Before we even started putting together an epic, three-part list of the greatest live albums ever made, we decided we needed to ask an expert just what made a great live album. So we called on Slash.
“When I was a kid coming up and I didn’t have any money, I used to steal live albums from Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard,” the guitarist told us. “Back then, the way I’d get to know a band was through their live records, because as far as I was concerned that was the best representation of any rock’n’roll band: Cheap Trick’s At Budokan, Aerosmith’s Live Bootleg…
“What makes a great live album? They should be honest and sincere. They should be mixed well, but they shouldn’t be over-produced or toyed with too much. Feel and energy are essential to a live record – that’s what the listener needs to pick up on. It needs to translate that fucking energy. Live, the tempo is picked up, there’s feedback, there’s the nuances and little ad-libs that singers bring into a live performance. I think mistakes are great. Even some out-of-tune stuff is great because there’s emotional content, y’know, and that’s not always on a studio record.
“And nowadays? I don’t know… Is there a big live record out right now? I think most artists in the millennium tend to suck because they spend too much time and energy in the studio making things sound right; they don’t want to be heard live. That’s just my observation. But back then live albums were great.”
How can we disagree with Slash? Simple answer is that we can’t. So with that in mind, these are the live albums that changed history…
Cream – Wheels Of Fire (1968)
Wilfully schizophrenic, Cream were a jazz group in blues rockers’ clothing: conventional in the studio in terms of their structured, verse-chorus-verse tunes; bulldozing the envelope live and taking those same songs – and rock music itself – to places neither had been before. On stage, their improvisational flights of fancy went deep into what had until then been fenced-off jazz territory.
Before Cream, rock bands playing live mostly just ran through their songs as written or as structured on record. Wheels Of Fire – just four tracks, just 44 minutes and 12 seconds – changed all that, sparking a gold-rush of musicians wanting to head down the same roads and stake a claim. Epic Ginger Baker showcase Toad was a rock drummer’s wet dream; the sprawling Spoonful was outrageous in its musical althleticism and invention; and the electrifying reading of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads is still one of the most spine-tingling 4’ 13” of live rock music ever committed to tape. Paul Henderson
Go further: the rise and fall of Cream – two years that changed music forever
MC5 – Kick Out The Jams (1969)
When they came to record their live debut album at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, the MC5 were at their fresh and hungry peak, crackling with furious rock’n’roll energy. They borrowed tricks from Sun Ra, The Who, James Brown and more, and totally made them their own. They poured it on every which way they could for a clenched-fist, home-town crowd whose teenage choices were often the line at Ford or a foxhole in Vietnam.
As the cultural arm of the White Panther Party, the band chronicled the urban violence that had seen Detroit burn and 43 people die in the hot summer riots of 1967 in the song Motorcity Burning. The frantic but motorcity-solid rhythm section of Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis supported and showcased the wild but perfectly honed interplay between the AK47 guitars of Fred Smith and Wayne Kramer – the band’s primary strength – while singer Rob Tyner ranted, raved and invoked insurrection, seemingly on the verge of a white-boy ’fro-psychotic meltdown. The MC5 wholly defined the sound of industrial hard rock rebellion at a time and in a place where ‘hard’ meant tungsten carbide. Mick Farren
“I was there!”
Wayne Kramer, MC5 guitarist: “The MC5 were a mercurial band, we were inconsistent. All of a sudden this was the night. It was a lot of pressure for us to be under. I hear it every time I listen to the record. I hear me making clumsy mistakes on the guitar, I hear Dennis all over the on the tempos, I hear Rob not quite in the perfect voice he was capable of.”
The Who – Live At Leeds (1970)
Geddy Lee (Rush): “I was a big Who fan. I still am. Like a lot of people, it started with My Generation for me. I used to go up to Sam The Record Man in town to get my music. That’s where I got Live At Leeds one Saturday morning. And the bass in My Generation, I mean, John Entwistle, my god, he was such an absolute influence on me and his playing on Leeds is unsurpassable. I’m a big fan of Summertime Blues on that album, which we covered, to a large degree because of their version.
“I got to see The Who in Winnipeg, Manitoba of all places. They were incredible, but Moon was already gone by then. I never saw them with him, I’m very sad to say. No matter what they do, Pete Townshend’s writing has always been at the very top of his craft, the quintessential combination of heavy and melodic. Even today, Live At Leeds sounds so alive, it’s a real piece of that period of rock. It’s like a bootleg, the artwork, the tone; that was their attitude I think. It was raw: ‘Here it is’.”
Go further: the 11 best Who songs (that aren’t on CSI)
Grand Funk Railroad – Live Album (1970)
Just as the band who made it gave new meaning to the description ‘power-trio’, so Live Album set the template for everything we now know as stoner rock. Sold as a ‘direct recording’ – ie no overdubs, no remixing, no nothing except slabs of sheet-metal – it was all about keeping it real (pity nobody thought to tell the sleeve-designer who used a photo of the band taken at the Atlanta International pop festival, even though none of the music was recorded there).
Even the most fervent Grand Funk Railroad fan from the 70s would have agreed that you really didn’t need to possess more than one of their two-inch deep studio albums, and you certainly didn’t dig the Funk lying on the floor listening to those records with your stereo-headphones on. You dug them where they lived, out on the road. Hence the tremendous sense of righteousness that accompanied the release of this, their fourth album.
Critics dismissed them as boneheaded proto-metal merchants, but in singer-guitarist Mark Farner – a fierce part-Cherokee frontman who took no shit and gave no quarter – Grand Funk Railroad became the embodiment of what it meant to be an all-American rocker, and the success of Live Album refutation that what critics said mattered at all. Mick Wall
The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (1970)
Recorded at New York’s Madison Square Garden on the band’s 1969 US tour – their first since the appointment of Mick Taylor as replacement for original guitarist Brian Jones – the impulse behind the Stones’ second live LP was less documentary, more simply a gauge of how well the new line-up was settling in. But the result was one of the first live albums to receive the kind of acclaim only the best studio albums had before, thereby kick-starting a taste for live albums that would flourish throughout the subsequent decade.
The sheer exuberance of the Stones’ performances on that tour – which also featured openers BB King, Chuck Berry and Ike & Tina Turner – is clearly captured in the grooves. It was also the first Stones tour since the death of Richards’ original co-guitarist Brian Jones, whose increasingly drugged and emaciated state had effectively kept the band off the road for nearly three years. In his place stepped Taylor, a 20-year-old former John Mayall protégé whose extravagant gifts as a guitarist were first recognised internationally with the release of …Ya-Yas. He’d played on Honky Tonk Women and a couple of tracks on Let It Bleed, but this album and the tour it was recorded on gave notice of a new creative phase for the Stones that would see them record the best studio albums of their career.
From its famous looped intro – “Ladeez and gentlemen, the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world…” – to Jagger telling the whooping audience, “You don’t want my trousers to fall down now, do ya?” to the freaky chick yelling “Paint it black, you devil!” as Richards tickles out the intro to Sympathy For The Devil, no album before had been as live or as much fun. The stunning interplay between Richards’ swamp-deep rhythm and Taylor’s liquid lead were – along with Charlie Watts’ drums – the only parts of the album onto which no overdubs were laid. Some bootlegs also revealed Richards trying out some solos of his own on Jumpin’ Jack Flash – later ditched once it became apparent how much better Taylor was at them.
You’d never guess that their infamous Altamont show where Hell’s Angels ran riot, killing one fan and maiming others, was just up the road. And that their 60s dream was about to turn into a 70s nightmare. MW
The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East (1971)
Before the release of At Fillmore East, the Allmans had been a good-time, hippie bar band. After it they became full-on rock stars.
As well as setting a new precedent for live albums as breakout hits, it pushed the idea of live albums as a showcase for bands to stretch out and show what they could do unconstrained by the limitations of the regular, two-sided studio recording, as on the exultant, 23-minute final track, Whipping Post. The original double-vinyl version was released in both stereo and specially mixed four-channel quadraphonic. But the real juice was in the playing, demonstrating the Allmans’ qualities as top-notch jammers, led by the actual Allman brothers: guitarist Duane and keyboardist/vocalist Gregg. The pathos came just months after its release, when Duane died in a motorcycle accident. MW
Go further: the Top 10 best Allman Brothers Band songs
Humble Pie – Performance Rockin’ The Fillmore (1971)
They were impressive enough in the studio, but the live format was where Humble Pie truly excelled. This sprawling double album, recorded at New York’s Fillmore East in May 1971, was a magnificent showcase for Steve Marriott’s searing vocals and his fierce interplay with fellow guitarist Peter Frampton.
Aside from the rampaging might of Stone Cold Fever, the songs are spirited covers, from the slow jam of Willie Dixon’s I’m Ready to extended versions of Muddy Waters’ Rolling Stone and Ashford & Simpson’s R&B classic, I Don’t Need No Doctor. Perhaps the pick of the bunch is a titanic reconfiguration of Dr. John’s I Walk On Gilded Splinters, stretched out in dramatic form over a wholly compelling 24 minutes. Rob Hughes
Slade – Slade Alive! (1972)
Exploding into an introspective era of drab, post-Woodstock Beatles mourning, Slade Alive! (with its roar-along r’n’b and on-mike Black Country belching) kick-started the 1970s. A terrace chanting, scarves-on-wrists, lad’s rock exemplar that set the stage for The Faces, Mott The Hoople and, ultimately, Oasis, it served to depoliticise a rock scene that had forgotten how to have fun.
Slade may not have been cool, but they were an exciting live band who’d built their reputation on the power of their live shows. Manager Chas Chandler decided that the best way to end a career-long album chart drought was by capturing their intrinsic appeal on a warts ’n’ all live LP. And it worked. Recorded at a cost of £600, Slade Alive! not only broke the band in the UK, it went on to be the biggest selling album in Australia since Sgt. Pepper. Hence AC/DC… Ian Fortnam
Deep Purple – Made In Japan (1972)
Japanese culture had barely touched Britain in the early 70s. The idea of a rock band playing gigs there was truly exotic. Made In Japan was a trailblazing release spawned in a far-away land; it had a mysterious, otherworldly cachet that other live albums, recorded in much more mundane locations, couldn’t match. It also helped that it was a double album, with a delicious, golden gatefold sleeve.
Deep Purple were at their peak, having released the career-defining Machine Head just months before. On Made In Japan they straddled a fine line between intense and indulgent, the four sides of vinyl giving them room to stretch – and we mean stretch. Incredibly there were only seven tracks; Highway Star, which opened side one, was the only one to clock in at under seven minutes. Side Four comprised a monstrous, 20-minute version of Space Truckin’; The Mule, meanwhile, contained a six-minute Ian Paice drum solo. It might sound preposterous now, but back in the day we could only shake out heads disbelievingly at the sheer, unbridled brilliance of it all. Geoff Barton
“I was there!”
Ian Paice (Deep Purple): “Of its ilk it’s still probably the best live rock’n’roll album ever made – and that’s putting everything Led Zeppelin have done, anything Black Sabbath may have done, Bad Company, Free… As a tour de force of innovation and living on the edge and great playing with a fantastic sound, nothing comes close.”
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock 165