One of the paradoxes of such a supposedly spontaneous art form as rock & roll is that it has produced no great live albums. And even very few good ones. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s true. For example, if you accept the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart as artists who are at least representative of this music’s best, you won’t find any of them definitively defined by Got LIVE If You Want It!, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, Live at Leeds, Before the Flood, Hard Rain or Coast to Coast. Overture and Beginners. Granted that I’d hate to be without many of those LPs, I really wouldn’t think twice about trading in the whole lot for, say, Exile on Main Street, Rubber Soul, Who’s Next, Blonde on Blonde and Every Picture Tells a Story. Somehow, studio albums almost always seem to work out better, although there’s nothing duller than sitting through a series of recording sessions and nothing more exciting than experiencing a landmark concert.
Why don’t we have great live LPs? Probably for the same reason that automatic writing and cinema vérité usually don’t manage to provide unified, well-rounded works of art: ultimately, because of a lack of control over too many important elements. Instead, we have to settle for local color and mood, and, in return for some brilliant bits and pieces, put up with long stretches during which absolutely nothing of interest happens. Technically, it’s more difficult to record a rock & roll band onstage than in a studio — that’s practically a given. Onstage, the musicians must entertain as well as play, can’t always bear themselves or each other and have only one shot — individually and collectively, in the heat of the moment — at getting everything right. Naturally, there aren’t any overdubs for texture or finesse.
That said, Love You Live — especially sides three and four — is probably as good a live album as I’ve yet heard. Perhaps we can’t always get what we want, but here, according to Rolling Stones Records at least, we get what we need: “Love You Live is the full measure of the Stones’ power and represents the band’s definitive statement for what’s left of this decade. The songs circumscribe the Stones’ entire career, in a none-too-random fashion, either.” Well, yes and no — mostly no. More importantly, this double set provides us with what is really our first extensive opportunity to hear how relative newcomer Ron Wood is interacting with the rest of the group (except for a few rough spots, quite well) and what changes his guitar playing has wrought. Further, we now have in-concert records from all three chapters of the Rolling Stones: Brian Jones was on Got LIVE If You Want It!, Mick Taylor on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!
Basically, the guitar team of Keith Richard and Ron Wood sounds more like Richard/Jones than Richard/Taylor. On Love You Live, everything seems scaled down and speeded up. The horns are gone, and there’s less grandiosity and perhaps less ambition. Side three, recorded at the 350-seat El Mocambo Tavern in Toronto, is a full-fledged return to the glories of R&B, all of it exquisitely performed. The new Stones are hot and scrappy, apparently preferring the visceral jab of rock & roll to the moody, thoughtful, slower songs. Indeed, the band’s sole attempt at a large ballad, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” seems both misguided and almost disinterestedly thrown away. Jagger’s vocals on the song sound more like a lesson in rarified enunciation than an emotional rendering of particularly meaningful lyrics. Wood’s spectacularly wrong-headed guitar solo then lugs the corpse down a long and totally inappropriate cul-de-sac, and Jagger returns to fling its bones — now in the form of a sing-along — to the audience. Hardly the proper way to treat an anthem. (Shades of what Bob Dylan did to “Like a Rolling Stone” on the Before the Flood tour.) Surprisingly, “Tumbling Dice” doesn’t fare much better. Jagger is again infected with the cutes, there’s not much drama, nothing builds, and everybody simply forgets about the climax.
Although much of sides one, two and four — all recorded in a large auditorium in Paris — is fine, clearly the four songs from the El Mocambo are the heart and soul of Love You Live. Everything burns more naturally in a small club. Jagger comes alive, the band members play as if they were having the time of their lives, and the LP’s best cut, the reggae-style “Crackin’ Up,” ignites the fire. When I talked to Keith Richard about it, he explained the difference this way: “Let’s see, ’63 or ’64 must have been the last time we played anywhere that small. After a couple of numbers, you suddenly realized that it felt perfectly natural, probably because it sounded so natural. I guess. Felt just like a rehearsal — the difference between how it should be done and what you actually usually do. It was a real joy not to have that gap between the stage and the people. In a place like the El Mocambo, you can hear the band — and, more important, we can hear the band — as it’s actually sounding. And we weren’t just getting the power of the band through the monitor, you know. I could hear Charlie’s bass drum through my spine.”
I don’t know why, but calling Love You Live a very good album sounds like an insult to the Rolling Stones. From a position of love and respect, one wants to be able to write that the new record is their best ever, even better than their certified masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. But, of course, it isn’t — and one can’t. Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman are still the Stones’ secret weapons, Ron Wood seems like a comer, Keith Richard sounds positively revitalized, and Mick Jagger certainly hasn’t lost his enormous vocal clout. Listening to these guys bid adieu to Paris with a magnificent version of “Sympathy for the Devil” makes one realize that the death-knell blues for the Rolling Stones are premature at best, ghoulish at worst and completely irrelevant. Just because one’s front-line superlatives have to be held somewhat in check for Love You Live is no reason to lapse into a sentimental lament for somebody’s vainglorious idea of What Used to Be when what’s here this minute is quite memorable in its own right.