JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Live and lowdown, to quote James Brown, who should’ve made the list.
1. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band–Live Bullet (Capitol)
There was a period of time between the decline of Sly and the Family Stone and the rise of Prince and the Revolution, when it seemed to me that Seger and the Silver Bullet Band offered a way forward for R&B in the dreary years of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, Steely Dan and their drab clones. Recorded a year or so before Bob Seger became an international star, this raucous live set captures the feel of Seger’s fiercely energetic road show, which was so more fun than any other stadium band of the 1970s, including the Stones and The Who. That Seger flamed out in the 1980s does nothing to erode the merit of his achievement, which in the landscape of white rock stills stands as lofty as the streets of Katmandu.
2. Otis Redding–Live in Europe (Electra)
The greatest live soul album, by a singer who may have been the most dynamic live performer of his, or any, time. If only there’d been as sharp a recording of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles back in the day.
3. Miles Davis–Live/Evil (Columbia)
In December of 1970 Miles took his fusion band to DC’s sedate Cellar Door jazz club where, amid the lawyers and lobbyists, they exploded with a sound louder than any rock group of their era, including Zeppelin and Sabbath (who, incidently, stole Miles’ title for one of their own live albums). The music was powered by John McLaughin’s scorching guitar, which Davis urged him to play as feverishly as Hendrix, Airto’s mad Brazilan beats and Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea’s funky electronic keyboards. It’s amazing that Miles’ muted trumpet isn’t overwhelmed by this sonic assault, but it haunts the edges of the music, occasionally darting through the middle of the sound to shift the mood and direction, like an Australian shepherd keeping the rebellious herd from plunging off a cliff. The cover art is even more bizarrely erotic than the Bitches Brew paintings.
4. The Pretenders–Isle of View (Warner)
When I first heard The Pretenders in a dingy Baltimore nightclub in 1979, I thought that Chrissie Hynde would at long last dethrone Dylan as the new of voice of her generation. She was certainly writing better songs than Dylan (or Joni Mitchell) at the time. Only Springsteen was penning music as trenchant as “My City is Gone” or “Middle of the Road” and I’ve always had the feeling that Bruce (and not Chrissie) was the real pretender. People say, whatever became of Chrissie Hynde? The answer is both simple and complex. For one ting, it was easier for the macho music critics of the time (one of the last bastions of uncamoflaged sexism in journalism) to exalt over Madonna’s girly-show routine rather than grapple with Hynde’s incisive music. Unlike most rock stars, Hynde also had a life off the road, as an artist, a lover, a mother, an activist, and she wrote about her experiences honestly and at times viciously. Her music matured and the songs got even better. “Chain Gang” and “Sense of Purpose” are as good as anything on “Blood on the Tracks” or “The River.” But America is not as mature as Chrissie Hynde and while the nation is willing to embrace and acclaim the confessional music of Dylan or Leonard Cohen, we remain still less willing to take this kind of medicine from a woman, especially a woman who refused to whine about her plight. And Chrissie Hynde has never whined. She’s always kicked ass, even in an acoustic setting and, yes, even with strings, just check out “Chill Factor” or “Criminal.”
5. The Clash–Live from Here to Eternity (Sony)
I squeezed into three of these shows and when I first listened to this recording it came off as flat and the Clash were never flat, at least not until Combat Rock. Of course, no CD could ever do justice to the furious chaos of a Clash concert, which is probably why they waited so long to release a live recording. Still this CD gives a hint of what the best band of the punk era sounded like at the peak of their powers.
When they knock down your front door,
how you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
or on the trigger of your gun?
Where are you now that we need you Joe Strummer?
6. Iggy Pop and the Stooges–Double Danger (Live) (Bomp)
Down a pint of tequila and stick your finger in the nearest electrical outlet. That jolt might approximate the experience of hearing the Stooges live in the early 1970s. This cd of two Stooges concerts doesn’t recapture that ear-splitting experience, but, with Iggy pushing 60, it’s as close as you’re likely to get to the sound of American punk being born, kicking and screaming. I’m still waiting for someone (Liz Phair where are you?) to attempt a cover of “Cock in My Pocket.”
7. Jerry Jeff Walker–Viva Terlingua (MCA)
Proof there is a comical side to Texas. The humor of Walker’s songs can get damned dark. But it would have to be, wouldn’t it? Now, Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers. Barbara Bush that means you….
8. Richard Pryor–And It’s Deep Too (Rhino)
Richard Pryor ranks with James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed and Amiri Baraka as one of the premier black social critics of our time. And Pryor was even funnier than Reed, which is like saying he was funnier than Mark Twain.
9. Earth, Wind & Fire–Gratitude (Sony)
Maurice White wrote the most complex pop songs ever recorded and his band Earth, Wind & Fire played them like party music, parties attended by 15 to 20,000 frenzied fans, most of whom wouldn’t know Ornette Coleman from Gary Coleman. Do you think they care? If you can’t dance to “Shining Star” or “Sun Goddess”, face it, you simply can’t dance.
10. McCoy Tyner Trio–Live at Sweet Basil’s (Evidence)
McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s piano player, leads his own acclaimed nightclub trio through two sets of Trane, Monk and original compositions. Tyner may be the most talented living pianist. For years he was certainly the hardest working and the hardest playing. Tyner hammers the keys with the ferocity of Marvin Hagler pummeling Thomas Hearnes, leaving no room to doubt that the piano is the ultimate percussion instrument. It’s a wonder he didn’t fracture the keys.
By the time Jeffrey St. Clair was 18, he’d been 86’d from more bands than Dickey Betts. Complaints can be registered to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m going to follow Jeff’s example and list some of my favorite live albums. I can’t guarantee, however, that I’ve actually listened to each and every one of them during the last week:
1. Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash at San Quentin (Sony)
An album so incendiary it makes Rage Against the Machine look like Raffi. Near the start, Cash complains that the TV crews filming him have been telling him what to sing, where to stand, what to do. “They just don’t get it, man,” he says. “I’m here to do what you want me to, and what I want to do.” Before long he’s practically inciting a riot with a song he wrote just for the prison audience — here’s a sample verse:
San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.
May your walls fall and may I live to tell.
May all the world forget you ever stood.
And may all the world regret you did no good.
It might not scan well on the page, but it’s got real power thundered from a jailhouse stage. He sings the whole song. He says: “If any of the guards are still speaking to me, could I have a glass of water?” And then he sings the damn thing again.
2. Solomon Burke: Soul Alive! (Rounder)
You might think a Solomon Burke concert in 1983 would be a predictable oldies show, a notalgic stroll through songs the singer hasn’t reimagined in 20 years. You’d be wrong. This man was delivering sermons before he was 10, and the soul hits and country standards he sings here become the building blocks of a secular church service, launching pads from which the preacher can propel semi-extemporaneous monologues on love and life. An amazing record.
3. Aretha Franklin: Amazing Grace (Atlantic)
If Soul Alive! brings gospel methods into secular territories, this record shows us what happens when a secular soul singer goes back to church. Aretha never recorded a better album.
4. Bob Dylan: Live 1975 (Columbia)
A vital document of Dylan’s underappreciated Rolling Thunder/ Desire period, and my favorite of his licit live recordings. But what I really want Columbia to release is a CD called Live 1979: something to show us what happened when Dylan went to church. I’m told he started playing a Christianized version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” complete with Bible quotes, and while I’m a little frightened to think of what that might sound like I’m awfully curious to hear it as well.
5. The Kinks: BBC Sessions, 1964-1977 (Sanctuary)
The Kinks recorded many concert albums, most of them enjoyable but all of them uneven. This is different: It’s live, all right, but most of its tracks were recorded in the studios of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Its 13-year span stretches from the band’s early proto-punk singles through Ray Davies’ more mature songwriting of the late ’60s, his vaudevillian rock operas of the early ’70s, and the first glimmerings of the group’s late-’70s comeback.
6. Kirsty MacColl: What Do Pretty Girls Do? (Cleopatra)
Another collection of BBC sessions, with the usually heavily produced MacColl captured in a loose, acoustic setting. (Billy Bragg sits in on two numbers as well.) Some of these songs sound like country music — not just “Walk Right Back,” which as an Everly Brothers number ought to sound country, but “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis,” which in MacColl’s original rendering was a piece of fast-paced ’80s pop. I like both versions, but there’s no question this one’s better.
7. John Coltrane: Live at the Village Vanguard: The Master Takes (GRP)
One critic called this “anti-jazz.” Fuck him.
8. Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport 1956 (Complete) (Sony)
The original version of this album was great, but it wasn’t really live: Ellington rerecorded more than half of it after the concert concluded, with fake applause inserted into the Potemkin performance. This 1999 reissue restores what we were missing — and should make any sane listener wonder why Columbia felt the need to rerecord any of it at all.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America. His blog is The Perpetual Three-Dot Column.
1. Boogie Down Productions-Ghetto Music: The Blueprint Of Hip Hop (Jive Records)
KRS-One, born with the government name, Kris Parker, is responsible for a gang of classic discs, and this is among those. A deeply politically conscious artist, Parker’s musical angle from his start in the eighties was to teach, rather than to preach. Rolling with the BDP posse (which initially featured the late DJ Scott La Rock, who Parker met while the two were homeless) through the Boogie Down Bronx, KRS makes a stand at the mic as a raptivist. Outspoken and relentless, Parker masterminded a full frontal attack on the world of hiphop with his battle ready rhymes. The album’s cover portrays a police officer with a nightstick, serving as a hint at what is to come in the album’s lyrics, in which Parker asks the pertinent musical questions, “Why Is That?” and “Who Protects Us From You?” Among the album’s standout tracks is the narrative, “You Must Learn,” a history lesson; throughout the disc, KRS-One lays down the “Hiphop Rules.” Despite all the problems that persist in Parker’s very large corner of the globe, including the murder of his DJ, Scott La Rock, he still hopes for “World Peace.”
2. Frank Zappa—Sheik Yerbouti (Rykodisc)
In addition to Richard Pryor, we lost another brilliant talent to a December, this one twelve years ago, and that was Frank Zappa. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to hear Frank’s sarcastic remark that he made when he decided to title one of this album’s songs, “I Have Been In You,” his counterattack to ward off the vibes from Peter Frampton’s overly commercial “I’m In You.” Meanwhile, some bars later, Bob Dylan gets Zapped on “Flakes.” “I’m So Cute,” which features madly talented drummer Terry Bozzio, is the closest Zappa ever really came to Missing Persons. From the orchestration of “What Ever Happened To All The Fun In The World?” to the incendiary blues guitar solo in the heavily molten “Rat Tomago,” Frank continues to make his point, take that, Mr. Frampton. What a solo. Yes, touché. After Zappa being tortured with “I’m In You” every time he turned on the radio, it should be really no surprise that the dorky, trendy “Bobby Brown,” whose manhood is “still hooked on, but now it shoots too quick,” does radio promotion for a living. I know that if FZ were still around today, he would have already recorded a song or two about Clear Channel. I would have loved to hear that one. Eventually, Zappa’s dial gets turned to jazz on the instrumental “Rubber Shirt.” The eclectic nature of Frank’s talent lends itself such that soon afterwards on this album, “The Shiek Yerbouti Tango” gives a quick fix for that heavy metal jones. The provocative and transfixing counterpoint that Zappa mixed into the background makes the Tango even more engaging and ingenious. “Baby Snakes,” of course, would become the theme song for the movie about people who “do things that are not normal.” Once more with feeling, indeed.
3. Gladys Knight And The Pips–The Very Best Of Gladys Knight And The Pips (Special Music Company)
The Georgia-born soul singer’s career peaked in the Seventies, punctuated by the hit about one more cat that couldn’t make it in the big city. “L.A. proved too much for the man,” and he got a one-way ticket back. Living here in El Lay, and having spent a lot of time in Hollyweird, being around so many dysfunctional musicians and assorted wanna-be Hollywoodland flake types, believe me, I have seen people leave on that train without their even having to go to the station, if you get my drift, so I can tell you, the narrative in this song rings through in many ways. I also know it’s a true story, because Gladys can sing almost anything and make you believe it. Despite the album’s title, this is not all necessarily the best of Knight, but enough of it is a reminder of what a great interpreter of songs she is. It is always worth the visit back to the pumped-up Philly sound of “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination.” As long as I can skip past the dull orchestration of “So Sad The Song” that tamed Knight too much for the track’s own good, I’m fine. When it comes to the mega tearjerker “The Way We Were,” I always loathed Barbara Streisand’s version of this song, but thankfully, this album’s version runs circles around it with Knights’ soulful stamp. On 1973’s “Where Peaceful Waters Flow,” her voice is transcendently inspirational, and framed by the Pips, who are heard more in the forefront on the track “I Can See Clearly Now.” Listening to “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,” Knight makes you believe the song is her own, rather than one that came from songwriter Jim Weatherly. She is equally convincing on the looking back/on the rebound track, “I Feel A Song (In My Heart).” We may not believe the incessant words we hear from most politicians, but we will always believe them when they come from Gladys Knight.
4. LL Cool J-Walking With A Panther (Def Jam)
My favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, inspired one of LL Cool J’s biggest hits, which was built on the Flying Monkees’ vocal riff “Oh, ee, oh, oh, oh!” and that is “I’m That Type Of Guy.” This song could make any wicked witch just melt, water or no water. LL don’t need no AK-47, and he doesn’t even need any water. Talk about being gangsta! LL (aka James Todd Smith) is one of the smoothest rappers of all time, with his accessible and virtually uncontrived style. One of Def Jam Records’ earliest success stories, Cool J has enjoyed enviable longevity in his recording career, which has been peppered with a long, successful string of radio hits; the Queens, New York born rapper has earned equally mad, well-deserved respect from his peers. “Young, black and legal,” LL comes ready for battle, as he describes his lyrical style on “Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?” Cool J knows how to treat a lady, and he lets you know it on this disc. The classic “Going Back To Cali,” which is exemplary of the fine turntables offered on this album, would later become an anthem that proved to be prophetically tragic for Notorious B.I.G. Releasing his first single in 1985, Smith has stealthfully managed to create a legacy of ballads and hiphop romance, all without coming off wack or too soft for the testosterone-driven tastes that are often reflected by hiphop fans. In “One Shot At Love,” Cool J raps about butterflies, and yet, he still holds onto his street cred, a task that could arguably be difficult for many hiphop MCs. One of the album’s disses: “You’re full of preservatives, plus you’re too conservative.” In the CD’s liner notes, Smith writes, “By making this album, maybe one day my grandchildren can catch a cab, or rent a car in West Hollywood.”Not to mention, there is always that floating balloon that flies over Oz, if the Wizard could just figure out how it works.
5. The Allman Brothers Band–Stand Back: The Anthology–Hip-O/Universal
The release of this double disc retrospective marked 35 years since the eponymous debut release from the group that spawned the “Southern rock” genre. Intricate, fluid guitar playing from Dickey Betts and the late Duane Allman, melted over Greg’s blues-drenched forty-proof keyboards and expressive harmonies, gave this band their signature sound that inspired the likes of bands to follow that have included the indelible Lynyrd Skynyrd, and groups like 38 Special and Molly Hatchet. The fire and lightening, double guitar leads in “Ramblin’ Man” are a testament to the band’s melodic signature sound. The song’s autobiographical lyrics reveal some history about Greg and Duane, whose father was tragically shot to death on a Christmas Eve. The band’s long, trademark jams, including the legendary thirteen-minute live epic, “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,” have become a part of rock and roll history and its collective unconscious. The transcendent instrumental work, “Jessica,” is a tantalizing display of the band’s stunning musicianship. “Midnight Rider” flashes determination and the sheer will to survive, wherein having just “one more silver dollar” can still conjure up hope and grit, rather than feelings of surrender and hopelessness. Greg Allman once told me when I interviewed him that in the heat of inspiration, he wrote the blues-rock anthem “Whipping Post,” which appears on this disc, on an ironing board. It is the culmination of fervently inspired moments such as these that has resulted in making the Allman Brothers’ music a national treasure.
6. The Union Underground—The Union Underground (Portrait Records)
This was the debut album from the extremely blacklit, hard and heavy fab four from San Antonio, Texas. If Alice In Chains had merged with Nirvana, this would be one of the results of that union. Ground up, gritty tracks like “Turn Me On Mr. Deadman” will keep you rocking “Until You Crack.” Make no mistake when making your next travel plans; it is well worth the price of a ticket to ride shotgun on their “South Texas Deathride.”
7. Jimmy Cliff-Black Magic (Up Music)
The visionary reggae prophet who wrote the legendary track “The Harder They Come,” asks the question on this persuasive double disc, “Where was Double O-Seven on 9-11?” as he addresses the state of “terror fighting terror.” Speaking of “The Harder they Come,” since the holidays are approaching, it is almost that time again to go digging in your crates to drag out the Keith Richards re-make of this song, which is on the flip side of Keef’s remake of Chuck Berry’s Christmas rocker, “Run Rudolph Run.” I certainly know where my copy is.
8. The Game-The Documentary—G Unit
What would you expect from an album executive produced by Dr. Dre and 50 Cent? Martin Luther King had a dream, and The Game has “Dreams,” too, in fact, a whole lot of them that he shares here. The thing that makes this album so important is that the Game’s dreams are not his alone, but are shared by millions of people whose lives only make sense when they define themselves through the prism of hiphop. Born as Jayceon Taylor, the Game lives in Compton, Cali. On this album, The Game shares his visions at the temple of hiphop, and as it turns out, yes, this is church for thugs. Like Ike and Tina, he will take you higher.
9. Richard Pryor-Is It Something I Said-Warner Brothers Records
10. Guess Who-Greatest Hits—RCA Records
A Canadian import that included Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings, who fronted this group that released their first single in 1965, and had a steady stream of hits until the band broke up a decade later. Like N.W.A.’s late member Eazy-E, they were also unlikely guests at the White House, but with the Guess Who, it was during the Nixon administration, rather than a hilarious prank during George Bush, Sr.’s administration. How you release a song like “American Woman” and get invited to the White House, I don’t know, but the First Lady, Pat Nixon, demanded they not play that song there. Thirty-five years later, when it comes to music and politics, as far as Guess Who is coming to dinner, it certainly can’t get any worse than Bono and Jessie Helms.
Phyllis Pollack lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She can be reached through her blog.