Is it a coincidence that as album sales decline, more bands seem to be playing more concerts in more markets than ever before? Musicians are becoming hip to the fact that their new albums aren’t exactly burning up the charts like they used to, and that, perhaps, their back catalog is worth re-examining. Often this is in the form of a greatest hits tour, but more and more often, popular acts with a decent history under their belts are choosing to play entire classic albums every night, sometimes to mark an anniversary, and sometimes just for the fun of it.
Recent album-oriented tours include Mötley Crüe playing Dr. Feelgood, The Cult playing Love, Steely Dan alternating between The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho, The Melvins playing Houdini, Testament playing The Legacy, and Judas Priest playing British Steel. Nine Inch Nails played The Downward Spiral at one of their final gigs, and Roger Waters has hit the road to play two Pink Floyd albums in recent years – The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall – both to great acclaim.
And Queens of the Stone Age are about to play a series of concerts in Australia where they will perform their self-titled debut album of 1998 during sideshows for their appearance on the Soundwave festival. The album itself is being re-released in March 2011 with previously unreleased tracks via founder Josh Homme’s own Rekords Rekords label.
Megadeth recently hit the road to play their 1990 classic Rust in Peace in full – a milestone made all the more emotional by the return to the band of David Ellefson on bass. The tour was commemorated by a live DVD and CD, which captured the ferocity of the well-oiled Megadeth machine after months on the road playing the same set night after night (although a few months later, Mustaine told this writer “When you do the same record, the exact set for a year, it's kinda hard…”, adding that he was looking forward to reinstating more new material to the setlist once the Rust cycle was over). Megadeth’s Thrash “Big 4” partners Slayer were an early adopter of the classic album-played-live concept, performing their 1986 classic Reign in Blood in 2003. In 2010, they reprised 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss while on tour with Megadeth on the American Carnage tour.
Alternative hitmakers The Lemonheads have been playing their 1992 classic album It’s A Shame About Ray in its entirety on and off for several years now. Main man Evan Dando says he’s not entirely surprised that the album has maintained its esteem among listeners. “It’s pretty simple about that stuff: I just think stuff that’s good gets kinda timeless,” he says. “I think it’s just about that. It’s just a pretty good record. I like it.”
As for whether he has made changes or adjustments over the years, Dando is characteristically free-spirited. “An album’s an album, man. It pretty much stays the same. It was fun making it and … I don’t know. For me it doesn’t change much. I don’t listen to it, but for me it’s alright. I’m glad I got the demos out too, the cassette demos.”
An interesting sideline for the “play your own album in full” concept is the “play someone else’s album in full” strategy used by Phish and Dream Theater. Over the years, Phish have famously performed the entire White Album by The Beatles, Quadrophenia by The Who, Remain in Light by Talking Heads, Loaded by The Velvet Underground, Exile on Main St. by The Rolling Stones and Dark Side of the Moon – taking on each classic as their “Halloween costume” for an October gig. Dream Theater have played Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Dark Side of the Moon, Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast and Deep Purple’s Made in Japan, each of which are available to purchase from the band’s Ytse Jam Records label, complete with cheeky referential album covers.
Of course, tribute bands have been playing classic albums from start to finish for many years, with perhaps the most successful being The Australian Pink Floyd Show, who have performed to more than 3 million people and were even booked by David Gilmour himself to play at the end-of-tour after party for Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell tour (and, a couple of years later, Gilmour’s own 50th birthday party).
In the years to come, will this trend continue? Will we see Metallica play the “Black Album” for their 25th anniversary? Will Van Halen head out in 2018 for the – gulp – 40th anniversary of their self-titled debut? Will My Chemical Romance resurrect The Black Parade for their 10th birthday in 2016?
Perhaps a more pertinent question is, is this the last gasp for the album? With bands like Radiohead and The Smashing Pumpkins declaring the album concept as a whole to be in dire straits (amid digital downloads and the jostle for attention with other entertainment formats), could the current round of “remember what it was like to actually sit and listen to a whole album” nostalgia be but one, last brilliant flash, before the shifting sands of the music industry wipe away the last traces of the rock album?