The concert industry exploded in the 1970s, and the live album, a stopgap project once reserved for only the biggest artists, became a compulsory ritual and a pivotal moment for many artists. Live albums captured legendarily loud bands like The Who and The Ramones in their natural element. Once obscure regional acts like Bob Seger, KISS and Cheap Trick exploded into the mainstream with live albums. The Band, The Stooges, and Velvet Underground put their final gigs on vinyl. Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young (as his ongoing archive series shows), and Jackson Browne recorded entire sets of new songs onstage. The Grateful Dead released several official live albums (and continue to do so) that only made fans want to bootleg shows on their own more.
With the 50th anniversary of a landmark live album, The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East, coming up on July 6, here’s a look back at the best of the best of the decade of decadence. This list only features albums recorded and released during the 1970s – which is to say the various live albums recorded at Woodstock and released in the ‘70s aren’t included, nor are more recent releases that feature archival recordings from the ‘70s.
There’s no shortage of live albums in the last few decades, but they never mattered quite as much as they did in the ‘70s.
50. The Velvet Underground – Live At Max’s Kansas City (1972)
In the summer of 1970, The Velvet Underground recorded Loaded and played a legendary nine-week residency at Max’s Kansas City in New York, with Lou Reed quitting the band before the final show. The band still owed Atlantic Records another album on their contract after releasing Loaded, and instead of keeping the Doug Yule-led group on for their next studio album, the notorious Squeeze (which doesn’t include Reed, is hated by many fans and not considered a true VU album by others), the label opted to release a recording of the last VU show with Reed. It’s a polished set with some fairly uptempo renditions of VU’s avant-rock classics, with Yule’s brother Billy sitting in on drums for a pregnant Moe Tucker. Reed opens the proceedings by describing “I’m Waiting for the Man” as “a tender folk song from the early ‘50s about love between man and subway.” Live At Max’s Kansas City also marked the first release of the original “Sweet Jane” bridge that had been edited out of the release of Loaded.
49. Janis Joplin – In Concert (1972) *
Two years after Janis Joplin’s death, Columbia Records assembled a double album of her legendary live performances. One LP featured the band she rose to fame with (Big Brother and the Holding Company) and the other included the band she recorded her final studio album, Pearl, (with Full Tilt Boogie Band). A few tracks on the first half were recorded in 1968 (hence the asterisk to our all-‘70s rule) and the audio quality on some of the recordings are a little low, but the electricity of Joplin’s performances shines through.
48. Elvis Presley – Having Fun with Elvis On Stage (1974)
One of the most infamous live albums of the ‘70s is barely music at all. In the King of Rock and Roll’s less profitable final years, his manager, Col. Tom Parker, came up with the incorrect theory that he could self-release an album of Elvis Presley’s stage banter from concerts without violating the singer’s RCA contract if it didn’t contain any songs. The result is a bizarre, disjointed series of vignettes where Presley jokes with the audience and tells stories, occasionally humming or breaking into a melodic “well…” to lead into a song. His most appropriate comment comes early on the album with “By the time the evening’s over I will have made a complete total fool of myself.” Once RCA caught on to Parker’s ruse, they re-released Having Fun with Elvis on Stage and it actually charted, but an embarrassed Presley asked them to withdraw the release, sealing its fate as a campy black market curio.
47. Ted Nugent – Double Live Gonzo! (1978)
Few multi-platinum artists of the 1970s feel so distinctly of their time as Ted Nugent. Although cock rock has flourished in many decades, only in the ‘70s could a guy in a loincloth calling himself the “Motor City Madman” have sold millions of records wielding his guitar like a phallus on songs with titles like “Yank Me, Crank Me” and “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.” Even the hair bands of the ‘80s seem subtle by comparison. For better or worse, Double Live Gonzo! is a perfect distillation of the Nugent phenomenon, a collection of bawdy anthems recorded in seven different cities, which he’d attempt to top with 1981’s Intensities in 10 Cities.
46. Jimmy Smith – Root Down (1972)
Before Jimmy Smith, the Hammond B-3 Organ was a curiosity that was sold to churches as a smaller, cheaper alternative to a pipe organ. After Jimmy Smith’s run of albums with Verve Records in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the B-3 was established as a jazz staple, although nobody wielded it as a lead instrument quite like him. Root Down, recorded in Smith’s own L.A. supper club, the Bombay Bicycle Club, is a supremely funky set of soul-jazz best known for the title track that was sampled by several hip hop acts, including the Beastie Boys’ 1994 hit also titled “Root Down.”
45. Dolly Parton – A Real Live Dolly (1970)
April 25th, 1970 was the second annual Dolly Parton Day in the singer’s hometown, Sevierville, Tennessee, so Parton held a benefit concert at her alma mater, Sevier County High School, to raise money for scholarships and musical instruments for students. Then, she turned the local performance into her first live album. Her irrepressible charm was on full display as she runs through early hits like “Dumb Blonde” and “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy” before being joined by her mentor and frequent duet partner Porter Wagoner. She also performed what would become her signature song a year later, “Coat of Many Colors,” but the performance would remain unreleased until a 2009 reissue.
44. Led Zeppelin – The Song Remains the Same (1976)
Led Zeppelin were one of the biggest live draws of the 1970s, breaking attendance records held by The Beatles, but the concert film and live album they released during the decade doesn’t quite match their stature. The 1973 shows at Madison Square Garden weren’t exceptional by the band’s standards, Robert Plant’s “Does anyone remember laughter?” ad-lib during “Stairway to Heaven” became a notoriously campy moment of self-parody. But there are moments of arena rock majesty, particularly an iconic rendition of “Dazed and Confused” that featured Jimmy Page playing an otherworldly guitar solo with a violin bow. The album remained the definitive live Zep document until the 2003 release of the superior 1972 recording, How the West Was Won.
43. Fela Ransome-Kuti and The Africa ’70 With Ginger Baker – Live! (1971)
Ginger Baker was one of the most famous drummers in the world after the breakup of his ‘60s Eric Clapton-based supergroups, Cream and Blind Faith. Baker spent much of the ‘70s seeking out music beyond rock and jazz around the world, making the documentary Ginger Baker in Africa setting up a recording studio in Nigeria where stars like Paul McCartney made albums. Baker sat in with Nigerian legend Fela Kuti’s band Africa ‘70 on several releases, including Live!, a percolating jam session that exposed Kuti’s Afrobeat sound to American and European audiences for the first time. Despite Baker’s star billing, Kuti and his passionate protest songs like “Black Man’s Cry” take center stage, with Tony Allen leading an explosive performance by The Africa ‘70s’s six-man percussion section.
42. Wings – Wings over America (1976)
While John Lennon remained permanently retired from touring after The Beatles split up, Paul McCartney returned to the road with gusto. The biggest tour by his band Wings yielded a triple album, packed with their own hits as well as five Beatles songs (with the Lennon-McCartney songwriting credits intentionally flipped to McCartney-Lennon). “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which had been widely acclaimed as the first great song of McCartney’s solo career in 1970, finally became a chart hit when released as a single from Wings Over America, peaking at No. 10 on the Hot 100.
41. Neil Diamond – Hot August Night (1972)
Neil Diamond released three multi-platinum live albums in the ‘70s, but the most famous one is Hot August Night, perhaps in part because of Diamond’s hilariously strange pose on the album cover. Hot August Night features Diamond unleashing the full power of his mighty vibrato in a 10-night stand at the Greek Theatre in L.A., belting out “Sweet Caroline” and giving the goofiest possible performance of the country pastiche “Soggy Pretzels.” For some reason, Hot August Night really caught fire in Australia, going 10-times platinum and becoming the country’s top-selling album of 1973.
40. Iggy & The Stooges – Metallic K.O. (1976)
After The Stooges split up, a semi-official live album recorded at two of the Detroit band’s hometown shows at Michigan Palace bolstered their growing legend. At one point, it outsold their studio albums. Side two of the album, recorded at the Stooges’ final show before breaking up in 1974, finds Iggy Pop in rare form, relentlessly antagonizing the audience as they pelted him with eggs and beer bottles. Pop howls “I never thought it’d come to this, baby!” as the band launches into “Louie Louie” as their final middle finger to the audience. The addition of pianist Scott Thurston pounding away alongside the core quartet adds some surprising musical depth to their proto-punk sludge, but the appeal of Metallic K.O. is in how the lo-fi tapes feel more like a document of a crime scene than a live album.
39. Frank Zappa – Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
One artist who repeatedly blurred the concept of a live album was Frank Zappa, who would often insert studio overdubs over concert recordings for his albums. Sheik Yerbouti epitomized this approach with onstage recordings from New York, London, and Berlin augmented by all manners of dialogue, sound effects, and musical interludes. But off-color hits like “Bobby Brown” and the disco parody “Dancin’ Fool” made the album the biggest seller of Zappa’s prolific career.
38. Diana Ross – An Evening with Diana Ross (1977)
An Evening with Diana Ross was a tour de force show that The Supremes star took around the world as well as to Broadway (where she won a Tony) and to network television (where the special was nominated for an Emmy) before winding up as a live album. Ross hits the expected beats with her solo work, ‘60s Motown hits by the Supremes and others, and a suite of tributes to influences like Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. But the consummate entertainer also throws in some less expected selections like medleys of songs from A Chorus Line and Harry Nilsson’s 1970 album The Point!
37. Bob Dylan & The Band – Before The Flood (1974)
In 1974, Bob Dylan staged his first tour in 8 years, reuniting with the same musicians (now known as The Band instead of The Hawks) who had backed him in the ‘60s. A lot had happened in the intervening years – Dylan himself went through several metamorphoses, while his touring band had become platinum-selling stars in their own right. Dylan’s new studio album with The Band, Planet Waves, was a hit, but the real news was the tour. Songs Dylan had written during his years away from the road took interesting shapes, including “All Along the Watchtower,” which was influenced heavily by Jimi Hendrix’s cover. Dylan would also cede the spotlight to The Band to play hits of their own, like “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”
36. Todd Rundgren – Back To the Bars (1978)
Todd Rundgren spent the mid-‘70s eschewing the commercial appeal of his earlier work, making multiple conceptual double albums and going prog with his band Utopia. But after 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow was hailed as a return to form, Rundgren booked intimate residencies at clubs like The Roxy in L.A. and recorded an equally accessible live album. But alongside his singer-songwriter material, there’s traces of the more oddball Rundgren records like “Zen Archer” that made him a cult hero.
35. The Carpenters – Live At the Palladium (1976)
The Carpenters ruled AM radio in the ‘70s with gentle soft rock hits. But the sibling duo’s virtuoso musicianship took centerstage on The Carpenters’ frequent tours and network TV specials. Karen Carpenter’s delightful drum solo showcase on Live at the Palladium is as impressive a part of her legacy as any of the heartbreaking ballads she sang.
34. Yes – Yessongs (1973)
The double LP live album represents the height of ‘70s rock excess, so leave it to the longwinded prog rockers of Yes to swing for the fences with a triple live album, complete with a Yessongs concert film following it in 1975. The album is culled from multiple tours in 1972, with founding drummer Bill Bruford appearing on some tracks. But when Bruford left the band to join King Crimson after the recording of Close to the Edge, new drummer Alan White had just three days to learn their incredibly complex repertoire before touring began, making White the true MVP of Yessongs.
33. Judas Priest – Unleashed In the East (1979)
Following the lead of Cheap Trick (who’d cemented the “big in Japan” rock’n’roll cliché with At Budokan) Judas Priest reached new heights with a live album recorded in Tokyo in 1979. Like many live albums of the era, Unleashed in the East was notorious for being polished up with studio overdubs, but it’s worth it to hear Rob Halford’s high notes on “Victim of Changes” that much more clearly. Priest showed the range of their influences by giving heavy metal makeovers to Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi.”
32. Elton John – 17-11-70 (1971)
At the peak of Elton John’s imperial phase in 1976, he recorded Here and There, a proper arena-scale live album of his biggest hits. But by Sir Elton’s own admission, his best live performance was captured a half-decade earlier, when his career was just getting off the ground. A month into his first American tour, John gave a live radio performance on New York’s WABC, and the widely bootlegged broadcast prompted an official album release that sold impressively. John’s early performances of songs like “Take Me to the Pilot,” backed only by bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, have a power trio grit that was lost in his later tours with bigger ensembles.
31. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – 4 Way Street (1971)
CSNY’s first concert album was released a year after the quartet’s landmark first album together. But 4 Way Street only repeats two songs from Déjà Vu. Instead, the focus is on non-album tracks like scathing protest single “Ohio,” and letting each member run through highlights of their individual songbooks with the supergroup’s backing harmonies. Neil Young runs through the freshly minted After the Gold Rush classics “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and “Southern Man,” while David Crosby offers up a couple of previously unreleased songs, including the suggestive Byrds outtake “Triad.”
30. AC/DC – If You Want Blood You’ve Got It (1978)
AC/DC’s only live album with original frontman Bon Scott was recorded in the singer’s native country at the Glasgow stop of the Powerage tour. And for the encore, the Australian band returned to the stage in Scottish football kits. The essence of ‘70s AC/DC is captured in all its bawdy, no-frills glory on If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, even if the song of the same name wouldn’t be released until Highway To Hell two years later. Plus, Angus Young has seldom sounded more maniacal and electrified than he does on his guitar solo on “The Jack.”
29. Lynyrd Skynyrd – One More From The Road (1976)
Guitarist Steve Gaines, brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd backing singer Cassie Gaines, was invited to join the band in 1976, weeks before the band recorded their first live album at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. And One More from The Road became an essential document of Gaines’s talent in his brief time with the band, as Skynyrd barreled through their hits and covered influences like Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers. Sadly, Gaines only got to play on one studio album by the band before the tragic 1977 plane crash that killed him, Cassie Gaines, singer Ronnie Van Zant, and three others.
28. David Bowie – David Live (1974)
The two live albums David Bowie released in the ‘70s reflected just how quickly his sound and image evolved throughout the decade. The first, 1974’s David Live, is a farewell to his glam period from the Diamond Dogs tour, while 1978’s Stage captured Bowie in the thick of his Berlin period. And while Stage features a great band playing some of his best material, Bowie himself feels reserved and distant. David Live, however, is Bowie the vocalist at his most expressive, giving an incredible performance of “Moonage Daydream” and offering his own take on “All the Young Dudes,” the hit he’d written for Mott the Hoople.
27. KISS – Alive! (1975)
KISS’s first three albums didn’t sell well, but the band built a cult following on tour with the spectacle of face paint, pyro, and fake blood. Their first live album may not have come with a visual of everything that a KISS concert entailed, but it captured the energy and volume of those performances well enough to finally turn KISS into a popular phenomenon, rocketing them into the top 10 and kicking off the band’s brief run of Beatles-esque ubiquity.
26. Parliament – Live: P-Funk Earth Tour (1977)
George Clinton had a good deal going throughout the ‘70s between Parliament and Funkadelic, essentially the same band with two different names that released albums concurrently on different labels. The distinction between them began to blur more, however, when Parliament-Funkadelic toured as one unified force for the P-Funk Earth Tour in 1976 and 1977, hiring KISS’s set designer Jules Fischer to execute Clinton’s vision of The Holy Mothership landing on the stage. But it was Parliament’s label, Casablanca, that bankrolled the tour and released the live album, which focused on Parliament songs with just one Funkadelic hit, “The Undisco Kidd.” The album is full of extended medleys and call-and-response grooves like “Tear the Roof off the Sucker” that expand on the wild sonic terrain of the group’s studio albums.
25. Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Live at the El Mocambo (1978)
In March 1978, Elvis Costello and The Attractions played a show in Toronto that was broadcast on a local radio station, distributed as a promotional live album by Costello’s label in Canada, and widely bootlegged for many years before finally getting a wider release. Live at the El Mocambo is a great snapshot of Costello’s chemistry with his newly formed backing band, as they cranked up the tempo of songs from My Aim Is True and previewed “Radio Radio” along with songs from the upcoming This Years Model.
24. Ike & Tina Turner – What You Hear is What You Get – Live at Carnegie Hall (1971)
Ike & Tina Turner made eight live albums in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the most successful of which was the gold-selling double LP What You Hear is What You Get. The duo was riding high with their cover of “Proud Mary” when they came to Carnegie Hall. But the Turners and the Ikettes also blazed through a set of other inspired covers, including The Rolling Stones, Sly & the Family Stone, and Otis Redding, dedicating the last side of the album to “Respect” and an epic, borderline X-rated “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
23. Willie Nelson – Willie and Family Live (1978)
Willie Nelson was on fire in 1978. Willie and Family Live was the third multi-platinum album he released that year, after Waylon & Willie with Waylon Jennings and Stardust. Backed by his longtime band The Family (drummer Paul English, bassist Bee Spears, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and sister Bobbie Nelson on piano), Nelson strums his iconic guitar, “Trigger,” and reaches all the way back to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” to showcase his two decades of writing hits. But the single from Willie and Family Live that became one of Nelson’s signature songs was a cover, of Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River.”
22. Rush – All The World’s A Stage (1976)
For the first three decades of Rush’s career, they maintained a steady schedule: four studio albums, then a live album, then four more studio records, then another live collection. This pattern began with All The World’s A Stage, recorded on the tour in support of 2112, which was both the band’s proggiest album to date and their most commercially successful. “Working Man” and “In The Mood” allowed drummer Neil Peart a chance to put his own spin on the bluesier material from before he joined Rush, while the complex Peart epics “2112” and “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” showcased the Canadian power trio’s instrumental chops.
21. Bob Marley and the Wailers – Live! (1975)
Bob Marley was the toast of London when he performed at the Lyceum Theatre, covered by Eric Clapton and offered the use of the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio to record his first live album. Running through songs from Burnin’ and Natty Dread, The Wailers played a gorgeous rendition of “No Woman, No Cry” that became both the song’s most famous recording and Marley’s first major chart hit outside Jamaica.
20. Queen – Live Killers (1979)
Queen epitomized arena rock in 1979, offering so much triumphant bombast that “We Will Rock You” is featured twice (once at a much faster tempo). Many of Queen’s songs were purpose-built for the stage, from “Let Me Entertain You” to “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and it’s a joy to hear them thrive in that environment. But the band’s crowd-pleasing instincts belie all sorts of interesting choices in how they presented their catalog onstage. Some of their biggest hits are dispatched in abbreviated two-minute slices, while less famous tunes like “Now I’m Here” and “Brighton Rock” are blown out to lengthy epics.
19. Bill Withers – Live At Carnegie Hall (1973)
Bill Withers only had two studio albums on shelves when he recorded a double live album at Carnegie Hall. But even at that point, his songbook already included timeless tracks like “Lean On Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Grandma’s Hands.” Withers fleshed out the show with warmly intimate patter between songs, a funky extended vamp on the opener “Use Me,” and five previously unreleased songs. The most enduring of the new cuts was “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” a wry and poignant reflection on the end of the Vietnam War.
18. Joni Mitchell – Miles of Aisles (1974)
After the success of 1974’s Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell went on a rare tour with her backing band from the album, L.A. Express, and recorded her first live album. There’s a beautifully relaxed interplay in the performances on Miles of Aisles, like the way Mitchell’s voice and Robben Ford’s guitar circle around each other at the end of “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio.” The live recording of “Big Yellow Taxi” from the album charted higher than the original version did four years earlier, helping make it Mitchell’s signature song.
17. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band – ‘Live’ Bullet (1976)
Bob Seger had been Detroit’s hometown hero for over a decade when he finally became a national headliner in the mid-‘70s. So recording a double album at the local arena, Cobo Hall, created the perfect moment to take Seger to the next level. Summoning all the passion of a true rock’n’roll believer, Seger ran through his back catalog and covers of Ike & Tina Turner, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. And “Turn The Page,” the weary road anthem that missed the charts the first time it was released in 1972, became an FM radio staple, led by Silver Bullet Band saxophonist Alto Reed’s iconic opening riff.
16. Lou Reed – Rock N Roll Animal (1974)
Rock N Roll Animal was Lou Reed’s first live album as a solo artist, but four of the LP’s five tracks were Velvet Underground songs, with only “Lady Day” representing the three solo albums he’d released by 1974. Reed’s bombastic backing band (comprised mostly of future Alice Cooper sidemen) was nothing like the Velvets. Guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter trade solos for 3 minutes over the intro for “Sweet Jane” before the song’s main riff comes in. The classic rock treatment of the VU catalog struck a nerve, though, and Rock N Roll Animal achieved something Reed’s previous work never had: a gold record.
15. Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive! (1976)
Many of the artists on this list launched their careers with live albums, but Peter Frampton is the guy whose career pretty much is his live album. The former Humble Pie guitarist released four relatively unsuccessful studio albums before Frampton Comes Alive!, and even his follow-up album only sold about a tenth as much. But Frampton ruled over 1976 with an irrepressible mix of big hooks and guitar heroics that sounded looser and livelier outside of the studio. Frampton is no master songwriter – he rips off a Doobie Brothers riff with a wah-wah pedal on a song that’s actually named “Doobie Wah” – but there’s a durable thrill to the talkbox solo on the epic closer “Do You Feel Like We Do.”
14. Marvin Gaye – Marvin Gaye Live! (1974)
Marvin Gaye suffered from stage fright and rarely performed during the early ‘70s period when he released some of his most revered albums. But in 1974, Gaye reluctantly began touring for the first time in a half-decade and fans received him with open arms at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. Fresh off Let’s Get It On, Gaye was at his pinnacle as a sex symbol, and he pleaded and teased the audience into such shrieks of ecstasy during “Distant Lover” that the crowd noise was part of the appeal of the song’s live recording, which became a Top 40 hit. But Gaye dispatched his ‘60s hits swiftly in a section of the show that was playfully labeled “Fossil Medley” on the album’s tracklist.
13. The Band – The Last Waltz (1978)
The Band’s 1976 farewell concert at the Winterland Arena in San Francisco was filmed by Martin Scorsese and became perhaps the most revered concert film of the decade. Of course, the movie also stirred some gossip and controversy – the cocaine edited out of Neil Young’s nose as well as Scorsese’s friendship with Robbie Robertson coloring his portrayal of The Band – but the performances themselves are a treasure. The men of the hour are joined by a parade of stars, including the singers they backed in the ‘60s, Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins. But The Band’s unique sound and chemistry is also captured beautifully on performances of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Stage Fright.”
12. Jimi Hendrix – Band Of Gypsys (1970)
For nearly two years, Jimi Hendrix labored on a fourth studio album that he wouldn’t live to complete. In the meantime, he owed Capitol Records an album due to a contract dispute, so he delivered a live record of entirely new songs with a new rhythm section (drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox) after disbanding The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Recorded on New Year’s Day 1970, the final album Hendrix finished in his lifetime explores a more soulful side, although the bombastic “Machine Gun” reaffirmed his status as an otherworldly wizard with an electric guitar. It was also one of the first examples of a major artist releasing an entirely new set of songs as a live album that had never been released as studio recordings – an unusual approach that would be used in the following years by Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Ted Nugent, and many others.
11. Tom Waits – Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
Many of the albums on this list featured extensive studio overdubs, but only one album was recorded entirely in a studio with a live audience present. When Tom Waits recorded his third album, the Record Plant in Los Angeles was converted into a jazz club, dubbed ‘Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge,’ complete with a bar, tables, and an opening performance by a stripper. With Waits riffing and free-associating over walking basslines and relaxed swing jazz grooves (and the crowd hanging on his every word) the unique atmosphere helped him create one of his loosest, funniest, and most consistently entertaining albums.
10. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Twice in the ‘70s, Neil Young released live albums comprised entirely of new material, albeit with very different results. 1973’s Time Fades Away featured Young backed by an all-star band of noted session musicians, The Stray Gators, but the band’s chemistry never gelled, and a disappointed Young let the album go out of print for decades. At the end of the decade, however, Young recorded another live album with Crazy Horse, which was ultimately his biggest commercial success since Harvest. Following the format of the concerts that featured both an acoustic set and an electric set, Rust Never Sleeps opens with the quiet “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and closes with its roaring counterpoint “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black).” Rust Never Sleeps did feature some studio recordings, and was mixed with crowd noise low to feel more like a studio album, but a more pure live album from the next tour, Live Rust, followed just five months later.
9. Thin Lizzy – Live and Dangerous (1978)
Thin Lizzy only made a live album because their producer, Tony Visconti, was too busy with other clients to start work on the band’s next studio album. But the tapes frontman Phil Lynott sorted through to assemble a live LP contained firecracker performances showcasing Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson’s twin lead guitar attack. A young American going by “Bluesey” Huey Lewis blows a harmonica solo on “Baby Drives Me Crazy” years before he’d become one of the biggest pop stars of the ‘80s. Live rock doesn’t get much better than when the last chord of “Cowboy Song” crashes into the first chord of “The Boys Are Back In Town.”
8. The Grateful Dead – Europe ’72 (1972)
The Grateful Dead may be the most bootlegged band in history, and the faithful fans following them around the country taping and trading shows made them legends. But the Dead’s official live releases have always been an important part of their canon (hence their double inclusion on this list), and by the end of 1972, they had three live albums alongside five studio albums. The triple-LP Europe ’72 featured the definitive recordings of several new songs that would never appear on studio albums, including “Jack Straw” and “Brown-Eyed Woman.” Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who’d leave the band and pass away in the year following the European tour, also co-wrote and sang one of those new songs, “Mr. Charlie.”
7. The Ramones – It’s Alive (1979)
On the last night of 1977, The Ramones came to London’s Rainbow Theatre and played to a full house of British punks who idolized the American originators. Tommy Ramone was months away from stepping down from the drum stool, and both Johnny Ramone and road manager Monte Melnick singled it out decades later as the best show the original lineup ever played. If the band’s first three studio albums hadn’t stamped The Ramones as rock’s new prophets of speed, simplicity, and brevity, It’s Alive made it official as the band blitzed through 28 anthems in 54 minutes. Little was said between songs besides Dee Dee Ramone’s usual “1-2-3-4!” count off, although Joey Ramone takes a moment to acknowledge the chicken vindaloo he ate before the show.
6. Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace (1972)
The greatest soul singers usually learned their trade in the church choir, and Aretha Franklin was no exception. The daughter of a Baptist minister returned to her roots to record her best-selling album in a small church in Los Angeles after a decade of success in secular music. Franklin still managed to weave a little pop into the proceedings, inserting Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” into a holy medley with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” but the performance is otherwise gospel through and through. Director Sydney Pollack was on hand to film the performances, but a host of technical problems and legal issues left his Amazing Grace documentary incomplete for decades until its release in 2018.
5. Jackson Browne – Running On Empty (1977)
Running On Empty is less a live album than a concept album about touring. The previously unreleased set of songs details all the glory and monotony of a rock tour, with some tracks recorded onstage and others recorded backstage or even on the bus. “The Road” is the most beautifully realized moment on the album, beginning quietly in a hotel room in Maryland before progressing to a full-band performance in a New Jersey arena. Thanks to the hit title track and the fond ode to his road crew “The Load-Out,” it became the biggest record of Browne’s career while also being nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys.
4. Little Feat – Waiting For Columbus (1978)
California’s Little Feat were the quintessential ‘70s cult band, routinely blowing bigger bands like the Doobie Brothers off the stage as an opening act but never landing a mainstream hit with their idiosyncratic west coast take on blues rock and swampy New Orleans funk. Waiting For Columbus was their chance to show off the band’s powerful rhythm section and leader Lowell George’s scorching slide guitar on the opening strut of “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” The Tower of Power horns took songs like “Mercenary Territory” up a notch, while Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor guested on “Apolitical Blues.” Waiting For Columbus became Little Feat’s first gold record in June 1979, but there wasn’t much time to celebrate, as George died of a drug-induced heart attack mere weeks later.
3. Cheap Trick – Cheap Trick At Budokan (1979)
A truly unpredictable sequence of events made the Rockford, Illinois quartet Cheap Trick arena-headlining rock stars in Tokyo before they were known in America. The Japanese music press began covering Cheap Trick after the band toured with Queen, their song “Clock Strikes Ten” topped the Japanese pop charts, and the band flew around the world to perform in front of thousands of screaming fans. The energy captured on tape at those shows was so infectious that it finally reached back to America, becoming the band’s first major American hit. Once you’ve heard the joyously swinging Budokan version of “I Want You To Want Me,” you’ll never dream of listening to the comparatively tepid studio recording that missed the charts in 1977.
2. The Who – Live At Leeds (1970)
Similarly to how 1967’s The Who Sell Out mimicked a pirate radio broadcast, The Who put a playful black market sheen on their first official live album, with cover art that made it look like a bootleg. Recent decades have brought reissues featuring the full two hours of music The Who played on Valentine’s Day 1970, including the entire Tommy album and its precursor, “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” By comparison, the original 37-minute LP might seem slight, going heavy on nostalgic covers and an epic rendition of “My Generation.” But in either form, Live At Leeds is a thunderous document of one of rock’s loudest bands at the peak of its powers, perfecting their ‘60s songbook at the dawn of the ‘70s.
1. The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East (1971)
The Allman Brothers Band became a word-of-mouth favorite after two studio albums, but more than with any other band of the ‘70s, only a live LP could have packaged their explosive and unique sound well enough to push them to platinum sales for the first time. With two lead guitarists and two drummers, the Allmans produced an enormous sound onstage, with extended instrumental workouts that turned the 5-minute “Whipping Post” into a 23-minute behemoth. Founding guitarist Duane Allman (who said he’d listened to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue for two years straight) brought the spontaneity of jazz to his twin lead guitar instrumental workouts with Dickie Betts, creating an album that helped birth the jam band genre as much as any Grateful Dead record. Unfortunately, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash less than 4 months after the release of At Fillmore East, so although Gregg Allman led the band for several decades with great success after that, At Fillmore East remains the lightning-in-a-bottle moment that crystallized the original lineup’s unique chemistry.