While a live album can’t compare with being physically present at a gig, the best of them are able to convey a sense of outstanding music frozen in time; this is what the band were performing at that moment, this is how good they were live. In the absence of live concerts, video performances and live albums are all that are available to us to attempt to connect with the feeling live music conveys. This is the second part of ProgBlog’s favourite live albums, for lockdown or anytime.
Camel - A Live Record (1978)
I got into Camel in 1975 after hearing Music Inspired by the Snow Goose, an album I believe to be one of the finest orchestrated rock albums of all time thanks to David Bedford’s intelligent arrangements. One of my best friends had copies of both Rain Dances (1977) and A Live Record and it was a bit of a mystery why there wasn’t more of the (then) recently released Rain Dances on the live set, though the sumptuous Royal Albert Hall performance of Snow Goose took up half of the double LP so that space for more of the latest album was limited by the inclusion of a collection of some of their most memorable tracks from their back catalogue up to that time. I used to have a copy of the original-length album on CD before it was replaced with the 2002 remastered and expanded edition, which provided an even better potted history of the band; I always felt the subsequent albums up until Harbour of Tears (1996) were driven more by commercial interests than musical, though that’s not to say there was no decent material produced after Rain Dances, and Pressure Points: Live in Concert (1984) was a decent live portrayal of the more modern Camel repertoire. A Live Record features a version of Skylines, one of the most highly rated tracks from Rain Dances, captured from their performance at Leeds University on October 3rd 1977 – I’d encouraged my brother who was studying at Leeds to attend – but the live album taken as a whole presents Camel at their melodic best.
Genesis - Live (1973)
As an introduction to (early) Genesis, Live really hit the spot. My copy of the LP is a cut-out distributed by Canadian imprint Buddah Records, bought in Leeds in 1976, and I added the 1994 CD some years later. I don’t remember if I’d heard The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) at the time - which was my brother’s first Genesis album – but I do remember discussing The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway when it was toured with a school friend who managed to get to see it performed live in Newcastle, and being impressed with the story of Rael. On reflection, it’s easy to chart the path from Foxtrot (1972) to the almost punk-attitude The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway via Selling England by the Pound (1973); Selling England is pivotal in the development of Genesis band because it marks Tony Banks’ first use of the ARP synthesizer and his distinctive lead synth lines. This means Live, recorded in February 1973 and released in July that year as a stop-gap while Selling England by the Pound was being recorded, marks the end of an era.
The sound quality isn’t the best, prompting Peter Gabriel to point out that the recordings were done quickly without much regard to the sound, but it’s an inspired collection of their early material in a live setting. Issued as a single LP, it’s rumoured that a few 2LP promo versions were pressed, including a version of Supper’s Ready from the Leicester performance that made up the bulk of the material. It’s also noteworthy for Gabriel’s ‘tube train’ story, which was almost reason enough for buying the album.
Premiata Forneria Marconi – Cook (1974)
Cook was my introduction not just to PFM, but to the sub-genre of progressivo italiano, and is therefore probably the record that has had the most profound effect on my life after Close to the Edge. While I can’t remember exactly how PFM came across our radar I know I saw their performance on BBC TV series The Old Grey Whistle Test, and Alan Freeman must have played them on his Saturday afternoon radio show. Cook was the first of their records that I bought but I was also listening to Photos of Ghosts, Chocolate Kings and Jet Lag, blown away by the musicianship and intrigued by the Italian take on prog. What was also interesting was the revelation that there was a ‘really first Italian album… …sung in Italian’, as the live introduction to Dove… Quando…, a personal favourite, informed us. It would take more than 30 years for me to get my hands on a CD copy of Storia di un Minuto and a further 12 before I bought a copy on vinyl. I actually owned the Italian version called Live in USA on CD before it became redundant following the 2010 3CD Cook reissue, where discs two and three feature the entire Schaefer Music Festival performance from Central Park.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see PFM live on three occasions, plus original bassist Giorgio Piazza once, where the set list was predominately selected from the first three Italian releases plus the first two English-language counterparts. Cook represents a snapshot of early PFM that set me off on a long road of discovery involving a large number of Italian cities for which I’ll forever be grateful.
Caravan – Live at Fairfield Halls, 1974 (2002)
I didn’t really get into Caravan until the early 80s, when I first heard Nine Feet Underground. I’d bought Better by Far (1977) on cassette a couple of years earlier but was seriously unimpressed, and could barely remember For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night (1973), which I’d heard around the time of its release. Prompted by Dave Sinclair’s side-long masterpiece I bought the Canterbury Tales compilation 2LP from 1976, an excellent introduction to their early material. Tucked away on side 1 of Canterbury Tales was a live version of Can't Be Long Now / Francoise / For Richard / Warlock, from September 1st 1974, part of a Croydon gig recorded for promotional reasons for an upcoming tour of the US.
I’d been quite happy with my CD copy of Caravan & The New Symphonia, a single LP recorded live with orchestra at Drury Lane and originally released in 1973, but when Decca began to reissue expanded CDs from the Caravan back catalogue in the early 2000s, the entire Croydon concert tapes were discovered. I love this album because it’s got a great set list, the sound is incredibly good (the Fairfield Halls are noted for the excellent acoustics), and because I live in Croydon. A 2LP vinyl version had been issued by Terry King’s Kingdom Records in France, The Best of Caravan Live (1980) but this went under the radar because most people thought it was a budget compilation – it would be brilliant if Decca could sanction a vinyl release.
Pink Floyd – Live at Pompeii (1972)
Both The Delicate Sound of Thunder (1988) and Pulse (1995) are well-recorded live albums but they contain material from The Wall which doesn’t particularly interest me. I am, however, a fan of the live half of Ummagumma (1969) where Pink Floyd demonstrated why they were the premier space rock band on the four classic early tracks Astronomy Domine, Careful with that Axe, Eugene, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, and A Saucerful of Secrets. It could be considered cheating to include Live at Pompeii in a list of live albums because my version is an audio recording of the 2002 DVD, played on a PC with Dolby sound and recorded on a laptop using WavePad sound editing software, rather than the official release on disc 2 of Obfusc/ation 1972 (2017) which doesn’t include Mademoiselle Nobs, but this 1971 recording with the audience made up of the road and film crews captures the group as they shift decisively towards prog. Three of Ummagumma’s live tracks (the best three) are represented and these are supplemented with Meddle material, the throwaway Mademoiselle Nobs, One of these Days, and the epic Echoes. The Pompeii film was an early favourite of mine, and I remember the long queue outside the cinema where it was showing, wondering if I’d get in to see it.
Photo: Screen grabs from Adrian Maben's Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii (The Director's Cut)
It’s interesting to note, reading through my thoughts above, that my favourite live albums with the exception of Real Time, all feature recordings made during the first wave of progressive rock. It’s not that I don’t possess any recent live albums – my three-drummers King Crimson collection may not be complete but it is substantial; I’m also the proud owner of a copy of Topographic Drama and a number of Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited live releases, most notably Selling England By The Pound & Spectral Mornings: Live At Hammersmith, a gig at which I was present, but once again, with the exception of some King Crimson pieces, all the compositions are from the golden age of prog. Real Time itself is made up from 70’s material and two tracks from 2005’s Present.
One explanation for this is familiarity. In part 1 I explained that I sometimes bought live albums as an introduction to a particular group but I’m also both more used to the earlier material and more appreciative of it; more recent concerts are likely to contain more modern material that I don’t think is as good as the output during the 70s, and with more music to choose from it becomes harder to please me because some of my earlier favourites will get dropped from the set list. It’s important for a band to reinterpret their music for a live setting, something King Crimson were at pains to point out during their 50th anniversary tour, but personnel changes inevitably bring about different arrangements. From the ten albums I’ve listed not one of the bands, if they’re still active, has the same current line-up; fewer members, different personnel, or an expanded line-up.
A short, finite list invariably means some of my highly-regarded live albums have not been covered but I didn’t have to think too hard about which albums to choose. It’s unlikely anyone else would pick this same ten, because there are thousands of live recordings, each with a special bond to its audience. So whatever your favourite live albums might be, in the absence of live music we need something to keep us going.