The 10 Greatest Hard Rock + Heavy Metal Live Albums Ever

Honoring The Who's Live at Leeds + the killer live albums it inspired.

Upon release on May 16th, 1970, the Who’s Live at Leeds electrified the rock world like no other concert album ever had done before. The landmark record transformed the explosive band into the most ferocious live act the world had ever seen. Moreover, it propelled the Who past rock-and-roll and into the rarified realm that, in short order, would evolve into “heavy metal.”

In honor of Live at Leeds , let’s salute some of the other killer live albums brought forth in its wake. Here now are extraordinary LPs that put the listener, no matter where he or she may be, right there in the crowd, soaking up the group’s overwhelming presence, and rendering extinct the notion of “you had to be there”—because these live albums bring us right there, every time.

  1. No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith – Motörhead (1981)

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    “Ace of Spades”

    A year after Ace of Spades established Motörhead as the be-all, end-all incarnation of punk, heavy metal, and full-tilt rock-and-roll, the most relentlessly powerful of all power trios let loose No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith, a live document captured when their Short, Sharp Pain in the Neck tour landed in Leeds and Newcastle.

    Exploding out of the gate with “Ace of Spades,” Hammersmith barrels forward like a nuclear-powered runaway train through Motörhead rave-ups and beat-downs that includes “No Class,” “The Hammer,” “Overkill,” and “The Bomber.” In keeping with Spinal Tap’s amplifiers, No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith’s track listing goes to eleven.

  2. Made in Japan – Deep Purple (1972)

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    “Highway Star”

    Deep Purple Mach II, the classic combo featuring Ian Gillan on vocals and Roger Glover on bass, achieved its peak potency just in time to be immortalized on vinyl via Made in Japan.

    After earning a monster reputation as a live act, Deep Purple fans bought, sold, and traded bootlegs of the group’s shows, prompting guitar guru Ritchie Blackmore to proclaim that in order to satisfy the obvious hunger for concert recordings, the band would do it properly.

    As a result, Deep Purple meticulously conceived and executed Made in Japan, factoring in every element from proper musical equipment to the strongest possible set list before finally taping two shows at the Festival Hall in Osaka and the Budokan in Tokyo.

    The final outcome was seven songs perfectly painted across four sides of vinyl, beginning with “Highway Star,” climaxing with “Smoke on the Water” and bringing the entire mammoth endeavor together with a twenty-minute finale of ““Space Truckin’.” Domo arigoto!

  3. Live and Dangerous – Thin Lizzy (1978)

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    “The Boys Are Back in Town”

    On their 1977 release Bad Reputation, Irish hard rock giants Thin Lizzy struck creative paydirt with producer Tony Visconti, and they were eager to work with him on their next project. While the group was raring to go, Visconti faced a work crunch and thus the parties compromised by taking two weeks to construct a double-disc live album. Live and Dangerous subsequently emerged as one of the era’s greatest concert LPs—albeit one that comes with a degree of controversy.

    Culled from shows in London and Toronto, Live and Dangerous delivers 17 smashing tracks that include Thin Lizzy’s two biggest hits, “Jailbreak” and “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

    Where a bit of a brouhaha arose was over Tony Visconti claiming that not only were the songs overdubbed, but that Live and Dangerous was “75% recorded in the studio.” The members of Thin Lizzy, among others, diametrically challenge that claim, insisting that, in fact, the album is 75% live. In the end, does it matter? To jump in anywhere on Live and Dangerous is to be infused with the hugeness and excitement of Thin Lizzy rocking at their best.

  4. Exit… Stage Left – Rush (1981)

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    “Tom Sawyer”

    Canadian prog-metal power trio Rush broke through to mainstream music success in February 1981 with Moving Pictures. Just nine months later, they issued the double-disc live collection Exit… Stage Left and ascended to the highest realms of rock stardom.

    The album (and its accompanying VHS live video) incorporates a dynamic array of Rush classics, albeit tilted somewhat to the group’s more recent output. As such, Exit… Stage Left conveys Rush at the apex of musical exploration, when they were absorbing and reinventing influences such as reggae and new wave to create a sound that, still, is only theirs.

    Exit… Stage Left also inherently tips off the group’s affable sense of humor. Vocalist Geddy Lee explained the album thusly in 1981: “The whole title came from a character in an American cartoon called Snagglepuss. He’s a great little creature, a lion, and every time there’s trouble he flees, uttering ‘Exit… stage left’ or ‘Exit… stage right.’ But the fact of the matter was that the album cover picture was taken from stage left. And coincidentally that’s the direction in which Snagglepuss runs most of the time.”

    In 1996, Rush drum wizard Neil Peart added: “We wanted to have Snagglepuss’s tail on there. You know, ‘Exit Stage Left,’ with a picture of just his tail. Forget it! They wanted all kinds of legal hassles and tons of money.”

  5. Unleashed in the East – Judas Priest (1979)

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    “Diamonds and Rust”

    As with Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, rumors persist that Judas Priest’s landmark concert LP Unleashed in the East is more of a recording booth creation than a live document. Some even deem the record, “Unleashed in the Studio.” Also as with Live and Dangerous, though, the final word is that this an essential collection of one of rock’s greatest lineups at their mightiest plowing through an absolutely exhilarating series of performances.

    Taped in Tokyo, Unleashed in the East delivers Judas Priest at the moment just before creating their 1980 masterpiece British Steel, and both the band and frontman Rob Halford come on like a pressure cooker loaded with dynamite and set to ignite at any moment—which they do, over and over and over again.

  6. Live After Death – Iron Maiden (1985)

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    “Churchill’s Speech/Aces High”

    The first voice to be heard on Live After Death —Iron Maiden’s instant-classic concert album recorded in Long Beach, California— belongs to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It’s a clip from his famous 1940 speech that lays out England’s commitment to battling invading oppressors and concludes, “We shall never surrender!”

    Immediately, then, Maiden bursts to life with its epic WWII anthem “Aces High” and Live After Death takes full flight, blasting forth a nonstop assault of 18 songs over four sides. This is one double album that, indeed, never surrenders.

    Fully embracing the multimedia age, Life After Death premiered both as an album and a VHS tape that fully brings home the group’s elaborate staging and transformative live dynamics. Together, this one-two blast of mass metal magnitude exported the incredible experience of Iron Maiden in person to fans around the globe—and it still does.

  7. Double Live Gonzo – Ted Nugent (1978)

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    “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”

    Ted Nugent, the Motor City Madman, is at his Motor City maddest on Double Live Gonzo, shredding, slaying, and taking no prisoners while piloting an avalanche of metal-friendly hard rock across two records and smack into every cell of the listener’s being.

    Nugent’s three previous releases made him a force to be reckoned with, but the wild abandon captured by Double Live Gonzo turned him in to a mega-star so insanely luminous, he got his own pinball machine. On Double Live Gonzo, The Nuge pounds out definitive takes on his smashes “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Stranglehold” along with barnstormers such as “Stormtroopin’” and “Great White Buffalo.”

    Most amusingly, Uncle Ted intros a particular favorite by announcing: “Anybody wants to get mellow, you can turn around and get the f—k out outta here, alright! … This is a love song. I’d like to dedicate this song to all that Nashville pussy! This is a little love song called ’Wang Dang Sweet Poontang!’”

  8. At Budokan – Cheap Trick (1978)

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    “Surrender”

    Leaping out of a realm somewhere between Van Halen and the Beatles, Cheap Trick’s brilliant commingling of hard rock and power pop first caught on in Japan, thereby prompting Rockford, Illinois’ finest to hightail it to Tokyo for a series of sold-out performances. They came back with the material that would make up At Budokan, an immediate milestone that put the group on the pop charts and immortal cultural touchstone that will keep them deep in the hearts of rock fans forever.

    Alas, for all that, the record almost never happened. From Tokyo to You was the first version of At Budokan, a release intended only for the Japanese market. However, once the import sold 30,000 copies in the United States, it was expanded into the version that the whole world knows and loves today.

    Pop radio embraced Budokan’s first single “I Want You to Want Me,” while FM rock outlets favored the band’s heavy metal spin on Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” The record’s best-loved and now arguably best-known track never even got a proper release on its own, though: “Surrender” simply charmed fans from its opening introduction wherein singer Robin Zander announces, “This next song is the first song on our new album” to its closing sing-along of “We’re all alright! We’re all alright!” punctuating Cheap Trick’s theme song for TV’s That ’70s Show. Its irresistible message continues to hold true.

  9. Alive! – Kiss (1976)

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    “Deuce”

    Kiss would be dead without Alive! While touring nonstop in the early-to-mid-1970s and establishing themselves as rock’s most literally explosive live act, Kiss released three albums in a row—their self-titled debut, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill—that stiffed. Casablanca Records even came close to dropping the band.

    Salvation arrived with Alive!, an amalgam of Kiss performances from Detroit, Cleveland, Iowa, and New Jersey that magically caught the fun and majesty of Kiss in concert on four-sides of immediately bestselling vinyl.

    Alive! broke Kiss through to the biggest of all big times, and it’s been followed by the sequels Alive II (1977), Alive III (1993), Kiss Symphony: Alive IV (2003), Kiss Alive 35 (2008), and Kiss Alive: The Millennium Concert (recorded in 1999; released in 2006). More are sure to come. There is, of course, only one original.

  10. Live at Leeds – The Who (1970)

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    “My Generation”

    The case for the Who being the greatest live rock act of all time has been made repeatedly. It’s not just the testimony of those catch them in concert, it’s moments such as the Rolling Stones abandoning their 1968 Rock-and-Roll Circus TV special reportedly over their feeling that the Who blew them away and then, again, at the post-9/11 Concert for New York when the Who unquestioningly did best the Stones—and that was even without Keith Moon.

    The single greatest sample of evidence of the Who’s unrivaled excellence on stage, though, remains Live at Leeds. For forty-five years, this one perfect album has embodied and transmitted the furthest edges of hard rock’s most thunderous power.

    Recorded at the University of Leeds on February 14, 1970—just one day after the release of Black Sabbath’s heavy-metal-inventing debut—the original Live at Leeds LP combines volcanic takes on vintage Who nuggets (“Substitute,” “My Generation,” and “Magic Bus”) with go-for-the-throat covers (“Young Man Blues,” “Summertime Blues,” “Shakin’ All Over) played faster, harder, louder, and deeper than they’d ever previously existed on vinyl. That’s it and it’s truly something: after just six songs, rock was never again the same.

    Future releases of Live at Leeds on CD incorporate the show’s entire massive set, adding other Who classics (“Happy Jack,” “A Quick One While He’s Away”) and, in its entirety, the band’s 1967 rock opera Tommy. Even for those odd duck (and incorrect) naysayers who at first rejected Tommy as too strange or too pretentious or even too silly, the Live at Leeds take on the deaf, dumb, blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball hammers home the initial concept with the might of the gods: this Tommy is, in the most genuine sense of the term, operatic.

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).