When it comes to live rock concerts, every music aficionado has their top three. In my case, the second row at Kiss in 2000, the Who’s 1989 orchestral stadium tour, and the Alarm on a raucous college basketball court, circa April 1986. Then there are the shows we only wish we had seen, which can number in the hundreds. Perhaps you weren’t born yet, or maybe Pops said no way? Sorry, too late. Barring a Rock Concert Time Machine stashed in a basement somewhere, YouTube is the closest we’ll ever get.
The irony is that plenty of notable road acts were overrated or had difficulty translating to the small screen. Some big-name favorites are therefore missing. Most of these artists are in their prime, combining the vitality of youth with the poignancy of time’s cruel passage to the midwife and the sheer exuberance of rock and roll. A classic tune also helps but isn’t mandatory; several videos highlight a mediocre studio song that the band managed to blast into orbit onstage. Two selections don’t even have an audience, but they should not be missed.
Some choices are too obvious and therefore excluded. Despite adult misgivings, would any time traveler in their right mind pass up three days of mud and piss at Woodstock or the Beatles before a Shea Stadium crowd so deafening as to render the music incomprehensible? Of course not. But popularity and the grimy facts on the ground bar these performances from consideration.
Finally, and most important, comes that intangible WOW factor: the spark of revelation. “Jeezus, these guys sound fantastic!” – instantly rendering the original studio version obsolete forever. Only invigorating, blood-pumping sledgehammer slabs of rock need to apply. (And Supertramp. Always Supertramp.)
So forget altering the past or seeking Back to the Future-style money or fame. If time travel is ever invented, here are ten live performances to hit first out of the gate.
10. Gary Numan – “Are Friends Electric?“
(AllSaints Basement Sessions, 2013)
When Gary Numan‘s robotic new-wave classic “Cars” hit the airwaves in late 1979, aliens may as well have recorded it. So far ahead of his time was Numan that his early work still sounds ahead of its time, even 40 years later. A shining example is this powerful live reworking of “Are Friends Electric?”, which comes off intentionally antiseptic and repetitive on vinyl but absolutely bursts the shell inside this dank and empty basement. The song is older than some musicians playing it, and their frosty breath plumes like a medieval battlefield. But Numan softens the quiet parts and thoroughly brutalizes the hard ones, rendering any audience utterly superfluous.
9. Prince, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
(Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert, 2004)
An overexposed yet still-classic Beatles tune, covered by a well-known cast of luminaries. But it isn’t until red-hatted Prince cuts loose on his guitar around 3:30, bringing the rock universe to its knees, that jaws everywhere drop like stones. While his playful, mischievous expression is priceless, so is watching Jeff Lynne (ELO), Tom Petty, and Steve Winwood – no slouches in their own right – look as blown away as the rest of us mere mortals. In six too-short minutes, this spellbinding performance sheds all doubt that Prince was a superstar through and through.
8. Supertramp – “Dreamer”
(Live in Paris, 1979)
Call me a ‘homer’ if you must. But when yours truly assembles a list, you can bet my beloved Supertramp will somehow claw their way onto it. Of all the smash-hit live US singles in rock history – from Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” at Budokan to John Denver’s #1 “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” to George Michael’s cover of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” – this definitive cut of “Dreamer” only reached #15. But it still boasts the most dazzling beehive vocals of the bunch (and on this entire list, for that matter). Then there is the pathos factor. Despite the stardom wrought by 1979’s Breakfast in America, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies would fall out irreparably only two years later, leaving their fans crushed, destitute, and forever reunion-less. Heck, even Van Halen reunited, for heaven’s sake! Watching Hodgson and Davies blissfully mind-meld here onstage for the last time remains nothing short of painful and wondrous.
7. Donnie Iris – “Love Is Like a Rock”
(Captured Live, 1981)
In case you’re wondering, “Ah, Leah!”, Donnie Iris’ 1980 paean to doomed yet irresistible love has aged very well. The Cruisers’ other two Top 40 hits, including the dull-ish “Love Is Like a Rock”? Not so much. But that’s the original studio recording. This ecstatic live version explodes with verve, humor, and loosey-goosey musicianship, bobbing and weaving all over Creation. Yet somehow, the gang never miss a note. Many contemporary critics dismissed the Cruisers as a 1980s’ bar band’, but they were the best one going, and their uncanny comfort level onstage proves it. Look for the fabulous multi-layer choral harmonies, Donnie’s post-Davy Jones/pre-Axl Rose serpentine moves behind the mic, and the impressive dueling solos that close out the song.
6. Two Minutes to Late Night – “Anthem“
(Rush cover, 2020)
A slight dispensation, please: Calling this video ‘live’ is a minor stretch since distancing and Covid lockdowns were in full swing by July 2020. Yet of all the pandemic-inspired cover versions out there, this incredible cut of 1974’s “Anthem” is far and away the best. Members of Coheed and Cambria, Mastodon, Primus, Tool, and Mutoid Man flaunt a lifelong passion and respect for Rush fully shared by this reviewer. But their mind-blowing tribute soars far above flattery and way beyond adulation. The original “Anthem” was Neil Peart’s debut with the Canadian trio, representing hallowed ground. Despite spending nearly half a century with the seminal Fly By Night, Two Minutes’ metal-infused, synapse-annihilating version has it beat. Chillz, man. Sorry, Neil!
5. The Church – “Is This Where You Live“
(Blurred Crusade Live,1982)
Even hardcore Church addicts might hesitate to rank the band among the Kisses, Van Halens, or Queens of the wild showmanship era. But for seven minutes and 30 seconds, “Is This Where You Live” launches the Church to a place few bands ever reach, on stage or anywhere else – a golden moment of transcendent rock joy. Somehow they manage to transform a moderately satisfying studio number into a writhing, mind-ripping live powerhouse that builds up, rocks even harder, and then detonates. Watch Marty Willson-Piper’s smile give the game away at around six minutes, as in, “This is freakin’ great!” Unearthed a mere five years ago, the entire show is worth revisiting to behold an underrated, finely-calibrated band in their youthful 1980s prime.
4. AC/DC – “Riff Raff”
(If You Want Blood, 1978)
When it comes to rock, 1970s AC/DC just did so many things right. Rebellion, musicianship, more alcohol than the human body can consume: Even four decades removed, prime-era Bon Scott and the Young brothers cast the majority of today’s rockers to shame. Watching Scott and Angus Young tear apart the stage here, one wonders whether Earth’s atmosphere even contains enough oxygen to sustain such manic onstage lunacy. Only the very flower of youth gets away with insanity like this, and sometimes not even then. Scott drank himself to death two years later and was gone, which raises a salient question. How in the world could alcohol – or anything – possibly snuff out this Cat-Five human hurricane?
3. Kiss – “Cold Gin“
(Lost Alive II, 1977)
In a long-ago interview, Kiss bassist Gene Simmons once said he’d choose a gut-punching A-chord over the finest symphony ever written, every time. The word ‘orgasmic’ is overused in art and music, but this is as close as it gets: all the prodigious stagecraft, all the ridiculous Spinal Tap excess that defined 1970s rock and roll, yet also made it inimitable and indelible. The provenance of these unreleased Lost Alive II recordings fascinates as well. Filmed at Tokyo’s Budokan by producer Eddie Kramer, the set features nascent touches, such as Ace Frehley’s endlessly imitated pre-Van Halen pyrotechnics, that would be put to multi-platinum use on Kiss Alive II later that year. Plus, that pulverizing, bone-crunching ROAR! Denigrated by critics as faux musicians, these guys sound fantastic here. Primal, even. Symphonies be damned: The second-row with a reunited Kiss remains the greatest live show this unrepentant music snob has ever seen and Lost Alive II’s “Cold Gin” shows why.
2. U2 – “Bad”
(Live Aid, 1985)
Today’s kids have heard of Woodstock, and they know the Beatles. Yet aside from MTV-raised Gen-Xers, 1985’s transatlantic Live Aid extravaganza has somehow failed to seize the music zeitgeist similarly. For this reviewer, it was Nik Kershaw – Nik Kershaw! – who first caught my attention early that morning and kept me glued to the TV set all day long. Then around 12:30 pm eastern time, U2 staked their claim as the World’s Biggest Band with an impassioned, ad-libbed, 11-minute masterpiece that still resonates four decades later. The song itself is epic, but the Hug – between Bono and 15-year-old Kal Khalique – left two billion human beings in tears. Some snapshots in life never get old, and despite their occasional trademark sanctimony, U2’s “Bad” from Live Aid is one of them.
1. Queen – “Radio Ga Ga”
(Live Aid, 1985)
U2 may have won the Live Aid battle, delivering the day’s most emotionally overpowering song. But Queen won the war with what is widely considered the greatest live rock set of all time. The 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody reintroduced this unforgettable performance to a new generation. Yet, this original video still brings a lump to the throat, not just for the long-departed Freddie Mercury, but for the sheer euphoria of holding 75,000 fans in the palm of his hand. And what a POP at the end! For all you post-MTV youngsters, the chorus’ Mussolini-style handclaps derive from Queen’s ubiquitously cheesy 1984 “Radio Ga Ga” video, which nobody need ever suffer through again. How could such a silly, childish, pedestrian song sound this good live and make one man immortal?