Shake, rattle and roll!: The best live albums of all time

To celebrate the 40th anniversary re-release of The Who Live at Leeds, Elisa Bray looks at the history of one of the greatest live albums ever, while musicians choose the albums that define the genre for them
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Forty years ago, The Who played a show that would go down in rock history. The gig, at the University of Leeds refectory, became Live at Leeds, regarded by many as the greatest live album ever made. Now, to coincide with its 40th anniversary, the remastered album is being released on Monday.

It may have been recorded on a mobile unit precariously positioned in the kitchen of a 2,000-capacity university refectory, but when it comes to industry plaudits, Live at Leeds is right up there. When the album was released, Rolling Stone hailed it the best live album ever and Nik Cohn described it in his New York Times column as "the best live rock album ever made". Forty years on, it holds its place in rock legend – in 2006, it topped Q's list of great live albums.

By 1970, The Who had become one of the most exciting live acts of their generation. At the time of the Leeds show, they were riding the crest of a wave that had seen the success of the rock opera Tommy, and their performance at Woodstock (and appearance in the film). For the release, they shaved down their epic Leeds set (their shows stretched beyond the two-and-a-half-hour mark, with an entire performance of Tommy as the centrepiece) to just six songs totalling 37 minutes. Live at Leeds was their first official live release, and came as a mock bootleg, wrapped in a brown paper sleeve, hinting at the many bootlegs being touted.

Still, fans of The Who might be most interested in the second live album in the Super-Deluxe Collectors' Edition. Live at Hull is the live album that should have been. Of two consecutive shows that were recorded, it was the second, at Hull City Hall, that was planned for release. But technical problems at Hull meant that John Entwistle's thundering bass had not been recorded in the first four songs. Little could be done to repair the tapes in 1970, so the band released the Leeds set instead, despite band-members favouring Hull because the spacious venue better complemented the acoustics. Hull found itself left out of rock heritage, while Leeds University refectory gained a commemorative blue plaque.

Now, using modern technology, the full recording has been repaired by drafting in Entwistle's bass tracks from the Leeds recording to repair the Hull tapes. The reissue includes the full Leeds show from 14 February, the first release of the entire concert from Hull, and a heavyweight-vinyl reproduction of the original six-track album of Live at Leeds. And a Pete Townshend poster. As Townshend said in 1970, "What hits you when you listen to it is you realise how much you need to see The Who."

The Who Live at Leeds 40th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Collectors Edition is out on Monday


Rick Wakeman, keyboardist in Yes, chooses:

The Who: Live at Leeds (1970)

The Who were at the time the loudest band in the world. They had just conquered America and played at Woodstock, and Tommy was hailed as a work of genius. And what did they do? Arrived at Leeds Uni and recorded what I reckon to be the best live album ever.

Tom Meighan, singer in Kasabian, chooses:

The Rolling Stones: Rock and Roll Circus (1968)

You can hear on this record (not actually released until 1996) how the wild rock'n'roll get-together in 1968 of amazing artists like The Rolling Stones, The Who, Taj Mahal, John Lennon and Eric Clapton is sending the crowds wild. It was the end of the Sixties: things were out of control. The most striking thing in the visual footage is Brian Jones' eyes rolling around, but on the record you can really hear that the crowd are absolutely high as a kite too. Lennon's rendition of "Yer Blues" has an intensity and a rawness of sound that has rarely been heard since.

Mark Ronson chooses:

Curtis Mayfield:Curtis/Live! (1971)

I discovered most of the songs from the live album before I heard the recorded versions and they're quite raw, and the drums are tough. Then I heard the original versions and they didn't do it for me – they sounded safe, especially songs like "We're a Winner". It's obviously a small venue – you can hear glasses clinking in the background, people are obviously sitting at tables watching. It's really intimate, beautiful and tough and soulful.

It's probably the one record I've had for the longest that I seem to keep going back to. When I was DJing in the Nineties, I'd play the version of "We're a Winner" a lot; it had a suited-up soul sound to it, almost like The Temptations, but then on the live recording it became an unbuckled, heavy funk song about empowerment. All his lyrics came out of the civil rights background that was going on in the West Coast, so you got this great beat set to this very uplifting message.

Chris Difford chooses:

The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East (1971)

I remember getting the number 53 bus into London to buy At Fillmore East. I was at school and I had heard it was coming out and that it might be a great album to add to the collection. I carried it under my arm, not in the bag, on the bus back home to Blackheath. Two albums, a double, and I was transported to a world I had no idea about, the live American music experience. It sounded full and exciting, tight and the band had two drummers – always a good sign. "Whipping Post" is a stand-out, the fluent guitar and steady beat, and an organ sounding like no other, so real and dusty. This album above all other live albums has stayed on my playlist ever since. But I can say Live at Leeds got me through my school exams. I failed and joined a band, thank you "Magic Bus".

Tim Burgess, singer in The Charlatans, chooses:

Sid Vicious: Sid Sings (1979)

My favourite live album would have to be Sid Sings because basically it was the first live album I ever bought. When it came out I was 11 and punk. I remember a flurry of really great live albums: Crash Course by the UK Subs and Live (X Cert) by The Stranglers, but it was Sid all the way for me. It was recorded mostly at Max's Kansas City in NYC, doing cover versions of New York Dolls, Heartbreakers and the Stooges, plus the Pistols' singles "My Way" and "Something Else". With this one album he taught me about Frank Sinatra, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop. Nothing really comes close to this.

Johnny Bramwell, singer in I Am Kloot, chooses:

Bob Dylan and The Band: Before the Flood (1974)

I bought this album when I was 15. It's got The Band playing classic songs such as "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Weight", then Bob Dylan playing three solo tunes, the best of which is a furious version of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" which hit me like a hammer blow to the head. It was because of continued listening to Bob Dylan and this album that I discovered the power of words. The audience were applauding specific lyrics. This interaction defined for me what songwriting is all about. On the last four songs, Dylan is joined by The Band and they play "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Like a Rolling Stone". For me, the version of the latter has never been surpassed. I was amazed at the length of Dylan's solo performances and the power he had not only to deliver an intense story, but also at the fluency of his recollection and the ease in which he detailed a long, complicated narrative.

Paul Smith, solo artist and singer in Maxïmo Park, chooses:

Neil Young & Crazy Horse:Arc-Weld (1991)

Neil Young's guitar solos on the Weld double-disc are yawning voids into which the listener must hurl themselves. As a callow schoolboy, I would listen to these indulgent workouts endlessly; the squall of the electric guitar seemed to match the fire-and-brimstone howl of its master. At the root of all this was the simple song-craft that Young has become famous for, but I would sometimes venture further out on to the third disc, Arc, which contained half an hour of pure feedback. It seemed revolutionary and led me towards more avant-garde music. I spent many teenage hours in the garage trying to coax similarly odd sounds out of my cheapo Encore Stratocaster and a broken amplifier. Bliss.

Paul Banks, singer in Interpol, chooses:

Neil Young & Crazy Horse:Live Rust (1979)

I bought Live Rust when I was a kid. The song selection is unparalleled. And Neil's guitar playing is the rawest, rockest thing I'd ever heard. Until I heard his song "Don't Cry" on Freedom, which is also live and has the meanest guitar tone on record.

Eric Pulido, guitarist in Midlake, chooses:

The Band: Rock of Ages: The Band in Concert (2001 2-disc re-issue)

I'd be hard pressed to pick any other band as my top selection when playing the "If you were able to see one band live" game than The Band. And if I had to pick a specific concert, this may be the one. I can't imagine ringing in the new year of 1972 any better way than seeing The Band in top form with horns provided by Allen Toussaint and co, and a special guest appearance by a guy named Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, this concert's "birth" was seven years my senior, so I'm thankful that the tape was rolling. The Band embodies something so special to me both together and individually, so to hear even a glimpse of that in this classic live album is greatly cherished and leaves me in awe after each listen.

M Ward, solo artist and guitarist in She & Him, chooses:

Johnny Cash: Live at Folsom Prison (1968)

Hard to believe this record even exists; or to imagine an institution that would allow a concert that denounces the institution and the people that run it. But for any newcomer who has any interest in Johnny Cash, or how someone can successfully marry a message with music: don't rent the biopic, buy this record. Even if the songs weren't great (which they are: "I Still Miss Someone", "Jackson", "Folsom Prison Blues"), this record would probably still be my favourite live record because of its environment; singing songs about freedom to prisoners and then hearing their reaction is like watching a metaphor come to life.

Marianne Faithfull chooses:

Bob Marley and the Wailers:Live! (1975)

It was recorded in 1975 at the Lyceum in London. I have all of his records, but this live recording is magical. Very rarely do live records do justice to the original recordings, but they played live so much that they were different and the recordings were just the starting place. There is such energy and there was a spiritual centre which put it above being a commercial concern and made it real and special. I was at the Uprising Tour Crystal Palace concert in 1980 and I remember it as being a beautiful, sunny day and just incredibly special.

Jim Sclavunos, drummer in Grinderman and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, chooses:

Miles Davis: Dark Magus: Live at Carnegie Hall (1974)

The unprecedented stylistic sea-change that Miles Davis set course on from 1970 through 1975 was as scandalous to the jazz establishment of his day as "electric" Dylan was to folkies. In a five-year span, Miles conducted some truly revolutionary studio sessions; but the bulk of his recorded output during this epoch was a set of live albums that redefined jazz-ensemble improvisation and sent critical preconceptions into a tailspin. One of these live albums, Dark Magus, was held in such low regard by Columbia (Miles' label at the time) that they chose to bury it. Until recently, Dark Magus was available solely in Japan; but the undeserved neglect only highlights this concert's unrelenting force. Crackling with mystery, menace and fury, it captures Davis and his nine-man line-up catapulting purist boundaries of jazz deep into uncharted territory.

Blaine Harrison, singer in Mystery Jets, chooses:

Pink Floyd: Pulse (1995)

Having been brought up in the south west of France, far from Britpop, the summer of 1995 was all about Pink Floyd. Much to my envy, my sister had been presented with a second-hand copy of The Dark Side of the Moon and I had been obsessed ever since. Come the arrival of my 10th birthday, I can vividly remember trembling as I freed my double-cassette copy of Pulse from its wrapper. Pulse was primarily recorded over Floyd's Division Bell tour of 1995, with the first official live bootleg of Dark Side on side two. It was a great record, but the packaging was monumental. The plastic casing was cobalt blue and the sleeve (an eyeball-shaped depiction of the circle of life) encompassed the themes throughout the record. The best thing was the flashing LED lovingly wired into the outer cardboard sleeve, which marked the album out from the rest of one's tape collection from a distance of 25 metres or so. I like to think of it as a 1990s version of that Durutti Column record, which came wrapped in sandpaper, in an attempt to destroy the other CDs on your shelf. Only slightly more tacky.

Katie Harkin, singer in Sky Larkin, chooses:

Life without Buildings: Live at the Annandale Hotel (2007)

Discovering any amazing band after they break up is bittersweet, but for me, listening to this record is practically heartbreaking. This version of "Juno" is one of my favourite songs of all time; the guitars shift between lofty harmonics and a very Scottish kind of taut, and Sue Tompkins' voice roams free in perfect counterpoint. The banter (including a Spice Girls' T-shirt reference), and giggled apparent in-jokes are added bonuses for repeat listens. It sounds alive which is, I guess, the hallmark of a perfect live album.

Gary Powell, drummer with The Libertines, chooses:

Marvin Gaye: Live! (1974)

Emotion was integral to all the music Marvin Gaye produced, but this live album shows him taking the emotional dimension of his songs into a new stratosphere. With tracks like "Trouble Man", a rambling about the socio-economic situation of an unhappy guy, he manages to defy the slow tempo to create an intensely heartfelt dynamic. The emotion in his sombre vocal makes for a performance that is so full of life that the tempo becomes far less important. Few artists manage to hold on to the feeling in a live recording, but Marvin adds so much more, too – the emotion in the delivery is just ridiculous, something to really behold.

Imelda May chooses:

Various artists: Jazz on a Summer's Day, Original Soundtrack (1999)

This live recording of such a terrific line-up of jazz and gospel artists in 1958 captures an extravaganza of amazing talent rarely heard in one place. You get so much more of these incredible artists' personalities than you can by listening to their studio-recorded tracks. A track that might sound like it was from another era, for another generation, suddenly sounds so timeless, fresh and exciting. The way the pure silence of the crowd erupting into thunderous screams is met with such surprise by Mahalia Jackson during "The Lord's Prayer" is just so moving. I weep every time I listen to it.

John Grant chooses:

Kraftwerk: Minimum-Maximum (2005)

At first I thought, "I don't really have any live albums and I don't like live albums", but then all of a sudden I remembered the first time I heard Kraftwerk's Minimum-Maximum. It's truly unfortunate that I didn't see any of the shows on that tour, but that's when a good live album comes in handy. When I heard "The Robots" I shed a tear, so moved I was at its crispness and beauty, and the new sounds which made me feel like I was hearing it for the first time. "Vitamin" is another highlight and proves that Kraftwerk still truly "have" it. One can tell they are having a blast with the possibilities modern sound design affords them. And one would be well-advised to invest in a sports cup to protect one's "assets", as they have beefed up the bass to accommodate today's discerning audiophiles and thwap-addicts. Can't get enough.

Badly Drawn Boy chooses:

Bruce Springsteen:Live 1975-85 (1986)

My choice is a little bit obvious because people know me as a Bruce Springsteen fan. It's made to sound like one gig but flows through his career from 1975-85. I remember getting up early the day it came out and waiting for the record shop to open. I'd been buying bootlegs of Springsteen's live stuff for a few years and to hear a proper release was, to me, the most exciting thing. I was about 15 years old. The best thing for me was that the first song on the album is "Thunder Road" – that's the first Springsteen song I ever heard and it's probably my favourite song ever. The version on the box set is just piano and vocal, it's the most incredible performance. Just that version makes it an incredible album. It's sublime. Live albums are difficult to get right but if you do, it can be an amazing document.

Pete Townshend on live at Leeds

"'Leeds' was a kind of stopgap album. We'd done 'Tommy', flogged it to death on the road, and had found little spare time to get back into the studio to develop the ideas I'd come up with to follow it. Our record company started to put out silly filler collections – one was called 'Magic Bus: The Who on Tour'. This was because I'd speculated we might put out a live album to counter dozens that were being sold on the bootleg market. We had no idea the album would be so successful and focusing for us. It turned out to be a joy for me to work on. It was only the second production I had been allowed to produce for The Who, the first being "Substitute". Of course, everyone else in the Who firmament was name-checked, but this album was really produced by Bob Pridden, our sound man, and myself. I mixed it in my home studio, a room only 5 x 10 feet. The reverb (echo) used was a cheap spring. This album represents The Who as a working band, self-propelled, self-editing, self-producing and self-driven – purely to fight back at our "stupid" American record company. Track Records (run by our managers) did the brilliant bootleg-style packaging. I still get the inserts sent to me, offered to me for sale as archival discoveries that might be worth thousands. It's hard to know what to say – some people missed the irony."