Musings on Rock and Roll
by Ken Shimamoto

 

 

 

 


Posted March 11, 2002

"ALIVE!" SHE CRIED


I dunno about you, but this month's poll being what it is, I gotta riff on a topic - I simply fucking ADORE live albums.

I know lotsa folks disagree, and all the arguments - live albums don't sound as good as studio ones; they're Product, filler, one of the harbingers (the other being "greatest hits" packages) that an artists relationship with their label is coming to a close. I beg to disagree. As a sometime muso myself, I know that performance-wise, there ain't no substitute - the REAL action happens in front of an audience, where the interaction between the players gets taken one step further by the feedback and vibe of a roomful of CIVILIANS. Wonders can be done in the studio, but the REAL great ones can deliver the goods onstage, without countless retakes, punch-ins, and overdubs. That said, lotsa "live" albums have benefited from studio fixage (the voxxx on New Race's "The First and the Last," f'rinstance) or extensive editing (most notoriously, the Doors' "Absolutely Live," the title of which borders on fraud; producer Paul Rothchild avers it contains HUNDREDS of edits).

Everyone's got their fave. For lotsa folks, it seems like "Kiss Alive!" was a major watershed; if our poll results are any indication, the Ramones' "It's Alive!" was a big signifier for many Barflies. And SOMEWHERE, surely, there MUST be someone who will actually admit to being one of the millions who bought "Frampton Comes Alive!" (I wasn't one of 'em. I swear.) Anyway, here are a few of the ones that have meant the most to me over the years:

The Who - Live At Leeds. My favorite band back when I was 13, I had just gone through a season of playing "Sell Out" four times a day, driving my sister, whose tastes ran more to Broadway musicals, to the point of distraction, when this monster arrived (heavily hyped by Nik Cohn in the pages of the New York Times Arts & Entertainment section) on the heels of the disappointing "Seeker" single. Simply the loudest, most violent noise I'd ever heard up till that time, it immediately replaced "Sell Out" on my turntable, drove my sister even MORE ballistic, and inspired me to pick up a guitar and try to duplicate Townshend's unskilled but fiery improves (usedta play the solo from "Summertime Blues" with the same mistake for years). I've heard loads of Who bootlegs (and official releases - cf. the "Live At Isle of Wight" one from just a few months later that Sony released a coupla years back), and I have to say, there was definitely something special going on in that university auditorium on Valentine's Day, 1970, and it was more than just the wiggy slap-back echo. One of my very best friendships was formed on the basis of both of us being able to sing every guitar and bass part, drum fill, and lyrical fillip from this album. I only wish I still had the original vinyl version with all the bills, balance sheets, rejection notices, etc. stuffed inside. When MCA released their remastered-with-bonus-tracks version a coupla years back, they actually managed to replicate the SMELL of the original album. The Romance of the Artifact at its best. I've owned more different copies of this album than any other (with the possible exception of the Yardbirds and Small Faces catalogs) but drew the line at the double CD "complete" (e.g., including "Tommy") edition they released last year - although if I see one on offer for cheap enough, that's a temporary condition. (Now, if MCA would master and release the bootleg of the Who's '68 Fillmore East show, THAT would be SOMETHING.)

Humble Pie - Performance: Rockin' the Fillmore. This is the album that briefly replaced "Live at Leeds" as my fave in the spring of '71 (to be replaced itself by "Funhouse" when I finally got a copy of THAT one the following winter). Unsubtle and filled with crapola (it originally came as a double LP with two sides - the interminable covers of "Walk On Gilded Splinters" and "Rollin' Stone" - that I never listened to), it was my first introduction to Steve Marriott's over-the-top white soul scream and, uh, Peter Frampton's DIFFERENT approach to lead guitar (e.g., playing something other than the same blues licks everyone from Clapton/Beck/Page to Hendrix to Johnny Winter was employing). Radio (WNEW-FM, to be exact, who actually broadcast the closing of the Fillmore live) sold me on this by playing it do death: "Hallelujah I Love Her So" and "I Don't Need No Doctor" (a veritable mini-Ray Charles set!) were boss, the first side was okay (my college band used to attempt to play "Four Day Creep," except we didn't have three lead singers like the rockin' Pie), and even those extended assassinations have a certain, uh, charm to 'em (although I still don't think I'll listen to 'em more than once a year).

MC5 - Kick Out the Jams. I've written so much about this record, what more can I possibly say? This one started out as a guilty pleasure. There was a short squib about the Five in a magazine-formatted "state of rock" tome (titled, uh, "Rock Beyond Woodstock," if my shakey memory serves) I'd purchased at the place where I usedta buy comic books, and I spent MONTHS surreptitiously peeking at the cover in W.T. Grant's record department (the explosion of color, Fred Smith in his spangled suit with his Mosrite, Mike Davis in his psychedelic Uncle Sam suit seeming to promise untold excitement and thrills) before I finally broke down and paid my hard-earned $4.28 to take it home. And discovered the record was so warped as to render the second side unplayable. (Same thing happened with my bargain bin first copy of the Yardbirds' "Over Under Sideways Down.") That said, it was probably the greatest one-sided album I could imagine, and I listened to it relentlessly until the time I took it up to my former best friend from seventh grade's house in upstate New York and he asked me, "How can you listen to that horrible noise?" (His tastes ran more to Neil Young and Steppenwolf, but I could still remember when he usedta listen to his brother and sister's Roger Miller and Peter Paul & Mary records. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!) He also told me that Steve Marriott sounded "like a peanut," hated the Deviants, and actually puked gin all over my record player while my copy of "Funhouse" was on it (I inexplicably kept the record for months WITHOUT CLEANING IT; ahhh, teenage boys). Validation wouldn't come until almost three decades later.

Yardbirds - Live. Recorded at New York's Anderson Theater in 1968, when the band was on its last legs, released in 1971 and quickly withdrawn at Jimmy Page's insistence, this showed what a sloppy (although exciting) piece of shit the Yardbirds could be onstage, what an inept singer Keith Relf (RIP) really was, and how much of Led Zeppelin's early mojo came directly out of the Yardbirds' terminal live set. The four songs from German TV released on "Cumular Limit" approximate this but don't match it.

Deep Purple - Made In Japan.
A confession: I was a big fan of EARLY Deep Purple (the lineup that had U.S. hits with "Hush" and "Kentucky Woman"). In fact, the first two albums I actually BOUGHT (someone GAVE me, uh, Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends," I swear!) were their first two ("Shades of Deep Purple" and "The Book of Taliesyn"). Dug 'em a bunch, too (Ritchie Blackmore's guitar exaggerations and Ian Paice's drum thunder put lotsa fury and fire in their journeyman muso-type originals and covers of psych classics like "Hey Joe" and "I'm So Glad" that I hadn't heard the originals of yet), although I was kinda put off by Jon Lord's pseudo-classicism (the quote from, uh, "Also Sprach Zarathusra" on "Book of Taliesyn"'s cover of "River Deep, Mountain High" was a bit, shall we say, over the top....bombastic, pretentious even). I lost the thread after their eponymous third album, on which all of their worst tendencies seemed to take over, and I didn't bother to pick back up on 'em during the "In Rock"-through-"Machine Head" phase when they started to rock again...too busy discovering Detroit, Slade, and the Velvets. Then this showed up while I was working at the record store and discovering imports and indie label exotica as a WAY OF LIFE. The advance hype said that it was supposed to be "the greatest live album ever recorded," and being an admitted sucker for that kind of jive, how could I pass on THAT? It didn't disappoint, either. A metal band these guys might have been sold as, but what they really were is First Generation Brit rockers who payed their dues on American airbases and the Reeperbahn in Hamburg as well as the studios (they could lay legit claim to being the REAL cream of Brit musos, forget about that Jack Bruce-fronted trio), and liked to play LONG, with energy and invention, and a minimum of posturing. As a result, this has dated a little less I woulda thought. Blackmore delivers everything Jeff Beck usedta promise (and relies on fewer devices to do it, too). Lord sounds a little, uh, SOULLESS (I remember reading a Blackmore comment on him a few years back: "Never had an original idea. Not ONE."), but overall, they rock. Not exactly INSPIRING, but not embarrassing, either.

Lou Reed - Rock and Roll Animal. Whether or not you believe that Lou at this time was a total drug-addled waste, it's indisputable that this album, the jewel in the crown of his solo recording career up to that point, would be a killer even if his vocals were excised. (I might even argue that his presence - or rather, ABSENCE - looms larger on the Doug Yule-led fake Velvet Underground's "Squeeze," except I've never heard that one, and never will.) It's down to the great band, led by the dueling dual guitars of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, with Prakash John's elastic bass sliding and gliding all over (am I hallucinating, or does he sound like, dare I say it, a Rock Jaco Pastorius?), and (as Geoff Ginsberg pointed out in his dialogue with Wagner) four of the greatest rock'n'roll songs of all time. The intro to "Sweet Jane" and the rhythm guitar break on "Rock and Roll" (which doesn't erase the memory of Mitch Ryder's version on the "Detroit" album, but presents the most viable alternative that exists to it) are for the Ages.

Frank Zappa - Roxy and Elsewhere. Between 1974 and 1979, I witnessed more shows by Frank Zappa than any other performer. A couple of 'em were at the Palace Theater in Albany, surely one of the greatest venues on the East Coast to catch a show. Others were his regular Halloween extravaganzas at the Academy of Music at 3rd Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan, later moving up to the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden. Time was when a Zappa show was an EVENT where you never knew what was going to happen in terms of material, guest performers, bizarre stage business. Recorded at a smaller venue than he'd be playing anytime when I saw him, "Roxy" features a hot band with jazz-rock chops, mind-boggling arrangements, a few snippets of guitar brilliance, and just enough (but not too much, as there'd been in the previous Flo and Eddie-fronted lineup) of his snarky humor to let you know this is a Zappa album. It's easy to spot the studio fixage here; FZ just used the stage as another studio. Because of the balance of elements here, it's my favorite Zappa disc after "Weasels Ripped My Flesh."

Charles Mingus - The Great Concert of Charles Mingus. Around 1975, when mainstream rock'n'roll started to suck hard, I started going to Monday night wrestling at the Garden instead of rock'n'roll shows, and became a jazz snob for awhile. To this day, I'll buy any recording I can find of the band Mingus, the titanic bassist/composer, took to Europe in 1964, featuring that most traditional of avant-gardists, multi-reedman Eric Dolphy. Recorded at a concert in Paris and spread over three LPs, this show encompassed a whole universe of music: blues, collective improvisation, homages to Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, and Mingus' own spiky political consciousness ("Fables of Faubus" and "Meditations on Integration").

Velvet Underground - 1969 Live. This double LP accomplished much the same thing as the Mingus set, but from a rock perspective. The '69 Doug Yule-era Velvets were a hardworking road band who were developing their own kind of groove (showcased even better on last year's "The Quine Tapes"). The whole world according to Lou Reed. The ultimate rhythm guitar record.

Heartbreakers - Live at Max's Kansas City. I used to listen to this a lot when I worked at Record Town in Dobie Mall (a university dormitory with built-in shopping mall - what the Dallas-bred brats at UT demanded at the cleavage of the decades) on Guadalupe Street in Austin. I wasn't a big Dolls fan, but you didn't need to be to dig this. Sloppy, stoned, and scatological, Johnny Thunders and his thuggish claque (think of it - a whole band of guys who look like Harvey Keitel! What a concept!) blaze through a set of stripped-down Brit R&B-derived rock'n'roll, with lotsa allusions to junkie lifestyle: addiction and sleaze played as laughs and high times. Irresponsible? You betchum! Fun? Absolutely! My big regret re: the CD version is that they replaced the false-start version of "All By Myself" with one where the boys got it right. It seems false, somehow. Johnny and the boys didn't give a fuck; why should we? "If all you kids turn over all the tables, we'll play one more." Of course, the "kids" didn't, but they got an encore anyway: the most out-of-tune version of "Do You Love Me" imaginable. For me, this is the one record on which Johnny Genzale stakes his claim to the Pantheon. This and the first Clash album won me over to "punk."

Iggy & the Stooges - Metallic K.O. The most blasted sound imaginable. The dissolution of the Heartbreakers at Max's taken several levels higher (or lower). The murky "mix" skewed in favor of the Asheton brothers rhythm section, and away from James Williamson's guitar. Hear the sound of beer bottles breaking onstage, and a performer past caring about anything, including his own life! In the aftermath of my divorce, I lived in an apartment complex I called "Hell," where this sound was my constant companion, along with a bottle of single-malt scotch.

P-Funk All-Stars Live. When I was stationed in Korea, '82-'83, "Atomic Dog" was like the national anthem for the Brothers (along with Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message"). When I got back to the World, it seemed that George Clinton's music was the most vital thing I could find (much more so than the bloodless rock of U2 and REM), combining as it did all the best qualities of a really good rock or jazz band with the deepest groove imaginable. This was another popular listen during the post-divorce year. The long, three-guitar version of "Maggot Brain" KILLS.

Sonic's Rendezvous Band - Sweet Nothing. Live albums usually provide a new way of hearing something familiar. For those of us who weren't on the bootleg pipeline in the eighties, this was an INTRODUCTION to the greatest band we'd never heard, and established Fred "Sonic" Smith once and for all as the great writer and guitarist that he was always threatening to be in the MC5 (and as truly bad of a singer as Lou Reed, Neil Young, Dylan).. As Freddie Brooks' releases seem to be designed to downplay Scott Morgan's contributions, this and its successor "City Slang" should be heard side-by-side with the 1999 reunion (with Deniz Tek subbing for Sonic) set "Getting' There Is Half the Fun."

Wayne Kramer - LLMF.
The final nail in the coffin of his Epitaph contract, this showed Brother Wayne re-inventing his material in performance and achieving heights that were only implied in the studio recordings of songs like "Junkie Romance" and "Poison." Runners-up: Japanese Captain Trip's "Live at Dingwalls 1979;" the audio of a '99 Denver show with the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs; the video of an all-MC5 set with the Cheetahs at a 2000 benefit for John Sinclair. - Ken Shimamoto


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