Here’s the latest in our occasional series of in-depth articles about the music industry from BAMM correspondent Zakia Uddin. This time around, we look at the present (and future) state of live video performances …
LIVE TO VIDEO
1, 2, 3 … action!
The filmed live music performance has a history stretching back almost as long as film itself. Blues legend Bessie Smith was filmed singing ‘St Louis Blues’ in 1929 (above), essentially creating the first ever music video. Similarly, the history of live music on television is almost as long as that of television’s mass consumption. The ability to play well live on television remains the marker of a genuine musician. Every reality show worth its salt builds up to a live showdown between its contestants. So what do audiences look for in a live performance? And are the people behind the camera the ones who really decide whether a performance will go down in history or not?
Just hangin’ out in the studio
Live music has always been about ‘authenticity’. When you see an artist play, you think you know whether they’re really feeling the music or not. Do they mean what they’re saying or is it obvious they drew the short straw with the songwriter? A live performance has always been counterposed to the glitter and glamour of an expensive video, where you can’t see the sweat coming from the singer’s pores.
Even the ‘in the studio’ music video beloved of pop music stars emulates the ‘realness’ of the live performance. For example, J-Lo becomes Jenny from the block when she’s in her jammies, getting her pitch right with a pair of headphones. Singing live has been all about been demonstrating how much the artist or singer is above the trappings of celebrity fame. When it comes down to it, all they need is a guitar and a mike (and some expensive recording equipment, and a diplomatic producer-type to nod at them appreciatively behind some glass).
Performance is filtering over to other fields, such as dance music. The huge light shows and spectacle of the 1980s sparked off an opposing trend which saw DJs opt for the anonymity afforded by the darkness of a club. But the arrival of the ‘big beat’ DJ playing to crowds on beaches (such as Fatboy Slim on Brighton Beach, above) changed the DJ culture from something faceless to near-inescapable in the mainstream charts. More recent developments such as live-streamed show The Boiler Room have tried to reverse that emphasis on appearance by having the DJ play with their back to the audience – but it still taps into an old trend from live recorded music from television. Audiences love watching audiences no matter how disinterested and cool they act.
Recorded live performances have been most closely associated with guitar music, though. One of the fears expressed by musicians in the early 1980s was that MTV would stop people going to gigs. If you can hear the singles from the comfort of your living room, why would you pay to go to a venue without even the guarantee that the performer will play the hits? Would it be possible for the guitar playing singer to be as exciting as the pop star? However, MTV’s Unplugged series became an integral part of the tradition that made ‘going acoustic’ an index of a musician or band’s real capabilities.
One of the most notable Unplugged sessions was by Nirvana in 1993 (above). The watershed performance marked a moment in which both the audience come to maturity. Cobain wore his influences on his sleeve, using the opportunity to showcase unexpected personal influences, as well as the craftsmanship behind the band’s own songs. Nirvana emerged as a more rounded band, whose music was informed by old greats like Leadbelly as much as it was by its contemporaries Meat Puppets and more recent predecessors The Vaselines. The record of the session has become a critical part of the band’s discography and evaluation as a ‘serious band’ long after other bands associated with grunge disappeared.
Visuals for rock, pop and dance have all been shaped by how live music has been recorded so far. It’s also worth looking at the role of live music in culture, and why bands have seen some performances enter into the annals of rock history. The most famous live performances often mark high points – or pivotal points – in a band or a musician’s career. Oasis’ Knebworth show was recorded because the band were at their career peak in 1996, with an estimated one in 20 people in the UK trying to buy tickets for the two consecutive shows at the legendary venue. Bob Dylan famously ‘went electric’ at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 (below). In one legendary show, included in Don’t Look Now, the audience starts calling him a ‘Judas’ for betraying his folk roots.
Live music videos have also captured venues at their peak – showing how much synergy there is between a venue and the artists who play in it. Some venues really sum up and define an era – whether it’s CBGBs or London’s Albert Hall in the 1960s, equally famous then for tripped out psychedelic sleep-ins as it is now for the Proms. The stadium shot was requisite for live filming in the 1980s, wiping out some of the intimacy of the connection between performer and audience. Not surprisingly, there are few standout live music films made of stadium gigs.
The live recorded performance has often been seen as a complement to a band’s official recording career, despite hardcore fans’ obsessions with bootlegs. However, some live songs have outlived their recorded counterparts – for example, Cheap Trick’s minimalistic ‘I want you to want me’ off their famous Live at the Budokan album, and Pulp’s Glastonbury version of ‘This is Hardcore’, which perfectly distilled the essence of the post-party song (both below). An atmospheric venue and a receptive audience can elevate the live version of a song well above the recorded cut on the album.
Of course, live streaming has made recording any event anywhere under the most casual conditions easy. Death Cab for Cutie recorded the video for their first single ‘You are a tourist’ (below) off their seventh album in a single take, which was live streamed simultaneously to audiences. Band member Chris Walla said: “Most of the time when you have an idea, somebody’s already done it, and it really didn’t seem like that was the case for this. So we needed to move on it if we wanted to do it.” Will we see more experiments like this in the future? And will the predictions of anxiety-ridden musicians in the 1980s start to come true, in the way they least expected? Rather than losing interest in going to gigs, we’re just watching them in our living room.
In our experientially-minded culture, bands are more likely to do reunion gigs than new albums after years apart. Some of the biggest cultural highlights in recent years have been heavily publicised reunion gigs for bands including the Stone Roses, Blur and Pulp. Instead of waiting for the definitive document, we can just record them on our phones as we watch. The Beastie Boys, always ahead of the game, did one of the most definitive live music recordings by getting their fans to film themselves on the day of the band’s legendary Madison Gardens gig (below).
Arguably, MTV-ready popstars might be doing more than anyone else to make sure the live music experience remains sacrosanct. In a media dominated by the reality music contest, being able to sing live is still the final measure of talent. The format translates well because we can all appreciate a contestant’s singing abilities, regardless of their marketability – hence the breakout success of ordinary individuals such as Susan Boyle or Paul Potts.
HOW ABOUT SOME LIVE CLASSICS FROM THE BAMM ARCHIVES?
HOTTUB – ‘1, 2, 3, Go!’
Where to look? This band shocked audiences at SXSW with their sweaty onstage antics and willingness to hump stage floors. Here they are performing their synthy ‘1-2-3-Go’ against some suitably eye-watering graphics.
Afro Q Ben – ‘Futuristic Electro’
This sunny outdoor performance perfectly conveys the festival vibe combined with genuine musicianship. Futuristic Electro’s influences span far and wide. Despite being fun, it never feels flimsy. It also reminds me of an age-old tradition that’s got wiped out in the era of spiralling touring costs for bands: the dancer guy. It’s always a guy, and you’re not sure what else he does when he’s not on stage, but it just wouldn’t be the same without him.
Religious Girls – ‘OG’
It might not surprise you to learn that Religious Girls have a background of noise music. Their music has suitably ethereal vocals counterpointed to more electronic sounds and off-kilter drumming. This performance at the Phono del Sol festival in San Francisco captures the intensity and intricacy of their music.
Great Lake Swimmers – ‘Still’
GLS have already ratcheted up much praise from the likes of Bill Callahan and this BAMM performance shows them at their best, performing at SXSW to an adoring crowd. If Hot Tub are like a tequila slammer, then Great Lake Swimmers are the orange juice for the hangover.
A stripped down version of a deeply felt emotive song, deconstructed and performed in San Francisco’s Engine Works. The band experimented with the parts of the song to make it work within the grand yet warm venue – a great example of how much our experience of music is informed by place.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE BEST LIVE FILMS EVER MADE …?
Thelma Schoonmaker won an Academy Award in 1970 for her remarkable editing of the film which in itself changed how live performance was documented. Schoonmaker adopted a combination of stills, and dissolves to capture the energy of performers as diverse as Richie Havens and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Woodstock wasn’t intended to be free but has come to symbolise the 1960s. Most cultural commentators have put this down to the film’s brilliance. There are a few performances here which perfectly sum up why we see the era as we do: Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
Oasis at Knebworth 1996
The band’s performance at this legendary site coincided with their lager-swilling, tabloid-terrorising peak. Certainly, the Gallagher brothers’ collective egos were big enough to elbow out the audience. At one point, Liam tells the reverential audience: “We’re not arrogant, we just believe we’re the best band in the world.” Class, as they would have it.
Monterey Pop (1967)
Made two years before Woodstock, but somewhat less acknowledged is this video documentary of the festival where Jimi Hendrix famously burnt his guitar and flung its flaming carcass into the crowd. D.A.Pennebaker’s film excited some of its viewers so much that it directly inspired the more famous Woodstock festival – as well as dozens of others across the country. The documentary shows how live footage can be as exciting and motivating as the real thing. Above is the trailer to the miniature masterpiece of musical history. Let’s all say: “It’s groovy, man.”
1991: The Year That Punk Broke
This fun documentary cobbled out of Super 8 footage captures some stand-out definitive performances from the soon-to-be-massive Nirvana and their contemporaries Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. What’s most astonishing is that these bands were already playing to huge crowds at Britain’s Reading festival, despite seeing themselves as punk rock. Like the best music documentaries, it captures a change in the history of music itself.
This documents some of hardcore band Fugazi’s best-known moments on stage, bringing together style and content to convey the band’s unique take on society. The sonic assault is paired with a visual assault and performances that make you wish you’d been there (maybe standing at the back, not so close to the front).
ATP Tomorrow’s Parties
This festival on a chalet site has had some ups and downs in the past ten years but its delivered more than a handful of legendary performances. One of these is by Lightning Bolt, the two man band prone to setting up in chalets or outside the venue or whereever you least expect them to. The trailer shoves our face into their sweaty pits – breathe it in.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
This is the nightmarish counterpart of the dreamy Woodstock vibe. The filmmakers followed the band on their 1969 tour of the US, which ended with the infamous free concert at Altamont. Footage of the ensuing bloodbath was incorporated into the film, which has come to represent the zenith of the hippy era.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
This Talking Heads documentary was shot by Hollywood director Jonathan Demme just when MTV had arrived on our screens. It showed how live footage doesn’t have to be cliched – the camera stays firmly focused on Byrne’s face throughout rather than straggling to the money shots of the audiences. Rather than presenting a loosened up version of the band, we see them at their most stylised and creative – with Demme using chiaroscuro and dramatic close-ups fofor that definitive art school feel.