Sunday, 25 January 2009

Got Live If You Want It!

Ah, the live album. Unpredictable little bastards, live albums. Some of the most reliable and successful studio bands have failed to ever deliver a decent one, despite their positive reputations as live acts (I'm thinking Led Zeppelin, Eagles, The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, Funkadelic, The Stooges, Radiohead - you may not like all these bands, but there's no denying their popularity or the fact that people who have seen them live tend to wax lyrical about the experience). Shit, The Clash's posthumous live was an absolute stinker!

But, if a band or artist is good live, then for music-heads there will never be a better experience than seeing said band in the flesh. It's tantamount to a pilgrimage, a religious or spiritual experience that subsumes your whole being and takes you to places that no studio album could ever manage. After seeing Neil Young last year (twice), I felt my soul melt and tears leap to my eyes, such was the hold he had on me, such were the emotions that raced through my body with every line and every guitar solo. The same thing happened when I went to see Wilco at the Elysee Montmartre in Paris. Something about the charisma of lead singer Jeff Tweedy, coupled with the beauty of his songs and the reckless abandon of the band's playing reached deep into my heart and left me breathless. Even their immense A Ghost Is Born album could not mimic the effect the gig had on me, and I've been dying to see them again ever since.

And, rest assured, there have been more than a few live albums that have succeeded where The Zep's How The West Was Won or Yes' Yessongs failed, managing to capture on vinyl or CD the energy, sense of communion and spirit of the band or artist on stage. The most famous are well renowned: The Who's Live at Leeds (possibly the best live album ever), MC5's Kick out the Jams, The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, The Allman Brothers Band's At Fillmore East, not to mention classics by Deep Purple, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead and Lou Reed.

But this blog is not for such much-lauded fair. I'm going by the assumption that you already are familiar with Hendrix's Band of Gypsies and Reed's Rock'n'Roll Animal. But there are quite a few other stunning live gems out there, and here is a smattering of my personal faves.

1) King Crimson: Earthbound (1972)

Few bands' own fans have hated one of their idol's albums with quite as much venom as King Crimson's when confronted with the messy slab of dysfunction that is Earthbound. There is no denying how atonal, violent and ramshackle this, the band's first live album, is. It sounds, well, awful, as it was recorded straight to a cassette deck. No 8-track, remote studio cleanliness here. The instruments all blend together, the saturation is vicious and there are only five tracks. This is a brutal, brutal album, and the closest Crimson ever came to producing a metal opus. In volume and intensity, it rivals anything Led Zep, Sabbath or Free ever did. And in terms of reckless abandon, it's akin to the best of The Stooges, The MC5 or Neu!.

Earthbound came along at one of many crossroads for King Crimson. It remains an unanswered question as to just how many masterpieces Crimson could have created if they'd managed to get a stable lineup. As it is, they delivered a classic, must-have debut and several amazing, if inconsistent follow-ups, and this cow-pat in the poppy field. By Earthbound, that stunning debut album from '69 seemed a lifetime away, with only genius guitarist Robert Fripp remaining from the original lineup, and with tensions running at all-time high. Indeed, by the time the album was released, it seemed Crimson was gone for good, and that this was Fripp's last big "fuck you" to the world and to his ex-band members. Few albums have been born out of so much spite.

Gosh, I'm probably not selling this very well. Truth is, Earthbound is a "yes, but" album. Yes, the sound is messy. Yes, the band members hated each other. Yes, Fripp disliked the funky direction bassist/singer Boz Burrell and drummer Ian Wallace were taking the band. But, my God, it's a fucking slap in the gob from the word go. A good live album makes you want to have been in the audience at the moment of recording. I can confidently say that I have rarely wished I was somewhere with more vigor than in the mosh pit for the opening thunderstorm version of "21st Century Schizoid Man". It has to be one of the most intense moments in rock history. The crowd's cheering is immediately subsumed by an almighty burst of drums, sax and guitar and the guys are off, pummeling this prog classic into the ground with sheer reckless abandon. They basically wipe the floor with the original studio version, which sounds almost limp in comparison. Boz was never as good a vocalist as Greg Lake, but here his voice is filtered deliriously through a VCS3 synth, making him sound robotic and even more deranged than Lake ever did. Then the band launches into a transcendent jam. Fripp may have been all miserable by this stage, but you wouldn't guess it as he pours a pure molten solo, followed by Mel Collins' barnstorming sax break. The whole piece careers along at freight-train speed, before collapsing in on itself and shuddering to a grateful and chaotic halt, leaving the listener breathless.

The rest of the album was always going to struggle to maintain such energy, but they give it a fantastic shot. Do not expect a greatest hits live package. Two of the four remaining tracks are unique-to-this-album improvisations that showcase Wallace and Boz's taste for funk and scatting. Not outstanding, although "Earthbound" does feature some truly monumental guitar work from Fripp, who also lets rips on a screaming, free-jazz overload version of "The Sailor's Tale". Sadly, it's the shortest track here, and the audience is silent (I'd have been roaring my head off at such masterful playing) or obliterated, but it features some gorgeous Mellotron from Collins and one of Fripp's greatest solos. But the cherry on this bloated, sinister cake remains closer "Groon", expanded here (from it's origins as a non-album single) into a 15-minute mess that starts off normally enough, with some cool jazzy interplay, before each member sets about tearing it to bits, the culminating moment being when Wallace's drum solo is filtered into the VCS3. It's an almost disturbingly fraught cacophony, sounding so ragged and raw, as if they practically stopped caring, before Fripp swoops in with yet another screaming solo and the whole thing burns out before the piece is even over!

Like I say, the whole album is a mess: roughly recorded, incoherently edited, loud, raw and saturated to buggery. The anti-prog live album. But I am so grateful it's out there, permeating the stale atmosphere of 70s prog-rock with its proto-black-metal stench. For "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Groon" alone this is a masterpiece of rampant rock and definitely worth tracking down. Fuck, it's cover was even aped by those masters of heavy psych, Acid Mothers Temple. Surely that's a guarantee of underground credibility?

2 - Jefferson Airplane - Bless Its Pointed Little Head - 1969

Live albums really sprung to the fore at the tail-end of the 1960s, in the wake of Bob Dylan's seminal 1966 Tour with The Band, when The Rock Bard unleashed his Highway 61-era songs to the anger and revulsion of many in the audience. Gone were the days of packed clubs or stadia where screaming kids emptied their lungs at the feet of The Beatles and their two-minute wonders. Dylan's actions ushered in the days of ROCK, and extended jams and ear-splitting amp volume became the norm. And pretty soon, all the major acts of the late '60s had hopped on the bandwagon, leading to the defining era of live single- and double-albums, with such classics as The Allmans' At Fillmore East, The Dead's Live/Dead and Hendrix's Band of Gypsies, all mentioned above.

In this morass, Jefferson Airplane's contribution, the immense Bless It's Pointed Little Head, seems to have gone oddly un-heralded, despite being one of the very best of the period. Jefferson Airplane were -and remain- legends of the hippy counter-culture that sprung up in the mid-sixties in San Francisco. Their politically-charged and drug-tinged anthems touched a deep chord in the hearts and minds of California's youth, whilst the charisma and beauty of singer Grace Slick made them perhaps the most media-friendly of all the West Coast bands bar The Byrds. Their 1967 hits "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" became staples and signatures foran entire generation of American refuseniks.

But all that only tells a small part of the story of this singular band. They may have had hits and media exposure, which probably caused them to burn out and become rapidly obsolete as the starry-eyed sixties gave way to the cynical seventies, but at their height, they were so much more than simple poster children for fashionable -and dispensable- hippyness. Jefferson Airplane was in fact perhaps the hardest-hitting acid band in Frisco, capable of belting out a raw and ragged sound that even the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Silver, in all their jamming, couldn't equal. By 1969, Jefferson Airplane had an edge to rival the Doors and Iron Butterfly, which sat up nicely alongside their anthemic singles.

And Bless Its Pointed Little Head captured that edge and energy on vinyl. It's a proper, unfettered, warts-and-all live masterpiece that showcases not only the band's knack for anthemic tunes and the neat vocal interplay of Slick and fellow singer Marty Balin, but also their ability to let loose, to improvise and to rave it up. Everyone's a hero on Bless It's Pointed Little Head. Slick is at her best, taking her staple "Somebody to Love", for example, and turning it inside out as the band funks it up behind her, belting out some delirious rapping vocalisations like a crazed Southern gospel singer. The song is revved up, white hot, yet tight and crisp, and the band delivers similar punchy moments of brilliance on Balin's staples "The Other Side of This Life", "It's No Secret" and "3/5's of a Mile in 10 Seconds". The 'Plane's other singer demonstrates just how underrated he is, particularly on an almost punkish version of "Plastic Fantastic Lover", where he shouts himself roar above a fierce garage beat.

But, as was often the case with '60s bands, the best moments are reserved for when the band sheds its shackles and rears its improvisational head. First up comes "Fat Angel", a Donovan cover that the band completely reworks, turning it into a seven-minute psych-drone epic given over to warbling guitar solos and Paul Kantner's stoned vocals. Then the reins are handed over to guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (a truly underrated axe master, in my opinion) and superb bassist Jack Casady, who basically showcase what would become their Hot Tuna side-project with a blisffully psyched-out blues called "Rock Me Baby". Kaukonen is of course the star here, unleashing molten guitar solos that are equal parts Muddy Waters and Happy Trails-era John Cippolina.

But it's the final psych-sludge landslide improv, "Bear Melt", that seals this album as one of the truly great live albums. Slick returns to the forefront to remind us all who's boss as, over a slow, heavy blues riff, she begins rapping again, her voice hurtling skywards as she reels off bizarre lyrics and Kaukonen rips up a storm behind her. Then the band takes over, unleashing a furious, mind-melting (see what I did there?) jam that stretches out for the best part of 10 minutes before Slick takes over again to bring it all to a shuddering, growling halt. Then, ever the slick customer (man, I am an a roll here!), she drolly quips to the delirious audience, "You can move your rear ends now" before strolling off.

Raw and rampant, Bless Its Pointed Little Head is a classic live album, brilliantly displaying the Ariplane's talents for improvisation and jamming whilst also providing enough punchy, jagged rock bursts to satisfy anyone out there gagging for a little MC5-ish raw power. At times, I swear, they move into proto-metal territory, with "Bear Melt" sitting alongside the best of The Doors' and Velvet Underground's output as some sort of precursor to nineties doom, albeit with a cleaner, more innocent vibe. Check it out if you like a bit of high-octane psych joy. I would defy anyone to say that, at their height, the Airplane weren't the best in the business.

Oh, and the sound is gorgeous throughout, for those of you who hated Earthbound.

3 - Townes Van Zandt - Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas - 1977

There's a lot to say for a bit of the above-mentioned sturm-und-drang. However, at the other end of the spectrum, you have those live albums that gain their force not from pumped-up amp volume and wild guitar thrashing, but rather from their artists' ability to capitivate an audience with more rudimentary and intimate means.

In this respect, Townes Van Zandt had few peers. Steve Earle once declared that he would stand up on Bob Dylan's coffee table to praise Van Zandt as the greatest singer-songwriter in America. Quite a compliment and one I'm afraid I share ("I'm afraid" - how British of me). For those of you who haven't turned away in shocked horror at my blasphemy, maybe your curiosity is piqued. Or, more likely, you have experienced the genius of Townes Van Zandt and know that there is almost certainly some merit to these lines.

Townes' strength was his hurt, and I don't think any other American singer-songwriter, maybe apart from Skip Spence and Neil Young (and in the latter's case not always, plus he's Canadian) who poured out such anguish, despair and loss into his songs, certainly with such regularity. But Townes' other strength was his sense of humour, even in the darkest of times. Which means that a Townes Van Zandt song, such as "Pancho and Lefty" or "Lungs" veers from witty to sad to wistful to droll to sardonic to melancholic in the space of just a few minutes. And Live at The Old Quarter contains just about the greatest collection of all his best tracks, making it something of a greatest hits compilation, as well as a demonstration of his unique acoustic guitar playing, wry humour and depth of emotion.

Old Quarter is intimate, with possibly one of the smallest crowds ever to feature on a major live album, a couple of hundred at best. It's so intimate, you can hear glasses smashing, the sound of boots on the floor and murmurs of conversation as Townes is introduced and begins getting ready. When I first popped it into my machine and heard this, I was worried that the noise would distract from the music. Silly me. Barely have the first few notes of "Pancho and Lefty" kicked in and that warm, drawling voice begun wafting across the packed bar than the punters are transfixed, caught by his stirring narration and gentle pathos. It's a great intro, with a great song, and above all it demonstrates just how great a performer Townes Van Zandt was. He didn't need guitar pyrotechnics, stacks of Marshall amps or to leap around a stage in order to captivate his audience. Just that voice, those lyrics, those tunes. And from "Pancho" onwards, he holds his audience like a snake charmer does a cobra. He intersperses tracks with hilarious jokes if the mood gets too intense, raps quietly (and perhaps a tad drunkenly) about this and that, before getting down to the core of the task by reeling out such superb tracks as "To Live is to Fly", "If I Needed You", "Tower Song", "Waiting Around to Die" and "Rex's Blues" (perhaps the highlight of the whole set for me). Some of these are heartbreaking, some, such as "Fraternity Blues", are rib-crackingly funny, and he even demonstrates a stomping gift to let loose and boogie on just his acoustic guitar with real pounders like "White Freight Liner Blues" and "Who Do You Love". To really get the full impact of this unique live show, the latest CD edition, which includes every track played on the night, is a must, and a real boon for any fan of the great man.

But, from the number of tracks with the word "Blues" in the title, you'll have gathered that Van Zandt was above all a man who had inexorably tapped into the darkest reaches of the human soul, and was not afraid to share what he found there with his audience. Townes didn't patronise or simplify: he shot from the hip, delivering his sombre truths and bittersweet musings in elegant prose and poetic turns of phrase, but without ever shying away from harshness, despair or fear. And Live Quarter displays this in the most intimate, up-close and personal way: one man laying his soul at to a lucky, and rapturous crowd. For me, this album is a rare and beautiful treasure.

4 - Cabaret Voltaire - Live at the Y.M.C.A., 27-10-79 - 1980

This is quite possibly the least-known of the live albums presented here. It doesn't even have the benefit of being notorious and hated like Earthbound. After all, Cabaret Voltaire fans were used to the low-fi, harsh sound their idols dispensed, so anything as "controversial" as industrial noise, electronic beats and snarling, inaudible voices was just par-for-the-course.

But the punk and post-punk ages were not great for fans of live albums. Most groups were simply too short-lived to ever get to the live album stage. A whole lot more simply weren't that great live, due to being too messy, disorganised and drunk. Most gigs were short, and the sound quality wasn't great, as tight, packed clubs didn't always allow for the kind of instrument separation that massive venues like the Fillmores and Lyceums of this world did. And indeed, the main criticism that Live at the YMCA receives is that it sounds like shit.

It's not actually that bad, but it does have a very bootleggish sort of vibe going on. Whoever recorded this obviously was towards the back of the crowd with some pretty rudimentary equipment indeed. But to bitch about that is to completely miss the point. Cabaret Voltaire were a cash-strapped, underground, industrial, electro-punk outfit from harsh post-industrial Sheffield. How anyone can then expect one of their live albums to sound like a Queen or Pink Floyd live album is beyond. For me, taking an audience-tape recording and releasing it officially is the ultimate pied-de-nez to the world, a true punk gesture. In fact, the feeling you ultimately get is one of actually being there, more than on any other live album I've heard, except perhaps Live at the Old Quarter. You are rapidly swallowed up by the stomping percussion and twisted synth noise as it rumbles away from the stage, drowning out the crowd buzz around you and submerging all before it. It may be low-fi, but Live at the YMCA does not lack power at all.

By 1979, The Cabs were smack-dab in the middle of their creative peak. Personally, I'm not such a fan of their post-Chris Watson phase, much as I respect and admire their contribution to acid-house and techno music. For me, though, the music produced from their seminal debut Mix-Up all the way to 1982's 2x45 remains some of the best electronica ever made, right up there with more celebrated acts such as The Human League, OMD and The Normal. The Cabs, though, remain more obscure, sadly, mostly a name people have heard without hearing the music. Yet, for me, they today sound less dated, and more futuristic than 90% of their contemporaries, distilling a timeless electronica-meets-rock-meets-funk groove that I can quite easily picture future generations of humans, androids and robots swaying their hips to. 

This is beyond doubt due to The Cabs relentless non-conformism and dedication to their sound. Never having had to conform to studio demands for hits and massive tours, they were able to continually push their boundaries, with saturated noise, waves of distortion, sound samples and processed rhythm patterns all being meshed together, then added to oblique lyrics that referenced Burroughs, Burgess, Dick and Ballard that all pointed to a stark dystopian future that, for all our progress as a race, has never seemed to recede or get less likely. As we face economic meltdown and the threat of ecological apocalypse, the harsh, robotic and cold sound of Cabaret Voltaire becomes more and more relevant, and oddly more and more danceable.

And what I wouldn't do to get a chance to seem them perform these songs live. Personally, I'm not that bothered that there are no unique tracks on here. No-one complains when Bob Dylan or Led Zeppelin do that. And this collection of tracks gives a near-perfect cliche of what The Cabs were doing at this time. Their motto may have been "no dancing" at one point, but here the mixture of repetitive electronic beats and sweeping analogue synth noise creates a bizarre mixture of funk and noise that can't fail to have you swaying even as your senses are assaulted. Whether this is on the insistent pounding opener "Untitled" or the industrial dance of signature tune "Nag Nag Nag", the effect is disconcerting, like hearing robots trying to tackle disco or something. Stephen Mallinder's nasty, seething vocals only add to the disquiet, as, submerged in the wall of sound, they come out more like an extra mechanical instrument than an actual voice.

But this not all about proto-dance music played by obnoxious futurists with no sense of humour. The Cabs, for all, their musical devolution and messy sense of harmonics, were not just rabble-rousers or sloppy belligerents. These fuckers could play, and they demonstrate it hear on the slower, less instantly rhythmical tracks such as "The Set up" (the jewel in this live set), "On Every Other Street" and their distorted, barely-recognizable cover of The Velvet Underground's classic "Here She Comes Now". Here, the synths and slashes of saturated guitar and bass noise compete, dipping and diving in around each other as Mallinder sneers incoherently into his mic, the whole pieces dripping with pathos, anger and barely contained violence. Live at the YMCA is intense, in a way only really rivaled by Bob Dylan's live '66 bootleg and the 30 Minutes Over Brussels EP by Suicide. Although the audience is more appreciative here than on either of those, there is a sense of menace and bile that few artists have ever looked to release as a live album. And to end the album on the experimental noisefest that is "Baader Meinhof", a tribute to or comment on the German terrorists from the 70s, took some guts, in my book. 

So, whilst not confrontational -the at first quite quiet (disconcerted, maybe?) audience seems to quickly succumb to the dark charms of Cabaret Voltaire- Live at the YMCA is dark and aggressive, uncompromising and sullen like the artists themselves were. It wasn't put out to please or get you head-banging (hence the sound quality), but rather hit its audience in the gut and demonstrate the full, snarling fury of an average Cabs gig. These aren't showmen, they're fiercely anti-rock, anti-frills. But it is powerful, pulsating with suppressed energy and hidden menace. And, it is also one of the very few live albums to document the post punk period and the omnipresent anti-rock, anti-showbiz, pro-experimentation mentality that was streaking across Britain at the time. Seeing as PiL, Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle all missed the boat when it came to live albums (PiL's post-everyone except Lydon one was a disaster), thank God Cabaret Voltaire were out there letting us know the abuse they were heaping on their audiences. Who seemed to enjoy it and I bet were actually dancing.

Other great, and often under-appreciated live albums worth checking out (and that I'll certainly come back to) include Grand Funk's Live Album, Van der Graaf Generator's Vital and Humble Pie's Performance. Not to mention the already-reviewed Year of the Horse by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But it's time to move on, as I'd like to mention the recent Pian Jerk / Emeralds gig I just went to, and the sumptuous masterpieces that are Simon Finn's Pass The Distance and Takehisa Kosugi's Catch-Wave. That's the great thing about blogs, you can always come back to posts you feel need elaborating on!