This month, Madonna has a new album out and Nine Inch Nails have released their second volume of new material in two months. You might be thinking, ‘Wait, how come I didn’t know about this? Where’s the hype? The in-your-face promotion?’
Or maybe you’re not. But we’re talking about two of the biggest acts of the last three decades with new music to push: Madonna’s two-disc MDNA: World Tour and Nine Inch Nails’ four-track Live 2013 EP. Both are live recordings, and they join a parade of live releases by major acts in recent months: New Order, the Rolling Stones, Megadeth, Jane’s Addiction andthe first Beach Boys album with Brian Wilson in decades.
In the previous century, these might have been landmark events, the type of albums that mark key moments in celebrated careers. But not anymore. Nearly without exception, these albums have trickled into the marketplace barely noticed, except by the artists’ diehard fans. It’s not as though all the albums are unexceptional – the Beach Boys’ solid, two-disc 50th Anniversary Tour documents the 2012 tour that reunited Wilson with his original bandmates. It serves as a fine career overview, touching on not just the obvious hits but deep favourites such as Marcella and All This is That. Yet it barely caused a ripple on the charts and didn’t rate any high-profile reviews. Live albums might still work as souvenirs for some fans, and expedient contract-fulfilling product for some artists, but who’s using the format to make a statement anymore?
At one time, live albums were a big deal. James Brown hit another gear when he documented the greatest show on Earth in Live at the Apollo (1962). DJs would end up playing an entire album side as the songs bled one into the next, building excitement and spreading the gospel of Soul Brother No. 1. Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison (1968) saw the Man in Black walk among hardened convicts and win them over. At a time when psychedelic rock was ascendant, Cash’s no-nonsense songs turned him into a real voice of resilience and rebellion. The Who put Eddie Cochran (Summertime Blues) and Mose Allison (Young Man Blues) through their maximum R&B shredder on Live at Leeds (1970) with revelatory results.
A more commercial role for the live album emerged in the ‘70s: they served as greatest-hits collections with audience applause. As cynical as that might sound, they often provided a mainstream introduction for relatively underappreciated artists with deep catalogues. The Allman Brothers established their jam-band bona fides on At Fillmore East (1971), and added a catchphrase to the concert lexicon: ‘Whipping Post!’ They were one-upped by their Southern brethren, Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose One More From the Road … (1976) turned the notion of a fan requesting “Free Bird!” into a concert cliché for decades afterward.
Bob Marley’s reputation had been building for years when he and the Wailers released Live! in 1975, which consolidated their best songs into one package, with the singer bringing a rapturous audience from a simmer to a boil. The next year, a journeyman guitarist, Peter Frampton, turned the double-live album into a mega business with Frampton Comes Alive! It sold an improbable six million copies in the US alone. With its sleeve folding out into a poster of the golden-haired singer, Comes Alive rehashed the best of the catchy but innocuous songs on his four previous studio albums, threw in a side-long jam (it was the ‘70s, after all), and mixed in what sounds like canned audience applause.
Other ‘70s road warriors like Bob Seger and Cheap Trick similarly transformed themselves into arena headliners from also-rans with live albums that repackaged their songs and jacked up the energy. Indeed, Cheap Trick is still riding the high provided by the 1979 At Budokan live album; the band is in the midst of preparing a 35th anniversary package. That might be overkill, but the original album not only did wonders for the band’s career when it sold more than three million copies, it also recontextualised its music. On its first three studio albums, Cheap Trick’s biting songs were watered down by conservative production. On At Budokan, the songs bristled, and a band that had been playing hundreds of shows a year for most of the ‘70s finally sounded like itself on record.
In the ‘90s, the MTV Unplugged format gave the live album fresh impetus, and produced key works from Eric Clapton, Nirvana and Jay-Z with the Roots. But it’s tough to come up with any live albums from the last decade that are truly must-owns. They sound like orphans at a time when shaky YouTube videos of just about every song spewed on every stage by every band around the world are just a mouse click away. High-fidelity Blu-Ray discs cater to the finicky home entertainment crowd. So who cares anymore about repackaged music from last summer’s stadium tour?
Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here