Keeping Track: 5 Essential Punk Live Albums – PART 1
by Chad Jewett
MC5 – Kick Out The Jams (1969)
“Brothers and sisters! I wanna see a sea of hands out there! Let me see a sea of hands! I want everybody to kick up some noise! I wanna see a revolution!” So begins Side A of Kick Out The Jams, the debut album from Detroit proto-punks MC5, announced into being with the revolutionary-chic shouts that would punctuate the album and underline the Motor City quintet’s approach to rock-and-roll: rebellious, inherently political, and infectiously defiant. An unconventional first LP that was recorded live across two nights on Devil’s Night and Halloween in 1968, the MC5 had the good instinct to document their first set of songs in their feral, fuzzed-out natural habitat: a sweaty, combustible live show. The album’s title track would have been a punk classic no matter what, but singer Rob Tyner’s classic intro – “Right now. Right now. Right now it’s time too… KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHERF—ERS!!!” – remains the sonic equivalent of dousing freshly lit firecrackers in kerosene. Indeed, by debuting the band’s first batch of hard-left garage-punk fight songs in front of leagues of their enraptured comrades, the whole album has that effect: of an incendiary sound made even more thrillingly kinetic.
The Ramones – It’s Alive (1979)
Recorded at the very end of an 18-month stretch that saw the release of three stone-cold first-generation punk classics (Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket To Russia), It’s Alive could have been a glorified victory-lap/souvenir. Instead, it remains a potent reminder of just how compact, elemental, and explosive the band’s blend of garage-rock muscle and early-60s pop instinct could be. On record, Dee Dee Ramone’s shouts of “1-2-3-4” were a kind of affectation, a stylistic tic. Live, they were more like an incantation, the abrupt breath before songs like “Rockaway Beach” and “Judy Is A Punk” (already one of the New York quartets fastest songs) rocketed forward. In the studio, “Do You Wanna Dance” is an ode to the maximalist pop operas of Phil Spector; on It’s Alive the song is the delirious soundtrack to a sock-hop for everyone left out of the normative version of the 1950s youth culture. The whole album unfolds this way, a joyful burst of sugar-coated energy from a band at the height of their powers.
Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense (1984)
Originally released in truncated form as the soundtrack to the Jonathan Demme documentary of the same name, Stop Making Sense finally got the comprehensive documentation it deserved in an expanded 1999 reissue. A musical triptych of sorts that traces the evolution of the Talking Heads from David Byrne’s early drafts (a stunning rendition of “Psycho Killer” opens the show, composed of a ticky-tack drum machine beat and Byrne’s hard-strummed acoustic guitar, introduced with a wry “Hi. I’ve got a tape I want to play you”) to the slinky power-trio rumble of “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” to the outsized funk powerhouse of the band’s full touring roster of nine players, turning the likes of “Life During Wartime” (which get its definitive reading here) into sublime dance-party workouts. Best of all are the album’s readings of “Burning Down The House” and “This Must Be The Place” – the former delivered with blistering, electric intensity; the latter rendered with delicate beauty, each member of the expanded Talking Heads keeping the lithe, effervescent aloft like a floating feather.
Fugazi – Live Series: 10-6-99 – Geneva, Switzerland
Fugazi’s ongoing Live Series archive, which has assembled hundreds of recordings from the band’s tireless 16-year touring days, offers an overwhelming menu of choices. There are the embryonic early days, where Guy Picciotto was largely a backup singer and hype man who had yet to pick up a guitar for the D.C. post-hardcore legends; there are the witheringly intense In On The Kill Taker-era shows, when the band, officially rounded into their famously tight form, attacked their sharpest material with utter precision. But the band’s very best live recording might just be from their later years. Specifically, the soundboard recording from the band’s October 6, 1999 show in Geneva, Switzerland is as good as it gets. Consisting of 32 tracks (!) that range from fan favorites (“Margin Walker”, “Waiting Room”, “Reclamation”) to their most combustible compositions (the band’s penultimate song, “Smallpox Champion”, is utterly ferocious here) to the band’s late-era turn to the experimental (“Floating Boy” and “Recap Modotti” both show Fugazi’s underrated knack for subtlety and patience) – it’s all there, delivered by a band that remains deservedly legendary for their live intensity.
The (International) Noise Conspiracy – Live at Oslo Jazz Festival (2003)
The (International) Noise Conspiracy always gestured towards the soul, R&B, and jazz influences that lent style and depth to their garage-rock foundation. Singer Dennis Lyxzén seemed to regularly have James Brown and Otis Redding in mind. Songs like “Smash It Up” and “Capitalism Stole My Virginity” had more than their share of Stax-indebted groove, and “A Northwest Passage” went so far as to quote Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1961 R&B hit “Turn On Your Love Light” in its outro. So when the Swedish band’s five-piece configuration was augmented with horns, saxophones and arrangements that made extra room for post-bop improvisation for their 2002 performance at the Oslo Jazz Festival, it found the Noise Conspiracy delivering on a promise that was always there in their swaggering aesthetic. Even better: the band pulls it off. The bluesy horns added atop “Born Into A Mess”; the cranked-up electric piano on “New Empire Blues”; the simmering, sax-heavy take on “Survival Sickness” – the additions aren’t cosmetic, and they aren’t undercooked. Rather, they actually ended up giving us a definitive vision of The (International) Noise Conspiracy and their outsized soul-punk aesthetic.