The Stones’ Love You Live is a ramshackle time capsule of a wild band
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Everything repeats. Trends are born, trashed, recycled and born anew. We are doomed to relive history and ignore lessons of the past, no matter how recent. The fields are riddled with pitfalls and rakes and snakes and any number of metaphorical hazards that are as obvious as they are ignored. That might just be how it is and how it remains.
In that sense, the mandatory Rolling Stones live album was always inevitable. Appearing every three to five years between 1966 and 2008, give or take, before archival live releases began to dominate the discography as the band slipped into a lower gear, these were documents of the Stones’ continued dominance of the world’s musical landscape. Got LIVE If You Want It!, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, Love You Live, Still Life, Flashpoint, Stripped, No Security, Live Licks and finally Shine A Light all took a different angle, attempting to maintain relevance and a place on the charts, beyond life as the ubiquitous tour souvenir. And the quick version of critical consensus is that only Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! is worth any kind of investment, capturing the band as it did on its notorious 1969 tour in all their seedy danger, with both Keith Richards’ new five-string mastery and Mick Taylor’s soaring virtuosity introduced to the public.
To be fair, to be fair, to be fair, any and all kind words for Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! are warranted and more than earned. That record is a slasher, as dirty and dangerous as they’d ever be captured, likely only matched or surpassed on their Ladies and Gentlemen documentary, recorded three years later on an even wilder 1972 romp through the United States.
As for the rest? 1995’s Stripped is one I go back to often, blending new, acoustic recordings of classics with stuff from the more intimate venues on the Voodoo Lounge tour. Flashpoint, No Security and Live Licks are all professional and enjoyable accounts of the Steel Wheels, Bridges to Babylon and Licks tours, respectively, but they do all blend together. Shine A Light, recorded on the tour for A Bigger Bang as part of Martin Scorsese’s concert film, is similar, though you are treated to a version of “Champagne and Reefer” with Buddy Guy that is straight nasty. Still Life is the least interesting of the bunch, captured in support of Tattoo You and, as the title suggests, appropriately lifeless.
And this brings us to 1977’s Love You Live, which suffers from the fact that it was next out of the gate following 1970’s Ya-Ya’s while, of course, Ronnie Wood had taken Mick Taylor’s place to Mick Jagger’s right. The results are sloppy, rushed, overdubbed and not to the standards of the greatest rock and roll band in the world. And it’s not worth your time.
Or at least that, again, has been the critical consensus. To those that would believe that, power to them. There are plenty of records out there and plenty of live documents of this band to enjoy. But it’s a narrow view and those people are missing out, because this record is a riot.
Love You Live, as stated on the back, captures the band live in Paris circa 1976 and Toronto in ’77, released unto the world in September of the latter year. Not noted, but now understood, is that shows from their ’75 trek in Toronto and Los Angeles are also included, as well as London ’76. That bit of exclusion made sense, in that the reports from the Paris shows and that later Toronto stop were rightly glowing. The rest of the shows wobbled, understandably, as the band broke in a new guitarist, a new keyboardist in Billy Preston and an elaborate stage setup that unfurled like a lotus flower and occasionally included a giant inflatable penis. There was a lot to process.
So to that end, as they had on Ya-Ya’s, they took to the studio to refine some of the looser elements of their show and refine the results, redoing vocals and guitars and whatever else needed “fixing,” as it were. The hilarious result of all that is that, even with that window dressing, this still sounds in places like a particularly strong bootleg. Simply, it’s wild.
And the shows around this time had to be wild. Take for instance, as preserved here, the fact that the band appeared before the audience accompanied by Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” only to open the show with that filthy, open G riff to “Honky Tonk Women.” It’s a declaration of intent as solid as any, juxtaposing the regal air of the biggest band on the planet against one of Keith’s signature dirty riffs. From there, it slides into a medley and another mission statement, pairing “If You Can’t Rock Me” with a sped up and nearly unrecognizable take on “Get Off of My Cloud.” If there were supposed to be rough edges in need of sanding out, they either forgot about this section or wanted to turn up the raucous some more.
That slipshod workmanship is all over the album, and all the better for it. On side three, recorded at Toronto’s El Mocambo Tavern, they didn’t even bother to pretend that Mick Jagger’s harp wasn’t overdubbed, overlapping with his vocal as it does. But Mick’s harmonica playing is evil as always here, and it’s captured on wax with all its messy brethren, giving Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” the mucky edge it deserves. If there’s one section of this album that has escaped critical lashing, it’s side three, where the Stones, as unannounced guests, tear through a set of early blues and rock and roll numbers. It emphasizes what has always separated the Stones from their peers, that their mastery of the swing and rhythm of this stuff was always beyond others. “Little Red Rooster” is slinky and mean, and Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” gallops at just the right pace, fervent but not maniacal. It’s a sweaty masterclass in pairing roll with the rock.
But that’s not the only place this kind of playing appears on Love You Live. Look no further than side two’s “You Gotta Move,” which hangs on Keith’s guitar, particularly violent and stinging here, with Charlie Watts thumping at an appropriately unhurried space just behind the beat, dependable as always. It’s raw and uncomplicated, just a dose of the blues that happened to be played in a stadium rather than the pub. For another side of the band, the boys groove along on “Hot Stuff” and “Fingerprint File,” letting the Keith Richards/Charlie Watts/Bill Wyman rhythm ride as the star of the show, as they always did in the Stones’ greatest moments.
Finally, the band lets it rip on the last side, taking four of their biggest hits and stripping them down to howling guitars and acrobatic shouts. From “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll” through “Brown Sugar” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” it’s a riot, at once as fun and unhinged as the band would ever be. It’s excessive, sure, but it’s blast that indulges in the base of what made this band great. There’s even an acknowledgement of the thrill of chaos in the closing “Sympathy for the Devil,” which, until 1975 and ’76, had been largely absent from the band’s setlists following the 1969 catastrophe at Altamont.
It was a time capsule in that way that all their live albums were designed, but even with the quality and assurance team working overtime, they couldn’t mask how riotously fun the Rolling Stones were in this time. What a beautiful mess.
Everything repeats, almost. As of this moment, the Rolling Stones are still a going concern, though with Charlie now keeping time in the great beyond, more a brand name and experience than a band, carrying on with Watts’ blessing and with all credit to the mighty Steve Jordan on drums. There will probably be, at some point, a document of the No Filter tours and Watts’ final shows which took place between 2017 and 2019 released for public consumption. It will be slick and professional and enjoyable, with nary a misstep to be seen, as most of their live records and films have depicted for the past 30 years.
But at this specific point in time, the Rolling Stones either couldn't or wouldn’t smooth over the warts-and-all happening of their show. Even with studio trickery, Love You Live was as luxurious and uncivilized an experience as could be hoped for. The band sounds like it could fall apart at any moment, even with Charlie holding them together, only to have Keith riff and Ronnie wail and Mick holler and Bill rumble away at just the right frequencies, all working together to skirt the lane and stay out of the ditch.
It’s that loose, teetering-over-the-edge vibe that makes this album such a blast. The Rolling Stones made great, revolutionary records in the studio, they were craftsmen and transformed into elder statesmen on rhythm and blues, they chased trends as often as they set them, they became a well-oiled machine by which the rest of the rock industrial complex is measured. But at their heart, they were a wild rock and roll band. When I want to listen to those guys, this is the album I need to hear. It was a moment in time that deserves to be repeated.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org