I have never been a big fan of live albums, but I’m starting to come around. When I was younger, there were still so many ‘albums you need to hear before you die’ that I still needed to hear. To me, live albums just seemed like compilations, or greatest hits packages. A bonus, rather than part of the actual canon. Like, yeah it’s always cool to hear (and impersonate) Paul Stanley’s introduction to Cold Gin, but it’s more important to have a copy of the six great KISS studio albums first.
Like I said, I’m coming around. I bought two this week — Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out by The Rolling Stones and Sex Machine by James Brown. Ya Ya’s is the first full album to feature Mick Taylor, who — like his predecessor Brian Jones — only contributed to two songs on the previous release Let It Bleed. Jones died a month after getting booted from the band — just under five months before Ya Ya’s was recorded mostly at Madison Square Garden om Nov. 28 & 29, 1969. One song was captured live in Baltimore a few days earlier.
When I spun this at home this week, it struck me just how good it sounds. There’s a reason for that — and it’s the reason for this column: It’s not all live. Turns out, most live albums aren’t.
The Stones spent a month in January 1970 redoing all the lead vocals on every song except Midnight Rambler and Love In Vain. Incidentally, that’s the one recorded in Baltimore. Additionally, they redid a bunch of backing vocals and overdubbed guitar onto Stray Cat Blues and Little Queenie. In comparison to many albums of the era, this is pretty mild. But it does explain why it sounds so good. Their previous live album — Got Live If You Want It — features two songs done completely in the studio, with crowd noise added to make them sound live.
A legendary fake live album is KISS Alive II. Some of it has as much as 90% of the vocals and guitars re-recorded in the studio, while other parts were recorded in an empty arena. Bun E Carlos, the drummer for opening act Cheap Trick, says KISS ended up renting the now-demolished Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J., and basically recording much of Alive II there and later overdubbing the crowd and banter. The fourth side of Alive II is all studio material anyway — but includes Ace Frehley’s awesome Rocket Ride.
KISS also lied about the source material on their previous live album, the breakthrough KISS Alive. The band re-recorded parts of the album at Electric Lady Studios and even cherrypicked the best cheers. It seems like only Peter Criss’s drums were left unaltered.
It’s apparently a similar story with The Band‘s famous Last Waltz, which also had an album-side worth of studio-only songs included on the three-record set. Perhaps with a little editing — axing Neil Diamond, for example — they could have made it a better double album.
Wings drummer Joe English has publicly shone a little light on just how fake that band’s epic three-record live album Wings Over America was. Peeved at bootlegs of the 1976 Wings tour, McCartney had engineers listen to hundreds of hours of taped shows and pick the five best performances of each song in the 30-song setlist. Macca made the final picks, mostly going with stuff from the June 23 show at the L.A. Forum — the same show which was the source of all the bootlegs. Wings spent two months doing overdubs — with much attention given to backing vocals.
The same era saw the release of Little Feat’s pseudo-comeback album — the double live set Waiting For Columbus. You can see shows from this tour on YouTube. The band is incredible. Still, Lowell George decided to re-record most of his lead vocals and guitar solos. I wouldn’t have stood in the way of Lowell heading to the studio, would you?
Next week, I’ll look at some of the least-overdubbed live albums, for those who like it raw.
• • •
Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check out him out on Discogs.