Live Albums: A Careful Exploration of Living Documents

Why are live albums so unpopular generally compared to studio releases?

For once I’ve found myself discussing something with a fairly clear classification – there’s little subtlety to be found in a discussion about whether an album is live or not. Or is there?

King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black is not a studio album, although parts of it were played in the studio. It usually shows up on lists of their official albums. But it’s made of various cuts of live performances, with some parts played over and others silenced. The audience has been edited out almost completely, save for a single ‘Whoo!’ near the end of Fracture which may or may not actually be Bill Bruford. It’s hard to tell.

On S&BB, another question. Is it better to have a clean recording, or a faithful reproduction of the band’s sound? Because S&BB, at least the version I have (the Steven Wilson remix) isn’t ‘dirty.’ There’s a Crimson live box set called the Great Deceiver that accurately captures their sound – and it’s not really the same as S&BB. It’s quite filthy. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s hard to listen to, but rather that the instruments often seem to be fighting for space (especially the bass). So is S&BB really a live album at all? I doubt it, even though it was played mostly live. It’s been played with in the studio so much and retooled and cut up that it basically isn’t.

I spend far too much of my time digging through ancient live records from the 1970s, and have to say that I can appreciate the S&BB way of doing things, because frequently the original recordings are poor and fail to communicate the band’s sound. To this day I have been able to find only one listenable version of Crimson’s Doctor Diamonda track which never appeared on a studio album. Arguably, it’s better to just strive for quality over veracity, because it’s impossible to replicate the experience of being there anyway. No number of choppy renditions of Supper’s Ready, for example, can replicate the wave of surprise that passed through that club in Dublin, when Peter Gabriel stepped onstage wearing his wife’s dress and a faux-fox head.

And then there’s Bob Dylan’s live performances, where he slurs his way through a ton of obscure studio tracks and plays them completely differently from the original versions, to the extent that it might as well be an improv. And half the people I speak to about it think he’s a genius, while the other half think he’s terrible. Much like the Mars Volta, who abandoned all pretences of playing studio material and just improvised for hours onstage. And it was unquestionably rubbish.

How do we classify albums containing a mixture of studio and live tracks? Japan’s Oil on Canvas is mostly a live album. It’s classed as one. But it contains three instrumental piano tracks that were recorded in a studio and added later. It was the opposite of what many albums do with ‘special editions’ where they include a live performance or two at the end of an album as a bonus.

The answer to the classification question is that it doesn’t matter, because if you enjoy the band enough you’ll probably own most of their content and understand the distinctions anyway.

But live albums are generally distinct from studio albums because they are faced with the unique problem of having to balance audio quality (well, more accurately, the quality of the mix) with the authentic sound of the band, warts and all – added to the fact that of course people look for different things from their live performances.

So why aren’t they as popular as studio albums generally? There are a couple of answers. One, the studio album is seen as the ‘objective’ or rather the proper sound of the band. So people naturally listen to it and prioritise it over live content. Two, live albums are mostly the same content, obviously, so if we take the first point into account they’ll only be listened to by someone who actually likes the band enough to bother hearing multiple versions of the same piece. Three, live albums are more numerous and often have more generic titles, making them unattractive to the average listener (would you rather buy an album named ‘Live at the Orpheum’ or ‘Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind’?)

Three, and this is far less applicable generally so I won’t offer it as an answer but rather a possibility, listening to live albums makes the time spent on a single band far longer. There are plenty of people who consume media in bulk, listening to or reading everything once and moving on so that they can claim they’ve consumed it. Live albums are the same content, most of the time, with relatively minor differences. The average novelty-hungry dilettante isn’t going to want to hear the same content twice – he always wants something new. It’s a particular personality type, or a way of doing things – I don’t know. He reads one or two works by a famous author, whether he likes them or not, then moves on to another completely different author from a different time and repeats the process.

A live album is the complete antithesis of that; it’s a careful appreciation of (often) relatively minor differences, a patient exploration of a band’s sound that takes more time to appreciate than that type of person has. A live album is a mindset, a second perspective on something we already thought we understood the first time around. That’s why they’re far less popular than studio albums.

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