The live album has long been a polarizing beast. For some artists, it is a way to reach a fan base during a creative valley in between albums or tours. Others treat the live album as a grubby cash grab, aimed to rinse fans of their last dime. Sometimes, the live album can serve as a last resort to jump-start a career gasping for breath. While it’s probably true that some live albums would have been better off never seeing the light of day, the fact remains that some live albums serve as a defining moment for many artists. With that in mind, this week’s article aims to shine the spotlight on what I feel are five essential live albums that each vinyl collector should have in their collection, with a specific focus on live albums that bear cultural significance. Let’s get started!
1) KISS – Alive! (1975)
Considering the amount of success and recognition KISS has garnered, leading all the way up to their long-overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, it’s hard to imagine that by 1975 the band was on its last legs. At that time, they had released three studio albums, KISS, Hotter than Hell, and Dressed to Kill, in the span of two years. While they had established something of a cult following in middle America, they were still commercial failures. Studio engineers and producers had completely failed to capture the sound and intensity of KISS. To make matters worse, their label Casablanca Records was near bankruptcy. With nowhere left to turn and nothing left to lose, KISS and its management self-financed a tour of the rust belt. The plan was to record a live album as a last-ditch attempt to truly capture their sound and connect with their prospective fan base. The result was one of the most important recordings in Rock history.
Recorded over the course of four separate evenings in Detroit, MI, Cleveland, OH, Davenport, IA and Wildwood, NJ, KISS Alive!, not only captured the true sound of Kiss, but it catapulted them to stardom basically overnight on the back of the hit single “Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night.” KISS Alive! remains an important sign marker in Rock history. Most, if not all live albums that came after, would model themselves after it. To this day, countless generations of musicians cite Alive! as a direct influence. KISS rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley opines that the album “Sounds as if it were recorded in a washroom.” Still, Alive! remains the benchmark for what a Rock outfit can achieve in the live setting. Simply put, its legacy is larger than life. Its reach is both far and wide. Its importance is etched in stone. Many reissues of the album exist, but collectors should look for the first press. As is the case with all Casablanca albums of the era, you can spot it by its blue labels. If you’re very particular, then try and snag yourself a copy with the booklet, as it’s a fantastic visual document of a truly unique and legendary band at its peak.
2) Sam Cooke – Live at the Harlem Square Club (1963)
Live at the Harlem Square Club was recorded one Winter evening in January 1963 in a small nightclub in downtown Miami, FL. Looking to generate buzz, Sam Cooke’s label, RCA Victor, had strategically picked the spot, The Harlem Square Club, as it was situated in a historically African American neighborhood of Overton, FL. Sam Cooke had recently crossed over from Gospel music to Pop, and RCA Victor saw this as a means to pack the club with some of his oldest and most devoted fans from his Gospel days. The strategy backfired, however, as the results proved to be too raw for a burgeoning Popstar. With a mainstream image to protect, RCA Victor chose to shelve the album and focus on radio-friendly studio singles.
Around twenty or so years later, in 1985, a label executive named Greg Geller stumbled across the tapes and immediately realized he had found an extraordinary live document of one of Soul music’s most seminal artists. Live at the Harlem Square Club was officially released in 1986, and the rest is history. Since its release, Live at the Harlem Square Club has been consistently lauded as one of the greatest live Soul recordings in history, if not one of the greatest live albums in general. While at the time, label executives felt it was too gritty for a Popstar such as Cooke, retrospective reviews applaud its energetic, frenzied power that showcases Sam’s ability to connect with his audience in a way that his label singles simply never could. Over the years, three separate mixes have been released, but it is my opinion that the first and original mix from 1986 is the best one. If you are a collector of vinyl or love Soul music, this is a must-have for your collection.
3) Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (1968)
After years of drug use, and abuse, Johnny Cash found his career in a downward spiral. Looking to get clean and jump-start things, he felt that a live album would be just the ticket. Cash had a long, if not somewhat odd, fascination with the prison system, and outlaw culture in general, dating back to his days in the United States Air Force. After watching the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, he was inspired to write the song “Folsom Prison Blues,” which reflected his perception of prison life. For obvious reasons, the song became popular among prison inmates, who would often write Cash, requesting that he come and perform at their respective prisons. Cash’s first prison performance was at Huntsville State Prison in 1957, and as the years went by, he continued to perform at various prisons across the country. In 1968, Cash sought treatment for his drug dependency while looking to reestablish his career in Country Music, with the intent of recording a live performance in a prison and releasing it as his next album. Cash’s label, Columbia Records, had recently experienced turnover, and while past producers refused Cash’s idea, new producer Bob Johnston, a known renegade with a pension for disagreeing with studio executives, green-lighted the project.
And so on January 13th, 1968, Johnny Cash, June Carter, and his band, the Tennessee Three, made history with two performances at Folsom Prison in California. The resulting recordings would become the now seminal live album At Folsom Prison, an album released to rave reviews and one which would revive Johnny Cash’s career. Fun fact about these shows: Cash and his cohorts ended each show with “Greystone Chapel,” a song penned by Folsom Prison inmate Glen Shirley, which Cash had taken the time to learn specifically for these shows. For vinyl collectors and Country music fans, this is an essential release and a great starting point if you’re looking to dip your toe into the Country genre. There have been many reissues over the years, but the definitive edition may be the 2018 Record Store Day edition. The box-set includes 5 LPs, which covers both shows, the rehearsals, and even some outtakes.
4) Elvis Presley – King in the Ring (2018)
This will seem like an unusual choice for this list, but allow me to make my case. Elvis Presley is the undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but as the 1960s drew to a close, his career seemed to be waning along with the decade. Sidetracked by a failed career in Hollywood and buried by the British Invasion, at 33 years of age, Elvis Presley was yesterday’s news. His fan base had moved on. Younger and seemingly more inventive bands such as The Beatles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones now ruled the day. Seeking to prove that he still had swagger, and more importantly – commercial value, Elvis clad himself in leather from head to toe, reunited with his original sidemen, DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore, and sought to put on a performance that would reignite his fledgling career.
The ‘68 Comeback Special aired on NBC in June 1968. The special featured a stand-up portion backed by a big band and a sit-down portion along with various variety type skits, which served to showcase Elvis as a versatile and commercially viable performer. The intent was to jump-start Elvis’s career, and it did just that. The sit-down portion of the show was particularly memorable. The setlist was loaded with classic 1950’s Elvis tunes, sung with a passion and renewed vigor that would propel Elvis into the next, and sadly final, leg of his career. The sit-down set is also important for another reason. Retrospectively, it is considered the first true “Unplugged” set and was a direct influence, if not the literal genesis, for the hit MTV program two decades later.
Watching and listening to Elvis perform on that faithful June evening, it’s hard to believe that a mere nine years later, we would lose the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll to a heart attack. Elvis sadly died a bloated shell of his former self, but we will always have the ‘68 Comeback Special as a lasting image of one of Rock music’s greatest and most charismatic characters. The ’68 Comeback Special has been released and reissued in many forms over the years. I’ve chosen the 2018 King in the Ring release for this list because of its specific focus on the sit-down portion of the show. When it comes to the vast canon of Elvis Presley, this iconic set is just about as good as it gets. Furthermore, it is culturally significant, as its influence is felt to this day, reflected in the MTV Unplugged and VH1 Storytellers series. If you’re a vinyl collector or fan of these types of series, then this is one you need in your collection. If you’re looking to get into Elvis but feel overwhelmed by his massive catalog, this is a perfect place to start.
5) John Coltrane – Live at the Village Vanguard (1962)
I am a huge fan of John Coltrane, but compared to other genres, I am still relatively new to Jazz. I only began consuming Jazz as a genre about four or five years ago. As I fell down the rabbit hole, I quickly fell in love with all things John Coltrane. While his entire catalog is nothing short of fantastic, I personally have grown particularly fond of what is known as the “classic quartet,” which comprised John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Turner. I chose to Live at the Village Vanguard because not only is it a seminal live document of Coltrane as he began to push the boundaries of Jazz music, but it is also the first official album to feature the aforementioned “classic quartet.” Recorded in November 1961, with alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy also in tow, Coltrane and his crew took the stage at the New York City nightclub, The Village Vanguard, with the intent of challenging his audience.
Coltrane had grown bored with Bop and Post-Bop and sought to tear down the preconceived notions of what Jazz could be and redefine the genre altogether. Audiences hoping to hear his seminal hit, “My Favorite Things,” were dismayed and oftentimes confused. Reviews were mixed, and the recordings were mired in turmoil, but still, Coltrane’s record label, Impulse! released the album to the general public in February 1962. Some felt the performances were “spiritual,” “torrential,” and loaded with “unmistakable power, and conviction.” Others felt that while Coltrane’s search for new avenues of expression was admirable, they still felt that, “If it is going to take this form of yawps, squawks, and countless repetitive runs, then it should be confined to the woodshed.” Time, however, has been far more friendly to Live at the Village Vanguard. Today, the album is seen as a defining moment for the avant-garde, free jazz, and neoclassical movement that was to follow as the 1960s wore on.
With a showcase on jamming, the album serves as a first look at what would become Coltrane’s “classic quartet,” a group that would go on to record some of the most legendary recordings in Jazz history, such as Impressions, A Love Supreme, and Meditations. These recordings served as the beginning of a new movement in Jazz history and helped completely change the trajectory of the genre. I mentioned earlier that audiences in 1962 felt the recordings were challenging, and that still holds true to this day. Much like the Jazz genre-as-a-whole, to understand this performance, you are going to need to devote your entire mind and consciousness to the recording and truly listen. John Coltrane requires the listener to actively work along with him and listen along with him. To love Coltrane’s music, you need to earn it. Once you do, I can personally say there is nothing like the spiritual journey John Coltrane will take you on. For many, that journey will begin with Live at the Village Vanguard. This album is not for the faint of heart, but for those of you that are wanting to expand both your musical repertoire and mind alike, this is the perfect place to start. I would also like to add that as I type this, I’ve just learned that we lost McCoy Tyner on March 6th, at the age of 81. May the legendary powerhouse of piano rest in peace. All-the-more reason to take the plunge and dive in.
Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Stories from the Stacks, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/stories-from-the-stacks-archives/
Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.