What makes a live album "live"?

The Four Seasons did the same to fulfill a contract obligation.

This is a bit of a tangent, but still.

When Genesis went on tour to promote The Lamb lies Down on Broadway the album hadn’t actually been released, so for the first [how many?] concerts, they played the whole double album to an audience that hadn’t heard anything before. As you can imagine it didn’t go down well.

The Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session was recorded in one afternoon with hardly any retakes, with everyone gathered around one microphone as they played the whole set. If you strain hard, I think you can hear traffic outside the church where it was recorded. I’d still call that a studio record, and they put out at least one proper live album later.

There are also self-acknowledged “curated” live albums that have performances from different nights/different venues, for example Tom Petty’s “Live Anthology” and “Live At The Fillmore 1997”. Tom’s philosophy for putting them together:

“…listen to it all, pick the best stuff, and put it in some kind of order. Straightforward but hardly simple…”

What’s strange to me is artists/producers/labels often select the performances that are the most note-for-note exact copy of the studio version, which kind of defeats the point, IMO.

On the one hand, it’s impressive from a musicianship perspective that a band could reproduce a studio version perfectly, but OTOH why even play shows then?

At least for rock and pop music, the traditional reason for touring, and playing live shows, was said to be that it was done in support of one’s records, and it was felt to be more-or-less mandatory, as a way to build interest in the band and their albums.

These days, I’ve read that the reverse is true: bands release music in support of their tours, as touring (at least for major bands) is apparently where the money is now.

For me a live album requires three things:

  1. Recorded in one take: If the performers play the a song 10 times and pick the best version, then it’s not live.
  2. No overdubs: all of the sounds heard needed to be made from the performers in real-time.
  3. Minimal stopping: The material is performed back-to-back with minimal breaks.

If a studio album meets this criteria, I would consider it live. There are probably lots of studio sessions that meet #1 and #2, but not as many that meet #3. If an artist performs in a radio studio or similar, that would typically meet all three criteria.

I guess I am not a purist though as I tend to think of All the World’s a Stage as a live album. It is a bit of a cheat since it includes the best of several performances.

On TV ‘recorded live in front a studio audience’ seems to be an over-sell since scenes are filmed multiple times and the audience is sweetened up with a laugh track.

Isn’t the blurb “filmed before a live studio audience?” That’s what it is on Cheers, anyway. In other words the “live” modifies the audience, not “filmed.”

Good point. You are correct – my mistake.

The Who’s Live At Leeds --always on the list of best live albums ever – has vocal overdubs and that odd little bit of Magic Bus where Pete snipped the tape and spliced it in backwards.

They taped the next night’s show at Hull City Hall but they scrapped that because John’s bass was lost on the first couple of songs. They later went back and “flew in” his parts from the Leeds tapes and released Live At Hull in the Leeds Deluxe set and as a stand alone album.

I don’t have a problem with live albums that are compiled from several shows at the same venue (All The World’s A Stage) or different shows from the same tour (Exit Stage Left). The idea is to give you an idea of how the artist or band performs live, and if that’s successful then I don’t really care how many shows it takes to get decent takes.

On the subject of Rush, I remember when they were touring in support of the Permanent Waves album. I was living in St Louis at the time and I think that was the tour where they played three nights straight. The local radio station rebroadcast one of the shows, which I taped and listened to a lot afterwards. There was one song where Geddy Lee’s voice cracked horribly. I cringed every time I heard it. See, that’s exactly the reason you pick the best tracks from multiple shows. You don’t want that going on, as they say, your permanent record.

Very cool! My brother recorded one of the St. Louis shows as well and I used to listen to that all of the time (PW has always been my favorite album of theirs). I don’t remember if I have the same night as the one where Geddy’s voice cracked, but there were some anomilies – not all bad. I was thinking of this recording when considering the OP.

I’d dare say that virtually no officially-released live album satisfies all of those criteria. Bootlegs are really the only way to go to reach that kind of untouched experience.

Lou Reed’s Take No Prisoners may be one exception…he’s clearly high during the set and rambles endlessly. That album is a great time capsule of 70s decadence. I’m struggling to think of many others that aren’t tweaked at least somewhat, except for tour documetns that were rushed out by a record company that didn’t give a crap (see: The Kinks Live at Kelvin Hall. Or rather, don’t.).

I also have no problem calling ATWAS a live album. IIRC, UFO’s live album from the same time period was similarly culled from a series of concerts.

As I’ve stated above, a “live” recording also has a different, but equally valid, meaning.

Frank Zappa’s You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series is a bunch of double CDs of untouched live performances. The second one is a single weekend’s worth of concerts from Helsinki: YCDTOSA 2: The Helsinki Tapes.

I don’t know that it’s an “album”, per se, but it definitely meets the live criteria. It is also outstanding.

To me the ultimate in blurred lines is Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense.” Part of each performance was live in front of an audience, but Byrne did so much sweetening and overdubbing that I wouldn’t call it a “live” album. To me that still implies “In Concert” no matter what the formal definition is.

Some bands decided to beat the bootleggers at their own game by releasing their own soundboard recordings. The now-defunct themusic.com used to sell “Encore Series” CDs and DVDs of shows in partnership with The Who, Duran Duran, Genesis and Peter Gabriel. Peter Frampton sold CDs of every gig on his Frampton Comes Alive 35th Anniversary Tour.

I’m not that much of a purist, but I think that “sweetening” the tracks with overdubs should require the artist to take the “live” moniker off the record. I mean, at least 90%* of the recordings I’ve been on have had the drum and bass tracks recorded live (and we usually nail our parts on the first take, natch). At the same time, the guitarists and the singer were recording a scratch track that would usually (but not always) be replaced with them laying down their own tracks later, often with many re-takes. In that case, the studio is basically a labor saving device for the drummer and bassist. If you’re going back and re-doing guitar parts or vocals on top of a recording at a concert, it’s basically the procedure used to record most of the “studio” recordings I’ve been involved with, and you just picked a noisy environment to lay down the base drum/bass tracks. So, once you’ve started to add tracks not recorded simultaneously with everyone else, I think you should ditch “live” from your title.

Similarly, I’ve got zero problem with a band recording several nights or several takes that were all recorded simultaneously in the studio, and calling that a “live” record. If you can all pull off that performance at the same time, I’d call it “live” in it’s black, round, little heart. Most “live” records that I love and feel are honest are recorded over several nights with the best takes being selected. There are a few live records out there that record the entirety of a live show and present it warts and all, but those are very rare.

One of the few recordings that lives with its warts is Spacemen 3’s Dreamweapon - the bass player forgot to plug into his amp, so it really has no bass. You can hear the pick clicking against the bass strings, though. Rest assured, this is as is live as it gets.

I like the part where it goes “wah wah wah wah wha wha wha”. Seriously, I still love this recording. It is beautiful.

So, I’d call recordings in a studio where everyone does one take at the same time “live in the studio” (audience or no), live recordings in front of an audience at a venue with no overdubs “live in concert”, and I’d chase people who overdubbed their “live” records with bottle rockets until I was tired of doing it. But no one has seen fit to make me the Dictator of Album Names, and I’d like to see them try to enforce it if they did.

*The few that weren’t were straight multi-tracking and we were writing using the recording console. There was no finished song for the guitarists and singer to play along to when we recorded the drum and bass tracks. I mean, I did a song over the last few weeks by me improvising first drums, then bass, then electric organ. After that I had a friend come in and put two improvised guitar tracks over it. All of the tracks are improvised in their own continuous take, but I would never call it “live”.

Elton John’s 11/17/70 was not overdubbed and was quickly released after bootlegs of the on-air concert started appearing. The original didn’t have all the songs, but they were all played live. Later versions added remixes. The original is probably as pure example of a live album as you can find.

Not sure I have a dog in this hunt as far as nailing down the exact definition, but wanted to point out two extremes.
Van Halen’s Live Right Here Right Now is famously overdubbed and all but re-recorded in the studio. Sammy has claimed the brothers corrected the tempo, pitch and other elements so much that he then had to resing the show in the studio so his vocals would match up with the corrected music. I have a bootleg with material from the same two shows and it’s pretty clear a lot was done. So, is that a live album?
On the other extreme is Jason Isbell’s Live From 1979. He and the band went into a studio and recorded live, direct to acetate. There was no possibility of overdubs, fixing pieces or any other changes after the recording. Just straight from the board to the acetate to vinyl. That’s about as pure as it gets but it was in a studio with no audience, so is that really a “live” album?
Most “live” albums seem to be somewhere in the middle of these. For me, the whole point of a live album is the immediacy and rawness of an in person performance where anything can happen. If it becomes too polished and perfect I might as well just listen to the original studio album. Guess it’s all a personal preference as long as it’s clear what we’re actually getting.