Some have called this the greatest live rock album ever, others say it’s the best album The Who ever released, so just what is it about Live At Leeds that makes it so legendary?
More gutsy than the Beatles, more artsy than the Stones, and with a greater appetite for destruction than either both on and off stage, Britain’s 3rd great band to come out of the 1960’s always walked a path that was resolutely, bloody-mindedly their own. They were posessed of a visceral kinetic energy that came from the combination of four very different, almost ill-fitting personalities being squeezed into one space and asked to co-operate. The result was an almighty and thunderous rock and roll noise, quite unlike any other to come out of England in that feted decade.
From the early days they gained a reputation as a band who liked to push their sound, using feedback and sheer volume wilfully. A review of their 1965 debut album My Generation talks about their “ferocious blend of grungy distortion, rumbling bass and percussion, and brutish vocals” and it’s a description that serves as a pretty neat summary of their sound. Their was nothing polite or restrained about the way they played, and nowhere was this more apparent than in their live shows.
And by 1970 The Who were a live act pretty much without peer. Even the Stones, who had returned to the stage after a 3-year hiatus the previous Autumn to enormous acclaim, couldn’t match their fellow Londoners for sheer intensity. For evidence of this watch The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, where The Who’s performance blew the Stones away to the extent that they refused to release the film for many years after.
Put simply, they were a bristling and dynamic force of nature, and this is abundantly evident on Live At Leeds. Recorded on February 14th 1970 in the refectory at Leeds University, this is a document of a band hitting some kind of peak. All four members are in ferocious form: Roger Daltrey’s powerhouse tough-guy vocals, Pete Townsend wrestling feedback and power-chords from his guitar and consciously using the echo from the hall’s natural acoustics, John Entwistle thundering like a jet engine with his trademark lead-bass runs, and the relentless Keith Moon playing right on the edge and often threatening to fall right over it before somehow pulling himself back in. The accumulative effect is the sound of a band pushing both themselves and the audience towards somekind of rock n’ roll nirvana.
The previous summer they had wowed the acid-soaked audience at the legendary Woodstock Festival with a very similar set to the one played this night, in which the live version of their Tommy album was the centrepiece of the show. However, none of the tracks from that album would end up on Live At Leeds bar a reprise of ‘See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You’ during the 16-odd minute version of their signature song ‘My Generation’. Indeed, half the original release was made up of covers. Side one kicks off with their version of Mose Allison’s ‘Young Man Blues’, which had been a staple of their set since the mid-60’s, and after a deft performance of ‘Substitute’ they run through mighty takes on Johnny Kidd and the Pirates ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’. Completing the album is set-closer ‘Magic Bus’ which runs to nearly 8-minutes and ends with an almighty jam including Daltrey blowing a mean harmonica.
In it’s original 6-song form Live At Leeds can quite rightly to be known as one of, if not the greatest live album by any of the great rock acts of the era. In truth it represented a mere fraction of the set, and for many years fans must have wondered what happened to the rest of the tapes from that night. In 1995 they got at least some of the answers with a 14-track CD version, and then in 2001 they got the rest with a double disc release finally giving everyone the full set-list (albeit in slightly amended order) including the full, glorious live version of Tommy.
As if that wasn’t enough 2010 saw the release of a deluxe edition including the full performance from the next evening’s gig at Hull University, which had long been considered to be the superior performance of the two but which had been spoiled by technical glitches affecting the recording of Entwistles bass on the first 6 0r 7 songs. This was rectified by using his parts from the Leeds recording instead, seamlessly dropping them in.
For fans of The Who, and of rock music in general, these are indispensable albums. Sure, studio works like Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia are great records and all well worth your time, but the purest essence of The Who – and indeed, rock and roll itself – exists on Live At Leeds.