The 10 Best Live Albums Of All Time
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The best ever title for a live album? That’s easy. Ted Nugent – 'Intensities In 10 Cities'.
The best live albums of all time? That’s a tougher call.
So many great live albums have been made over the years – especially in the '70s and '80s. In the world of hard rock and heavy metal, the live album became an art form in itself.
For some bands, such as Kiss and Cheap Trick, it was a live album that provided them with their big breakthrough. For one artist in particular, Peter Frampton, a live album would be his biggest seller and define his entire career.
Although some were perfect as single discs, it was the double live album that became the ultimate status symbol for the biggest bands in rock. And there were even triple live albums, such as Yessongs and Wings Over America.
Every rock fan has their favourites, and in choosing my own top 10, I’ve had to exclude some genuine classics – Made In Japan by Deep Purple, On Stage by Rainbow, Live At Leeds by The Who, Double Live Gonzo! by the Nuge, Quo Live! by Status Quo, Live After Death by Iron Maiden, Live Killers by Queen, One More From The Road by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Live Bootleg by Aerosmith, Live Bullet by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, and Frampton Comes Alive!
Led Zeppelin didn’t make the cut either. For me, Zeppelin’s peak-era live set The Song Remains The Same always sounded strangely flat. And although Jimmy Page did get it right in the end – the 2003 Zep album, How The West Was Won, was everything that The Song Remains The Same should have been – it arrived too late to achieve classic status.
With the greatest live albums, it’s really all about timing. What they represent is a defining moment in a band’s career: for many, a coming of age as a truly great band. And that is as much a part of the magic as the music, the performance, and the atmosphere generated between band and audience in the heat of the moment.
And so, here they are: The 10 Best Live Albums Of All Time. Or rather, My 10 Best Live Albums Of All Time…
No Zep, no Purple, no Quo, no Intensities In 10 Cities, no “Scream for me, Long Beach!” But every one on this list is a stone-cold classic.
10. RUSH – Exit… Stage Left (1981)
For most Rush fans, it’s a close call between the band’s first two live albums: All The World’s A Stage (1976) and Exit… Stage Left. Both were doubles, of course. They had to fit in so many epic tracks (2112, By-Tor & the Snow Dog, Xanadu, La Villa Strangiato) and find room for Neil Peart’s equally epic drum solos. All The World’s A Stage has the band in its early pomp and playing their hometown of Toronto. You can smell the pot smoke in the air. But on Exit… Stage Left, they’re at their peak, combining prog rock odysseys with modern classics such as The Spirit Of Radio and Tom Sawyer. And in the stoner anthem A Passage To Bangkok, that familiar aroma still lingered.
9. UFO – Strangers In The Night (1979)
Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris knows a thing or two about live albums. Maiden have made eleven of them – including the legendary Live After Death from 1985. And Harris has no doubt about what is the greatest live album ever made. “UFO are one of my favourite bands,” he says. “And Strangers In The Night is my favourite live album. Some albums get boring, but I’m still listening to Strangers.”
In fact, Maiden have for many years used a track from this album, Doctor Doctor, as the intro at their own shows. Released in 1979, Strangers In The Night was the final act of UFO’s golden years. Just before the album was released, guitarist Michael Schenker quit the band. But his performances were stunning. Everyone in the band was at the top of their game. And across this double album are so many great tracks: Natural Thing, Only You Can Rock Me, Lights Out, This Kid’s, Rock Bottom, Doctor Doctor and arguably best of all, the Zeppelin-sized epic Love To Love.
8. MOTÖRHEAD – No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith (1981)
Everything louder than everything else was their motto, and that’s how it sounded on No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith. It featured the definitive Motorhead line-up: Lemmy on bass and vocals, ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke on guitar, ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor on drums. And they were riding high off three back-to-back classic albums: Overkill, Bomber and Ace Of Spades. There is a manic intensity in their speed-driven attack, and a general sense of on-the-road lunacy summed up when a roadie introduces the track (We Are) The Road Crew by screaming into the mic. Ditto the album’s title: the battle cry for a campaign of ransacking and pillage.
7. SCORPIONS – Tokyo Tapes (1978)
It was a strange idea – cutting a live album with a guitar player who was leaving the band. But that’s what the Scorpions did with Tokyo Tapes, and it provided a glorious swan song for Uli Jon Roth. Recorded during Roth’s final shows with the band, at Nakano Sun Plaza in April 1978, this double album is also a monument to the Scorpions of old. After this, the German band would develop a more straightforward hard rock sound, tailored for the American market. But with Roth, they had a broader style. As a Hendrix obsessive, he brought a trippy vibe to songs such as Polar Nights and Dark Lady. He also played beautifully on the ballads In Trance and In Search Of The Peace Of Mind.
A couple of key songs were missing: Catch Your Train and The Sails Of Charon. But every other early Scorpions classic is present: We’ll Burn The Sky, Steamrock Fever, Robot Man, Pictured Life, and the politically incorrect He’s A Woman, She’s A Man. And there is fun to be had with the two party pieces: a version of the Japanese song Kōjō no Tsuki, and a medley of rock’n’roll standards Hound Dog and Long Tall Sally in which Klaus Meine’s accent brings a touch of unintentional comedy as he sings: “Whar garnar harv sarm farn tonart!”
6. KISS – Alive II (1977)
In 1975, Kiss were in deep shit after their first three studio albums all tanked. Their career was saved by Kiss Alive! – a thunderous double-live set that blasted into the US top 10. They repeated the trick in 1977 with Alive II. And it was even better than Alive!. It has the most exciting start to any live album. First comes the sound of a hysterical LA audience. Then, the booming introduction: “You wanted the best and you got the best! The Hottest Band In The Land – Kiss!”
And then, the lift-off into Detroit Rock City, with every power chord bolstered by a deafening pyro explosion. There are many other great moments on Alive II: the pure adrenalin in Love Gun; all the girls in the audience screaming as drummer Peter Criss sings the hit ballad Beth; guitarist Ace Frehley sounding shitfaced on his signature song Shock Me. There is also a killer Ace song, Rocket Ride, among five additional studio tracks that were on side four of the original vinyl version. And it was on vinyl that Alive II had its greatest visual impact – the gatefold sleeve opening to reveal a gloriously OTT shot of the band on stage amid plumes of smoke and columns of flame.
5. CHEAP TRICK – At Budokan (1979)
Like Kiss before them, Cheap Trick were struggling until a live album turned their fortunes around. At Budokan, recorded at Tokyo’s most famous arena in 1978, was originally intended for the Japanese market alone. The band were, in time-honoured tradition, big in Japan, if not back home in America. But after 30,000 copies were sold in the US on import, the album was quickly given a proper release in America in early 1979 – and with it, Cheap Trick became superstars.
Both the album and the single I Want You To Want Me hit the US top ten. On a purely musical level, At Budokan is a master class in power pop – as illustrated by I Want You To Want Me and other zinging tunes such as Big Eyes, Surrender and Come On, Come On. But what makes it such a great live record is its ambience, with the Japanese fans going nuts over every word that pretty boy singer Robin Zander says to them. I Want You To Want Me, Cheap Trick’s most famous song, just doesn’t sound the same without the high-pitched chanting of that Budokan audience.
4. WHITESNAKE – Live… In The Heart Of The City (1980)
Long before David Coverdale set the controls for the heart of America, he created Whitesnake as a blues-based hard rock band in the classic tradition – and this live album was their greatest moment. Released in November 1980 as a double-disc set, Live… In The Heart Of The City was in effect two albums in one: the first disc recorded in June 1980; the second cut two years earlier. In both cases, the venue was the same: London’s Hammersmith Odeon. But by 1980, the band had its definitive line-up: Coverdale on vocals, Bernie Marsden and Micky Moody on guitars, Jon Lord on keyboards, Neil Murray on bass and Ian Paice on drums.
It’s what Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire likes to call “proper Whitesnake”. There is a deeply soulful quality to the band’s version of Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City, the R&B song made famous by Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, its chorus taken up with gusto by the fans – ‘The Whitesnake Choir’, as Coverdale called them. Equally, there is pure hard rock power in tracks like Come On, Love Hunter and Walking In The Shadow Of The Blues. And best of all is the hit single Fool For Your Loving, introduced by Cov in immortal faux-Cockney style: “’Ere’s a song for ya!”
3. JUDAS PRIEST – Unleashed In The East (1979)
We all know the joke. It should have been called Unleashed In The Studio. Certainly, there was a lot of overdubbing during the creation of this album. Priest singer Rob Halford admitted – many years after the album was released in 1979 – that he re-cut most of his vocals due to problems with original recordings. But really, so what? Anybody who has ever seen a Judas Priest gig knows that this band has always delivered on stage.
And the bottom line is this: Unleashed In The East is a brilliant heavy metal album. It features killer versions of some of the all-time great metal songs: Victim Of Changes, The Ripper, Sinner, Exciter. It has two of the most inspired cover versions ever done by a metal band: the Joan Baez song Diamonds And Rust, Peter Green’s enigmatic Fleetwood Mac track, The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown). Those naysayers who claim that Unleashed In The East is fraudulent should heed the words that Halford sings in Exciter: “Fall to your knees and repent if you please!”
2. AC/DC – If You Want Blood You’ve Got It (1978)
Of all the great live albums, this is the one that will bludgeon you into submission like no other. By 1978, AC/DC had been hardened, by years on the road, into a riff machine of unrivalled power. And this album captured that lightning in a bottle. It was recorded at four gigs on ’78’s Powerage tour, but the bulk of the album was drawn from just one performance, on April 30, at the Apollo in Glasgow, the city where guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young were born.
“It was the magic show,” Angus recalled. “One night, guitars out of tune, feedback, whatever.” That vibe between band and audience is most evident when the crowd chants Angus’ name during Whole Lotta Rosie, and when singer Bon Scott leads them on the chorus to the dirty blues number The Jack. Most remarkable of all is the level of intensity throughout: from punishing opener Riff Raff to the final knockout one-two punch of Let There Be Rock and Rocker. The album’s title was entirely apt. This was one rock ’n’ roll band that gave you everything they had.
1. THIN LIZZY – Live And Dangerous (1978)
On the greatest live album of them all, there is a perfect moment. It’s when Thin Lizzy ease down through the gears at the end of Cowboy Song, when Phil Lynott sings, “The cowboy’s life… is the life for me”, and then, boom, they’re into The Boys Are Back In Town. As soon as it registers with the audience, the sound of cheering and applause is deafening. In that moment is everything you need to know about what makes live albums so great.
It was the success of Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! that spurred Thin Lizzy to make a live record of their own. While Lizzy were on tour in America in the summer of ’76, all they ever heard on the radio was Peter fucking Frampton. Lynott believed that what worked for Frampton could work for them. How right he was. Recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in November 1976, with additional material from gigs in Toronto and Philadelphia in ’77, Live And Dangerous featured the quintessential Thin Lizzy line-up: Lynott on bass and vocals, Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson lead guitars, and Brian Downey on drums.
A double album, it includes a bunch of the best rock songs ever written: not the band’s first hit single Whiskey In The Jar, but so many others: Jailbreak, Emerald, Don’t Believe A Word, Dancing In The Moonlight (It’s Caught Me In Its Spotlight), Rosalie, Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed, The Rocker, and of course Cowboy Song and The Boys Are Back In Town. It also has one of the great rock ballads, Still In Love With You, on which Gorham and Robertson’s playing will break your heart. And it has the kind of between-song banter that only a man as charming as Phil could have gotten away with. “Is there anybody here with any Irish in them? Is there any of the girls that want a little more Irish in them?”
Live And Dangerous was a huge hit in 1978. In Britain, only the Grease soundtrack kept it off number one. Scott Gorham believes it is the best album of Thin Lizzy’s career. "Live And Dangerous is what this band was all about,” he says. The best live album ever made? No contest.