You Are There

Notes on Live Music

published in Third Degree No.4, Sydney, 1987
The Beatles at Shea Stadium (1964); David Bowie's Glass Spider concert (1983)

On Stage

In the early 60s there was a very popular and very successful trend in sound sculpture. The means for organizing and constructing these sculptures were fairly simple, producing spectacular results. Ingredients : one huge stadium, X00,000 screaming girls and four figures in identical suits. Historically documented as originators of this trend : The Beatles. Reference : At The Hollywood Bowl [1].

Without wishing to attempt explanations of The Beatles as 'a modern sociological phenomenon', these spectacles architecturally and acoustically represented The Beatles' status as phenomenon - exaggerating the controlled maintenance of performer/audience bonds into their hysterical consumption of one another. Here, the notion of 'feedback' is important, because it was jettisoned into a new dimension - electricity - where technical production and cultural effect energize each other ....

Consider all the feedback loops in operation at the Hollywood Bowl concerts : The Beatles replaying songs which in their original form (transistor radios and portable hi-fis) sound tinny and crackling ; their 'live' versions reproducing that same thinness of twangy strings, hissing cymbals and raspy harmonies ; the audience replicating the transistor-texture with their massive wall of white noise. Consider the electricity of the event : four human dynamos whose amplification triggers the orgiastic shrieks of their X00,000 receivers ; the electrifying performance whose performer/audience relationship is translated into a voltage/oscillator flow ; The Beatles and the audience conducting each other through their point of reference and contact - the songs.

Electrical amplification is integral to the cultural and social growth of Rock. It changed not only the sound of instruments but also the scale of the live event which contained them, thereby determining the nature of the audience experience. 'Instruments' then can have a double meaning - musical and sociological : capable of producing sounds in a space and effecting relationships within that space [2].

Rock spectacles like The Beatles' stadium concerts paved the way for developments like the Corporate Rock of Styx and the global tours of David Bowie. Of course not only did the logistic presentation of Rock change, but so did its electrified sound - typified by the wailing guitar as it 'feedbacks'. Here, guitar 'feedback' functions as a signifier that musically and sonically recreates the communicative processes of Rock spectacles by overloading pitch and volume to generate a frequency that signals excess. That piercing, screaming high-range noise speaks the voices of X00,000 screaming fans whose mass constituted the spectacle that pushed Rock into a new phase - that of hyper-consumerism and market-tailoring. Like a gushing mountain river (one of the best natural white-noise experiences) the screaming stadium concert was perceived as an energy waiting to be tapped, harnessed and exploited. Superficially an abstract atonal sound, the guitar 'feedback' of the latter 60s symbolizes a distortion of audience 'feedback' pre-Beatles : both deal with an overload in the producer/production/product chain.

While the microphone may have amplified the words of the voice, it was always the electric guitar that spoke loudest to (and with more effect upon) the Rock audience. Throughout the 60s and even into the early 70s, developments in the electric guitar's body design and performance technique had an uncanny way of reflecting how the live event - as a spectacle - communicated to its audience : from McCartney's violin-like bass guitar (ensuring no bottom-end would interfere with their 'high-frequency' relation to their audience) to The Ventures' Mosrite guitars (you too can sound like a packaged group with a Mosrite guitar ; you can become The Ventures) to Jimi Hendrix's baroque distortion of electrical tones (for a self-distorting tripped-out subculture who tickled themselves with the alteration of their perception) to Steve Howe's double-necked guitar (elevating 'performance' into an awe-inspiring display of technical mastery, Yes could have just as successfully done their gigs in museums) [3].

And while The Beatles were able to erupt in the excessive noise of the stadium by using simple electric guitars played with a heavy R'n'B twang (amplified by Vox stage equipment), the consequent merger of rock subcultures with mass-marketing spawned the invention of guitar effects that could symbolically build upon the phenomenological status of The Beatles' spectacles : from fuzz (instant overload, instant point of hysterical feedback) to echo (instant repeatability, instant multiplication of gesture) to phase (instant 'soaring and gliding' effect, instant feel of transcendence and ethereality) [4]. The mass production of these 'effect boxes' in a way ensured the mass production of sounds that symbolically referred to the nature of their consumption, because the 'effect box' tells the guitarist : you too can make those sounds ; you can become those sounds.

If noise is essentially an overload of sounds, then Rock truly is noisy. In effect, the sound of its live concert - produced by audience-performer feedback and amplified electric instruments - is the noise of spectacle ; the noise of communicated signals and audible responses.

On Record

One of the most fascinating phrases in the language of Rock and Pop has to be "recorded live". Those two words emblazoned on the cover design always seem to declare something about recording and performing ; often something desperate. What exactly do those two words mean? A lot.

Prior to multi-tracking studio work music was recorded 'live' in the studio. Of course this doesn't mean that reality was automatically encoded as realism in the recording process, but that the performers would generate a spatial-temporal event that was recorded as a fusion of sounds in real-time. Multiple miking may have fractured the space into a complex of listening focal points, but their recorded signals would be mixed together into a composite documentation that effected the original spatial-temporal occurrence as a singular event. However, the first twenty-odd years of studio recording were not regarded as 'live'.

"Recorded live" more directly refers to the audience that is being encoded and recorded as part of the fusion of sounds in the one place in real time. The spectacle is thus translated in the recording process, in that "recorded live" ultimately means that the spectacle as a whole - as hysterical consumption energized by feedback in this electric dimension - is "recorded live". Just as the guitarist can musically recreate the mode of this kind of spectacle with his effect boxes by becoming those sounds, so too does the audience become the spectacle by virtue of their being encoded in the live recording. 'Live' records then afford the listener a behavioural thrill of hearing 'themselves' (ie. non-performers) on the record, documented as contributing to the energy of the spectacle.

This behavioural aspect of the listening mode was an important part of record marketing around the first British Invasion from 1964 to 1966. The fuel for the Invasion was "live recordings" in one form or another [5]. The United States - in a constant state of economic paranoia - found that one way to compete with The Beatles phenomenon was to replicate the status of their spectacle by making their artists record 'live' records, in an attempt to demonstrate that The Beatles weren't the only ones capable of generating hysteria [6]. More importantly, the international proliferation of 'live' recordings between 1964 and 1967 trained consumers in how to behave as well as how to listen. In short, they were trained how to become listeners and how to recognize themselves in the recordings.

And here we return to the original notion of sound sculpture and its primary ingredients. Many of these so-called "recorded live" records were in fact reconstructions of the actual events in terms of sound sculpture. That is, they were recorded on stage or in the studio 'live' but then mixed with recordings of screaming fans. The final mix would push the volume levels of the audience noise at the appropriate points of response, so that - in the recording process - the hysteria was controlled and put to the service of stating the spectacle. The energy of the audience - that massive sheet of white noise blanketing the stage - was tapped ; the 'live' record was a demonstration of its containment ; the mix of audience noise a score for 'listener participation'. Television sitcoms had canned laughter - Rock & Pop had live recordings.

In Studio

As in the trajectory of many spectacles, the live event as a source of energy was soon drained once it had been recognized and identified as such - the result of it inflating itself beyond a degree of effectiveness in order to meet the demands placed upon its performance. Rock Festivals and the like from 1967 through to c. 1972 are important here [7], because of how they temporarily suggested a potential rechannelling of the spectacle's energy, even if only to marginally extend it's trajectory. Whereas the Beatles-type phenomenon of hysteria was ultimately a spectacle of consumption, Rock Festivals generated a different feedback principle - one of exchange. Their energy was that of a subculture coming into contact with itself, of discovering and realizing a potential for more exchanges which consequently typified the Rock Festival as utopian : a recluse, an alternative, an idyllic break from 'society'.

Interestingly enough, the end of those utopian ideals ("Music, Love & Flowers") came from the audience's realization that festival promoters interpreted the massive crowds not as the power of unity, but yet again as a gushing white river of high returns. Perhaps that is where the greatest delusion laid, for what seems to mark the Festival spectacle different from the Beatles spectacle is that the masses of Monterey and Woodstock felt that they were the spectacle, that their coming together and coming into contact with one another energized the spectacle, that their spectacle was fuelled by 'people power'. The irony is that it was precisely the same power that fuelled the hyper-consumptive Beatles spectacle. No wonder their loss felt greater than the hysterical fan who - plugged into the eternal flow of music-trend production - could switch allegiances, lifestyles, obsessions and tastes with schizoid ease. The Festival audience may have gatecrashed the events, but they ended up paying the price for investing too much of themselves into the spectacle.

By the end of the 60s, the beast of Rock Journalism had formed very strong notions of what Rock was all about and what it should be for the sake of its future. The notion of being 'live', of maintaining such a state of existence and mode of production, was regarded primal. (In many respects that belief exists today.) Rock Journalism was (and still is in cycles [8]) caught up in a confounded nostalgia or desire for those quick flashes, those shooting stars where a performer was at an energy peak in an environment which had yet to drain him or her of their energy through inflating their performance into spectacle. In other words : The Beatles at The Cavern ; James Brown at The Apollo ; The Ramones at C.B.G.B.s ; etc. Virtually every performer from every music style has their own mythical grotto, their shrine of inception, of the loss of their virginity. These environments and spaces are revered as locations of raw energy, of an untamed white noise which supposedly allowed the music to speak directly with its audience.

The oft neglected point - and it's a doozy of a paradox - is that 'live' works well in theory, but not so well in practice. What do we do with those reports of early gigs by Beatles, Brown and Ramones as being sloppy, tedious or uninspired? What about the no-hoper bands we see who two years later attain incredible popularity? Live events might determine the development of a performer, but it is the records that document those stages, capturing them for presentation and preparing them for repeatability. The record is more often seen as an ideal form or definitive state to depict that stage of the performer and the performance (even though most bands neurotically disclaim their last record when the new one is about to be released) [9].

This is where the "live recording" is so important (for the promotion and maintenance of these myths). They document not only an idealized stage of musical development, but also an ideal staging for the audience - a fusion of the best performance with the best response. In the sense that musique concrete fostered the notion that magnetic tape compositions were neither an interpretation nor a performance but a realization of the two, live recordings could be said to be neither a performance nor its reaction but an idealization of the two. The "live recording" thus materially executes the predominant desire of a live performance : that the music, performer and audience become one.

All this, of course, is historically coded as a flow of fixtures, where the notion of and desire for 'live-ness' is continually changing and developing as a chain reaction to itself. From the brittle artifice of the British Invasion-era live recordings to the double and triple album opera of the mega-concert Festivals, the form of the live recording states a historical phase of the 'live' concept. The early 70s was caught up in a post-Festival problematic. The Festival - particularly with the horror of the Stones' Altamont concert of 1969 - was often an awkward and ugly reminder that 'live' did only work in theory, at least when it attempted to become a spectacle of universality, to show the world how 'together' the subcultures/countercultures were.

Consequently, 1970 stands as a compromise year where major artists released live albums : The Who's Live At Leeds, The Doors' Absolutely Live and The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!. The compromise was not an artistic one , but one of toning down the universal aspect of the Festival (bringing you every act you would want to hear) into a solo presentation, which of course brings the concert back to the idolatry type of spectacle that so intensely hyped up the Beatles' audiences. In a way, live energy was being sited in different locations : with the Beatles stadium concerts it was in the fusion of audience and performer ; with Monterey and Woodstock it was in the audience ; and with the live albums of the early 70s it was in the performer. Those latter live albums relocated live energy into the identity of the performer. (This 'relocation' on the part of the artist no doubt partially contributes to Rock's dogma of privileging the live performance as the life-blood of the music.)

The Who live in Leeds (1970); Iggy Pop live in Detroit (1973)

Most interestingly, the solo-artist 'live' double-album is a perverse sign of co-option that guided Rock through the 70s in such a way that Disco stands as one of that decade's most energized and energizing musical styles. How is this so? Because the monster that the Festival created - the audience - was tamed by its masters and creators - the performers. The more Morrison howled, the more Daltery screeched, the more Jagger whooped, the more suspect the whole thing seemed (and stills seems). All that noise of performing, of energizing, of 'going over the top' worked to distract the listener (trapped in the grooves of the disc) from this co-option and focus him or her on the ecstasy of the performance - or more correctly, the state of ecstasy in which the artist performed. (Note also that this is the era of "Supergroups" and "Guitar Heroes" and the like : figures who were not to be hysterically consumed, but hysterically worshipped.)

Enter Iggy Pop, performance artist of the noise of Rock. Iggy Pop performed with his body and treated his audience as a body, dealing with energy in physical terms (in the literal sense) [10]. Audience contact? There he goes diving into the audience (his violent immersion) ; there he is falling backwards onto them (his exhausted salvation) ; there he is walking on their hands (his fake miracle). Audience feedback? There he goes rolling in the broken glass they threw at him (their kudos) ; there he goes hitting himself with the microphone (their transmitter). Iggy Pop desperately wanted to reclaim the audience energy lost to the 70s heroes, to relocate that energy in the audience [11]. Ultimately, he wanted to recreate that monster from the 60s. (The monster was fully developed by the emergence of Punk.)

Between Iggy Pop and Power Pop, the presence of the audience continued a phantom existence. Live albums (still mostly as doubles - in order to fully capture the total experience, you understand) became recognized symbols of what you had to do after making too many studio albums (3 to 4). Such live albums were mostly delivered as proof that the artist in question could perform. This level of desperation correlates the amount of work in technically capturing the sound of the audience and the spatial environment as well as the sound of the music. Listeners did not need to be demonstrated new ways to behave, but they did require new ways to listen to themselves, ways which would more realistically simulate their presence in the live environment. Note that 'environment' is then a more apt word than 'spectacle' due to the decidedly lower appeal that mega-concerts held for the consumer, who (when there at the mega-concerts) could not even consume the energy of his fellow audience-members, let alone that of the performers on stage.

'Environment' is what Lou Reed's Take No Prisoners double-live album from 1978 is all about. Touted as the first binaural recording (a process [12] that appealed to Reed's little-publicised fascination with technical crafting) this album is a perverse demonstration of a perverse performer in a perverse environment [13]. In other words, it is a hyper realistic documentation of Reed doing a tribute to Lenny Bruce et al in a small club - a space that at the time was conservatively viewed as not the place to 'record live' because it didn't lend itself well to conveying the bloated spectacle which record companies believed a live recording should live up to. Reed realized that the hyper realism afforded by the binaural process could convey the energy of a small environment better than a sub-standard recording of a packed stadium yelling back "YEAH!" every time Peter Frampton dribbled "Do you feel like I do?" into his guitar vocoder on Frampton Comes Alive [14].

In Studio

By the start of the 80s, spaces and environments were key elements of interest in all modes of recording. While binaural recoding didn't revolutionize studio technique (even though it affords interesting experimental effects on Reed's Street Hassle, 1978) the introduction of digital effects did. Today, record production still speaks the essential technical dialect of digital delay and digital reverb : the two seminal components in creating space, location, perspective and dimension in sound in post-production. In effect, this is like a Frankenstein experiment in reviving the dead (with - surprise - electricity) in that source sounds can be recorded in mono, and then - through the digital simulation of echo version and spatial reverberation - be 'revived' and relocated in stereo in the post-mortem. The void space of the studio is thus reconstructed through the effecting of the sounds, making them occur in phantom spaces which do not exist within the physical confines of the actual studio. Perhaps that's why the binaural process faded away - Take No Prisoners could be much more easily constructed in the studio with digital technology (and if you don't believe me, listen to Madonna's 12" remix of "Angel" of 1984 : the most wonderfully fake-live record to date) [15].

Here we should remember (mourn?) Quadraphonic recordings. They demonstrated the dumbest understanding of the nature of representation, by trying to encode representations into a real, architecturally delineated, spatial environment. File with 3-D and Sensurround. The intake of representations often has little to do with a precise equilibrium between the form of the image's depiction and the form of what the image is depicting. Quadraphonic was banal and domestic at its best, attempting to transform "your loungeroom" into the real space of the performance and its recording. You are there? Not really - just in another possible spatial configuration, encoded as a listener into a spatial effect and not a 'reality' of the credible/believable sort (though possibly a 'reality' of the deluded sort). Binaural recording benefited from a more sophisticated technical means of simulation, though even that did not insure its development, because it ended up that the sound of a space was more desirable and more effective than an actual space (be it in headphones or loungerooms). Digital effects are perfect instruments for generating the sound of sounds.

I end these notes with two examples of manipulating the sound of the audience. They both demonstrate the high 'image' content that such a sound has carried throughout the 80s, where the audience - as a socialized mass that can physically be experienced - is treated (by producer and listener) as an image, an effect, a gesture ; for the time being drained of its 'noise' and exhausted by its 'live' recordings.

Anthony Moore's "Lucia" (the 7" version not on his Flying Doesn't Help album of 1979) sounds like a credible live recording. The song starts up with a pounding drum intro that 'sounds live'. One can also hear crowd noise and ambience complete with someone whistling. After a few plays you realize how strange the drum phrasing is with its fill/breaks which only occasionally coincide with the start of a next verse or a change into the chorus : mostly the drum break bursts out right in the middle of a lyric line. Then after a few more listens, a strange high pitched squeal stands out : someone whistling in the audience. Closer attention reveals that the whistle in fact goes throughout the whole song. A few more listens and you realize that the whistle occurs in a regular pattern. One more listen and you've got it : the audience whistle is phrased exactly with the drum break.

Did you pick it up? Moore has recorded the drum intro from someone else's 'live' record (presumably) and made the short drum intro to a song into a tape loop, which then functions as the backing track for Moore to overlay and construct his own song "Lucia". This isn't Baudrillard simulation - it's a Duchamp pun, firmly embedded in its material textuality.

'Simulation' also doesn't properly describe this next example : Chaka Khan's 12" "I Feel For You" from 1984. It works best on the radio. You're moving along with the drive of the song, identifying its surges and pulsations produced by a fractured combination of sharp kick drum, 'boxed' snare, crystalline keyboards, sadistic slap-bass, etc. The strange cymbal crashes don't particularly sound out of place amidst the violent production and its distortion of sounds. During one listening, though, you think you hear an audience cheer. On the record? You focus your listening - no, there certainly isn't any 'crowd sound' in this hyper-production. Then it happens again, but this time you catch it.

POW! Instead of using the sound of a cymbal, this record uses the sound of audience applause to replace the sound of a cymbal. The drive of "I Feel For You" is based on dynamics - specifically, on the construction of dynamics through simulations, recreations and distortions of sound surfaces and textures, so that the arrangement of the sounds (not the 'musical arrangement') effects realistic dynamics : the punch of the snare, the thump of the bass, the crash of the cymbals. And just consider the wonderful semiotic effect of that 'audience crash' : the record controlling audience dynamics, cueing their response, and rhythmically locating the listener location within both the sound and the music text.

In 1964, it took a modern sociological phenomenon like The Beatle's to trigger a burst of audience noise. In 1984 it takes the gating of a snare to trigger a sampling of an audience sound effect. And for all we know, that sound effect could just as well have been taken from ..... At The Hollywood Bowl. You are there.


1. Two Beatles' albums released in 1977 were At The Hollywood Bowl and Live At The Star Club, Hamburg. The reasons for their release at such a time is twofold - firstly, for nostalgia ; secondly, to counteract the incredible bootleg industry that specialized in early Beatles' live recordings. It is interesting to compare both these records in terms of their density of crowd sound. It's also worth hearing some of those early bootlegs, whose noise level puts any Industrial exponents to shame.

2. Consider the difference in spatial, economic, acoustic and even semantic effects from The Cavern to The Hollywood Bowl.

3. Other records that deserve a quick note in passing : Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music (1975) (every 'feedbacking' electric guitar in the whole world mixed together to produce the ultimate wall of noise as a spectacle of the sound of Rock) and The Cramps' "Human Fly" (1978) (whose fuzz guitar is so fuzzed it makes the hissing cymbal sound more tonal and pitch-oriented than the fuzz guitar). The semiotics of the guitar would be better serviced by a separate article.

4. I don't mention reverberation as an effect here because its semiological effect is more to do with solitude, emptiness and loneliness as connotated by the absence of the direct sound, which is represented by its reverb, its 'aural shadow'.

5. Dicey area, here - one that no doubt needs further research. These "live recordings" were either actually recorded from a live concert, constructed in a studio, or simply marketed in conjunction with a concurrent live tour of the States. Some examples whose titles at least demonstrate a leaning towards 'live' : The Dave Clark 5 American Tour, Five Live Yardbirds, The Animals on Tour, Herman's Hermits On Tour, Got Live If You Want It (Rolling Stones) and The Live Kinks (all between 1965 and 1966).

6. This, however, does not appear to have been a major option as only two 'name' releases from this period stand out : The Beach Boys Live In London and The Ventures On Stage. Rock histories generally explain the British Invasion in terms of timing, in that there was very little 'raw live energy' happening in Rock stateside, considering that the U.S. competition comprised Phil Spector and Motown - two trends which relied heavily on record production. (The States was perhaps also gearing up for a hyper-intensive consumer attack with The Monkees, The Archies and the Bubblegum explosion.)

7. From 1967 into the early 70s : Monterey, Woodstock, Palm Springs, Newport, Denver, Atlanta, Toronto, Isle Of White, etc.

8. This is a fake footnote. If you need empirical data to qualify these views on Rock Journalism then you probably aren't suss to the culture flow of Rock. Suggested reading : some Rock mags.

9. It should be pointed out that the integral energy of a live performance is its vulnerability, its frailty, and its state of rawness. Rock journalism, though, transforms this almost 'tactile' sensation (of 'feeling' the roughness) into an ideological truism upon which the survival of Rock is based. If anything, the live gig is an erotic thrill of experiencing things that might go wrong, astray, over-the-top. Perhaps the audience then 'wanks' as much as the performers?

10. I'm particularly referring to Iggy's performances with The Stooges circa 1972-1973.

11. Audiences themselves were also in awe of their own monstrous energy - from the Mod who, like an electrified Narcissus's, stared down from the balcony into a mass of himself and dove into it, to become himself ; to the Thrash punk who, like an 'orgasm addict' repeatedly climbs onto the stage not to contact the performer, but to dive back off into the audience, into himself.

12. The binaural process was devised in a headset-microphone whose stereo mikes were architecturally designed to replicate the shape and form of the human ear in dimensional terms. The simulated effect is of a 180 hemisphere in playback, as opposed to the half-circle plane articulated in conventional stereo placement.

13. 'Perverse' also refers to Reed's return to the live recording. Following the success of Transformer in 1973 with his glam connection via Bowie, Mainman & RCA, The Velvet Underground was discovered by a whole new generation. Ever the cynic (it seemed) Reed punched out two live albums - Rock'N'Roll Animal in 1974 and Lou Reed Live in 1975 - which transformed the Velvet Underground classics into modernized hard rockers courtesy of Bob Ezrin session guitar heroes Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. (Ezrin produced Berlin and Sally Can't Dance). Apparently Reed thought audiences would click to the Velvet's material in essence, but they were more excited by Reed's controversial image and status. This only served to piss Reed off, which - combined with his neo-suicidal tendencies and a souring relationship with RCA - spawned the cathartic release of Metal Machine Music in 1975. Reed's concerts from 1973 to 1976 (and, let's face it, till the present day) were always typified by a venomous disdain toward the audience - which they loved and which probably only pissed him off more. Taking all this into account, the humour in the small club recording of Take No Prisoners is definitely perverse!

14. Released in 1976, this is often cited as the highest selling live album of all time.

15. I am here only touching on a huge area, one that has been the major feature of music over the past 20 years at least, but of which little has been written : record production. This article only deals with record production in relation to the construction of the listener as a 'live' component in the presentation of the music. Record production is a much, much larger area than that.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.