Live recordings have been a part of the music industry since day one of the crude technology of the earliest devices. In fact, since there were really no studios available for recording purposes, all of those early “records” were “live recordings” in the strictest sense. However, the live album, as we now know it, is a completely different animal. That animal came into its own in the rock era and exploded with the release of ALIVE, a 1975 album by KISS, (a career making release with an overabundance of what has come to be known as “studio sweetening”), and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE in 1976 (also hurtling “the face” and former Humble Pie guitarist to superstardom). With the unprecedented success of Peter Frampton’s fifth solo release, everybody and their brothers were releasing these documents of their latest tours (sometimes used as stop gaps between studio albums; sometimes used as a means to gain an artist’s release from a record label contract, commonly referred to as the “contractual obligation” record).
A lot of people don’t like live albums. I’m not one of those. Some of my favorite records were recorded on the road. Here’s a list of 20 live albums that I think are the best. These records are all official releases, not bootlegs… that’s a whole other list (and one you may see somewhere down the line, as well). I had a hard time keeping this list to 20 (it started out as a “Top10”) and, I’m sure that your list would look very different from this one. But, that’s what makes these things so much fun, right? So, here’s the next in a series of reviews presenting 20 live albums that you should check out:
(17) GARY NUMAN: LIVING ORNAMENTS ’79 AND ’80
(BEGGARS BANQUET RECORDS; English import box set, 1981)
In the United States, Gary Numan (barring a miraculous surge in record sales) will always be known as the one-hit wonder guy, thanks to the number one 1979 psuedo-techno classic, “Cars.” Those of us with an adventurous disposition (at least where music is concerned) know that – as good as “Cars” was – it is nowhere near the best song Numan ever recorded; we also know (as do his legions of fans in Great Britain and Europe) that – even though he retired for a short period of time to race cars and fly planes – he has hardly been quiet since the song went viral (well… whatever the comparative term for viral was back then) upon its initial release. THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE, the album that featured “Cars,” was Numan’s third in two years (the first two marqueed by his then-current band, Tubeway Army) and the similarly dystopian TELEKON was just a few months away. In September 1979, Numan was moving away from the Tubeway Army sound and name; THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE was still two months from release. The live show still relied very heavily on the popularity of the group’s name and music, but this newer, tighter band was already exploring new territory and introducing Uk fans to the music from Gary’s first solo record; by September 1980, the band had a tougher, futuristic sound as it toured to support the just-released TELEKON.
In an unprecedented move, early 1981 saw the release of two live albums documenting both the 1979 and 1980 tours. This may have been intended as a stop-gap, offering Numan’s loyal fans something with which to remember the tours, before he released the jarringly different DANCE in September; maybe the releases were intended to appease those loyal fans because the next album would be a departure from the sound they’d come to expect from Numan and his well-oiled machine-like band. Whatever the reason, it was soon decided to offer the two records together, in a box set. That box set, not available except as an import in the US, lands the number 17 spot on my list of great live albums. Here’s why:
The 1979 album was recorded on the group’s second night at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, September 28. LIVING ORNAMENTS ’79 has a very disjointed feel, as Numan rearranged the track order and cut the show down from the 21 songs performed to nine on the released version; due to that editing and shifting, there are fade-outs (and -ins) on many of the tracks, which disrupts the live feel. The quality of the music and performances, however, were never in question. Side one opens with the instrumental “Airlane,” which served as album opener on THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE. The track features a cool synth groove and an awesome power-chording guitar from Rrussell Bell. The worldwide number one hit, “Cars,” is sped up in this live setting. Though Numan’s voice has a rather chilling, robotic feel on the studio version, his performance here may not exactly be dripping with emotion, but it does exhibit more emotion than most are expecting from this period in his career. The Tubeway Army B-side “We Are So Fragile” shows a punkier – dare I say, fiercer – Gary Numan on display. The bass by Paul Gardiner is a definite plus here (and throughout the record). The song, “Films,” features another accelerated tempo, as Gardiner and his partner in rhythm, drummer Cedric Sharpley, are locked into one of those pockets that only a bass/drum tandem can really fall into. Numan’s voice is the disinterested and robotic instrument that we know so well. “Something’s In the House” comes from Tubeway Army’s debut album and has Numan sounding snotty and punky again. There is some amazing interplay between Bell, Sharpley and Gardiner, proving that – regardless of detractors comments – this is a real band… a very solid performing unit. The only problem seems to be a completely out-of-place keyboard/synth solo. I can’t tell if it’s in the wrong key or the wrong tempo or exactly what the problem is; I just know that it doesn’t fit.
“My Shadow In Vain,” more spooky punk from the TUBEWAY ARMY album, is the first track on side two. It features a deranged Numan searching for answers, for dead friends and for his shadow… all in vain. I was surprised by the similarity (particularly the bass, guitar and synthesizer melody lines) with the Knack’s “My Sharona,” which was recorded and released a full year after Tubeway Army’s debut. “Conversation” is another quirky tune from THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE (are there any other kind?). Sharpley and Gardiner are in another syncopated groove and Numan’s vocals are “best-of-show” on the track. Billy Currie’s violin coda at the end of the song, as well as the melody line would show up three years later in Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.” The existential punk of the TUBEWAY ARMY cut “The Dream Police” is highlighted by screeching, scraping violin and viola (by Currie and Chris Payne, respectively) and a repetitive guitar riff from Rrussell Bell. “Metal” sounds very much like a leftover from REPLICAS, as it seems to share that album’s cyborg/human machine thematic concept. It does feature the droning synth and machine-like drumming adopted on the next record.
LIVING ORNAMENTS ’80, recorded on September 16 (the second date of a four day stand at the Hammersmith), has more of a live feel, with crowd noises connecting the cuts instead of the off-putting fades (even though the ten tracks were – like the ’79 edition – re-ordered and edited down from the 19 actually played that night). The band line-up has shifted slightly, with Numan now adding synthesizer and guitar duties to his singing and Roger Mason’s keyboards replacing Billy Currie’s keyboard and violin. Set opener “This Wreckage” also opens side one. The still-to-be-released single has the more industrial sound of TELEKON, the album this tour was in support of. A throbbing synth gives way to a pumping bass line and a swinging drum groove brings Numan to the stage, with his disconnected lyrics and disinterested vocal that somehow drips with more emotion than most balladeers can muster. The then-current single, “I Die: You Die,” follows. A sparkling keyboard, Gardiner’s fretless bass and electronic drums from Sharpley are deceptively inviting; a punky guitar slashes and snakes just under the surface as Numan delivers brutal, venomous lyrics about love, lust, lonliness and vengeance: “They crawl out of their holes for me/And I die; you die/Hear them laugh, watch them turn on me/And I die; you die/See my scars, they call me such things/Tear me, tear me, tear me.” An almost majestic sounding tune, “ME” features soaring keyboard and synthesizer. Again, the lyrics focus on death and isolation, a constant theme, especially in Numan’s solo work. The man’s vocal sounds frenzied and a little crazed… in a robotic kind of way. The song continually threatens to fly apart, but Ced Sharpley’s spectacular drumming holds it all together. “Everyday I Die” is one of the few holdovers from the debut Tubeway Army album on this tour. Numan’s vocals have a staccato quality, as he continues to express feelings of lonliness, this time, seemingly, the result of a love lost. The sparse instrumental accompaniment adds to the disturbing tone of the lyrics, making them somehow more frightening. “Down In the Park” is a part of REPLICAS, a grand punk opera about a growing sub-species, more machine than man. It’s a Tubeway Army song, but in name only; a beautiful piano intro gives way to stark, hollow instrumentation and wickedly unemotional vocals.
The final side of the box set, actually side two of the ’80 record starts with “Remind Me To Smile.” The TELEKON track is about the price of fame, way before the paparazzi were such a prevalent thing: “Get off the car/Get off the phone/Move from my window, leave me alone.” The band participates vocally, with a call and response chorus. “The Joy Circuit” is mostly instrumental… anthemic with hyperkinetic synth and bass. Even through the droning guitars and looped effects, the song somehow has a… happy feeling. “Tracks” starts with a solitary guitar, eventually moving into a synth-driven soundtrack kinda music. The tune could be about drugs or growing old or missing an older constant (parent?) that’s no longer in your life. Aside from “Cars,” “Are Friends Electric?” may be Numan’s best known song in the States. Numan’s spoken word vocals stab and the guitars slash at and through the sci-fi oriented keyboards and synthesizers, giving the tune a distinct Floydian sound. The final number, “We Are Glass,” is another TELEKON cut. It’s one of the more melodic songs from this early stage of Numan’s career, but the creepy REPLICAS cyborg thing is definitely in the lyrics, with such lines as, “We are cold/We’re not supposed to cry” and “You are replaced.” Over a three or four year period (say, 1979-1982), there were a lot of bands that excelled at the type of music pioneered by Gary Numan… at least in the studio; very few were competent enough to pull it off in a live setting. The band that toured with Numan during this time period proved themselves more than capable of bringing Numan’s dark visions to the stage and that’s why the special edition box set, LIVING ORNAMENTS ’79 AND ’80, is one of the greatest live albums ever.
The latest versions of the albums were released separately in 2005, but still no American editions. The ’79 album has reconstructed the entire show in the proper running order on two CDs; the two CD edition of the ’80 record features the original released version followed by the entire concert, again, in the proper running order. The full show is sourced from the stage monitor mix, which definitely gives you a different listening experience. Bass player Paul Gardiner died of a heroin overdose; drummer Ced Sharpley passed away in 2012 from cancer. During their time with Tubeway Army, Gary Numan’s solo bands and Dramatis (the samae band, minus Numan), they comprised one of the most potent rhythm sections in all of rock and roll. They are missed.