The 10 greatest live albums of the 1980s

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The 10 greatest live albums of the 1980s

Words by Harry Hartney

From Talking Heads to Iron Maiden

The 1980s. Big hair, MTV, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the decade home to some of the most inventive and influential live performances ever recorded. 

Live albums

The scope of what a concert could be was taken to new heights with Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, broadcast globally to over 1.5 billion people. 

It was a decade in which popular music broadened, integrating new wave, hip-hop, and hair metal into the synth-heavy pop landscape that we are most familiar with today. 

Best live albums

So, as we turn our heads to the Ghosts of Music Past, here are 10 of the best 1980s live albums. 

Read up on all the latest features and columns here.

Alchemy: Dire Straits Live

Released in 1984, this double album features one of Dire Strait’s most celebrated performances at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. 

The concert worked together as an amalgamation of some of the band’s biggest hits off their first four records, their ExtendeDancEPlay EP, and Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero soundtrack. 

Knopfler’s guitar-wizardry was arguably at its peak on the live, almost 11-minute-long version of ‘Sultans of Swing’, which the band plays in an unbelievably tight fashion. 

Alchemy: Dire Straits Live dominated charts globally, hitting #46 on the US Billboard Charts, and #3 on the UK and Australia Charts. Its video sales also propelled the live album to #1 on the Australian Music DVDs chart. 

Live – Fleetwood Mac

Barely scraping into the decade, this 1980 release features several performances from separate concerts spanning across the 1970s. 

The majority of Live’s tracks are sourced from the 1978-79 Tusk tour, with the rest selected from the 1977 Rumours tour and ‘Don’t Let Me Down Again’ from the 1975 Fleetwood Mac tour. 

One of Fleetwood Mac’s greatest attributes, which is made even more apparent on this live double album, is the diversity of talent throughout the band’s core members. 

The late Christine McVie sings ‘One More Night’ in a staggeringly graceful fashion, Stevie Nicks bewitches on ‘Fireflies’ and the influence of Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar-playing seeps through the entire project. 

Live peaked at #14 on the US Billboard 200. 

Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads

Stop Making Sense is one of those legendary performances that was sonically outstanding, but was equally revered for its visuals, releasing as one of the most popular concert films of all time. 

Released in 1984, this album featured some of the band’s biggest hits: ‘Psycho Killer’, ‘Burning Down the House’, ‘Once in Lifetime’ to name a few. 

David Byrne’s revolutionary eccentricity shines, primary school disco-dancing while donning a beige suit in front of a lamp that you might find in your grandmother’s living room. 

This performance earned the Talking Heads the #345 spot on the 2012 edition of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was certified double platinum in the US.

Exit…Stage Left – Rush

Canadian supergroup Rush released a collection of recordings from their respective 1980 and 1981 widely successful tours, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures.

The recordings on Exit…Stage Left, were specifically curated, and track-listed by the members of the band themselves, giving the project a creative flow that often eludes other live albums.

Tom Sawyer’ is an obvious highlight, in which the three-piece band create an almost orchestral scope of sound over five-minutes. The individual musicianship of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart culminates in a gigantic new wave-infused hard rock wall of noise. 

Exit…Stage Left went on to have both critical and commercial success, going platinum in the US.  

The Concert in Central Park – Simon and Garfunkel

Another collaborative project between film and audio, The Concert in Central Park was a free benefit concert performed in front of 500,000 people, who stood encapsulated by the soaring harmonies of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. 

Featuring 19 of the duo’s most acclaimed songs, this live performance was the beginning of a three-year reunion of one of American folk-rock’s staple acts. 

The show opens with an emphatic production of ‘Mrs Robinson’ and concludes with perhaps the most memorable performance of the often imitated (*cough* Disturbed), never replicated ‘Sound of Silence’

Incredibly moving is the emphatic roar of half a million when the pair sing ‘And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people maybe more…’, followed by an astute quietness until the set’s conclusion. 

Shadows and Light – Joni Mitchell

The Canadian singer-songwriter’s live double album was her first release of the 1980s and was recorded at The Santa Barbara Bowl amphitheatre in California on her Mingus tour. 

Featuring some of the greatest jazz fusions artists, such as Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and Jaco Pastorius, Shadows and Light contains some of Mitchell’s most avant-garde performances, including her version of Charles Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’.

Don’t expect to find anything remotely close to Blue on this record, Shadows and Light works brilliantly as a culmination of Mitchell leaning into her jazz influences, which saw her work with legendary acts in the mid-’70s, including the pianist Herbie Hancock. 

While Shadows and Light didn’t perform as commercially or critically as some of Mitchell’s other albums, it certainly remains a hidden gem in one of the deepest discographies in music history. 

Live After Death – Iron Maiden

Filmed and recorded over two shows at Long Beach Arena in California, Live After Death was but a snapshot of the gruelling 331 day, 187 concert World Slavery Iron Maiden tour. 

This 100-minute epic double album has been hailed by critics, with AllMusic praising Live After Death as “easily one of heavy metal’s best live albums”.

The concert plays heavily into the Egyptian themes found on the seminal Iron Maiden album, Power Slave, with band mascot ‘Eddie’ wrapped up in a new mummified look, and hieroglyphics dominating the stage design.

The live album soared to #19 on the US Billboard 200, and went platinum across audio, VHS and DVD sales. 

Live In The 80s – The Skyhooks

Following their split in 1980, the Skyhooks looked to be a product of the past, left in a decade in which they had dominated the Australian music scene. 

The ’80s saw Mushroom Group release a collection of the band’s biggest hits in Hooked on the Hooks, which saw a great deal of success. This eventually brought on the return of the group to a nationwide tour in 1983, in which the two Melbourne shows were recorded and eventually released as Live In The 80s

Featuring all the hits that made Australia fall in love with the ‘Hooks (‘Horror Movie’, ‘You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good in Bed’, ‘Living in the ‘70s’), Live In The 80s saw the original band’s line-up return completely and soared up to #7 on Australian charts. 

The album cover also works as a live recreation of the ‘Living in the 70s’ iconic front-print. 

No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith – Motörhead

Following 1980’s Ace of Spades, which became British rock band Motörhead’s biggest commercial success up to that point, the group released an EP titled St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and subsequently went on tour. A tour, which despite the name of the subsequent live album, did not include the Hammersmith Odeon (known now as Eventim Apollo) in London. 

Due to audio issues, the intended double album length was culled, however the product remaining contains some of Motörhead’s grittiest, fastest performances to date. The influences the band had on later genres and thrash metal groups is distinguishably apparent. 

No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith eventually became the band’s biggest success chart-wise, topping the UK charts, as well as becoming certified gold in the region to boot. 

Live 1975-85 – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band

Monumental in size and released as a boxset by Columbia Records, any live album list would be remiss not to include Live 1975-85

Coming in at a staggering 216 minutes, this record cemented Bruce as one of the greatest entertainers, songwriters, and storytellers in the American consciousness. Compiling 40 live tracks over the greatest decade in the Boss’s career, Live 1975-85 remains the second highest selling live album in the US

Hits endless, intermingled with Bruce’s monologuing and exceptional musicianship, makes for one of the greatest live compilation albums ever put together.

Debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200, the Live 1975-85 box-set broke advance order records and went 13x Platinum in the US.

More on Stop Making Sense here.