The charts used to be teeming with overindulgent solos, rushed tempos, brain-dead crowd-baiters like "Are you ready to rock?" and "Are you ready to roll?" and, yes, even out-of-tune singing. But hold your good riddance, chum! As Joni Mitchell sang on her requisite double live Miles of Aisles, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." And if you check Billboard's Top 200 albums, you'll find a total of two or maybe three live records on the chart--and all of those are the single-album variety.
Double lives used to be a novelty. The first one of the rock era was Harry Belafonte's 1959 offering Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, with Judy Garland and Tony Bennett's own Carnegie shows not far behind. Pop bands of the '50s and '60s didn't have more than 20-minute sets as a rule. If a band was on a Dick Clark "Cavalcade of Stars" tour, there might have been enough time to play three songs and jump on the bus to the next city before the applause died down. Besides, what band would want to shoot its wad and record two albums' worth of material in concert?
The success of the multiple-record Woodstock set suddenly made the live album a viable format, especially since it allowed artists to stretch out a tune far beyond its studio incarnation. Soon after, double live albums became the norm for every band expected to put out a couple of records a year.
Nowadays, artists get dropped before they're even called to meet their contractual obligations. Couple that with the diminishing number of groups who cut their teeth on the concert stage (anyone wanna buy a Crystal Method in Concert album?) and you can see why live albums have lost their place as musical time markers. We've always had a love/hate relationship with live albums, usually the one record in a favorite artist's discography we beg off buying. As Neil Diamond himself wrote in the notes for Hot August Night, "The stage, she is the God-damnedest woman you ever saw." Listen to these double, triple and quadruple live sets and you'll wonder if that woman could've maybe got a restraining order from multiple offenders like ol' Neil and the Grateful Dead.
Most Double Live Albums in the Shortest Span
Live/Dead (1969) and Europe '72 (1972)
Live/Dead was the first double live dip from a rock band, and the Dead seemed bent on exercising that seniority every which way. Between the aforementioned double and triple live sets, the Dead released 19 more sides of live material in just three years, with nine more official double live albums to follow. Why couldn't these noodling hippies have followed Marcel Marceau's silent campaign for austerity (see sidebar)? Deadheads would be furiously trading blank tapes as we speak!
First Double Live Album With the Words
"Live Album" in the Title:
Live Album (1970)
This would be the first of three double live records the Flint, Michigan, natives would have in them. The connecting thread in all these live sets? None other than that mischievously misogynist anthem "T.N.U.C.," which had schoolboys reading Grand Funk album covers right to left with the same naughty dedication previously reserved for using hand mirrors to look up girls' dresses. "If you don't want to lay there, with your mouth shut tight/I'm gettin' myself together, yes I'm leavin' tonight," sings Mark Farner. That must've been the night Farner became a born-again Christian. Despite its sinful origins, "T.N.U.C." remains in the group's set, although trapsman Don Brewer no longer plays the drum solo with his massive Afro flopping about dangerously. One time Brewer actually gave himself a concussion and was knocked out for several minutes, bleeding profusely all over his kit. And how was your bad hair day?
First Four-Album Live Set:
Live at Carnegie Hall, Volumes 1, 2, 3 & 4 (1971)
Total playing time: 161:27!! That's a lot of Chicago bull. But any band that devotes an entire side to a song called "It Better End Soon" (in five separate movements) is already well-aware of its worst tendencies! But hell, they could have made this a 40-album set if it would have meant stalling Peter Cetera's even more tedious solo career.