|The front cover of Grateful Dead, a live double-lp released on Warner Brothers Records in October 1971. and colloquially known as Skull And Roses (for the iconic Kelly/Mouse cover)|
In 1971, the Grateful Dead had become more popular than ever as a concert attraction. However, the rock concert industry was still small by modern standards, and the Grateful Dead's income from touring was not huge. In order to achieve their personal and musical goals, they would have to be successful recording artists as well. Although Skull And Roses was conceived and structured by the Grateful Dead themselves, with no real input from Warner Brothers, in many ways it was a very conventional early 70s album. 1971 was right in the sweet spot of bands releasing live double albums, and thus Warners knew very well how to maximize the return on the record. This post will compare the live Grateful Dead album to other popular contemporary live rock albums from 1971, the better to see how the Dead were both different and similar to their peers.
|The cover of Live/Dead, the epic live double lp released on Warner Brothers Records in November 1969|
The Dead had been signed to Warner Brothers Records in December 1966 by Joe Smith. In '66, Warners was widely regarded as the least hip and most backward of the major record companies, and Smith correctly assessed that signing one of the most rebellious bands in San Francisco would attract industry attention. From that point of view, however, the Dead had always been a sort of prestige signing for Warners, meant to attract other bands and industry cachet. I don't think the company expected to make much money off the Dead. In 1969, however, when the Dead had a chance to opt out of their contract, manager Lenny Hart made a deal behind their back and re-upped the band for another three years. That meant, at least, that Warners was not unhappy with the Dead's record sales.
My expectation is that Warners had made money on the band's debut album and Anthem Of The Sun, even if the Dead themselves had not yet made any money from them. Warners must have been in the red on Aoxomoxoa, but it could not have been a frightening amount or they would have let the Dead go to Columbia or MGM (the other bidders). Joe Smith was still an important player at Warners, and his faith in the band was rewarded. First with Live/Dead, which was spectacularly well reviewed, if not really a best seller, and then with the radio-friendly Workingman's and American Beauty.
It is an oft-told story, by Smith and others, that the Dead came to Warner Brothers in mid-71 to have a meeting with him. They bought along "dozens of people," according to Smith, showed him the iconic Kelly/Mouse cover art, and demanded that the album be called "Skullfuck." Smith talked them down on the grounds that most conventional retailers, like Sears or Montgomery Ward, would not stock the album. How serious the band was in this request remains open to question, but in any case they backed down. In a sense, by naming the album after themselves, they were in effect introducing themselves to their newer fanbase, who had only gotten on board the bus in the previous 18 months or so.
However, the story of the meeting with Joe Smith tells an implicit truth about the early 70s record business. Even for a bunch of piratical outlaws like the Dead, in order to succeed they needed their record company to be onboard with their next venture. This wasn't a matter of music, or taste, per se. The key issue was promotion and distribution, which was in the hands of a far flung network of employees and contractors. Warners released dozens of albums every month. If the Dead's albums weren't advertised as available, or weren't present in the stores, then the album wouldn't sell. When the Dead--or any band--played the local civic auditorium, the marketing goal was to knock out the crowd, and inspire everyone to go the nearest record mart and buy the new album. If the album wasn't there, the fans would just buy something else, and the opportunity for a snowball effect was lost.
Thus in the Summer '71, the Grateful Dead and Warner Brothers got on the same page. The Dead would release a live double album recorded at recent concerts, and Warners would get behind it. Smith did his part: Warners committed to laying out $100,000 in promotional expenses to allow the Dead to broadcast live concerts from 14 cities on their fall tour. The money covered production costs, promotional costs and compensation to the FM radio stations for lost advertising revenue. This insured that the full Warners push would support Skull And Roses. Of course, Warners would charge the $100K against the Dead's royalties, and they would have to sell a couple of hundred thousand extra records to make up for it, but it wouldn't have happened if Warners wasn't willing to lay out the cash up front.
|The cover of the Cream album Wheels Of Fire, released in the US in July 1968. One album was recorded in the studio, and the other was recorded live in San Francisco in March 1968|
I am not going to attempt to tell the history of live rock concert albums in this post, interesting as that might be. In the context of this post, I am just going to highlight some key live albums of the 60s. These are the sort of albums that record companies and Rolling Stone writers would have seen as important and influential. Rolling Stone writers, and other journalists, were a critical part of the equation, since they greatly influenced what was played on the then rather free-form FM radio. A good review in Rolling Stone got an album played all over the country, as djs then had great freedom to play what they wanted. Thus in 1971, faced with Skull And Roses, Warners executives would not have been interested in the precise history of live albums, but rather would have looked around to some recent live albums by established bands.
When rock concerts first became big business in the mid-60s, there was little thought to live recordings. For one thing, it was hard to record electric music live, and for another most bands just played sloppy versions of their popular hits, so the idea of releasing live rock music was a novelty. There were a few instances here and there--Five Live Yardbirds, and the Rolling Stones' Got Live If You Want It, for example--but live albums were not really part of rock. Live albums were more of the province of jazz musicians, who were easier to record, and seen as producing "serious" music worthy of preservation.
Perhaps the first significant album to change the industry's perception of live album was Cream's Wheels Of Fire. Wheels Of Fire was a double album, one recorded in the studio in 1967 and early '68, and the other lp recorded at the Fillmore and Winterland in March 1968. Recording technology had significantly improved in just a few years, and the live material sounded great. More importantly, the lengthy jams on "Crossroads" and "Spoonful," not only showed off Cream at their best, the music was treated with the reverential seriousness of jazz music. Cream was one of the biggest bands in the world in 1968, so anything they released would have sold. However, releasing a double album, with much of it not Pop music at all, only made Cream bigger than ever. The record industry took notice.
When the Grateful Dead had released Live/Dead in November 1969, it received phenomenal reviews from Rolling Stone and others. The music was hardly radio friendly, even by FM standards, but the album was cause to treat the Dead as serious musicians. There were a few other albums like that around that time, such as Pink Floyd's Ummagumma, a double lp that was also had one live and one studio album, like Wheels Of Fire. In that sense, the live album began to establish itself as a platform for serious bands to show off their chops. It was particularly important in the 60s for bands to prove they were "authentic," and live albums certainly fit that bill.
Of course, there was another attraction to live albums: they were cheap to record. As the 60s turned into the 70s, rock bands spent more and more time and money in the studio recording. It wasn't wasted time, either. As better and better albums were released, quick and dirty studio recordings had less and less appeal. From that point of view, recording a few rock shows was a cut-rate alternative, particularly when a band played the same venue all weekend. If the band played great, then an album could be put together on the cheap. If they didn't play that well, no matter. For one thing, certain problems could be fixed in the studio. More importantly, if a band broke up, or if their next studio effort was useless, the record company could still hawk a mediocre live recording. So it was very attractive for record companies to encourage live recordings.
|The cover of Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs And Englishmen album, recorded live in March 1970 and released in August.|
The Grateful Dead had recorded Workingman's in February and March 1970, and American Beauty around July. It seems they had begun working on a live album as early as October '70. I think like many such projects, engineers Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor were really doing the listening and editing, but the band had to have at least tacitly approved of the approach. Certainly, letting Bob and Betty do their thing had worked well for Live/Dead. Warner Brothers' had a good connection with the Dead through Jon McIntire, so by 1971 Joe Smith must have known at least generally that the Dead were looking at another live album. Smith would have looked back at 1970, and must have liked what he saw with respect to such albums.
Live At Leeds-The Who (Decca) released May 1970 (recorded Feb 14 '70)
The Who, always a great live band, had gone from being a modestly popular Mod band to a hugely popular English rock institution, thanks to Tommy. Live At Leeds had a song from Tommy, a few old hits, and some great covers, and sold a ton. The record industry took notice on both sides of the Atlantic.
Mad Dogs And Englishmen-Joe Cocker (A&M) released August 1970 (recorded Mar 27-28 '70)
Joe Cocker had had two very successful albums and a hit single under his belt by Spring 1970, but he had lost his band. Leon Russell put together a new, very large band, on short notice and went on tour with Cocker. The resulting double album, Mad Dogs And Englishmen, spawned a giant hit single and was a hugely successful album. Not only were many of the songs covers (Cocker wasn't a writer, but Leon Russell wrote a few), most of them hadn't appeared on a previous Cocker album either. Yet the energy from the live performance made the album seem anything but perfunctory.
Untitled-The Byrds (Columbia) released September 1970 (live recordings Mar '70)
The Byrds had been around since 1965, which was "forever" in 1970 rock terms. At the time, the fact that only Roger McGuinn remained from the original lineup was always held against them. However, with the great Clarence White on lead guitar, the Byrds were playing terrific new music and were tremendous live. Both sides of the equation were shown off well with the 1970 album Untitled, which featured one live and one studio album, following the Wheels Of Fire model. While not huge, Untitled was the most successful Byrds album in some time.
|Grand Funk Railroad Live, recorded in Florida in June 1970, and released on Capitol Records in November '70|
Grand Funk Railroad were a hugely popular concert attraction, coming out of Flint, MI. Grand Funk were widely derided by East and West Coast rock critics as a band of hacks who couldn't play, and their fans were dismissed as losers whose preference for downers and booze was all that made GFR popular. Nonetheless, Grand Funk Railroad Live, recorded in Florida in June of 1970, and released in November, was hugely popular. Whatever made the Funk popular in concert seemed to translate well enough to vinyl.
At our distant remove, we may see little connection between Grand Funk Railroad Live and Skull And Roses. I am confident, however, that Warner Brothers saw a significant connection. Grand Funk was a hugely popular concert attraction whose appeal was hard to grasp for many listeners, and yet the album went double platinum. Thus a lot of record companies were going to be very interested when one of their popular touring bands wanted to make a live album. The Dead weren't the only ones. With that in mind, it will be instructive to consider some of the other live rock albums from 1971 by working bands, and compare them to Skull And Roses. Some of these were released before Skull And Roses, and some after, but they were all conceived during the same year, so they are worthy of comparison.
1971--The Year Of The Live Album
|The UK cover of Elton John's 1971 live album 17-11-70, recorded on November 17, 1970, released in April 1971 on DJM Records.|
Looking backwards, we can see a format for 1970 and '71 live albums. No one really agreed on it in advance, and record companies didn't necessarily force it on bands, but they saw what albums sold. So when bands had a plan to record their concerts, the companies were pretty well-disposed if the final product conformed to similar albums that had been successful. Now, sure, there were a number of live albums from the era that were released for contractual reasons, or because a band broke up (see the appendix for examples), but for bands that were releasing new albums a definite pattern emerged.
It's hard to generalize about 60s live rock albums, but the best of them established the artists as serious artists with a capital "A": Wheels Of Fire, Ummagumma and Live/Dead had all made lasting statements, similar to
|The US cover of Elton John's 1971 live album 11-17-70, recorded on November 17, 1970, released in April 1971 on Uni Records.|
Today we compare a live Elton John show to a touring company for Phantom Of The Opera (Elton probably does too). But back in 1970, Elton was just an English singer-songwriter pushing his second album, opening at the two Fillmores. He performed an hour-long set at A&R Studios in New York on November 17, 1970, and it was broadcast live on WABC-fm in New York. Elton only fronted a trio in those days, with drummer Nigel Olson and bassist Dee Murray (who many years later was the bassist in the Bob Weir band). Back then, Elton could really play, and to this day he considers the show his best live performance.
Elton John wasn't well known at the time, but tracks like "Your Song" and "Take Me To The Pilot" were getting played on both FM and AM radio. Bootleggers put out a 35-minute excerpt from the show, and it attracted a lot of attention. According to DJM records, the live album was rushed out to get out in front of the bootleggers. That may have just been hype, an excuse to put out the album, but that was the story. The album, with just the date of the show as the title ("17-11-70" in the UK, and "11-17-70" in the US), sold well and gave Elton John a lot of credibility for a pop artist. The release both showed how live albums attracted attention and also betrayed music industry nervousness about bootlegs of FM broadcasts.
|The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East, then the finest band in the land, recorded on March 12 and 13, 1971 at the Fillmore East (and opening for Johnny Winter). Capricorn Records (distributed by Atlantic) released the album in July of '71|
The Allman Brothers Band had been tearing up I-95 circuit throughout 1970, but they weren't widely known nationally. The Fillmore East album changed all that. The mighty Allmans, perfectly recorded in their prime by Tom Dowd, caught the FM listening nation's ear with this album. The double lp was a mixture of the best tracks from their first two albums and some great cover versions. In that respect, Allman Brothers At Fillmore East was similar to Live/Dead, bringing national attention to a great live band. Unlike Live/Dead, however, Fillmore East had some shorter, radio-friendly tracks and the album absolutely made the band. Of course, Duane Allman's unfortunate death at the end of the year brought even more attention to the group, but anyone who heard the album knew how great they were.
The double-lp format allowed Tom Dowd to structure the album like an Allmans concert set. It started with the punchy "Statesboro Blues," and the band went through its various modes, finally ending with the classic rave-up on "Whipping Post." Actual Fillmore East Allmans' sets were a lot longer, of course, but the album gave listeners the feel of an actual show. This sort of song sequencing had rapidly become standard practice for the double live album.
|Frank Zappa brought the newest edition of The Mothers Of Invention to Fillmore East in June of 1971, and the album was released just two months later. The Mud Shark swept the nation shortly afterwards.|
Unlike the Allmans, Frank Zappa already had long and complicated history by 1971. Depending on how you want to count, the Fillmore East album was The Mothers' eighth album or Zappa's 10th (I am not counting Mothermania, OK?). Zappa had broken up the original Mothers in mid-'69, but by the next year, he had reconstituted the group with new members, fronted by the two former lead singers of The Turtles.
Fillmore East June '71 has aged in a peculiar way. Older listeners now find the instrumental tracks more interesting, and the ongoing narrative provided by Frank, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman easy to skip. But I am confident that 15-year-olds of any era were just like me, eager to hear about a chance meeting at O'Hare International Airport that Don Preston had with members of The Vanilla Fudge rock band, and how a dance called the Mud Shark was sweeping the nation. Zappa, in his own unique way, latched onto the nascent live album format to give his audience a clear picture of what the new Mothers were like, and I'm fairly certain the album sold pretty well.
Chicago At Carnegie Hall (Columbia) released October 1971 (recorded Apr 5-10 '71) [4lp set]
Chicago had put out three absolutely huge albums, with hit singles to go with them. For the fourth album, Columbia released a hitherto unprecedented 4-lp box set, perhaps the first of its kind. It also served as a kind of Chicago's Greatest Hits set, as well, but the new live recordings meant that all of the band's fans would buy it, too.
Chicago At Carnegie Hall was a huge hit, of course, but the band was never happy with the recording. Although Chicago had a sort of MOR reputation, the band was full of excellent players, and I think Columbia wanted to show the Rolling Stone readers that the band was real and not some sort of concoction. In any case, if a band as hot and huge as Chicago was putting out a double-double live album, it was definitely the flavor de jour of the music industry.
|The inside cover of the Grateful Dead album (aka "Skull And Roses") included an invitation to Dead Freaks. "DEAD FREAKS UNITE: Who Are You, Where Are You, How Are You?" it said, encouraging people to write in to PO Box 1065 in San Rafael.|
In the context of this list, the Skull And Roses album was pretty typical. The Grateful Dead were an established concert attraction with some recent albums that were popular on FM radio. The double album was structured like a concert, with a rocking "Bertha" to start it off, a wide spectrum of stuff in the middle, and a banging "Not Fade Away" leading into the final outro. Although 70 minutes was hardly a Dead concert, it gave a concert feel to someone who had never seen one. With only one song from another album ("The Other One"), existing Dead fans were all going to buy the album. There were a bunch of covers on the album, many of them quite contemporary. For someone who had only heard the Dead on record--which was most rock fans--this was new territory. However, as we can see, releasing double live albums with a bunch of distinctly interpreted cover versions was what bands did in 1971.
Still, a couple of things stood out about Skull And Roses, setting it apart from every other album on this list. For one thing, the Dead were on their second double live album, and everyone else was on their first. For another, the Dead and Warner Brothers promoted the album by subsidizing live FM broadcasts in no less than 14 cities on the Grateful Dead's Fall tour. I have discussed this unique promotional approach at length elsewhere, but suffice to say none of the other bands on this list did so. I think fear of bootlegging was the biggest barrier. Bootleg record sales were actually trivial, but as they were all in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, so they had a high profile in the record industry. Ironically enough, bootleg lps helped the Grateful Dead build a huge audience long before cassette tapes, so the Dead's appetite for risk paid off in unexpected ways.
|Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore, by Humble Pie, recorded in May 1971 and released in November, was an important and influential album, even if no one remembers that now.|
Although not widely remarked upon today, Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore was an album with a huge impact. Humble Pie were a cult act before the album, but once FM radio wore out the grooves, the Pie became headliners all over the country. Also, the thunderous beat of the band, and the maxed out vocal style of Steve Marriott were hugely influential to later bands like AC/DC, whether you like those sort of groups or not.
More significantly, Humble Pie's manager was one Dee Anthony. Dee Anthony was also the manager of Peter Frampton, who left Humble Pie shortly after this album was released. While the Pie were headlining all over America, Frampton was grinding it out, third on the bill, except in a few places like San Francisco, where he got a lot of FM play. Frampton got so much FM play in the Bay Area, in fact, that by mid-'75, he could headline Winterland and Marin Vets on consecutive nights. Anthony drew on his success with Humble Pie, and packaged the tapes from those two shows into Frampton Comes Alive, which for many years was the best selling live album ever.
Frampton Comes Alive was released in January 1976, and it instantly went to the top of the charts. It sold 6 million copies during the year of its release, and appears to have sold 11 million copies worldwide. With numbers like that, record companies were going to copy the formula. However, Frampton Comes Alive was a different beast than a 1971 live album. All the songs were from previous Frampton albums, even the token cover version ("Jumping Jack Flash", which had been on his 1972 Wind Of Change album). Thus the 1976-era live album served as a sort of "Greatest Hits" album for newer fans. There was little or no new material, even covers, on 1976-era albums.
Almost every touring band followed Frampton Comes Alive with a double-live album in the "Greatest Hits' mode. Some of them were good, and some of them were successful. It was particularly attractive for bands or artists that had complex recording histories with different bands on different labels. They could put their most famous songs on their own album, and capture at least some of the rewards that had been directed elsewhere. Dave Mason's 1976 double lp Certified Live, to name one typical example, included material not only from Mason's Columbia albums, but his Blue Thumb material, songs from Traffic, and songs where he had only been a session man, like "Gimme Some Lovin'" and a Hendrix-style "All Along The Watchtower" (Mason had played bass, later overdubbed by Jimi).
The Grateful Dead's entry in the 1976 sweepstakes was Steal Your Face, an album memorable only for its cover. But it too was a product of its time. UA wanted a double live album because that was the flavor of the year in the record industry. It had worked for the Dead in 1971, but it didn't work again.
From '72 onwards, live albums became a staple of a rock band's career, as long as the band could actually play live. Depending on contracts and other things, some bands released live albums with greater or lesser frequency. Only Frank Zappa released as much live material as the Dead--arguably more, in fact--although they are hardly exact parallels. As for other groups, in the wake of Frampton Comes Alive, pretty much every touring band released a double live album, including bands that had already done so a few years earlier. And the live album became a traditional way for a record company to get some mileage out of a band that had broken up or was on hiatus, so a lot of live albums got released after bands had moved on.
The Grateful Dead, of course, released more live albums than any of their peers. Only the Dead would have followed a hit double live album with a triple live album, and then another live album (Bear's Choice) after that. We tend to forget Steal Your Face and Dead Set, too, but for people out in the world who didn't have taper friends, it was what they had. By the mid-80s, however, that too had changed, and the Dead's concert revenues finally made them less dependent on record company returns. The risk that the band had taken back in '71, to let everyone hear their music, first on FM radio, and implicitly on bootleg records, and finally on cassette tapes, had finally paid off in a very big way.
|4-Way Street, constructed from various 1970 concerts by CSNY, and released by Atlantic in April 1971, in order to keep the fires burning for their biggest act.|
For this post, I was interested in a selection of relevant live albums from the 1970-71 period, the sort of records that would have been foremost in the minds of record company executives. I was not concerned with specific release dates or exact chart positions. Nonetheless, in the interests of completeness, I thought I would comment on a few other albums, if only to show why I left them out.
On Tour With Eric Clapton-Delaney And Bonnie And Friends (Atlantic) released March 1970 (recorded Dec 7 '69)
Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett were nobodies at the time, but they toured England and America with Eric Clapton, so Atlantic made sure there was something to sell.
Get Your Ya-Yas Out-Rolling Stones (Decca/London) released September 1970 (recorded Nov '69)
This live album was not planned, but the Stones and Decca were frantic about Liver Than You'll Ever Be and other bootlegs, so this release was intended to head them off. The Stones were in The Pantheon, along with Bob Dylan and The Beatles, so record companies didn't necessarily see the Stones' commercial prospects as comparable to other groups.
Deliverin'-Poco (Epic) released January '71 (recorded Sep 22-23 '70)
Poco had changed guitarists in October 1970, as Jim Messina was replaced by Paul Cotton. The band continued to tour, but had no new material, so Columbia released this album. That was OK, because Poco was a terrific live band. As a strange footnote, New York dj Pete Fortanale wrote the liner notes, and said that Poco steel guitarist Rusty Young was recommended to the band by Jerry Garcia. Garcia did not know Young nor Poco, and the story was completely fabricated.
4-Way Street-Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Atlantic) released April 1971 (recorded June-July '70)
CSNY had effectively broken up, but sort of pretended they hadn't. So Atlantic released a double live album from the previous year's shows. A great record, albeit one rumored to have had its harmonies fixed up in the studio.
Live Johnny Winter And (Columbia) released May '71 (recorded Oct '70>Jan '71
Johnny Winter And was a great band, with Winter and Rick Derringer, with a great studio album, but when it bombed, Winter spiraled down in a bad way. Thus Columbia put out this terrible placeholder album. It turns out there was good, well-recorded material out there, finally released this century--I don't know what Columbia was thinking, releasing this junk.
First Pull Up Then Pull Down-Hot Tuna (RCA) released June 1971 (recorded late '70>early '71)
Hot Tuna's second album was live, as had been their first. Jorma and Jack were well known, but not Hot Tuna, but the penchant for live albums probably made RCA more amenable to their plans.
Rock Love-Steve Miller Band (Capitol) released September 1971 (live recordings early '71)
Steve Miller's sixth album, a single lp, was half-live, half-studio, showing off some of his blues chops.
Live In Concert-James Gang (ABC) released September 1971 (recorded May '71)
The James Gang were a truly great band who were still only popular in pockets. ABC may also have been nervous that lead guitarist and principal singer/songwriter Joe Walsh was on the verge of leaving. This fear was well-founded, but the live album made a nice memento for one of America's hardest rocking bands.
Welcome To The Canteen-Traffic (Island) released September 1971 (recorded June and July '71)
Traffic had always had a history of being an unstable band. In Summer '71, Traffic had done a few shows in England with a one-off lineup that included former member Dave Mason. The single album featured a mixture of Traffic songs from the first few albums, a Dave Mason song and a Spencer Davis Group classic. Fans were starved for any Traffic at all, and the album gave Island something to sell when the band toured America in the fall.
Flowers Of Evil-Mountain (Windfall/CBS) released November 1971 (live recordings Jun 27 '70)
Mountain, too, released a half-live, half-studio single lp, probably due to lack of new material. The band stopped playing shortly after (although of course they had reformed within a few years).
Jazz/Blues Fusion-John Mayall (Polydor) released 1972 (recorded Nov 18 and Dec 3-4 '71)
John Mayall's '71-'72 lineup was his best band, I swear, although this album doesn't show it. Given the tapes we have now, it's clear what a confused set of decisions Polydor made. They should have just released a conventional double live album.
Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra-Procol Harum (Chrysalis/A&M) released April 1972 (recorded Nov 18 '71)
A far more ambitious and very different album than everything else on this list, this record prefigured a lot of progressive rock acts recording with symphonies and the like. It was hugely successful, and brought Procol Harum several more years of life. Although a special event, and not a document of a touring rock band, it would have been far less likely to have been planned if live albums hadn't been the hot thing in the Summer of '71. Ironically enough, Procol Harum was a terrific, rocking band in concert, and yet there was no release that memorialized that back in the day.