Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The lost nostalgia of the live album

Cover of "Arena"Cover of Arena

Growing up, the only thing I wanted to do was go see my musical heroes live in concert. Living in a town of 50,000 odd meant that really wasn't going to happen for most of the bands I liked. The next best thing was the hope that they'd release a "live album".

Now, with the gift of hindsight, I realise the live album is one of those contractual fillers, much like a "best of", that band's put out so they can leave their record label, or at the very least renegotiate for a better deal.

In my youth, however, the live album was a glimpse into how a band was able to translate their material for the stage, taking album cuts I had committed to memory and shaking them up. There was also the far away mystique of listening to song recorded at venues with amazing names that spawned many an imaginary travelogue. Names like "Hammersmith Odeon", "The Town and Country Club," "Brixton Academy," "The Budokan" and "Le Zenith."

The album I've been listening to recently that jolted my reminiscing of live albums is "In The City of Lights", the 1987 live album by Simple Minds, recorded at Paris' Le Zenith in the summer of '86. When I first bought the album on double cassette, it was the only version of a lot of the songs that I had and I learned them in that format, including the covers medley.

Other live albums of note, that actually stood as discographical entries in a band's repertoire (and not merely cheaply cobbled together wallet-emptiers for diehard fans) for me included Duran Duran's "Arena" (which took 20 years to finally be reissued with perennial set closer Rio attached), Depeche Mode's "101" and the Bowie duo of 70's live albums "David Live" and "Stage".

In recent years, the idea of the live album has been diluted to an amazing degree in an obvious forward step. A number of artists now offer a live CD from their show available shortly after the end of the encore. Instead of a band releasing one live album as a snap shot of their repertoire in time, you can now collect a band's entire tour, warts and all. It's sort of a sanctioned bootlegging service. Not only does this render a live album's discographical inclusion obsolete, it also ensures a die hard fan will end up being very very poor.

Don't get me wrong, though. Apart from the mystique of the live album the other thing I really wanted as a kid was a live album recorded at the show I was at. To a certain degree, I've been able to get that with this new service. I am the proud owner of Moby "Live at Brixton Academy" from his 2005 hotel tour, released about 10 minutes after he came off stage! (I swear I can hear myself yelling at him!)

However, it's not just the band's feeding their fans frenzy for a copy of the show you were just at that's diluted the mystique of the live album, it's been the release of live albums that just don't feel right. While the aforementioned Depeche Mode released one of the greatest live albums of the 80s with "101," they then went on to release one of the most un-needed live albums of the 90s with "Songs of Faith and Devotion Live". This literally captured the "Songs of Faith and Devotion" album live - same songs, same sequence.

I guess the wisdom of age means I will never view the release of a live album again as the event I used to see them as. To a certain degree they simply aren't. Duran Duran's "Arena," for instance, was a multimedia experience before the advent of multimedia experiences. They released an album, a video, a making of video and even a board game - all for a live album! Then there was the over the top video with the William S. Burroughs theme. Sheesh!

Try cramming all that into a post-concert bootleg!
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