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Pop: Got live - but do you want it?

`Concert' albums might come on like creative masterpieces. But really they've always been cheap marketing tools.
I do not have a clue as to why Frampton Comes Alive! was so big," claims Peter Frampton, the butt of a thousand Wayne's World and Simpsons jokes. Twenty two years on, 10 million people own the biggest-selling live album of all time but Frampton is caught in a Groundhog Day predicament. He's even released Alive 2 yet he can't overcome the curse of the concert recording. He's not the only one.

Live albums are a secret vice. You buy them in much the same way that you grab a T-shirt after a gig; after only a couple of airings, they're sitting on a shelf taking up valuable space. Just this week, 10 more landed on my desk, either as a finished product or in promo form. Does anyone really need Aerosmith's Little South Of Sanity, Black Sabbath's Reunion Live, Garth Brooks' Double Live, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Live From The Middle East, Portishead's PNYC, The Rolling Stones' No Security, Rush's Different Stages (a - gasp - triple!), Spiritualized Live At The Royal Albert Hall or a bonus concert CD as an incentive to buy Culture Club's Greatest Moments or Dire Straits' Sultans Of Swing collections?

Before the late Sixties (save for the faked enthusiasm of The Kinks Live At Kelvin Hall or The Rolling Stones' Got Live If You Want It), live albums didn't figure in an act's career. Unless you were James Brown, who had enough nous to finance the recording of his dynamic stage show for the 1963 million-seller, Live At The Apollo.

But in 1969, two major events happened. Detroit's MC5 lit a long, slow fuse with the inflammatory Kick Out The Jams while Jagger and co discovered the profits to be made from playing huge venues such as Madison Square Garden with a proper public address system. The band also left Decca to set up Rolling Stones Records. Owing their former label one more album, they settled up with Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, an overview of their triumphant US tour. But then bootleggers beat them to the punch and shifted 100,000 copies of Liver Than You'll Ever Be. Mick and Keith would never again miss an opportunity to generate further income from concerts. No Security, featuring guests such as Dave Matthews and Taj Mahal, and released this Monday, is the Stones' seventh live album, confirming the link between art and commerce and giving the boys in the band another chance to write off tour expenses and fulfil contractual obligations.

It wasn't always this way. Looking like a bootleg in a beige "card" packaging, The Who's majestic Live At Leeds arrived in 1970 and gave rise to a decade of excellent live albums, concluding with the heady pop of 1979's Cheap Trick At Budokan. According to The Who singer, Roger Daltrey, Live At Leeds is: "the ultimate heavy metal album. Totally live, we didn't dub anything on it. Do you think I would have sung like that in a studio?" Pete Townshend begs to differ. "There's a long guitar solo at the end of `Young Man Blues' where it sounds like I'm playing the most beautiful, lyrical stuff. I simply edited out all my bum notes. You feel: God, this guy never makes a slip!"

Arguments rage about how live, live recordings are. Editing is fine, but what other kind of fixing goes on? Black Sabbath guitarist, Tony Iommi, is adamant that his group "didn't make any changes to Reunion Live. It's not a doctored-in-the-studio live album. When we heard the Birmingham tapes, we noticed a few little flukes, tuning problems and so on. But we decided to leave them in. Once you start fixing, there is no end." However, Thin Lizzy guitarist, Scott Gorham, breaks ranks. "Yes, we did cheat on Live And Dangerous, mainly on background vocals. On stage, you concentrate on being entertaining and playing your instrument and behind Phil Lynott, we always sounded like chickens getting their heads chopped off. The crowd noise felt distant so Tony Visconti ran applause from a Bowie concert through the mixing desk. If you pay attention, you can hear someone shout `David!'."

In the mid-Seventies, concert recordings provided a compelling career resume, an alternative to a greatest hits set, and propelled artists on to the next level of popularity. The J Geils Band's Fullhouse, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band Live and Bob Marley and The Wailers Live! lived up to memories of the concerts and worked for spotty teenagers miming in front of the mirror, while Iggy Pop's semi-legal Metallic KO became the stuff of legend. Then in 1976, Dr Feelgood's Stupidity topped the British album charts, marking the apotheosis of the live album as showcase and critically acceptable product.

Ed Stasium, the American producer who has worked with Mick Jagger, Living Colour and Motorhead, mixed The Ramones' It's Alive, recorded on New Year's Eve at London's Rainbow Theatre in 1977. "That was a great show," he says. "But we added songs from Stoke on Trent, Aylesbury and Birmingham. We did some minimal fixing for Johnny and Dee Dee on guitar and bass, but we left the drums intact. The other live stuff I've done is mostly radio and TV broadcasts. The early Talking Heads tapes from Boston ended up on the album, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads.

Indeed, the trend for releasing archive tapes of classic concerts from the past, inaugurated by the Beatles execrably shrill At The Hollywood Bowl (a number one album in 1977) has become the most interesting development in the live album industry. Sam Cooke's Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963, released 21 years after the soul singer was shot dead, is a must. As is Bob Dylan's historical Live 1966, finally issued in legal form last week.

The Eighties saw the pop promo replace the live recording as a commercial calling card, while videos from concerts and TV specials are now part of the Nineties marketing strategy (see Divas Live with Celine Dion). In 1983, U2's mini-album, Under A Blood Red Sky, signalled the band's ascent to the major league but, as Bono admits, "it only worked if you saw the Red Rocks visuals. When the energy of the crowd is so brutal, the spirit of the music flees and all you're left with is crashing drums and clanging guitars". Still, the quartet couldn't resist going back to the outtakes for the bonus tracks on their current CD single, "The Sweetest Thing". Bono may see it as following in the vibrant tradition of such splendid live EPs as Eddie And The Hot Rods At The Marquee or Something Else by The Move, but we know better. U2 have got a Best Of... to flog.

This is what has become of the once mighty, all-conquering live album. It's a marketing tool to excite anoraks, completists or lapsed buyers who may be tempted to fork out for Eric Clapton's Crossroads 2 or Bruce Springsteen's Live 1975-1985. Historical recordings, and the odd MTV Unplugged aside, the live album is well and truly dead.

Ten Great

Live Albums

n James Brown Live At The Apollo

n Dr. Feelgood: Stupidity

n Bob Marley & The Wailers Live!

n MC5: Kick Out The Jams!

n Van Morrison: It's Too Late To Stop Now

n The Ramones: It's Alive

n The Rolling Stones: Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!

n Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963

n Thin Lizzy: Live And Dangerous

n The Who: Live At Leeds

...and five real turkeys

n The Beatles: At The Hollywood Bowl.

n David Bowie: David Live

n Depeche Mode: Electric 101

n The Orb: Live '93

n Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers: Pack Up The Plantation