August Night vs. Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs and Englishmen
- JES: Oof, another tough one for me. Cocker’s album is a balls-to-the-wall festival of shouting and screaming and storming by a bunch of drunks and junkies on a season-long bender, whereas Neil Diamond’s live disc finds him at his most hippie sensitive, cooing to the people in the trees at the back of the arena, wow, peace, man, fab. Neil does offer an awesome collection of original tunes, though, whereas Cocker and company just demolish a bunch of other people’s music. Normally, I’d pick the songwriter in a contest like this, but since Leon Russell (the musical architect of the Mad Dogs tour) got knocked out in round one by Van Morrison (who I do not like, at all), I’m going to give this one to the spastic dude with the beard. Vote: Joe Cocker.
- Wilson’s Vote: Joe Cocker.
- Goat’s Vote: Neil Diamond.
- Winner: Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, Live Peace in Toronto vs. Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
- JES: I think Johnny Cash’s primal scream live album is a bit more meaningful than John and Yoko’s, on pretty much every front. No contest. Vote: Johnny Cash.
- Wilson’s Vote: Johnny Cash.
- Goat’s Vote: Johnny Cash.
- Winner: Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison.
And with that, we have boiled our original 64 albums down to 32. Here’s a recap of what you can expect from us in Round Two, by regional. Stay tuned for more carnage!
- MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. Traffic, Welcome to the Canteen.
- Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour vs. Deep Purple, Made in Japan.
- Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous vs. Rush, Exit Stage Left.
- Yes, Yessongs vs. Motörhead, No Sleep Till Hammersmith.
- Lynyrd Skynyrd, One More from the Road vs. Hawkwind, Space Ritual.
- Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus vs. Wings, Wings Over America.
- Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet vs. Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Roxy and Elsewhere.
- David Bowie, Stage vs. Genesis, Genesis Live.
- The Rolling Stones, Got Live If You Want It vs. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke.
- Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now vs. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills.
- Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert vs. Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Eno and Nico, June 1, 1974.
- Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails vs. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Live Rust.
THE GROUP MIND REGIONAL
- AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It vs. Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison.
- Lou Reed, Rock and Roll Animal vs. Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
- James Brown, Live at the Apollo vs. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense.
- Stooges, Metallic K.O. vs. Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan.
PART SIX: GOAT’S SECOND ROUND
This morning we begin the second round on our journey to crowning the greatest live band ever with Robert “Goat” Beveridge‘s bracket, wherein he will take his surviving pool of eight down to a battle-tested pool of four. A reminder that Goat has seeded his bracket, hence the numbers next to the titles of his competitors. All set? Let’s rock!
(16) MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. (9) Traffic, Welcome to the Canteen: Can MC5 pull off another massive upset against Winwood, Capaldi, and Mason? Going by the same standard we used in Round One, they’ll have a much tougher time of it here—it would be hard to argue that an album whose second side contains both “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and a nine-minute rendition of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” is not versatile. And since I’ve noted it with two other albums that made it, here’s another example of a near-perfect live album that showed up before the band started doing their best work; they would follow this with the immortal The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and its underrated followup Shootout at the Fantasy Factory. The same, of course, could be said for Kick Out the Jams, as that was MC5′s debut album—but the psychedelic edge, which the band would revisit come High Time, and the punk edge that would fuel Back in the USA, both worked better on Kick Out the Jams; there’s a far more immediate feel to them there than on the studio releases that would follow. “Starship” is one of the great album closers of all time… but so is “Gimme Some Lovin’”. Man, this one could be decided by tossing a coin. Ultimately, the only way I can slip a paper dagger in here to separate the two is looking at the bands’ respective influences on the music that would come after them… and as personal a decision as that is, probably 85% of the bands in my collection owe their existence, at least in part, to Kramer and Smith, and I can’t say the same about Winwood, Capaldi, and Mason. MC5 tap out another contender who should have rolled over them, and it’s on to the quarterfinals. Winner: (16) MC5, Kick Out the Jams.
(5) Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour vs. (13) Deep Purple, Made in Japan: Deep Purple got a walk in Round One, so I didn’t get to say all that stuff about the excesses of the double-live album (thanks, Mr. Frampton). The best of them feel like they were condensed from shows that were twice as long; the… not-as-best… feel like shows that should have been about 70% as long, and the band came up with 30% filler to give the double-live a side four. (Kudos to Genesis, then, for Three Sides Live.) A twenty-minute rendition of “Space Truckin’” takes up all of Side Four, and no side contains more than two songs. Excess, indeed. It would have made more sense had they gone back to their blues-rock roots; “Hush” is actually the kind of song that people expect a lot of noodling from when they hear it live. Which makes a perfect segue into the world of Rory Gallagher, who does exactly that on Irish Tour. Gallagher was a live performer first and foremost, and specialized in that almost-jazzlike improv that makes ten-minute jams like “Walk on Hot Coals” ignite. Deep Purple try to take on Rory Gallagher on the latter’s home turf and, predictably, wilt. Winner: (5) Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour.
(3) Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous vs. (6) Rush, Exit Stage Left: I’m starting this paragraph while about halfway through my seventy-fifth or so listen to “The Boys Are Back in Town” over the past few weeks, so I have to say Thin Lizzy have home-field advantage here, but I was thinking about this one pretty hard last night, and what it comes down to is commercialism (you’ll be hearing this again in a few minutes). Rush are a musician’s band first and foremost. If you go see Rush in concert and wander aimlessly through the crowd, ask any random hundred people you see there what instrument they play. I’d be willing to bet a week’s paycheck you will get an answer that is not some variation of “none” at least 75% of the time. Rush is music for music nerds. Thin Lizzy, on the other hand, has a broad-spectrum appeal; you don’t have to be a music geek to appreciate the technical wizardry of Phil Lynott, while Rush’s music is made immeasurably better once you have sat down and tried to work out just what the fuck Neil Peart was doing in “YYZ” and how he managed it with only two hands and two feet (unless he’s actually an alien). I love Exit Stage Left something fierce—in all honesty if you put these two albums up against one another just on how much I like them, and how much I listen to them, Exit Stage Left wins 99 times out of 100—but Live and Dangerous has to get promoted here. Winner: (3) Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous
(10) Yes, Yessongs vs. (2) Motörhead, No Sleep Till Hammersmith: Like I said above…you heard it before, and you’re going to hear it again, though I have to say it stings a bit less this time. Yes are beloved of music geeks everywhere…but you talk to the average music fan and you will find that their Yes knowledge often begins with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (released a decade later than Yessongs) and ends right around “Big Generator”. And I have to admit, the main reason I consider that a crime is because of how few people these days remember 1980′s Drama, the album that introduced me to Yes, more than being bummed that the average music fan missed anything the band released between Close to the Edge and Tormato. Motörhead, on the other hand? You even mention Lemmy’s name and people start air-guitaring “Ace of Spades”. Don’t get me wrong, “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Yours Is No Disgrace” and especially “Roundabout” are phenomenal tracks; “Roundabout” is probably as responsible as Neil Peart’s late-seventies era work for turning me into a drummer—but then I just reinforced my own case for promoting the original cradle of Philth here. Motörhead had a tougher battle of it in round two, but not much so, and into the quarterfinals they go. Winner: (2) Motörhead, No Sleep Till Hammersmith
And with that Goat’s Round Three is locked and loaded with the following contests on the slate:
(16) MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. (5) Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour
(3) Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous vs. (2) Motörhead, No Sleep Till Hammersmith
Next out of the chute will be JES’s second round. See you then!
PART SEVEN: JES’S SECOND ROUND
My turn! Ready to turn that beat around? Go!
Lynyrd Skynyrd, One More from the Road vs. Hawkwind, Space Ritual: You’d be hard pressed, on some plane, to find two live albums that represent as radically different cultural traditions as these two do. Lynyrd Skynyrd were (and are) paragons and avatars of the culture that spawned and sustains Southern Rock, a polyglot amalgam of blues, country, guitar fetish, and a curious form of rebel worship that somehow anchors itself in political conservatism and flag waving. “Yeah, we smoke weed and carry concealed weapons and have long hair and stand up to the man,” they seem to say, “Unless, of course the man is American, and is being challenged by Muslims or communists or gay people or liberals or Mexicans or atheists, in which case we rally ’round the flag, boys, and dedicate our triple-guitar attack to God & Guns.” (Which is actually the title of a 2009 Skynyrd album, just for the record). Hawkwind, on the other hand, were (and are) among the scuzziest, freakiest, squattiest and spottiest anti-corporate hippies and unrepentant speed freaks to ever take it to a stage, which also featured naked dancers and light shows, and from which they sang about orgone accumulators and sonic attacks and masters of the universe and other whatnots of a most mystical, magical variety. Interestingly enough, though, at their best (arguably as represented by Space Ritual), Hawkwind played harder, faster, and meaner than Skynyrd ever did. While space may be deep, in the Hawkwind mythos, that apparently doesn’t preclude it from being loud. Where Skynyrd offered a triple guitar attack on One More from the Road, Hawkwind offered a massive rhythmic throb created by Lemmy, Simon King and Dave Brock, then topped it with banks of screaming synths, screeching saxophones, and mostly tuneless male shout-singing. Space Ritual also offers one of the most distinctive graphic designs in rock history, courtesy the great Barney Bubbles, and while that doesn’t matter much in the digital era, when these discs came out, it was an important part of the package. Time Skynyrd left this contest today. Winner: Hawkwind, Space Ritual.
Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus vs. Wings, Wings Over America: An interesting contest between interesting bands, who came at these live albums from radically different spaces and places. By the time Waiting for Columbus came out in 1978, Little Feat had already gained a reputation as a musician’s band, and a great live draw, though their studio albums were very much a mixed bag and marginal sellers. The album captured the best bits of a pair of concert stands, one in London, and one in Washington, DC, and it’s arguably their greatest recorded document, the best Little Feat record to have if you only have space for one in your collection. It’s well played, has great songs, and offers some awesome arrangements with guests including the Tower of Power Horns, ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and Doobie Brothers Michael McDonald and Patrick Simmons. It was a solid two-disc set in its original configuration, and it managed to keep things interesting and engaging throughout its run, with cut after cut of choice grooves and superstar instrumental performances. Wings Over America was a triple-disc document of Wings’ 1976 tour, designed to (1) prove to skeptics once and for all that Wings were a real, functional band, and not just Paul McCartney’s anonymous backing group, and (2) to allow Paul to roll out selections from the Beatles catalog in arena settings for the first time since John, he, George and Ringo called it a day, all those years before. Interestingly enough, though, most of the weakest cuts on the album are the Beatles songs, since they don’t really add anything to our understanding or appreciation of the original studio versions, and they’re obviously not quite the same when performed by John, Denny, Joe, Jimmy and Linda in lieu of the Fab Four. Solid, but not exciting. Had those tracks (plus Denny Laine’s misguided cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory” been left on the cutting room floor, and had this been issued as a double disc instead of triple, I might have picked it over Waiting for Columbus, since it features great versions of great songs from the greatest era in Wings great history (I’m not being sarcastic here, I actually really like them), but it didn’t, so I won’t. Oh, oh, I feel like letting go . . . of Wings. Winner: Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus.
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet vs. Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Roxy and Elsewhere: Live Bullet is one of the best selling live albums in rock history, a crowd-pleasing double-disc set offering punchy takes on a collection of hard rockers and bloozy belters and soulful cryin’ in your beer ballads that had all been honed through years of bar and nightclub and small hall gigs by journeyman Bob Seger, and his then new-ish Silver Bullet Band. Seger already had eight (!) albums to his credit before this one broke him big nationally, so he had a great catalog of songs to draw on, and the hometown fans at Detroit’s Cobo Hall really make this thing throb with energy. Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ Roxy and Elsewhere is also a two-disc set, but the resemblance between these albums pretty much ends there: Roxy features ten knotty songs, few of which had (or have) ever seen a release on a studio album, and the vibe of the album is less barrel house breakdown than conservatory recital. And I don’t say that as an insult, mind you: I do consider Frank Zappa to be one of the 20th Century’s great composers, and some of his finest works appear on Roxy, played by what I would label as his best live band ever: Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, Ruth Underwood, Chester Thompson and Tom Fowler. As good as Roxy is, though, I have always been nagged by the fact that it could have been so much better, as some of this group’s greatest works from that era (“RDNZL,” “Inca Roads,” “Montana,” “Stinkfoot,” “Florentine Pogen,” “Sofa,” etc. etc.) are not included on this record, even though they were part of the repertoire during or soon after the shows from which this album was sourced. While we excluded “fan only” releases by artists themselves from this tournament, Zappa’s extraordinary 1988 release You Can’t Do That Onstage Anymore, Vol. 2: The Helsinki Concert rectifies this shortcoming by supplementing the Roxy material with some of those other essential tracks, and it sort of retroactively neuters Roxy & Elsewhere as result. Turn the page, Bob, you’re ramblin’ and gamblin’ on. Winner: Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet.
David Bowie, Stage vs. Genesis, Genesis Live: This is the weakest and most flawed contest among the quarter covered today, alas, since I adore both of the artists represented. The original issue of Bowie’s Stage badly re-sequenced a strong conceptual show, and offered surprisingly poor sound quality from someone who at the time so clearly valued sonic textures, in concert and in the studio. (As noted in the first round, these shortcomings were rectified in later releases, though we don’t count them in this contest). Genesis Live is an okay audio representation of what Messrs Gabriel, Banks, Rutherford, Hackett and Collins were up to, circa 1972 and 1973, but when you remove some of the visuals and the ‘tween-tune narratives that were key to the band’s then-burgeoning live reputation, the versions of the tracks that remain are arguably inferior to their original studio incarnations, with the possible exception of the mostly one-riff “The Knife,” which does take on more menace and madness here than it did when the founding Anthony Phillips-fortified version of the band recorded it on transitional album Trespass a couple of years earlier. Neither of these records really deserves to make it to the Sweet Sixteen of this tournament, but that’s what happens in these sorts of contests when luck of the draw kicks in. In a choice between soft options, I’m going to pick the single disc album over the double disc, since its shortcomings take less time to unfold, and there’s less badly recorded fluff. Winner: Genesis, Genesis Live.
So what do we have for the next round in my bracket? This:
Hawkwind, Space Ritual vs. Genesis, Genesis Live
Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet
Adding in Goat’s bracket from earlier today, results re-posted below, we now have half of our Sweet Sixteen selected:
MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour
Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous vs. Motörhead, No Sleep Till Hammersmith
We’ve still got Wilson and the Group Mind bracket to go on the road to the Sweet Sixteen, so keep an eye out on those alerts, as we will have more, soon, promise
PART EIGHT: WILSON’S SECOND ROUND
We’re going to finish the second round here in quick order, with Wilson’s Second Round picks this morning and the Group Mind picks this afternoon, filling up the Sweet Sixteen in the process. Here are Wilson’s next four blood baths en route to the Final Four Cage Match!
Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now vs. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills:
Cheap Thrills and It’s Too Late to Stop Now are two exceptionally good albums that capture the respective artists at creative peaks. Cheap Thrills was Big Brother and the Holding Company’s second album and would be their last with Janis Joplin, who then left to pursue her successful solo career. Similarly, “Guitarist John Platania says ‘[Morrison] had a funeral for a lot of his old songs on stage,” during the three-month tour with his eleven-piece band. “With Caledonia, he really got off on performing. There was definitely joy getting onstage at that point. That was a wonderful time for everybody. It was really like a family.’” (Wikipedia) Following the ‘funeral’ for his old songs, Morrison has pursued a successful career and continues to perform (and to release live albums of his new material from time to time).
One big difference between the two albums is that Cheap Thrills was heavily overdubbed in the studio after the fact to correct mistakes and to add body to the performances. On the other hand, per Wikipedia, “unlike most live rock albums, there was no studio overdubbing allowed by Morrison, which resulted in the exclusion of ‘Moondance’ from the album due to one wrong guitar note. Morrison strictly adhered to his concept of authenticity in presenting the live performance but his musical perfectionism prevented him from including ‘Moondance.’ ‘It’s common practice to go back and fix things, but not with Van,’ bass player David Hayes said, ‘I think that’s what makes it one of the best ever.’ It is thought to be one of the first live albums with no overdubs and the first live album to have string players.” Major kudos to Morrison for this.
On the other hand, while Cheap Thrills documents a single 1968 performance, It’s Too Late pulls the best takes from performances at the three different venues in 1973 and seamlessly presents them as a single show.
Cheap Thrills’ brilliant performances notwithstanding, chalk one up for artistic integrity. Winner: Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now.
The Rolling Stones, Got Live If You Want It vs. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke:
“Contractual obligation!” shrieks the Rolling Stones’ Got Live If You Want It. “We’re the best live band EVER, and don’t you forget it!” screams back the Dictators’ Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke.
Were 1981′s Fuck ‘Em pitted against the truly great Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, the second Rolling Stones’ live album, which came out a mere four years later than Got Live, this might be a real competition. But Fuck ‘Em’s performances slaughter 1966′s Got Live selections, which are marred by incessant teenage screams. In addition, Got Live isn’t all that live, since some of the “live” songs are really studio cuts to which those annoying teenage screams have been overdubbed. While we’re slagging the Stones, let it be known that they’ve released a staggering total of 18 different live albums during their fifty-year career. The Winner here (“I am RIGHT!”): The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke.
Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails vs. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Live Rust:
In 1979 Neil Young took live performances of the tunes from album Rust Never Sleeps, which had come out only half a year earlier, added live versions of some of his greatest hits, then released the shambling
confused hodgepodge as Live Rust. The problem? The original Rust Never Sleeps was already mostly a perfectly good live album (from which most audience noise had been removed).
Compare that to Happy Trails, Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1969 album of performances from Fillmores East and West. Their 27-minute epic version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” takes the original song, then stretches itself out through some breathtaking guitar wizardry, followed by a jaw-dropping bit of improvised audience call-and-response participation, then finally snaps itself back in place to reprise the original tune.
For daring to go where no band had gone before, and many have since tried to go again (though seldom so successfully), we can declare The Winner: Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails.
Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert vs. Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Eno and Nico, June 1, 1974
How do I admit this? I have never listened to the Kevin Ayers side of June 1, 1974. Why? I think I was irritated that he got a whole side all to himself and because I didn’t know any of his stuff already. I have been trying to rectify this but I can’t find my copy of the CD, Spotify doesn’t seem to have this album in its ever-annoying non-catalog, and Amazon doesn’t have samples of the album and the album isn’t in its MP3 store. What’s left? (I know, I know, this is all very “the dog ate my homework,” but it’s TRUE, and very frustrating to your diligent would-be reviewer). I suppose I should try iTunes… News flash: they don’t seem to have it either.
The other side I like a lot. A whole lot. “Baby’s On Fire,” in particular, sounds like it could tear your house down when it’s played at its proper volume (that would be “loud”).
So let’s give the Kevin Ayers side the benefit of the doubt – I rather liked other versions of the songs on his side that I came across on Spotify while searching for June 1. I can imagine getting into his side a whole lot if I could just freaking DO IT. So we’ll take that into account and rate his side of the record as pretty freaking awesome, since the side I DO know is pretty freaking awesome. So all in all, pretty high marks for this album!
But how to compare it to Bob Dylan’s legendary Royal Albert Hall from 1966? Well, let me be honest about that as well. I’m not sure I’ve listened to all of that either. The way the Dylan shows worked as he mutated from folkie Bob Dylan to max-amped electric Dylan is that he’d come out and do an acoustic set and then after a break he’d come out with the Hawks (pre-Band The Band) and rock out. Let’s put it this way: that acoustic stuff certainly didn’t wear out my CD player. I think I’d listen to at least a portion of the song, then fast foward to the next song. I’ve listened to the electric portion a lot, though, and that smokes; Dylan and the Hawks are on fire throughout. It’s that part of his concert that I’ll be basing my rating of the CD on.
There are a couple of factoids about the Royal Albert Hall album that every review of it seems obligated to trot out.
#1: This wasn’t actually a Royal Albert Hall show. It was actually a show at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall.
#2: Some jerk shouted out “Judas” during a pause at what would be almost the end of the electric set to express his displeasure at Dylan’s having “gone electric.” To which Dylan replied “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” And, to the band, “Play fucking loud!” at which point they launched into a killer version of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Final thought before the verdict. I’m surprised at how close this contest was! But, never mind the acoustic stuff; I’ve got to go with . . . The Winner: Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert.
This sets up the following pair of contests, after which Wilson will dub his final four representative:
Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert vs. Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails.
The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke vs. Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now
We will get that Group Mind post up later today, and show you the entire Sweet Sixteen at that point. From here on out, we will do a single post for each round, with each of the four brackets and their authors going literally head-to-head on a single screen. Stand by
PART NINE: THE GROUP MIND’S SECOND ROUND
At the end of this post, we will have a Sweet Sixteen field ready to play on our long and winding road toward naming the greatest live album ever. This post gets us down to four survivors in the “Group Mind” bracket, which is a consensus poll among the three writers, designed to be something of a check and balance to offset whatever weirdness we get up to in our own brackets. We each cast our votes in isolation, so there’s no ability to game play or negotiate to keep anything moving forward. And they’re off!
AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It vs. Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison:
- Wilson: When it’s stage blood versus real blood, we’ll go for the real thing every time. Vote: Johnny Cash.
- JES: At Folsom Prison is a legendary album from a conceptual standpoint, with the Man in Black playing a gig at a correctional facility he had immortalized in a song years earlier (“Folsom Prison Blues”) featuring that greatest of great gangster/thug lines: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” It’s raw and ragged, for sure, but have you really listened to it all the way through in a while? For every “Folsom Prison Blues” you also have to endure a “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.” For every “Cocaine Blues,” there’s a “Dirty Old Egg Suckin’ Dog” to undermine the menace. I’m sure this made things much, much, much more fun for the cons who experienced these shows in person, but they make this one hard for me to get through without a lot of skipping tracks. When you remove the awesome premise of this album, which you can’t really experience in your living room, it pales a bit, while If You Want Blood You’ve Got It stands a choice blast of the best bits of Bon Scott-era Acca Dacca. I’m going with the Aussies, though I suspect I will be over-ruled by the superior sanity of the group mind. Vote: AC/DC.
- Goat: This is a hateful, hateful contest, in part because it takes two acts I’ve always thought of as massively overrated and then, ironically, pits their best works against one another, so half of me is looking at this as a least-of-evils matchup and the other half is saying “oh, that’s why people like these guys”. And they are two pretty durned amazing sets, even if you don’t like the artists; matching up Cash’s version of “25 Minutes to Go” with, for example, “Rocker” makes my head hurt. Fortunately, however, there’s an easy distinction between the two: If You Want Blood… contains not a single cover, while Cash penned only five of At Folsom Prison‘s sixteen tracks. Bon Scott’s songs may have been juvenile party anthems, especially in comparison, but they were Bon Scott’s, and that’s gotta count for something. Vote: AC/DC.
- Winner: AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It
Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs and Englishmen:
- Wilson: The opening notes to “Intro/Sweet Jane” still give me goose-bumps. No contest. Vote: Lou Reed.
- JES: Mad Dogs and Englishmen is a sprawling (yet delightful) mess of a revue show, in which a collection of great tunes by an assortment of great writers are mauled and mangled into something that’s oddly quaint in its very, very, very Seventies-ish-ness. (How’s that for a word, huh?) . Rock and Roll Animal takes four great songs from the ’60s and reinvents them as proto-metal, right on the cusp of pre-punk, with some post-this and trans-that and something-esque qualities all abounding. It’s a mess, too, but it’s a tight mess, and that makes a difference. Vote: Lou Reed.
- Goat: Lou Reed shuffled off this mortal coil recently, which makes Rock and Roll Animal something of a nostalgia pick. On the other hand, if I’m going to ding Johnny Cash for having only written five-sixteenths of At Folsom Prison, how can I possibly vote down Rock and Roll Animal based on Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which if memory serves doesn’t contain a single original music composition? (Yes, verified at Wikipedia.) But on the other hand, Reed’s album kind of feels like a stripped-down Velvet Underground, while Cocker’s is this amazing amalgam of lounge orchestra and muzak(TM) that really sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard, I don’t think. But then, after turning this one over in my head for not nearly as long as I would have liked, uniqueness is not always as praiseworthy as it seems, at first; Reed’s style fits the music he’s performing better than Cocker’s fits his, mayhap. A wild and grand experiment, but perhaps not as good as Lou’s. Vote: Lou Reed.
- Winner: Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal
James Brown, Live at the Apollo vs. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense:
- Wilson: “As we get older and stop making sense” makes all SORTS of sense these days. Vote: Talking Heads.
- JES: As with At Folsom Prison above, the mythology behind James Brown’s Live at the Apollo is formidable: Brown paid out of his own pocket to record this show at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, his record label did not want to release it, but eventually relented, and found itself with an unexpected chart sensation, demand greatly out-stripping supply, creating a market hunger for the album which fanned people’s sense of it being special. But listen to the original release now, with what you know (and think you know) about James Brown and his lifetime worth of music, and it sounds a bit slight and short (31 minutes) and forced compared to that which followed. Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense is in many ways the quintessential ’80s concert movie (you see David Byrne in his big suit when you think about, don’t you?), but it’s soundtrack actually sounds better these days than I think it did in its time: it’s not soulful, per se, but the funk is as hard and fresh as anything on Live at the Apollo, and the sound is much richer throughout. I will probably lose my music critic license for this, but I’m going with Stop Making Sense. Vote: Talking Heads.
- Goat: Bloody hell, I thought the first one was bad. I’m going to wimp out here. Talking Heads were already A Thing by the time of Stop Making Sense. Live at the Apollo was Brown’s defining moment, the point at which he became A Thing, in the process changing soul music forevermore, and so we’ve gotta go with Vote: James Brown.
- Winner: Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense.
Stooges, Metallic K.O. vs. Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan:
- Wilson: For being the more repeatably listenable collection of tunes, I go with Live at Budokan. Vote: Cheap Trick.
- JES: No contest, I voted against Metallic K.O. as a shrill and unlistenable mess in the first round, and it hasn’t gotten any better in the past week. Live at Budokan is a classic example of how a great live album can take a so-so studio band and turn them into superstars. That sense of on-stage transcendence what this contest is all about to me. Vote: Cheap Trick.
- Goat: Hello There, Eric, will you just Surrender this obsession you have with Cheap Trick? Come On, Come On. Seriously, though, I remain unabated in my love for Metallic K.O., not necessarily because of the music but because, as a musician who works in a format that is, shall we say, not fit for consumption of the public at large, I can identify so strongly with both the audience’s reaction to the show and, more importantly, Iggy’s reaction to the audience (man, I wish I could pull off half the stuff he does there). MKO is less a live album in my eyes than it is a live document of a particularly nasty night in a bar, and I adore it. Vote: The Stooges.
- Winner: Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan.
And there we go, we now have a Sweet Sixteen field, with contests and brackets listed below:
- Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert vs. Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails.
- The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke vs. Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now.
- Hawkwind, Space Ritual vs. Genesis, Genesis Live.
- Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet.
- MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour.
- Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous vs. Motörhead, No Sleep ’til Hammersmith.
GROUP MIND REGIONAL:
- Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan vs. AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It.
- Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense.
As with the real NCAA Basketball Tournaments from which this series takes its structure, we’ll have a brief pause between this round and the next cluster of events, because I’ll be away from the computer until Sunday. The next post will feature all four of us contributing to take sixteen to eight, and then a similar post to take eight to four, so you don’t get a bunch of increasingly small posts from each of us. The final four is done round robin style: each of us will write about each of the surviving albums, but in different head to head pairings. It will make sense when you see it. Thanks for reading this far, and here’s looking forward to the increasingly tight contests as we move forward!
PART TEN: THE SWEET SIXTEEN
Okay, we’re back . . . did you miss us? (If not, we don’t need to know, thanks). Now that we’re down to 16 contenders left in our group grope drive toward naming the greatest live album ever, Wilson, Goat and I will be consolidating our contributions into single posts from here on out. Counting the one you are reading now, there are three posts left: a round of 16, a round of 8, and the Final Four. As a refresher for those who have not regularly followed these sorts of critical contests at Indie Moines or its predecessor sites, I handle Final Fours round robin style, with each contender getting a crack at every other one in a series of six head-to-head matches, and with ties allowed. Winners get two point, ties get one point, losses get zero points, and which ever album comes out of the round robin with the most points is declared the winner. If we have a tie, we go to sudden death, generally on a song-by-song basis, if the sizes and configurations of the albums allows it. If not, we’ll go with the “group mind” option to pick a winner between a final pair. With three writers involved, each of us will handle two head-to-heads in the Round Robin Final Four fray, so it will be an interesting process to see where the consensus can be found, this deep into the tournament. And now . . . it’s showtime!
(16) MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. (5) Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour: If you had told me when Eric handed out our assignments that the MC5 and Rory Gallagher would be facing off in the quarterfinals after going up against, collectively, Blue Öyster Cult, Queen, Deep Purple, and Traffic, I’d have laughed at you. But as I learned while doing Desert Island Disc last year, things have a way of creeping up and surprising you in contests like this. I hadn’t heard Kick Out the Jams in decades before this, and it has been quite a welcome renewal of acquaintance indeed. And then there’s Rory Gallagher, who I always kind of thought of as the spiritual father to folks like Gary Moore, without ever thinking much about Gallagher himself; there’s a great deal of fun to be had with Irish Tour, and that’s not even getting into all of the political meta surrounding the album (Wikipedia has a great overview of all that if you’re interested, I’m just here to talk about the music). All that said, I had to take a couple of days off from writing earlier this week, and so who was currently up against who at the time had slipped my mind. I was thinking about Irish Tour by itself. While the explosion of the bloated, ultra-expanded double-live album is often attributed to the incredible success of Frampton Comes Alive! in 1976 (you’ll notice it didn’t make the Final 64 here, though if I recall it was bandied about in the original list of nominees at some point), a number of artists were already codifying the conventions of the double-live before Frampton’s release. We’ve already dispensed with Deep Purple in the previous round. As much as I hate to say it, I alluded briefly to Gallagher’s part in same while he was garrotting Ian Gillen and co. last time out; this is another of those double-lives that’s got one or two cuts per side. That Gallagher arguably does it better than anyone else who ever did it, and that Gallagher was doing it years before it got cool, does nothing to mitigate the flood of pale imitators who came after, and it’s kind of hard to wash off that residue. I know, I know, guilt by association isn’t a valid reason to do, well, anything really, but one has to find a chink in the armor somewhere. In comparison, Kick Out the Jams is the long, lean lion of the competition, one of the few single-lives, full of punk, blues, psychedelia, and what we would call today power pop, a mixed bag of tasty morsels that’s got a little something to please just about everyone (except, it seems, Lester Bangs). The under-est of the underdogs makes the Elite Eight. Winner: MC5, Kick Out the Jams.
(3) Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous vs. (2) Motörhead, No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith: Unlike the matchup above, this one feels like it was destined from the moment the assignments were given, with two of the seventies’ (and eighties’) mightiest vocalists, each with, arguably, the best incarnation of the band behind them that ever was, competing for the privilege of taking on The Little MC5 that Could. Both of these bands have become cultural icons; is there anyone in the civilized world who can’t hum the chorus of “The Boys Are Back in Town”? And there are certainly thousands of times more people who know “read ‘em and weep, the dead man’s hand again” than actually know how to play poker dice. (I’m a poker player and I don’t know how to play poker dice.) That said, it has always seemed to me, just through my entirely unscientific (and probably highly selective) powers of observation, that Thin Lizzy has a much broader appeal than Motörhead ever did; the differences between the two bands are the best illustration of the difference between hard rock and heavy metal extant. The other piece of meta that’s got me thinking here is what happened after the incarnations of the bands that recorded these albums splintered; Gary Moore, especially, remained amicable with Lynott, to the point where Lynott’s final recording before his untimely death was guest vocals on Moore’s “Out in the Fields”, while the some of the acrimony that led to the breakup of the “classic” Motörhead lineup still remains thirty years later. (You also have to think “Gary Moore’s solo career vs. Fastway” here to get where my head is at, and I say that as one of maybe four remaining Fastway fans on the planet.) On the other side of lady justice’s balance is that Thin Lizzy lived fast, (literally in Lynott’s case) died young, and left a beautiful corpse, while Motörhead has endured, and in fact turned out two of the best albums of their career in 2010 and 2013 despite Lemmy’s increasing health problems. None of this has to do with these particular albums but, as we have learned all too well, it’s impossible to look at these things in any pristine sort of way after so many years. If you just look at the albums, even trying to put all that aside, I’d have to flip a coin. I remarked to someone earlier today that one of the reasons I didn’t nominate too much stuff for the initial list is because I knew that the chances of any of my nominees making the final 64 were minuscule (my favorite live album is Merzbow’s immortal Akasha Gulva from 1996, an album maybe two thousand people worldwide have ever heard, maybe half of those more than once)—but Live and Dangerous and No Sleep Till Hammersmith are two of the albums that DID make the final 64 that would’ve been on my short shelf of nominees. So the deciding factor… which one do I actually like more? That is, of course, a very personal thing, but having dumped both Rush and Yes in the last round in deference to the public taste, I feel kind of justified in sending Messrs. Lynott and Moore to the sidelines and reveling in being one of the Road Crew. Winner: Motörhead, No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith.
Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert vs. Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails: There’s no doubt that side one of Quicksilver’s live masterpiece Happy Trails is a mind-bending tour de force. It starts with the menace of Bo Diddley’s original all-time date-rate song, then ventures into guitar solos, improvised audience call-and-response, then snaps back into place 20-some minutes after the original “Who Do You Love?” for a reprise of that original barely-contained threat. But then there’s Dylan’s historic masterpiece, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert, widely bootlegged for a good 40 years before seeing its official release, all cleaned up and sounding great. For its historic importance, and great, great live performances, I’ve got to go with Dylan’s disc here. Winner: Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert.
The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke vs. Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now: The Dictators’ live shtick is the grin-inducing gimmick to beat all others, with the exception, perhaps, of Redd Kross, whom I’ve seen probably as many times as I’ve seen the Dictators. Still, at the end of the day, it IS shtick, as much fun as it is. It’s Too Late to Stop Now is something else entirely: a live resume of Morrison’s greatest hits, presented with an integrity that prompted Morrison to eschew ANY studio overdubs and present the album as the flawless record of his work that it is. You can sense Morrison saying good-bye to his classic songs as best he can, with no eye yet looking forward to where his muse would lead him next. I have loved this album for a good 45 years and still welcome it when it shows up in random play on iTunes or my iPod. For sheer artistic honesty and because it has worn so well for so long, I go with Van Morrison. Winner: Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now.
Hawkwind, Space Ritual vs. Genesis, Genesis Live: If you’ve been following along from the beginning, then there should be no surprises in this match. Genesis have advanced twice in the face of weak competition, despite the fact that their first live album is weaker than most of their studio albums at the time, in large part because it can’t capture the visuals that were so crucial to the band’s development at this point. Hawkwind had awesome onstage visuals, too, (their pioneering lighting producer, Jonathan “Liquid Len” Smeeton, was actually name checked in a later Genesis song, “The Battle of Epping Forest”), but when you strip those away, you are still left with two powerful slabs of churning rock and roll, not to mention an album cover design (by the legendary Barney Bubbles) that makes Genesis Live look twee and cheap in comparison. I didn’t get ‘em out by Friday, but this is Genesis’ final Monday among these increasingly august survivors. Winner: Hawkwind, Space Ritual.
Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet: This contest, on the other, is shockingly tough for me. I’ve been listening to a lot of Little Feat of late, focusing mainly on their studio albums, which in critical consensus have always taken a back seat to the live spectacle that is Waiting for Columbus. I’ve generally always felt that way myself, but with a few decades of perspective, I have to admit that the studio versions of a lot of the Columbus tracks actually sound a lot better to me now than their live counterparts. Little Feat were on the last legs of their original Lowell George-fronted run when Waiting for Columbus was recorded and released; George had effectively checked out creatively on the prior two studio albums, and wasn’t quite the live monster that he’d been in younger, healthier days. While the Feat were originally based in California, Washington, DC and London, England, were the cities where they enjoyed their greatest commercial renown and success, so it’s no accident that the Columbus sessions were recorded in those locales to tap that energy. Audience enthusiasm notwithstanding, though, there’s no denying that some of the punchier songs in the Feat canon get a little drifty and wifty in these extended jam versions, and that some of the group harmonies that work in the studio got a bit ragged onstage. Little Feat were regarded as a great live band for so long, I think, that once they managed to get a live album out, it was going to be considered their greatest achievement, no matter what it sounded like, especially when it also served as their sole (at the time) greatest hits collection. So it’s good, for sure, but is it one of the eight greatest ever? Ennhhhh . . . I’m not so sure. Live Bullet offers a seasoned on-stage pro (Bob Seger had more than a decade of touring under his belt, not to mention eight studio albums, before he recorded this set), taking it to the stage with a phenomenal, fresh, new band, playing tight and hungry for a real hometown audience at Cobo Hall in Detroit. And listening to this album all these years on, I’ve got to tell you: The Silver Bullet Band is on fire here, with special kudos due to Robyn Robins’ killer organ work, which makes the whole thing sound like a monster truck rally held in a skating rink. And that’s awesome, as surprising as it is to me to admit it, since I have long touted Live Bullet‘s version of “Turn the Page” as one of the ickiest of the “woe is me, I am such a poor suffering rock star” cohort of songs, and I think that has colored my view of this albums as a whole, significantly, over the years. Side by side, though, in 2014, there’s far less of a contest here than I ever would have expected when we started working on this project a few weeks ago. Color me surprised, but we’ve got to declare Little Feat as the beautiful loser in this particular match. Winner: Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet.
GROUP MIND REGIONAL:
Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan vs. AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It:
- Wilson: Live at Budokan is such a monster: critically, chart-wise, and in terms of listenability. Vote: Cheap Trick.
- Goat: There aren’t going to be any surprises here on my end, since if you’ll recall I voted AC/DC up and Cheap Trick down in the last round, and nothing has happened to change my mind; AC/DC now has a contender on their level. They didn’t have home-field advantage last time, so they look even stronger to me now. Vote: AC/DC.
- JES: This one’s tougher for me than I would have expected, since Budokan is so very well known and popular, and Want Blood is, uh, not, for the most part, outside of Acca Dacca-friendly circles. Listening to these albums back to back is pretty revelatory, though, as Cheap Trick are playing to a crowd of enthusiastic Japanese teenagers (some perhaps dressed in school uniforms), and AC/DC (whose guitarist was definitely dressed in school uniform) is playing to a crowd of enthusiastic Australian bar punters, and there’s a palpable, visceral difference in the how those two audiences respond, and which one is far more rock and roll, in the best and worst sense of that phrase. Cheap Trick were big in Japan because they offered accessible hooks, a cute front line and a couple of cartoon character types on drums and guitars; they were all mighty talented, sure, but they were capitalizing on the same confusion in cultural consciousness that also allowed Angel to become Japanese superstars at the time. AC/DC, on the other hand, played rock and roll like a universal language, and they were ugly, and grotty, and spotty, and mean, and oh so very powerful and, did we mention, ugly. Like, to the point where you can hear it on the album, okay? That’s impressive. Vote: AC/DC.
- Winner: AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It.
Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense:
- Wilson: The phrase “Best Live Album Ever” sounds so right when it’s paired with Rock n’ Roll Animal. Vote: Lou Reed.
- Goat: This one’s a good deal more interesting, since post-Velvets Lou Reed and pre-solo David Byrne came from, basically, two different parts of the art-rock background (next person to call VU “punk” in my hearing gets a fist in the teeth, and yes, Legs, that includes you), and approached composition from what have always seemed to me to be wildly different ways; Talking Heads were always about bringing in diverse musical and cultural influences, everything from French pop to Afrobeat to even a smidge of disco here and there to create that tasty Talking Heads stew, while Reed’s essence of composition always struck me as aggressively solipsistic. Even if it’s not all autobiographical, the way Reed frames it, the intimacy of it, screams “this happened to me, you bastards, and you need to listen to it.” You put “Swamp” up against “Heroin” (High, high high high high high . . . HIGH!”) and bang. (And I kind of hate, even if it did show up on the 15th anniversary edition, that “Genius of Love” didn’t make the cut the first time around and “Take Me to the River” did, y’know?) I said a number of times while doing Desert Island Disc that that decision I was staring at depended on my mood on the day I was making that decision, and that applies here . . . an optimistic day would see me reaching for Talking Heads, but it’s grey and two degrees below zero and I’m closer to moving to goddamned New Mexico than I have ever been, and so . . . Vote: Lou Reed.
- JES: No contest here: Stop Making Sense was very much a polished, calculated product tied in with a slick and glossy (and, admittedly, very entertaining) film release designed to both reach existing fans and make additional friends. Rock n’ Roll Animal is something of an ugly deconstruction of some already ugly Velvet Underground songs, all slathered with more guitar wang-dang-doodling than anybody would ever dare attempt in a studio. No holds barred + no safety nets + no common sense = Masterpiece. Vote: Lou Reed.
- Winner: Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal.
And then there were eight, so when next we return we’ll process the following contests to get ourselves down to an awesome Final Four, and then it’ll be Round Robin time. Here’s the awesome eight-some left standing:
MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. Motörhead, No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith.
Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now vs. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert.
Hawkwind, Space Ritual vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet.
GROUP MIND REGIONAL:
Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It.
PART ELEVEN: THE ELITE EIGHT
At the end of today’s post, we’ll be down to our Final Four contestants in this long-form contest to identify the greatest live album ever, and that means there’s only one more post beyond this one until we have a winner. As we begin tidying up for final debates and declarations, I wanted to take a minute to comment on the title of this series: “Let’s Take It to the Stage.” I swiped it from a wonderful Funkadelic album, thinking that it sort of perfectly embodied what live records are all about: documenting that urge to get up in front of other people and do your thing, whatever it may be. So why didn’t we include this album in the contest? Because despite its title, and despite popular misconception, it’s actually a studio record, not a live disc. Go figure, eh? Okay, that done, uh . . . let’s take it to the stage!
JES REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: Hawkwind, Space Ritual vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet: I honestly can’t believe how much I am struggling with this choice, since I’ve long held Space Ritual as an epic example of a wildly innovative band’s best work, while Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band made it into the second round of my Worst Rock Band Ever survey (the first in this series), in large part based on my antipathy to the sentiments expressed in “Turn the Page” from Live Bullet. So it should be a no-brainer, but it’s not. And that’s what I love about doing these contests: they force me to go back and listen to things that I never would otherwise, and sometimes those things rock me in ways that they didn’t when I first encountered them. And when you get right down to it, while “Turn the Page” is certainly the worst piece of cheese on Live Bullet, Hawkwind offer multiple slices of period ridiculousness via Robert Calvert’s groaned and intoned spoken word bits, so I can’t really ding Bob Seger and crew for that. I’d give the nod for riffs to Hawkwind, just because the Lemmy-King-Brock rhythm section is so amazing, but I’ll give the keyboard and guitar titles to the Silver Bullet Band, because Robyn Robins’ awesome swirling organ and Drew Abbot’s tasty lead six-string work demonstrate a degree of proficiency and talent that the formless (though interesting) synthesizer squalls of Dik Mik and Del Dettmar lack. On the woodwind front, the Silver Bullets decimate the Hawks: Alto Reed is a sax genius and, to put it bluntly, Nik Turner is not, and his mostly tuneless “blaaats” get a bit old before Space Ritual runs it course. Wow. I’m really going to do this. Turn the page, indeed. Winner: Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet.
WILSON REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now vs. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert: Short and sweet: as much as I love Bob Dylan, I think my respect for Van Morrison’s entry is leading me to choose it as my Final Four pick. Yup. Winner: Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now.
GOAT REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: MC5′s Kick Out the Jams vs. Motörhead’s No Sleep ’til Hammersmith: Everything I’ve covered about these two albums is almost identical—the influences, the incredible lineup of artists who comprised the band at that point in time, the cultural-icon status that has accreted to the bands over time. The one difference takes this last battle of mine in a direction I never expected; from the time I got the sixteen albums I was covering, I knew in the bottom of the black little heart that either Some Enchanted Evening or No Sleep ’til Hammersmith was going to end up being my contribution to the final four . . . nd the same album ended up taking out both. Not only that, but for exactly the same reason. Some Enchanted Evening is a paragon of the American hard-rock sound circa the mid-seventies from perhaps its finest purveyors of that time. No Sleep ’til Hammersmith is identical, save substituting “British heavy metal”. But both of these albums were recorded before the bands in question started branching out and experimenting with their sound (Motörhead’s surprising, and surprisingly effective, ballad “1916”, for example). MC5, on the other hand, sprung out of the gate with a sound that managed to be as hard as either, but with so much more versatility that, listening to Kick Out the Jams over forty years later, it’s difficult to believe all that music was performed by the same band, much less in the course of two successive nights. And thus it is that the album that I thought had the slimmest chance of surviving the first round . . . is my contribution to the Final Four. Indie Moines Shadow Government, I submit for your consideration as the Greatest Live Album of All Time . . . . Winner: MC5, Kick Out the Jams.
GROUP MIND REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. AC/DC, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It:
- Goat: Ouch. This comes down to the album’s vibe more than anything. Rock n’ Roll Animal is ominous, visceral, almost atavistic, where If You Want Blood is so upbeat, in comparison. I’m like the Academy. Gravitas usually takes it over comedy. As much as 98% of me thinks I should be voting If You Want Blood because someone has to, but I have to go with Vote: Lou Reed.
- JES: If You Want Blood is a great introduction to AC/DC’s Bon Scott era, as it really demonstrates how nobody has ever merged leering, sneering and guitar careering quite as well as Australia’s finest did at the peak of their powers. The recording and audience response on this album are great, too, and they palpably elevate the oomph that these already solid songs packed on their source studio albums, even if they don’t do much by way of reinvention or refreshing. Rock n’ Roll Animal, on the other hand, takes what were then some pretty obscure songs by a then pretty obscure little band called the Velvet Underground (note well that Lou Reed had actually left the band by the time classics like “Sweet Jane” and “Rock n’ Roll” were originally issued on the Loaded album), and it turns them into something completely different by giving them the most over-the-top guitar noodling treatment imaginable, then or now. Somehow, though, it works in ways that logic will never capture, so when we celebrate the transformative power of live performance and audio documents thereof, we have to give Lou his due for not only attempting such an audacious demolition of these songs’ original settings, but for succeeding, somehow, in the process. Vote: Lou Reed.
- Wilson: It’s Lou Fucking Reed and to the best of my knowledge I’ve never heard AC/DC. (Ha ha ha, but really, I hope Lou makes it). Vote: Lou Reed.
- Winner: Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal.
And there we go, we have an amazing Final Four, as follows:
Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal
MC5, Kick Out the Jams
Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet
Now here comes the fun part: in the next round, we will consider every possible pairing of these four records (there are six of them, so two each for Goat, Wilson and I), and in each pairing, we will pick a winner, or we will deem them equally awesome and call it a tie, if no clear winner emerges as we listen and consider the offerings. Winners will be awarded two points, ties will give each album one point each, losers will get no points. Whoever emerges with the most points will be dubbed the winner, in the case of a tie, we’ll either do a song by song sudden death (if the number of songs are similar enough to make that work), or simply go with a Group Mind vote, if we have only two to choose from. The pairings for the Final Four Round Robin are as follows:
- Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now
- MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet
- Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet
- MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now
- Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. MC5, Kick Out the Jams
- Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet
Is the tension palpable yet? It is for the three of us . . . so stay tuned for the final report, coming to this space soon
PART TWELVE: THE WINNER
The time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of many things. Of Lou and Van and Sonic Smith, and songs Bob Seger sings. After eleven posts and thousands of words, Wilson, Goat and I will conduct a round robin review of four final surviving albums, and at the end of this piece, we’ll doff our collective caps at the record deemed the greatest live album ever by our ever-so-rigorous, if equally non-scientific, bracket elimination process. Here are the contenders:
Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal
MC5, Kick Out the Jams
Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet
Before we parse the Final Four in these sorts of contests, I always like to step back and get a sense of the last albums standing on a macro basis, to see if any themes or parallels emerge. Here are some quick observations:
- We certainly can get a sense that there was a glory age for live albums: three of these records were recorded and released between 1973 and 1976, with MC5 as the only slight outlier (recorded in 1968, released in 1969).
- Two of the four (Bob Seger and MC5) were recorded in Detroit (hometown for both artists), while Lou’s album was recorded in New York (of course), and Van Morrison’s album assembled songs from shows in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and London.
- Rock n’ Roll Animal is the only one of these discs with songs taken from a single concert; Live Bullet and Kick Out the Jams culled best bits of two-night stands, while It’s Too Late to Stop Now included songs from seven nights of performances spread over a two month touring span.
- There are two double-live albums and two single disc sets in this group; I’d have actually expected more double lives, since they were such a stock feature of the era represented by these discs. (For what it’s worth, other recordings from the same concert that generated Rock n’ Roll Animal were released a couple of years later as Lou Reed Live, so that one woulda coulda shoulda been a double from the git-go).
- The MC5 are the only nominal “band of equals” in the contest at this point, with the other three albums representing solo artists fronting subsidiary backing groups.
- That being said, those three artists were at very different places with their groups when these albums were released: It’s Too Late To Stop Now marked the end of an era for Van Morrison, as he disbanded his extraordinary Caledonia Soul Orchestra soon after its release; Live Bullet found Bob Seger’s still relatively new Silver Bullet Band demonstrating their ample chops on the first of what would be a long series of mega-platinum albums; and Lou Reed’s Rock n’ Roll Animal band was essentially a short-lived pick up group (most of whose members later became Alice Cooper’s second great band), as guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner appeared on only one prior Reed studio album, and the rhythm section of Pentti Glan and Prakash John appeared on one later one, with this being the only time they actually all appeared together with Lou.
As noted earlier, Wilson, Goat and I will each review two pairings of these final four albums, and will either deem them ties in excellence (one point awarded to each), or name a winner between them (two points for the better album, zero points for the lesser). Whatever record ends up with the most points will be declared the Greatest Live Album ever, unless we have a tie, in which case we will go to sudden death playoff scenarios.
And with that behind us, let’s finish this thing!
GOAT: Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. MC5, Kick Out the Jams: Might as well start out with the skull-crushingly hard one. Kick Out the Jams has met a lot of worthy opponents on its road to the final four, but none so worthy as Rock and Roll Animal. There’s been a recent corruption in the language where people think “seminal” is a synonym for “important”, but here’s a case where you can pull out the classic meaning of the word for both of these and get away with it; Kick Out the Jams is the Homo Erectus that sits between psych and punk, while Rock and Roll Animal took all that drug-soaked stuff that was coming out of New York City and plastered it with Guitar God(TM). This is a case where I’m glad I have this option. Tie: Lou Reed = 1 point, MC5 = 1 point.
GOAT: Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet: And then there’s the easy one. Bob Seger? While (I know this is heresy, but…) It’s Too Late to Stop Now, to me, came out about fifteen years before Van Morrison was doing his best work, there’s not a single track on this album that doesn’t wipe the floor with “Turn the Page.” Winner: Van Morrison = 2 points, Bob Seger = 0 points.
WILSON: MC5, Kick Out the Jams vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet: Kick Out the Jams was recorded in 1968 when it was becoming clear that Peace and Love weren’t enough to effect the revolution that hippies had set their sights on. Unlike so many live albums, this was not a collection of studio numbers trotted out for a live run-through. This was conceived as a live national debut and was groundbreaking in that respect. The MC5 hoped for mainstream success but they weren’t about to compromise their passionate but somewhat misplaced radical ideals in order to achieve that, and weren’t averse to pissing off the very record labels who likewise hoped for their success. Kick Out the Jams was also a sort of public announcement of John Sinclair’s White Panther party: “rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.” Fueled by the 1967 riots in Detroit and Newark, the MC5 were completely unapologetic. They wanted to change the system and they weren’t opposed to violent rhetoric to get there. Compare that to Live Bullet. Though likewise a Michigan act, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet band were in 1976, eight years after the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, veering toward a mainstream acceptance that is, to me, repugnant. Bob Seger smoothed out his blue-collar Detroit roots while the MC5 celebrated them — the very name “MC5″ was devised to stand both for “Motor City Five,” but also sounded just like a car part. The vote? No contest. Winner: MC5 = 2 points, Bob Seger = 0 points.
WILSON: Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now: Throughout 1974, fueled by generous quantities of speed and alcohol, Lou Reed made a mockery of himself and everything he’d ever done previously in every performance he gave. Grotesque? Terrifying? The mesh shirt he wore to do this certainly was, not to mention the dance moves and vocal mannerisms. “Do I look like Mick Jagger?” he wondered. Well no, you look like a jackrabbit with electrodes inserted in your brain, twitching and jerking in a way that correlates not a whit with the music playing behind you. The fact that the guy was still alive and somewhat sensible was quite the miracle. In 1974, he’d been justifiably disappointed that Berlin wasn’t recognized as the masterpiece that most everybody now agrees it is. So he found the edge and went way beyond it, night after night. One of the many reasons we loved him. Compare this to Van Morrison, who around the same time period (1973, in his case) was likewise saying goodbye to his back catalog in a series of live performances. Van the Man and his “Caledonia Soul Orchestra” quite confidently ran through his formidable back catalog, sprinkled with a generous helping of covers of the music that had influenced him. I’ve loved this album for a good 40 years and have thoroughly enjoyed revisiting it for the last few days. The vote? Tie: Van Morrison = 1 point, Lou Reed = 1 point.
JES: Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal vs. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet: I’m still amazed that I’m this deep into this tournament thing, and still writing about Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. Back when Live Bullet and its studio follow-on, Night Moves, were burning up the charts, the cultural contrarian in me actively, vehemently disdained the punchy, accessible Detroit Rock n’ Roll these guys peddled, just as I equally vehemently disdained the schlocky New Jersey rock for which Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were winning critical and commercial plaudits. At the time, I put Bruce and Bob in the same category: histrionic, herniated singers with studio smooth support players who used their adequate chops to play the sorts of lowest common denominator stuff that makes drinks flow and fists fly in bars around the world. Ho hum. But when I went back and grabbed Live Bullet a few weeks ago, all these years on, I actually found it to be fun, and energetic, and memorable, with some excellent instrumental performances, great pacing, and a surprisingly strong selection of songs. So I brought it with me to the Final Four, and here I am writing about it. Unfortunately, as much as I am believer in dancing with the one who brung ya’, the seemingly unstoppable momentum that Bob Seger and his Silver Bullet Boys have demonstrated to me thus far now runs smack into the immovable block of elemental guitar band weirdness that is Lou Reed’s Rock n’ Roll Animal. This album didn’t sell millions, and didn’t pander to a rabid existing hometown audience (it was recorded at home, but nobody really cared), and didn’t feature a strong, road-tested band, and didn’t give any valid cross-section of Lou Reed’s career to date as a songwriter, and didn’t offer the obligatory second disc, and really pushed none of the buttons that live albums are supposed to push — other than providing a transcendent, one-night only peak into an ad hoc band that played the gig of a lifetime, just this once, and which was blessedly, fortunately, recorded for posterity’s sake, world without end, amen. The Group Mind got this one right, so since I’m one-third of that, I’m going to take partial credit, and dance with Lou instead of Bob. Even though Bob has better rhythm and nicer hair. Winner: Lou Reed = 2 points, Bob Seger = 0 points.
JES: Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now vs MC5, Kick Out the Jams: I must admit that I’ve also long lumped Van Morrison into that group of herniated singers (with Seger, Springsteen and others) who write the sorts of songs that solo acoustic guitar guys always play in cheesy bar music settings, since nothing gets the juices flowing like a little “Gloria” or “Night Moves” or “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Born to Run” or “Turn the Page” or “Glory Days” or whatever. Toss some John “Cougar” Mellencamp in there and maybe a Don Henley song or two, and hey, you might even get to talk to some girls while you chest bump your bros over the quality of the $1.00 draft beers. And, yeah, I know that’s unfair to Van Morrison, since I don’t think he intended his canon to become lowest common denominator bar fare, even though many of its highlights have. All that being said: when it became apparent to me that It’s Too Late to Stop Now was likely to go deep in this tournament, I grabbed a copy and have been spinning it to see if it, too, breaks through with the older and/or more senile me than the younger and/or more stupid me that dismissed it, all those years ago, the way that Live Bullet did. At bottom line: it did not, although I do better appreciate why people like this album as much as they do. It’s a good record, indeed, well played and well sequenced, but somehow it just doesn’t move me, though at least that’s better than actively annoying me, the way that guys (and Patti Smith) covering Van’s songs always do. I first heard Kick Out the Jams in a particularly inappropriate way: during an elementary school summer camp, when a counselor I admired used to spin this disc and Steppenwolf’s Monster over and over and over again. While I certainly wasn’t the likely target for either of those politically-motivated platters (one inspired, one clunky), they did lodge themselves in my subconsciousness, and they did give me an early sense that being rebellious and contrarian and questioning authority and fighting the power were all pretty cool approaches to life. In fact, you could probably draw a straight line from that summer at camp to the instinct that led me to dismiss Springsteen, and Morrison, and Seger, and Mellencamp, and so many others, when they first spun into my spheres of comprehension. That’s a lingering life lesson — even if occasionally I’ve missed something I might have actually liked — so since I turned my back on Detroit’s entry in the prior pairing, I’m going to give the Motor City Five the love they deserve in this one, just to retain some shred of my contrarian core dignity. Winner: MC5 = 2 points, Van Morrison = 0 points.
And that’s all she wrote. Or all we wrote, anyway. Which means it’s time to tally the points, to see if we have a winner:
Lou Reed, Rock n’ Roll Animal: 4 POINTS
MC5, Kick Out the Jams: 5 POINTS
Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now: 3 POINTS
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Live Bullet: 0 POINTS
And, so, yes indeed, there’s no sudden death round required, as we can happily report that our independent due diligence has resulted in the following outcome:
MC5′s KICK OUT THE JAMS
IS THE GREATEST LIVE ALBUM EVER!
And that’s that, for now! Thanks so much to Wilson and Goat for sharing this undertaking. It’s been fun to add some different perspectives into a process that usually turns into a navel gazing exercise for me, and it’s also nice to get to the end of one of these things without feeling like my brain and typing fingers have to be retired for a few weeks to recover. I will go back through all of these pieces in the next day or two and create an archive version incorporating all of the files into a single post, in proper chronological order, so it can be readily consumed from beginning to end without backwards scrolling. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little diversion, and welcome suggestions on what you might want to see the next time I (or we) attempt to boil 64 albums, artists or things down into a brightly shining standalone champion!