the history of live music and bootlegging - in 2 bands

A brief history of live recordings and bootlegs as told in the story of two bands:  Pearl Jam, and the Grateful Dead.

Today, we'll start with the Grateful Dead and work chronologically up to today.

photo credit - ME!  This was taken a couple weeks ago (10/6/2013) at a Dead (Furthur) show at Red Rocks.  The umbrellas are for the gear, not the people

This is an exhaustive and detailed piece.  If you aren't obsessed with the history of live rock, it may also be boring as shit.  I am Correct, you see, and very often Maybe I am Wrong.

In the mid to late 60’s, the Grateful Dead pioneered live recording, on every level.  Before the Dead, most live recordings were done on portable 4 track recorders.  Allow me to ‘splain what those limitations meant.
photo credit - ME!  This was taken a couple weeks ago (10/6/2013) at a Dead (Furthur) show at Red Rocks.  The umbrellas are for the gear, not the people

Let’s say you have 2 guys singing… that would be (ideally) two separate tracks.  Then, you have all the instruments.  Ideally, you want a separate track for each and every voice and instrument.  The purpose of this is to mix the tracks after the fact.  16 track boards are very common now.  With digital technology, it is nearly limitless.  However, 16 tracks is a gold standard.  I have a shitty bar band I am in, and we have our own 16 track board.  That is almost sad, when you think of what we have... and yet the Beatles had 2 tracks.  Did you know almost all of the original Beatles records were in mono?  Recording technology sucked for a long time.

Here is a quick cheat sheet.  If what you are watching was done in black and white, you were also hearing mono.  Clearly, that is a sweeping generalization.  It's kinda my specialty.

There has been recording basically as long as their has been electricity.  Edison pioneered a machine in the late 1800's that recorded crudely.  Most recording as we understand it today began in the 40s and 50's in Chicago.  This is why the blues is from Chicago.  The blues started in New Orleans as an outcropping of free slave time on Sunday nights.  However, once recording technology was announced in Chicago... that is where the blues, and jazz, went to work.

There is studio recording, and live recording.  For studio recording, there is no audience. Things are done in a controlled environment, and very often pieced together out of single performances.  We are not here to talk about that.  This is about live recording, and (more specifically) audience based 'bootleg' recording.

Live recording was primitive in the 60's.  It sucked.  It used to be all the instruments were jammed on to 1 or 2 tracks.  This means that vocals and guitars were on a single tape, and so not separable.   If you want to turn the vocals up to listen to them, it meant you were also turning up the guitars, and whatever else was on that track.  it sucked.  You could not isolate the vocals.

The Grateful Dead pioneered fixing all of this.  How?  They had a rich and curious benefactor.  Augustus Stanley Owlsey (who we'll call Owsley going forward), who just passed away last year, loved the band so much he became their Miss Havisham.  He joined the band as their sound engineer.  He recorded every single show.  He also mixed them in real time.  He would sit in the audience and listen to the live mix and made adjustments as the band played.  The reason for this is what the band hears on stage is COMPLETELY different from what the audience hears.  The band have their own mix piped to the front of the stage through little speakers at their feet.  Let’s say the guitarists audio feed has shorted out to the soundboard.  The audience hears no guitar.  The guy on stage has no idea.  He is standing 10 feet from his amp, so he hears himself just great.

this is Owsley (in hat) in his happy place, behind the soundboard

What Owsley also did was stereo recording.  This meant what you heard matched what you saw.  Meaning, the bass player always stood to your left as you look at the stage.  On their recordings, their bass player comes through predominantly on your left speaker.  The singer and the drums are always centered.  They also split up the rhythm guitarist and the lead guitarist.  So, your ears and brain can hear them compliment each other, not muddle together.  So, now you have an audio recording that matches what happens in person.  Seriously, this was groundbreaking.  He also broke through multi-channel recording.  So, the each drum even had it’s own track.  That is how the Grateful Dead can release and remix a live show from 50 years ago, and still be able to make the bass louder and the snare drum pop with a  little more treble.

This stuff may seem evident, and obvious.  It wasn't.  It took the great Owsley to decide it needed to happen, and to then figure out how to make that happen.  That is engineering and math and money and creativity.

Then, the Dead did something even cooler.  They let audience members record their shows.  Free.  Keep them, trade them, mix them yourselves.  Sell them to each other - what the hell do we care?  You paid for the show, it is yours to enjoy however you would like.  Record companies didn’t like this, and still don’t.  They figure if you can get a show for free, why would you buy their studio album when it came out.  Record companies are idiots, and this thinking is why they are all out of business now.

The Grateful Dead understood that sharing the music was good for business.  You could turn your friends on to the band.  So, when the studio album came out… they had MORE fans.  See, anyone willing to listen to bootlegs that are 5 generations old and full of hiss are of course going to buy the studio album.

What else did they do?  They played a completely different concert each night.  That wasn’t just groundbreaking 50 years ago, it still is today.  I just saw Iron Maiden last summer, and they played the exact same songs in the exact same order in every city.  All bands do this, it is very practical.  That way, the lighting guys know when to mood light.  The pyro guys know when to make bang, the light and laser show is done along with the music.  The soundboard engineer knows what songs are coming when, so he can adjust volumes and levels accordingly.  It makes sense, and it is why almost everyone still does it.

As you may know, the Dead are probably more famous for their fans than their music.  You have heard Deadheads travel from city to city to see the band.  This is thanks to the idea that every show is completely different from the last.  If Iron Maiden was playing another show an hour away the next night, I would not go.  Trust me, I LOVE Iron Maiden, and have not missed a show in 30 years.  Same with the Grateful Dead for that matter.  But I know Maiden will play the same show in Colorado Springs that they played in Denver.

What is even more amazing is even the band doesn’t know what they are going to play from night to night.  There is no setlist, at any time.  The band decides what song to play as they go.  They started doing this 50 years ago, and still do it.  To date, no band does it.  It is unfair, and almost cruel, to do to your sound and lighting guys and guitar techs.  That, however, is another story.

If you have ever enjoyed a live concert recording, of ANY kind… even a symphony… you have Owsley to thank for that.  The soundman for the Grateful Dead, who joined the band for fun.  He was rich, really rich.  So, it wasn’t a job for him.  In fact, it was the opposite.  Instead of getting paid by the band, he spent his money on the band buying them equipment.

So, what is the payoff?  Well, the Grateful Dead spent their last 20 years in business only playing football stadiums.  Every city, every night, 60,000 seat venues, at $50 a pop.  Many, many, many of those folks were at all those shows.  Think of it, a band with virtually no radio play or videos played football stadiums.  Think of the biggest selling bands of all time – Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson, Madonna.  NONE of them could fill a football stadium on a tour.  They play your basketball arena, which holds 18,000 people.

This is the average Dead show in the 80s and 90s.  This is Rich Stadium, where the Buffalo Bills play.  I was at this show.

Oh, and Owsley is famous for some other stuff.  He is the father of ALL LSD from the 60’s.  He is the guy who is personally responsible for all psychedelic music and art.  He even dosed the Beatles, which is why they changed from happy clean nice boys to filthy crazed peace loving hippies.  I can’t think of another person who didn’t play an instrument who changed music more.  Wait, even if I count people who played instruments… they still don’t hold up to Owlseys contributions of LSD and live recording.

You still with me?  We are half way through.

We get closer to current day, and we talk about Pearl Jam.


Anonymous said…
I have a picture I took of Owsley Stanley at the Summer Jam 1973. I talked to him when he rode by us on his minibike trying to get the right delay between the stage towers and those out in the audience. It was really trippy at first because it echoing backa and forth. Anyway, check out my summer jam FB page.

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