During the wildly exciting process of compiling the new Vinyl Connection Index page it was noted by the VC auditor that many months have elapsed since we last ventured into the sweaty mosh pit of live recordings.
How better to remedy that lamentable oversight than by tackling that monster of vinylosity, the triple live album?
Live albums have been around almost as long as sound recordings. Indeed, early recordings were all ‘live’ – that’s what a field recording is. But as for recording devices being taken to a bar or club and plonked down on a table near the stage, well that became a staple of jazz recording. Such recordings formed a substantial part of the catalogues of many major artists (take a bow, Miles Davis; play an encore, Bill Evans). And this was before the Music Archive treasure room was busted open to reveal an endless stream of ‘historic’ concerts that could be released in ever-increasing quantities to the significant financial advantage of struggling superannuated rock gods (here are the keys to New Zealand, Mr Page; Mr Plant’s new ocean liner is steaming towards it as we speak).
But when did the cell division of single into double albums occur? What bright amoeba had the idea of inserting a second disc into the empty gate of a gatefold cover? And then, who insisted that two platters were insufficient company and that a crowd of three was more desirable?
The earliest double live album I could track down in the rock sphere was by the redoubtable Grateful Dead. Known for their long meandering shows filled with long meandering pieces, it is unsurprising that they needed four sides of vinyl to capture something of their concert presence. Released in November 1969, Live Dead is a brilliant head-trip of an album that single-handedly invented psychedelic stoner rock.
The Doors 2LP set Absolutely Live came out in July the following year while The Allman Brothers – another band well acquainted with the extended instrumental jam – released the high-energy double At Fillmore East in July 1971. All of these albums are worthy of enthusiastic reviews but we cannot linger in double-album land.
As well as Live Dead and The Beatles impromptu performance on the rooftop of Abbey Road, another significant concert event of 1969 was the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held over three August days in upstate New York and captured for posterity on film and magnetic tape. The album of the music was released in May 1970 and included a couple of songs by many of the performers. The first ever rock triple live album.
The following year George Harrison was approached by his friend Ravi Shankar about organising a benefit concert for the starving millions of Bangladesh. The plug having been irrevocably pulled on his former band and his own (studio) triple album being last year’s news (All Things Must Pass, November 1970), George said ‘Yes’. The two concert dates gave birth to a triple live album and significant controversy over money. Like the ‘three days of peace and music’ festival, The Concert for Bangladesh contained performances by a number of ‘friends’, most notably Bob Dylan. The roster of players was impressive too, with Eric Clapton, Leon Russell and Billy Preston all prominent.
There have been other ‘in concert’ triples featuring a variety of artists, including Last Days of the Fillmore (June 1972) and Sunbury 1973 – The Great Australian Rock Festival, but who was the first artist with the hubris to release a multi-disc album of just themselves? The answer may surprise.
Having produced a prolific three double albums of studio recordings in the years 1969 – 1971, brass-driven progressive jazz-rock pioneers Chicago were touring the latest one in early 1971. Part of the tour was a week of concerts at Manhattan’s prestigious Carnegie Hall which were recorded for posterity. Despite misgivings of both record company – who demanded they take a lowered royalty rate to hedge against the higher production costs – and some band members (James Pankow was unhappy with the recorded sound of the brass), a lavish boxed set came out in October 1971. It contained a booklet, two posters and no less than eight sides of music. Yep, Chicago IV had four records. Let’s count ‘em: a-one and a-two and a-1-2-3-4.
There has been a lot of criticism of this live magnum opus and certainly if you sat down to listen to all eight sides you’d probably be a gibbering mess by the two-and-a-half-hour mark, but overall it is nowhere near as bad as you might imagine. Chicago in their early days were inventive, energetic and versatile and there is much to enjoy here despite the brittle, slightly grating sound production. Whether you’d want the 2005 CD re-issue with a further hour of music is a moot point, but I’d still rather listen to four hours of 1971 Chicago than 14 minutes of Chicago XXXIV or whatever roman numeral they are up to now. (You think I’m joking about that album number? So did I… until I looked it up).
So finally we get to the first triple live album by a single artist. And guess what? The culprit is not surprising at all.
Grateful Dead – Live – Dead [Warner Bros, 1969]
Chicago – Chicago At Carnegie Hall (IV) [Columbia, 1971]
Part II: The Show That Never Ends…
Feedback on the post (in fact, on any post) and the Index most welcome!