Poor old Bruce Springsteen. The longer he keeps going, the more of the old venerable arenas that serviced rock during its peak years he ends up closing down – last old rocker standing as the buildings around him crumble – as the Los Angeles Times reported today.
The latest closure in this trend is the Los Angeles Sports Arena, a venue that has played host of live rock music since the sixties.
Those interested in a potted history of the development of arena touring in the US during the late-60s and early 70s, should take a look at my own Easy Riders, Rolling Stones: On the Road in America, from Delta Blues to 70s Rock. Here, below, is a short excerpt about the explosion of live albums in the 1970s, a trend that was closely linked to the rise of the arena show as a staple of rock culture in those days. Perhaps, in the end – however far down the line that is – all that will be left of the culture of rock touring from that era will be documents such as the live album.
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Excerpt from Easy Riders, Rolling Stones by John Scanlan
It was the connection to something more real than was apparently captured on studio recordings – the pursuit of authentic experience – that marked the arrival of so many of the live albums that appeared in a flood during the 70s.
A 1974 industry report on the phenomenon for trade weekly Billboard declared that it was one of the major trends in the music world, and that it ‘was not uncommon now to find between fifteen and twenty live albums on the charts at any given time.’ These products may have served the function for the record companies of being cheap options that, in the service of easy profits, they were eager to keep on knocking out, but they were more than that. It is true that the record companies had, as a by-product of trying to counter live concert bootlegs, hit on a most profitable formula: here was a product with minimal recording costs attached to it, and with the high consumer appeal of tracklistings usually composed of well-known songs, and so likely to be popular with buyers.
But it was an era when these releases also worked to the artists’ advantage, because they offered a vehicle through which musicians felt they could express their connection to the real nitty-gritty of their existence as a road band.
Just look at the titles of some of these albums – Live and Dangerous, Kick Out the Jams, On Your Feet or On Your Knees, It’s Alive, Rock’n’roll Animal, Undead, Blow Your Face Out. As the recording manager for the most successful mobile recording unit of the era, Wally Heider Recording of San Francisco, said at the time, the musicians were – by the turn of the 70s – much better players than they had been before, ‘particularly those that had been around a while and perfected their stage show.’ And one particular appeal of the live album for performers and consumers alike was the sound of ‘the feedback and energy from the audience’ that came over on the best of these recordings.
To get the ‘live’ version of your favourite band was to get the most in your face, uncompromising, and raw version – the truest apparent representation, which is one reason why the sound of the audience on these albums is so important; it testified to excitement and alive-ness of it all.
For about ten years, up until the turn of the eighties, the live album was a staple part of how record companies, artist management and the industry, in general, perceived artistic development. But, it also became a cheap option for a quick return, if not the easiest way to fulfill contractual obligations for artists who had moved on to new labels. Fans, nonetheless, lapped up these products, and artists were usually happy to be involved with them. And, purely in performance terms, the widespread existence of the format suggested that rock music had assumed a level of seriousness about performance and musicianship that had been more commonly associated with jazz, where the live album format had long been a staple of the recorded output of most artists.
Yet, despite the peak era for live albums having long since passed, recent years have seen a glut of releases that aim to comprehensively document the performance career of long-established ‘heritage’ artists, particularly those from the 60s and 70s. This is evidence, if nothing else, of the extent to which live recording became routine for touring bands in that era. From long defunct bands like The Doors, whose Bright Midnight series has been releasing bootlegs under an official imprint since the turn of the century (more than a dozen to date), to artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who maintain a steady stream of releases from their own vaults, the live albums keep on coming and now free from the constraints of the vinyl medium. But, these all represent – for the most part – the surfacing of performances that were recorded in the days of the live album’s ‘natural’ lifespan. In truth, the format, as a means of contemporaneous documentation of life on the road began to fade from existence in the 1980s.
It reached some kind of end in the over-the-top form of Bruce Springsteen’s exhaustive five-album set, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live 1975-85. Springsteen was regarded as one of the most exciting and unpredictable performers of the 70s, and had long been bootlegged. He was known to drop unreleased songs into his set that never made it onto his albums, as well as numerous cover versions, all of which helped to sustain and pace marathon stage performances that could last up to three and more hours. But when he finally got around to releasing his long-awaited live album, for many it lacked something of the bootleg experience that had helped to seal his legend as a stage performer. Rather than being a presentation of a single continuous concert, it was comprised of songs recorded at a variety of locations over a ten-year period, covering different phases of the life of his band (as club band, as arena and stadium giants, and so on).
And, as such, it was a move away from the singular concert experience that had been first provided by live bootleg recordings in the sixties, which in turn spurred the record industry into releasing live albums in the first place – as documents and mementos of one-off events.