(To borrow a phrase from Nirvana)
I’m not, to be honest, much of a gig-goer. I’ve worked in bars and nightclubs which had live performances, and seen the whole gamut of quality. The nightclub was an underground/alternative kinda place, and often had excellent DJs (Grandmaster Flash, one of the guys from Orbital, brilliant jungle and drum and bass nights), and bands from Napalm Death to local pop-punk that was lapped up by the kids (band sets were open to those 14 and over; staff called it “the paedo shift”). The bar was a bog standard chain lager-burgers-sports venue, and had bands every Friday: even now, eight years later, if I hear “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Brown Eyed Girl”, I get violent. Also, I like to listen to music whilst reading or writing: when you’re at a gig, you’re compelled to seem like your enjoying yourself, rather than being able to discuss what you find interesting or striking about the performance. Yeah, I’m a real chattering classes type (how I hate that derisory phrase, so typical of Britain). The main exception to this is jazz: maybe it’s because the first time I encountered jazz was at a gig when I just utterly got it immediately: one of those brilliant “Eureka!” moments. But then jazz, even when recorded, is about the performance and enactment of creativity, so there’s less of a dichotomy between records and gigs as there is in rock, say.
While the live video is nowadays mostly filler (compare with the 70s, when bands often made their big breakthroughs on live albums – such as Kiss Alive! or Frampton Comes Alive!), there’s still plenty good ones out there, especially with DVDs capturing the sound better than ever.
1. Guns N’ Roses, New York Ritz, 1988
I struggle to comprehend that this was 24 years ago. I’d only recently bought Appetite For Destruction, and by coincidence BBC2 was having a “Heavy Metal Heaven” season, as presented by Elvira. I dimly remember watching stuff like Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, and (by the same director) the shockingly raw and disturbing film Suburbia. But they were also kind enough to show this: Guns N’ Roses when they were lean, ferociously hungry and incredibly good. They looked amazing, they were tight as fuck (I always say that Izzy was the best guitarist – Slash is great at soloing, but the riffs are all Izzy’s), and the performance rocked. I must have watched this every day for about a year, and seen it hundreds of times. GNR’s later televised gigs – one in Paris, and the double Live in Japan set – are utterly dreadful. They never really mastered stadium shows, being catapulted from clubs to arenas within one year. This gig is when they were setting the world on fire, and it’s a glorious reminder of how absolutely fucking awesome they were for that brief period.
2. U2, Zoo TV, Sydney 1994
Yeah, yeah, Bono is a wanker. We know… I’m not massive on U2 either: I find their albums pretty hit and miss, with lots of empty emotional posturing, like on “In God’s Country”, or simple banality (pretty much everything after Pop). The albums I do really like are their mid-period postmodernist pieces, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, which are colourful, imaginative, and superbly produced by Brian Eno. Their Zoo TV tour is probably the most jaw-dropping stadium spectacle this side of The Wall: both are ironic meditations of their particular form of performance, too. Zoo TV’s media overload hyper-babble was very prescient, considering it was pre-internet, but the main thing is the spectacle, with video screens, lights, and stage design combining to create a terrific sensory overload.The “unplugged” set practically in the middle of the audience is a terrific counterpoint.
3. Nirvana Unplugged, 1994
On the other hand, simple stark performances are equally effective. With lilies and candles giving a funereal, sepulchral atmosphere, and the awkward intra-band chat revealing the huge tensions between them, Nirvana somehow manage to give the performance of a lifetime. They’d until then been known for the enormous energy and charisma of their stage shows. This Unplugged took away all that and let the performance speak for itself: rescuing “About A Girl” as the great pop song it is, letting the great Cobain-Grohl harmonies in “All Apologies” and “On A Plain” come to the fore. The six covers are brilliantly chosen, from the unwinding, enigmatic “Plateau” to the bone-chilling primal blues of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?“. It’s heart-rending stuff.
4. Beatles Rooftop Gig, 1969
Nowadays easily downloadable, this is absurdly hard to get a hold of legally. Of course, Let It Be hardly shows the Fabs at their best, but the Rooftop gig is still bloody great. Part of it is the band interaction: with Lennon centre and Macca to his right, they often turn to face each other when harmonising, creating a fascinating mirror image (Macca being a southpaw, of course). George, left of Lennon, doesn’t get much of a look-in, steadfastly keeping an eye on them as he hops from foot to foot to keep rhythm. Lennon’s spindly guitarists’ fingers are noticeable, while Ringo looks happy just to be there. But then of course the music is glorious: “Don’t Let Me Down” has better, more vibrant, harmonies than in the recorded version; “One After 909” is better as a live throwaway than on record; “I’ve Got A Feeling” just pulses with emotion; and “Get Back” shows how well they synch with each other, so long after that Candlestick Park gig.
5. Queen, Live Aid, 1985
Guess I really have to have this here. Freddy Mercury grabs 80,000 people by the scruff of the neck and completely owns them. A performance that is utterly Olympian. Music’s none too shabby either.
6. Michael Jackson doing “Billy Jean”, Motown 25, 1983
With Thriller not long out, this is the moment when Jackson seizes the mantle of the World’s Best Pop Star. Having first performed a medley of Jackson 5 hits with his brothers, Jacko goes on to show why he is indeed the King of Pop. With dance moves beamed in from some futuristic parallel dimension, he does things with his ankles that defy the laws of physiognomy, before clinching it with the unveiling of the moonwalk. I love the way that he was such an aggressive, angry dancer.