Covid lockdown's cancellation of gigs makes live albums seem like sacred texts – Aidan Smith

They hadn’t fallen out or anything, just that on this day Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer fancied, for a change, being interviewed separately. This gave me an idea…

Paul Rodgers' Free recorded one of the all-time great live albums in 1971 (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)

How would the comedy double-act fare, in separate rooms and indeed on separate floors of their hotel, in an impromptu game of Mr & Mrs, the hoary old telly quiz for married couples who reckoned they knew everything about each other, from the time they set the Teasmade to the state of their bunions?

“So, Vic,” I said, “if there was a fire in Bob’s house and all living things had been successfully rescued from the raging inferno, what might he next try and save?”

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Reeves thought for a moment, but not long at all, then said: “The chaffinch. Bob’s a cracking painter.”

Iggy Pop performing with the Stooges in 2013 when the crowd were more receptive and didn't throw eggs and shovels. (Picture: Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Then: “Same question to you, Bob, Vic’s only got a few seconds to grab an inanimate object, a keepsake, a careworn special something-or-other, have to hurry you… ”

Mortimer took even less time to answer: “His Free Live LP.”

Properly, it’s Free Live! An exclamation mark for the six-and-a-half-minute version of “All Right Now” and the rest. Reeves’s answer was spot-on and so was Mortimer’s.

Now, Vic’s favourite album, released in 1971, would have been easily replaced, but given he’s roughly the same age as me, I bet his original copy came in the envelope cover, with Paul Rodgers and the rest of the band being shown on stamps on the front, and that he knew and loved all the crackles and hisses of the vinyl – just he like did the audience’s cheers.

Ah, the sound of a crowd. How lovely to hear it again. The murmuring, babbling and occasional smashing of glass building to whistling, roaring and primal screaming from heckling show-offs who seemed to know that a mobile recording truck was parked outside – all the stuff that used to annoy me about live albums is like spring birdsong right now.

Reeves may have been treasuring Free Live! even more during lockdown and I know I have. Same with all the concert recordings in my collection: The Who’s Live at Leeds, The Doors’ Absolutely Live, David Bowie’s Stage, Roxy Music’s Viva! and Yessongs among them.

That’s not going to stop any time soon for gig-going will surely be the last of our old lives that we’ll eventually be allowed to reclaim. Think about it: there’s no other pastime which involves sweaty, writhing, frantic contact with complete strangers to the same degree. I bet even orgies will restart quicker. “One, two, three, four… ” will likely be uttered by a sex club madame, counting the bodies in her premium suite to make sure there are no interlopers, before it’s we again hear the cry of a singer in a band as they blast into their opening number.

The live album has had a chequered existence. For groups coming out of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a rite-of-passage, only to then diminish in status and become the last, contractually obliged statement of bands devoid of inspiration. Maybe for some rock stars it was always a cynical, lazy, easy piece of product but I was too innocent to notice, as were my friends.

Keith was the chum who owned Free Live! – we were too poor to have any more than one live album each – so many study-leave afternoons were spent drinking sweet tea in his bedroom, anticipating the whoops and hollers of the Sunderland Locarno and fantasising about what it would be like to be shoved around by bouncers and develop first-degree tinnitus.

Not only were we too innocent and too poor, we were also too young for Edinburgh’s Empire, the capital’s premier concert venue back then, because shows couldn’t start until 11.30pm after the last of the bingo sessions.

Keith, braver than me, stuffed cushions and a football under his bed-covers and shinned down a drainpipe to see Black Sabbath. When he snuck back through his window, the junior occultist’s punishment was easily understood – ie, had not been spelled backwards – grounded for a fortnight.

In my town two fat ladies trumped a thin white duke but eventually I got to worship at the stack heels of Bowie and all my rock idols. Now, wondering where my next live music is coming from, memories of the first gig top the first football match, first kiss, first everything.

Thank goodness then for live albums. They seemed to fall right out of favour with the rise of hi-fi snobbery, punk rock’s limited musicianship and the advent of digital recording. In the Covid era, as we worry about the future of large-scale cultural events, they are starting to resemble cave paintings and sacred texts.

Totale Turns by The Fall a sacred text with Mark E Smith barking to a band member: “Will you f****** get it together instead of showing off?” Or Iggy and the Stooges’ Metallic KO? That one has the main man telling a biker gang bombarding him with eggs, bottles and shovels: “You can throw your goddam c**** and I won’t care.”

Well, I don’t know these recordings and with concert stages still dark I’m grateful for any opportunity to hear a band, any band, no matter how desperate they might sound.

Or how indulgent. Oh to hear a bass solo again. No, better/worse than that: a drum solo. Or bum notes from the guitarist. Or insincere words of welcome from the singer. Or no acknowledgement of the crowd whatsoever.

Oh to experience all of this while unable to escape the body odour of the braying bore stood alongside, or his ludicrous opinions. That dissenting voice shouting “Judas!” at Bob Dylan for going electric had no idea how elaborate gigs would become, then how they would abruptly cease.

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