There are of course all kinds of differences between live albums and studio ones. Within rock and some other genres, notions of a primacy attached to the live experience exist, ideas of greater authenticity, that it’s where a band really show their chops, their worth. There is occasionally some truth in that – in my youth, Dr Feelgood were the standard example of a band who were much better live than in the studio, and based on seeing them and a terrific live album, this was very much the case. On the other hand, I have seen and heard loads of rock bands where it certainly wasn’t true, where the performance and sound just offered inferior reproductions of the studio recordings.
Still, there is atmosphere to be considered too – the sense of a performance, the sound of the crowd, the feel of a performer and an audience feeding off one another, responding to each other, is an added layer of enjoyment.
Also there are many live albums that are genuinely exceptional performances – I’ve no idea if we can assume that Sam Cooke was better live than in the studio, but his Harlem Square live album is much my favourite album of his; while James Brown’s Apollo set is perhaps the most canonical live album ever, there are also a bunch of other great live albums by him; and Jerry Lee Lewis (or indeed anyone else ever) was never as exciting elsewhere as on his Star Club live album.
But there are plenty of live albums I love where none of this is true. I don’t think the acts are necessarily better live, I don’t get anything extraordinary from the live setting, and I wouldn’t claim them as particularly special performances. There’s one other reason that I don’t think I’ve seen discussed anywhere, which for me plays a big part.
I’ve been listening to music with great passion for about 35 years now. I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve listened to my favourite tracks by my favourite acts, especially old favourites. I haven’t gone off too many of them, but I do find it distressingly easy to let a lot of them wash over me now, at times – I can play a lot of old favourites without paying conscious attention. Sometimes I realise they have finished and I hadn’t registered them at all.
My favourite ever act is a good example here: I can listen to Al, my favourite Al Green comp, without necessarily noticing it much, and I want to. I bought his Tokyo Live album much more recently. It’s a good performance, but I don’t think there is a track on it that I would say is better than the studio version. But the key thing is, they sound a bit different – not better, just different. This means I notice them, and my attention is drawn to my favourite singer on most of his best songs, and I therefore get more out of it. I find the same when I dig out my Pulp bootlegs, or Underworld’s great Everything Everything, and there are countless other examples. It even refreshes the studio versions a little, having listened to some other readings of the same material.
This is of course wholly subjective – if your first Al Green album was Tokyo Live, and you knew it by heart before hearing the studio versions, this would work the other way round, but this is clearly a far less common circumstance. Live recordings of almost any track (there are some exceptions) are heard far less often, and it’s very rare for a live version of a track to be officially released before a studio version, so the ‘making strange’, this defamiliarisation bonus I’m talking about, generally happens this way around.
Am I alone in this? Have I missed discussion of this elsewhere?