Whatever happened to live albums?

Wire’s re-released record of a crazy, chaotic, unforgettable gig is a reminder of what we’ve lost

When wire announced they were set to re-release their live album Document and Eyewitness, Geoff Travis was caused to comment the post-punk veterans were “completely mad”. The Rough Trade label boss who originally put out the record in 1981 has since added he meant this “affectionately”, though this is certainly the sort of artefact that goes under the heading “for the completists”.

For rather than showcasing an outfit at the height of their powers, Document preserves a badly prepared, stop-start event memorable more for its confrontational atmosphere than actual music. Thus, Wire are going against the grain of what we tend to consume these days as tour memorabilia and begs the question: Are we missing something?

Despite a lack of commercial success in their late Seventies heyday, Wire’s angular rhythms became massively influential in later years, with demonstrable effects on the early Noughties punk-funk revival and, before that, Britpop – indeed, Elastica settled a plagiarism suit with the band out of court. Yet on Document, the band unveil under-rehearsed, new material in a context that is more art happening than traditional rock gig. Someone bashes a gas cooker for percussion, a woman drags two masked men across the stage and elements of those viewing proceedings grow ever more incensed.

At the heart of the release is this set from the Electric Ballroom in Camden, London, that has become infamous for the abuse hurled at Wire shortly before its members went their separate ways. It is an extreme example of concert as provocation, though in some ways its charged atmosphere and chaotic performance is of its time, when punk had rewritten the rules of stagecraft. Live albums from this period revel more in the grit of in-the-flesh playing and tell us more about not only the acts involved, but also the audiences that engaged with them on a more egalitarian level.

Compare that with the enervated live DVDs on offer today with glossy, hi-fidelity sets that recreate album tracks on stage, where moments of seeming improvisation look scripted for camera angles and acts could have performed at any city around the world with little sense of time and place. While the idea of presenting a gig as shared endeavour rather than passive entertainment has long been a vital part of jazz history, a fine place to start in rock lore is the 1969 debut album by Detroit proto-punks MC5.

The Who: Simply volcanic performances from one of the great live acts  

Instead of a studio recording, Elektra Records chose to capture the explosive outfit live in their home city, featuring the free-form freak-out “Black to Comm”. While the ensuing controversy ensured MC5 stayed far from the mainstream, the album laid down a marker on what was possible in a live context. Iggy Pop and the Stooges would eventually follow suit once these fellow Michiganites imploded in the early Seventies, with 1976’s Metallic KO, released just in time to inspire punk’s first wave.

Half of this release saves for posterity the group’s final gig at Detroit’s Michigan Palace two years previously that sees Pop baiting the crowd and in return being pelted with all manner of rubbish. Celebrated critic Lester Bangs said this was “the only rock album I know where you can actually hear hurled beer bottles breaking against guitar strings”. One reason was the rabble-rousing singer had enraged a biker gang at a recent show. The gang may even have had an induction ceremony requiring applicants to halt the performance.

The US underground rock scene was creating a rejoinder to the chin-stroking seriousness and sacerdotal respect accorded to the decade’s guitar dinosaurs and Laurel Canyon bards. Now the stage was set for a younger generation to show what they could do, with a smattering of recordings that presented the mayhem unleashed on the gig circuit by punk’s propensity for aggression. Not necessarily from the movement’s key names, but by groups that could actually play – usually emerging from the pub-rock circuit.

So Stiff Records compiled a set based on the label’s Live Stiffs showcase tour that starred Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. As a budding music fan ransacking my dad’s meagre cassette tape collection, there was a visceral thrill in hearing not just their raw energy, but Wreckless Eric shambling around. “My guitar doesn’t work,” he announces unconvincingly. “Ah, they forgot to plug me in.” Likewise, the Stranglers live releases are full of Hugh Cornwell’s sarcastic between-song banter.

Live (X-Cert) from 1979 includes numbers from the notorious performance from Battersea Park the previous year that featured strippers (male as well as female) during the finale. “You may enjoy spitting, but I don’t enjoy being spat at,” the singer/guitarist remarks at one point.

Almost a decade on, The Stranglers were a more polished outfit, though Cornwell was still accosting the crowd at the 1987 Reading Festival on the next year’s All Live and All of the Night. Noting the distribution of free condoms was less than attendance, he deduces “that means there’s 9,000 wankers out there.”

Perhaps these recordings are all the more exciting for being so rarely filmed – or poorly in the case of Live Stiffs and early Stranglers – that you usually make up the visuals in your head, bringing you closer to the action. Higher quality and more expensive video equipment has ensured live recordings, now DVDs rather than vinyl or CDs, make for hefty financial investments. They are made with an eye on TV slots as well as sales.

This leaves a samizdat market for footage of when things do wrong. A quick search of ‘’falling off stage” on the internet reveals keen interest in Pink’s abrupt exit at a German gig three years ago (two million views and rising). This, though, is a long way from MC5’s hunger for audience participation or Wire’s carefree attitude to value for money. In the end, perhaps it’s our passivity that is the problem – we end up with the performances we deserve.

Wire’s ‘Document and Eyewitness’ is out on 18 August on Pink Flag

Five albums that capture the mayhem

The Who Live at Leeds

Simply volcanic performances from one of the great live acts.

The Stooges Metallic KO

Iggy Pop at his daft and courageous best.

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison

The Man in Black connects with Folsom’s inmates.

James Brown Live at the Apollo

Stunning set from Harlem punctuated by audience screams.

John Cale Sabotage/Live

In late Seventies, the former Velvet Underground member snarled as much as ever.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference