By Nick Deiuliis
In the early 1950s, legendary disc jockey Alan Freed first used the phrase ‘rock and roll’ on his Cleveland radio show. Rock was born. We’ve been discussing and debating it ever since.
Rock music is a contradiction.
On one hand, it is a pasted-together mosaic of musical styles; blues, country, jazz, folk, pop, gospel, and even classical. Old things presented in new ways. Not revolutionary as much as evolutionary.
On the other hand, rock is unique and stands apart from other music. Particularly when its energy is projected on stage when performed live.
Yes, the true essence of rock is best captured live, separating it from other musical styles. And sometimes a confluence of events captures a rock performance that stands the test of time and elevates beyond the norm of other musical genres.
I’ve often thought about, after viewing or experiencing a great live rock performance: where does it rank? And what would be the ten greatest exemplars of the live rock performance? Ten gems that hit a note above all the others?
Those questions would be great fun to assess. And irresistible to try to answer.
A Highly Unscientific Approach
Before we count down the ten greatest, here are our screening criteria:
- We’re ranking single song performances only, not complete concerts.
- Performance films are excluded. Apologies to Talking Heads (Stop Making Sense), The Band (The Last Waltz), and Prince (Sign O the Times). All great viewing and performance, but more cinema than live rock. That doesn’t mean a few of the Top Ten didn’t make it into a concert DVD, but these selections are live performance first, concert film second.
- DJs and sampling electronic music are not considered. The performer must be playing instruments or singing, live. Sorry, Daft Punk (’06 Coachella) and Fatboy Slim (’02 Brighton Beach).
- Super Bowl halftime show performances are not considered. They are more entertainment spectacle than live rock performance.
- No ‘unplugged’ renditions (forgive me Nirvana and Clapton fans). You know the setup: the performers sitting on stools, surrounded by a small TV studio audience. They’re interesting when done well. But they are purposely toned down and constructed exclusively for TV/digital media broadcasting.
Special weighting and bonus points are awarded for the following:
- Outstanding live performances that are not widely known or don’t garner enough attention.
- A special historical context of when or where the song was performed. Having time and place convene to transform the performance into representing something bigger.
- Adding a visual and theatrical element to the live performance. Taking the recording and presenting it with supplemental props live can create another level of song experience.
- Enthusiastic audience participation. Thousands of strangers connecting organically during a live rendition is a sure sign that the performance has achieved greatness. Which means heavy weighting toward European and South American venues; audiences there are order of magnitude more passionate than American audiences.
- Amazing live musicianship. In the end, the music matters the most. Always has and always will.
Lest I forget, there is one critical requirement to make the list: a video capturing the specific performance must be readily available for viewing. What’s the point of including a great performance in the ranking if one cannot easily check it out on YouTube?
To start, we have two honorable mentions, beginning with Veruca Salt, “Seether” (1995; Glastonbury, UK). What ever happened to Veruca Salt? They looked to be the next big thing back in the 1990s, but then the Chicago-based band fell off the radar. Watch them play “Seether” at Glastonbury in ’95 to see what might have been if they kept it going. Funny how time flies, but most of those attendees in the crowd are now well into their 50s running businesses, governments, and maybe even grandkids to and from events.
Here We Go: The Ten Greatest
#10: Peter Gabriel (with Paula Cole), “Come Talk to Me” (Secret World Live; 1994; Modena, Italy)
As this list unfolds, it will betray a bias I have long suffered from: favoring concert openers. There is something magical about the moment when the recorded soundtrack stops, they cut the arena lights, and the act takes the stage. Gabriel used “Come Talk to Me” from the Us album to open his Secret World Live tour in 1993-1994. Us was created at a time of personal turmoil for Gabriel, and this song’s lyrics address his relationship strain at the time with his daughter (after Gabriel moved out of the family home and began cohabitating with actor Rosanna Arquette).
#9: Megadeth, “Symphony of Destruction” (That One Night; 2005; Buenos Aires, Argentina)
#8: Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” (Capitol Theater; 1985; Passaic, New Jersey).
The video of this performance essentially ignores the audience. There are no stage props, other than SRV’s trademark hat, belt, boots, and guitar strap. And you miss none of it because it is impossible not to be transfixed on his playing and singing. He’s in a performative trance; you could light him on fire, and he wouldn’t notice.
Vaughan is one of those true genius talents that stands out from all others; anything added alongside his live playing becomes wasteful distraction and dilution from the man and his guitar. I ranked Vaughan up there with Hendrix and EVH in the Top Ten Rock Guitarists of All-Time, and SRV may indeed have been the very best of them live. Still can’t fathom how he simultaneously played guitar and sang like that on “Couldn’t Stand the Weather.” One of my greatest musical regrets is not having the chance to see him work such magic live.
#7: U2, Intro / “Zoo Station” (Achtung Baby Tour; 1993; Adelaide, Australia).
I wasn’t going to construct a top ten live performance list and not include one of my favorite bands through the years (and another opening song). I must admit being torn between one of two U2 performances to choose from, with the close runner-up being “Sunday Bloody Sunday” at Red Rocks, aka, ‘This is not a rebel song!’ But I must give the nod to the Dubliners’ early 1990s reinvention of their band and their reimagining the concert as a performance medium.
Achtung Baby was a huge creative and brand risk for U2. They took the risk, and we reaped the reward. Then the band broke more ground by presenting the album tour as Zoo TV, an innovative digital and visual display to accompany the music. Zoo TV managed to take the groundbreaking music of U2 found on Achtung Baby and present it in a revolutionary packaging that made it better. You hear the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s “Television, The Drug of a Nation” being played, those massive stadium screens light up, Bono’s outline emerges from the stage, and then Edge hits the intro notes to “Zoo Station.” Special. Will U2’s current run of shows covering Achtung Baby at the Vegas Sphere measure up? Hope so.
#6: Metallica, “Enter Sandman” (Tushino Airfield Concert; 1991; Moscow, Russia)
Although not a rabid fan, I like Metallica and have seen them numerous times. When “Enter Sandman” first came out, it was bold and new. And quickly became old and tired after endless radio play. But looking back, Metallica’s live performance of “Enter Sandman” outside Moscow in 1991 was mind-blowing for three reasons.
First, the size of the crowd was conservatively estimated to be somewhere in the 500,000 range (some estimates were as high as 1.6 million!). Second, that audience was pent up for too long under communism and was ready to explode when the band took the stage (another set opener, by the way; this one preceded with Metallica’s traditional playing of Ennio Morricone’s western movie score). Third, the festival (which also included AC/DC, The Black Crowes, and others) served as a symbolic tearing down of the USSR communist state and the start of a more open Russia.
The visuals of some Red Army troops participating in the crowd and other Red Army troops holding back the crowd were poignant. James Hetfield’s lyrics of “exit light, enter night” reflected the reverse order of how Russians were feeling in 1991. A band and song in the right place at the most historic of times. Unfortunately, a stark contrast to Russia today.
#5: Depeche Mode, “Never Let Me Down Again” (raw version: One Night in Paris; 2001; Paris, France or polished version: Tour of the Universe; 2009; Barcelona, Spain)
I’ve enjoyed Depeche Mode for decades, but I always thought they were better in the studio and on record than they were live. Until I saw them perform the classic “Never Let Me Down Again” toward the end of their shows. That song has been a personal favorite from the Music for the Masses album and I consider it to be their best single. The band performing it live further elevates the experience. You can see for yourself with two recommended versions: the Paris installment being rawer and more chaotic, or the Barcelona installment a few years later with a more polished rendition.
#4: Rush, Intro Medley / “Spirit of the Radio” (R30 Tour; 2004; Frankfurt, Germany)
Pound-for-pound, Rush is the most talented group in rock history, and that goes for their work in both studio and on stage. Hard to believe that three human beings could be so creative for so long.
Rush was incredibly prolific, sporting a song catalogue stretching over half a century. So, it’s always tough for the band to construct a live setlist that checks all the boxes for all the fans. One creative solution was when the band decided to open on the R30 tour with a video from comedian Jerry Stiller kicking off the band’s nearly seven-minute instrumental medley through a portfolio of their earlier masterpieces that included “Finding My Way”, “A Passage to Bangkok”, “Anthem”, and “Bastille Day”. Oh yeah, and then they launch right into a full rendition of “Spirit of the Radio”, the seminal Rush song. Pure rock and roll heaven and, in my opinion, the best live opener ever. Happy I was fortunate enough to experience it first-hand.
#3: Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil” (Altamont Speedway; 1969; Tracy, California)
People ask why I disdain the 1960s. If I could point to one event to explain why, it would be the Rolling Stones performing “Sympathy for the Devil” at Altamont Speedway in late 1969. Commentators often speak of it marking the end of 1960s culture. Wrong; only the date of the performance was indicating the end of the 1960s.
Altamont marked the culmination of what 1960s culture wrought. It wasn’t pretty. What would one expect when you combine drugged-out concertgoers, drugged-out performers, and drugged-out security attired in the vests of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels?
Jagger was assaulted by a fan before he even took the stage (he was lucky to be only punched in the head; earlier the lead singer for Jefferson Airplane was knocked out cold by ‘security’), “Sympathy for the Devil” was interrupted by violence in front of the stage, Jagger’s plea to “brothers and sisters” to calm down went unheeded, and a front row murder happened minutes later (during “Under My Thumb”). This performance makes the list for its context of time (end of the 1960s), song (talk about lyrics fitting the moment), and history (peace-and-love generation being exposed as something quite the opposite).
#2: Black Sabbath, “Paranoid” (The End; 2017; Birmingham, UK)
For decades, music critics ignored and put down heavy metal. Which meant the pioneering work of Black Sabbath was demoted far too long. That changed with time, and in early 2017 the band wrapped up their final tour, where over its course one million people saw them perform.
Another mystery is how Tony Iommi can play those riffs while missing parts of his fingers. But sing and play they did during the encore “Paranoid.” And the hometown crowd in Brimingham, spanning multiple generations of fans, appreciated every word and note. Underrated and underappreciated for far too long; but better the recognition comes late than never.
#1: Queen, “Radio Ga Ga” (Wembley Live Aid; 1985; London, UK)
This should not shock any rock fan. The historical context alone would place it at the top.
Perhaps the slight surprise is with the song selected from Queen’s Live Aid set, “Radio Ga Ga”. It came right after the truncated version of Bohemian Rhapsody, after Freddie Mercury was comfortable with the setup and fans were focused on the band. And the audience engagement with “Radio Ga Ga” was off-the-charts phenomenal.
Mercury connected directly with every human being in that stadium, from the front row to the nosebleed seats. And the audience connected right back. Prior to the show, Queen was asked if they agreed to play Live Aid to support the cause of fighting world hunger or because it was an epic event they couldn’t afford to miss. Freddie replied, “To answer that honestly it’s a bit of both.” Is Freddie the greatest frontman in the history of rock? If not, he is damn close.
And on that day at Wembley, Mercury set the gold standard for live performance at the biggest of moments. Oh, and if you want another great Wembley performance, check out INXS in 1991 with the intro to the Live Baby Live concert, “Guns in the Sky”; Michael Hutchence was special and no telling what he would’ve accomplished had he lived longer.
Well, there you have it. An authoritative (not) objective (definitely not) top ten ranking of the greatest live performances in the history of rock. Happy viewing.