Treasures from the recordings underground
Few listening experiences can be as flat-out exciting, illuminating and even inspiring as sitting down with a recording of a favorite classic rock band that, hours before, you hadn’t known existed. We’re talking the best rock bootlegs, material that hasn’t gained official release, which sometimes very much deserves to, but which you can often find with a little diligence on the Internet. Or at a good used record store.
Most bootlegs are of the live variety. There have been some doozies of studio material – the Beatles’ Ultra Rare Trax set in the late 1980s was a game-changer in terms of blowing minds as to what was sitting in record label vaults – but since you’re more apt to encounter in-concert material, that’s what we’re going to focus on in a list of ten live bootlegs that number amongst the best of the best.
10) The Byrds: Live in Stockholm (1967)
If you think of the Byrds as a top live act, you’re probably talking 1970s-era Byrds, when guitar virtuoso Clarence White had given the band an eleventh hour jolt of intensity. But here we find them in Sweden for a 1967 radio session, in excellent fidelity, and in contemplative mood, with the most ruminative version of “He Was a Friend of Mine” you’ll ever hear. You wouldn’t expect Roger (née Jim) McGuinn’s twelve-string guitar to work as well as it does on something like their cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” but, man, does this Rhythm & Blues profit by a bit of jangle.
9) Cream: The Real One (1967)
Conceivably the best Cream recording there is. Quite a few bands had some of their top live moments in Detroit, and Cream was no different with this fall 1967 Grande Ballroom set. The excess that would plague their 1968 shows is not in evidence here; what is, rather, is the power trio as ultimate rock and roll conflagration. These guys simply, burn. Jack Bruce’s bass occupies as much foreground as Eric Clapton’s blues-heated licks, and Ginger Baker was never more “on.” Demands to be cranked.
8) The Animals: The Deluxe BBC Files (1964-’65)
Mention mid-Sixties BBC recordings, and you think Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, but seldom the Animals. Damn shame. For Eric Burdon & Co. excelled at the Beeb, which is fortunate, as the prime Animals line-ups from the glory 1964-1966 period never left us a clean live recording outside of a mini-set from the NME Poll Winners Concert in 1965. Hilton Valentine was a far better guitarist than anyone even seems to mention, and you can hear his skill on display throughout, but nothing may be more, well, Animals-y in the entire Animals canon than their cover of “Work Song.” As intense as a Howlin’ Wolf number by way of the Parchman Farm.
7) Pink Floyd: Star Club Phyco (1967)
This is the stuff: a September 1967 audience record in loud, crunchy, aggressive sound with Syd Barrett leading the band. Audience recordings can be tricky if you’re not used to them—the ear needs some time to adjust. But once you settle in, this is one that will get queued up regularly. This Star Club is in Copenhagen, so it’s not the one the Beatles and Jerry Lee Lewis did their respective things at, but for the way the Floyd sound, we might as well be communing at some gig on Neptune. Lots of guitar distortion used for favorable melodic effect.
6) The Kinks: Top of the Rocks (1970)
Live, the Kinks could be something of a slopfest, but on those occasions when songs, setting, group dynamic and the relationship of the Davies brothers meshed, they were one compelling performing combo. As evidence: this 1970 Fillmore West show with rare material like “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” a deliciously boozier-than-usual version of “Sunny Afternoon” – the best ever song about being screwed over and coping with swagger and a beer on a hot day – and what one might stump for as the finest live version of “Waterloo Sunset,” a song which one might also stump for as the most beautiful in the English language.
5) Rolling Stones: Rocks Off (1973)
There are a multitude of wonderful Stones boots from the ’69-’73 apex era, but this Perth show from late February 1973 has always been underappreciated. The Stones would falter in the studio for a bunch of years going forward, but the in-concert twin-guitar attack of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor never worked better. I’d contend that Taylor was the best musician the Stones ever had. This one recording alone is quite the dossier for that argument. A prime candidate for the band’s From The Vaults series.
4) The Beatles: Live in Paris 1965
The Beatles did exactly one post-fame encore in their career, and it happened in Paris in June 1965. There is less screaming at the two shows, Parisians conducting themselves rather differently than American teenyboppers, apparently, and the Beatles buff has to love this setlist, a mix of the early ravers and the more introspective Beatles For Sale numbers. Lennon busts out the harmonica for “I’m a Loser,” which would not make it into the rotation for the American tour later in the year. Paul McCartney’s “Long Tall Sally” vocal may top that of the studio version. You listen to the afternoon performance here, and you think, “My, how he loved to sing that song.”
3) Jimi Hendrix: Live at the Los Angeles Forum 4-25-70
Hendrix doesn’t lack for mind-blowing bootleg recordings, but this is the one that could roll up its sleeves and drop even the likes of Are You Experienced in a fight. Hendrix’s sonic architecture has the sophistication of Bachian fugues, and once you’ve listened to the set straight through, you want to reprise the experience again and again, to ponder and to study just what is going on here. A great musical achievement, a great artistic achievement, a great human achievement in cuts like “Hear My Train A-Comin’.”
2) Bob Dylan: A Nightly Ritual (1966)
You probably know about Dylan’s famous May 1966 show at the Manchester Free Trade Hall when a heckler called him Judas, prompting one of musical history’s finest retorts. But dig this: this Liverpool show from the same tour is even better. Listen to it, and you may find yourself assessing what Dylan’s top recording was. How this has not gained official release is mind-boggling, messed up and a massive disservice. The Hawks – the unit that was later to christen themselves the Band – play as well as Dylan sings. Ultimate rock ‘n’ roll symbiosis.
1) The Who: Toronto 1975
An audience recording, but one of such quality to encroach upon soundboard territory. More importantly: a Who show that might surpass Live at Leeds. People forget that the band had an in-concert rebirth in 1975, knocking out some of their finest shows, with Keith Moon returning to his drumming level of 1969-1971. The Who loved Toronto: they played another fine date there the next year, for what would be Keith Moon’s final North American show. We are talking the best live act in rock ‘n’ roll, and were this one to come out, you wouldn’t have a tough time finding listeners who thought, yeah, that is the live album of live albums, hot damn.
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