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In Defense of Live Rock Overdubs

kissalive

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It’s been said by many a rock critic that without a bit of mythology, rock ‘n’ roll would’ve never limped past 1959. I’m prone to agree. Whether it’s the ardent naysaying of critics like the PMRC, or self-employed gimmicks designed to shock, inspire or schlepp records, the genre’s very presence as a cultural force has been bolstered by its own mythologizing. Some artists have propagated their myths by caking themselves in makeup, profaning religious iconography or even (like Jimmy Page) taking up refuge in one of Aleister Crowley’s castles. Others have simply produced live albums.

In the ’70s, live rock albums did MEGA-business. The heady combo of live music and crass marketing beckoned rock fans from every corner of the bumfuck backwoods to sup from rock’s knowledge tree, recreating the grand spectacle of the rock ‘n’ roll live show conveniently for their home stereos. One of the genre’s greatest commercial achievements? You bet, but they come with this painful caveat: many of them, even the most famous, aren’t as “live” as they purport. In fact, some are so riddled with overdubs and edits, like Queen’s Live Killers, as to render them veritable Frankenstein pieces, a single song cobbled together from 5 different recordings. Others have been simply manufactured in the studio, shellacked with a canned audience and some sneaky overdubbing. For the wide-eyed, it’s a tough pill to swallow, one which can cheapen the music and subsequent experience. Indeed, it’s this kind of bloated rock biz mentality that laid many a brick in punk’s “what you see is what you get” brand of sloganeering.

I still look at the chalice half full though. However disingenuous to the “live” moniker, I equate studio doctoring as a necessary illusion, one which enhances the quality of the listening experience without ruining it. I’m wont to believe this kind of manipulation, when done with pure intent, helps further a grand, beautiful idea, like Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik, at historic Madison Square Garden, Jan 23, 1984. Without some scripting and engineering, they’d have just been two old dudes fake fighting each other. Work that backstage magic into the mix? Marks the world over regard it as a patent struggle ’tween good and evil, old glory vs. the world, and they still gab about it today.

Enough of my apologetics, though. Here’s a list of live albums and how their varying degrees of “liveness” further their own mythology.

Deep Purple – Made in Japan
1973

Anecdotal wisdom, and my bonehead friends, suggests that when Sabbath was etching themselves into the bedrock of “heavy metal” on western hemispheres, Deep Purple was doing the damn thing in the far East. Made in Japan contains only one alleged overdub, a patch in from another show, and it’s because Ian Gillan tripped over a microphone cable during “Strange Kind of Woman.” Other than that, the album (recorded for a paltry $3,000) stands as a testament to the primordial roots of this thing called heavy metal, no frills (except the occasional organ solo) and no mess-ups. Cheap Trick may have lent credence to the whole “big in Japan” thing, but Purple did their time too.

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KISS Alive
1975

There is no discussion of live albums without a cursory mention of this guy. Perhaps second only to Cheap Trick’s Live at the Budokan, no other group experienced such breakout acclaim from a live record, and for my money, there’s no better version of “Black Diamond” anywhere. As with all live records, the real level of studio doctoring here is hard to quantify. Simmons claimed in his tell-all that tracks were redone simply to remove a few broken strings and the occasional off-key slip. More damning accounts from Peter Criss and Producer Eddie Kramer suggest that only the drum tracks are purely live. What we do know is that it’s an assemblage of live KISS shows from Detroit, Cleveland, Wildwood New Jersey and Davenport Iowa, and that the audience noise was triple-tracked in the studio to sound HUGE.

It’s these kinds of cleanups that established KISS as the fan’s band, that spawned the “KISS Army” and established KISS’s identity as a travelling hard rock carnival replete with kabuki makeup, pyro and blood. Where fans once had to trek to the arena, they could now simply spin the record and scream alongside the crowd themselves. Maybe KISS would’ve still broken out. There’s no denying the early catalogue up to and including Destroyer. I just don’t think they’d be THE band still plugging “farewell” tours into the later part of the millenium. Alive established KISS as something vital, living and liberating, that would broach any barrier to come into your town, rock your GD balls off, and save you from the doldrums of your shitty 9-5.

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UFO – Strangers in the Night
1977

Though UFO is often conspicuously absent from the live rock discussion, Strangers in the Night always pops up in the “best ofs” of those in the know. It got the album in the collective consciousness, “Doctor Doctor” on the UK singles chart and a position in many a “top 10 list” the world over. Curiously, guitarist Michael Schenker allegedly refused any guitar overdubs on the album, despite his disappointment with the guitar tracks. Whether this was a matter of principle, or because his guitar was also feeding through the drum microphones, thus rendering overdubs an impossibility, remains a mystery. Even so, it’s a phenomenal live album, one with an assured place in that great ’70s golden era pantheon.

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Thin Lizzy – Alive and Dangerous
1977

Another fantastic album which, upon revisiting, sounds way too good to be truly live. The album was pieced together from two concerts, one at the Hammersmith Odeon and another at the Seneca College Fieldhouse in Toronto. The album booklet itself alleges that the record is 75% live, with producer Tony Visconti alleging it at only 25% live. Still, it’s a hearty tribute to Ireland’s greatest rock export at their absolute creative peak, and though there may be a few errant gee-tar overdubs, Phil’s prescient charisma (shown most cheekily on the banter which introduces “Emerald” — “How many of you here have got a little Irish in ya? How many would like a little more?” — was 100% real.

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Judas Priest – Unleashed in the East
1979

An album which cynically earned its own nickname, Unleashed in the Studio, due to the rampant level of whitewashing on its every track. One source alleges that the reason for excessive studio fixing was due to a flu Rob Halford was fighting, which took a little bit of the edge of his voice. It’s still a compelling album, a nascent peek into the band right on the cusp of re-defining the entire genre with their whole “hell bent for leather” shtick, while still in the rocka rolla era. Astute listeners needn’t strain their ears too hard. During the mid-point of “Victim of Changes” the obvious fade out of the crowd, corresponding so deftly with Downing/Tipton’s guitar interplay sounds so sterile as to be downright distracting. Perhaps it’s cheap studio frills which lent that extra dollop of fierceness to proto-Priest cuts like “Tyrant” and “Genocide,” but it’s no doubt the mega success of this live album which provided the foundation for Priest’s next permutation, the leather-clad NWOBHM-centric defenders of the faith, throughout the ’80s.

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Motörhead – No Sleep til Hammersmith
1981

Contrary to what the title suggests, this recording isn’t just one night at the Hammersmith, but a collection of shows from that tour. Overdubs present? Sure, but they don’t overpower the thing. One might also notice “Fast” Eddie Clark’s botched solo during “We are the Road Crew,” but it’s a thing of authenticity, not a gaff. Here, we’ve got Motörhead’s “statement of purpose” album, the visceral combo of heavy metal renegades, one part in-the-pocket rocker, one part nihilistic outlaw, hepped up on hard liquor, gasoline and trucker speed, churning out the most blistering performances biologically possible (seriously, check “Overkill”). A little bit of studio panache coaxes the listener fully into the one-two rumble of this here performance without whitewashing any of its “warts.” Motorhead blurred the lines between rock’s give and take. They are the band, and they are the road crew.

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Metallica Whiplash Single
1983

While not a critically heralded slab of live rock, this 12-inch is still an interesting peek into a prehistoric time when Metallica was just a zitty, embryonic group of dreamers, mistakenly referred to as Mettallica on Brian Slagel’s Metal Massacre comp. Here’s two hastily assembled “live” recordings of “Seek and Destroy” and “Phantom Lord” (closest Hetfield gets to singing in falsetto), with fake crowd noise dubbed overtop of it. It’s hard to imagine a time when Metallica had to lie about concert attendance, (how much did you pay for Live Shit: Binge and Purge?) but everybody starts somewhere. As a card carrying Metallibasher with more than 25 Metallica soundboard recordings in my iTunes, I’ll just say that “true” live Metallica circa ’84-’86 is mostly untouchable. Great covers and the occasional Maiden/Charlie Brown/Misfits medley, plus Hetfield calling everyone a “fucker” between songs, go way harder than these “live” B-sides.

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Slayer –Live Undead
1984

Though by now it’s no big “secret” that Slayer’s live audience was just a dozen of their drunken friends gathered around the New York City studio jazzed up to see their favorite group of heshers sing about black magic, produce Bill Metoyer did initially try to keep this hush hush. The truth is that by the mid-’80s, great sounding live metal records, specifically thrash metal records, were a dying breed. Slayer’s dubious recreation of a live concert, replete with yobbo yelling and Araya’s charge of “fuck the pen, because you can DIE BY THE SWORD!” maintain a prescient level of youthfulness here, establishing Slayer as the one “big 4 band” with the most subversive cult following, the most punk credibility and the most rabid fanbase. While still trying to maintain a strict level of seriousness in an L.A. metal scene that was giving way to Aquanet, Live Undead puts heavy metal back in the environment it should be in: sweaty, small and dominated by adolescents.

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Iron Maiden – Live After Death
1985

Maiden, live or on record, presents one of the most enduring metal live experiences ever, says anyone who’s ever witnessed a 25-foot tall “Eddie” sauntering across a stage. Live After Death is one in a great series of phenomenal Maiden live records, showcasing their most acclaimed swath of records. Overdubs? Some message board trolls claim a little bit of re-do in the guitars, but Dave Murray has vehemently denied this, saying it would never happen on a Maiden record. I’m not 100% convinced (see this YouTube video for some weird syncing in Bruce’s demeanor) but I’m also not one to whine about anything from the Powerslave era. Maiden’s always been a band invested in their live spectacle with stories of Steve Harris continually reinvesting all the band’s early earnings back into light show, Eddie and the rest. Maybe a little bit of studio bells and whistles here and there, but as THE global metal band, methinks Maiden needs no help conveying their potent live presence.

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Type O Negative The Origin of The Feces
1992

Freshly out of Carnivore and still in the pre-goth primordial of early Type-O, Pete, Kenny and the rest of the “drab 4” decided to fake a live record that would give them a just a little infamy. Maybe it’s the cover art (a photo of Steele’s anus), the fact that much of this record contains Steele berating a (fake) heckling audience or that he uses the phrase “15 AMERICAN DOLLARS,” but I would’ve loved to see the faces of the label execs when they pitched this one. Steele’s always courted controversy, penning songs about race wars and necrophilia (and Agnostic Front’s “Public Assistance”), showing his dick in a Playgirl centerfold clear through to writing an entire album about his breakup. There have been many who couldn’t penetrate Type O’s sardonic moroseness, and it’s likely why this album only nets 2 stars on AllMusic. Still, I’m just pre-programmed to love a cover of Jimi Hendrix, a fake bomb-threat and a band who’s so committed to convincing people that they’re terrible, they’d drop in 90 seconds of “you suck” chants at the beginning. Take it from the band who’s greatest hits record reads “the least worst of Type O” and you’ll nail into what I’m talking about.

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Pantera Official Live 101 Proof
1997

Another installment in the weird unspoken chronology of Pantera, one that sidesteps early material and renders their year zero as 1988 and not 1983. Are there overdubs on this thing? Sure. It’s nothing too special, but does give a little bit more gritty oomph to the groove metal staples that would soon be worming their way into the metalcore underground. Phil’s banter, even when incoherent and/or drug induced is plenty special, as is that one part where Dime takes the “Walk” solo and medleys it with The Nuge’s “Cat Scratch Fever.” Also, it’s not really Pantera’s “5th” album (they always like to slag off Terry Glaze from the official discography) but it does make for a really clever alcohol pun . . . so Bravo.

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Other References
Bloom, Jerry (2007). Black Night : Ritchie Blackmore. Music Sales Group. ISBN 978-0-85712-053-3.

http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=Kiss

Simmons, Gene (2002). Kiss and Make-up. Three Rivers Press. p. 85. ISBN 0-609-81002-2.

— Dylan Chadwick

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