Why most live albums are a dead loss

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Nothing tastes as sweet as forbidden fruit, so I’ve tracked down a copy of Deep Purple’s NEC 1993. That’s the live album that Deep Purple’s singer Ian Gillan warned fans not to buy last week, saying that the show, recorded at the Birmingham NEC, was “awful” and one of the band’s worst ever concerts. He complained that it had been re-released without his knowledge by the band’s record label, which withdrew the album – though if you’re determined to hear Purple rock the Midlands’ premier convention centre it doesn’t take much sleuthing to find it online.

How terrible is it? Gillan has said the concert took place at a low point in his life, when relations between himself and the band’s axe-hero Ritchie Blackmore were at their most poisonous. During the first number, “Highway Star”, in what fans refer to as “the water-throwing incident”, Blackmore hurled a cup of water towards his band mates (he claimed he was aiming at a cameraman). Within days he had quit the group.

Sadly the water-throwing incident is inaudible on the album (although I picture it happening as Gillan shrieks the line “Oooh, it’s a killing machine”). In fact, it’s hard to find bad vibes anywhere on NEC 1993. Perhaps there’s a degree of needle in the way Blackmore and the keyboardist Jon Lord seem to be competing to see who can play more frenetically, but they’re not exactly fighting on stage. Overall, the band acquit themselves professionally. Epic drum and keyboard solos are performed, big riffs are belted out and Gillan gamely wails like a man whose big toe is being tweaked by Satan’s minions. Business as usual, really.

The problem with NEC 1993 is not the gig itself, but the fact it’s a live album. Almost all live albums are terrible, and this one is no exception. The sound quality is indifferent, with Gillan sounding like he’s bellowing into a gale, and the atmosphere, shorn of the experience of seeing Purple in the flesh, is as flat as a Hell’s Angel with a puncture.

Recordings never do justice to gigs. The raw vigour of live music rarely survives: all we get instead are muddy renditions of songs that sound better on studio albums. The point of a concert is that it’s a one-off occasion. Recording it turns it into something different, a document of an event rather than the event itself. It’s like filming a play: the result is static and lifeless.

On the rare occasions live albums live up to their billing – James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, for instance, or Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison – it’s because they capture an exceptional performer at their peak. In most other cases, whatever value they possess is documentary, not artistic. Ironically, NEC 1993 would have been a better live album if the concert had really been as bad as Gillan remembered.


■Unfortunately an epidemic of recording is sweeping through gigs. It’s common now to see a forest of arms in the audience holding up cameras and mobile phones to video the show, which then gets posted on YouTube for the world to gawp at.

At a concert recently I carefully positioned myself behind the smallest man in the venue, only for my plan to backfire when the diminutive fellow lifted a camera above his head to film the show. It was right in my eye-line, so I could see the band jiggling about on the screen on the back of a camera at the same time as I could see them on stage. The distraction was compounded by the thought that people watching the clip on YouTube would get the unimpeded view I should have had in the venue. Frankly I would have preferred to have been staring at the back of a tall person’s head, which at least doesn’t plunge one into a post-modern dilemma.

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