Beyond control

 I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control right now

Badlands (1978) Bruce Springsteen

‘Shackled and Drawn’

During the 1970s, when the NME was teaching me how to listen to music (and more besides) and punk challenged the Seventies rock nobility, their annual awards became funnier and less respectful. One was titled ‘Thanks for the Live Album, but you really shouldn’t have bothered’.

It neatly caught the ambivalence of fans to the expensive double or even triple concert records bands would put out to keep them happy while they were finding inspiration or just in rehab. Critics said there were great live albums but maybe you had to be there, and I never was. Anyway,  musos always said there was a better bootleg version.

Critics began to write about live records ‘documenting’ a moment in an artist’s development, as rock slid from being an urgent, critical form into an aspect of heritage. Now global corporations, wringing the final cents from casually-acquired  catalogues while they still hold copyright, turn out live recordings by the cartload.

The listenable outtakes have already been released in remastered, anniversary and deluxe editions, but there’s no shortage of concerts that can be labelled ‘historic’. The value of the live album, always slightly suspect, continues to fall.

Bruce Springsteen Cape Town 2014 (
‘We Take Care Of Our Own’

But digital recording and the Internet are reviving concert recordings,  just as they are giving  musicians new control over their work. Bruce Springsteen, at 64 still a passionately committed performer, has just played  concerts in Cape Town and Johannesburg  and is now performing  in Australia. Each of his South African concerts is already online as a digital download. The pricing—£6.30 for about three hours of music—is generous, certainly compared to the cost of those 1970s double albums.

But there’s something more interesting going on as well. These recordings really are documents, published a couple of days after the concert and therefore hardly open to much aural embellishment. As the tour continues, they will inevitably include some uninspired performances, though they might be preferred by fans who were there on the night.

This is an artist taking control of his publishing in order to cede control of his image. (Up to a point: this act becomes part of that image, but it is at least integral to it.) Where Springsteen’s past live albums have been carefully planned additions to a mythologised persona, this succession of wild recordings will go where it will.

It feels like a risk in a world where the powerful, whether in business, politics or the arts, seek ever more control over their image. But of course none of us can control how we are seen by others or how our words, films or music are interpreted. Artists have enough to do trying to control their creative work. The rest can take care of itself, perfectly well.