The rock & roll live album has rarely functioned as more than an obligation, an adjunct to a recording contract. The best of these preserved performances, though, capture the spirit of the music in all its sometimes sloppy, improvisational glory. They also served, in the days before stage technology, as ways for artists to rethink their older material, cover other people’s songs, or simply loosen up. That’s changing. Now that the antiseptic feel of a recording studio can be captured onstage with the flick of several switches, it’s getting hard to tell the difference between live and cooked. For proof, consider this fall’s big-league concert album — Phil Collins’ Serious Hits…Live! Immaculately recorded and performed, chock-full of hits, and demonstrates that the pop live album is, in some ways, obsolete.
During the ’80s, few pop stars turned out such an appealing assortment of musical ear candy as Collins. In that respect, Serious Hits…Live! lives up to its billing. Recorded during his just-completed tour, it contains precise re-creations of all Collins’ major singles outside Genesis. There are no surprise cover versions, little in the way of ”jamming,” even less in the way of spontaneity. From the horn arrangement of ”Sussudio” to the moment midway through ”In the Air Tonight” when Collins wallops his drum kit, the arrangements barely deviate from those we’ve been hearing on the radio. The exceptions are the ballads ”One More Night” and ”Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” which sound far less mawkish without the string arrangements of the originals. Only someone with a truly tin ear can dismiss singles like ”Don’t Lose My Number,” ”Another Day in Paradise,” and ”Easy Lover,” but one wonders why Collins bothered rerecording these songs onstage when a studio hits package could have done the same trick.
In addition to being the equivalent of souvenir tour programs, Atlantic hopes you’ll buy Serious Hits…Live! in a boxed set with a Collins concert video. With the records reduced to nothing more than part of a marketing strategy, the music is lost in the shuffle — the ultimate insult for the once-proud rock live album. B-