FLASHBACK: THE WHO’S LIVE AT LEEDS

Four years ago today, I posted my review of Live At Leeds by The Who on Amazon.com. Two-and-a-half years before writing the review, I had been listening to the CD non-stop. Around that exact same time, I had started seeing LeAnne Martin, who would – about four-and-a-half years later – become LeAnne Martin-Maddux.

Is there anything more romantic to tell your wife than, “Honey, I think of you every time I listen to The Who’s first live album”?

By the way, I don’t know if the images in the videos are actually from the Leeds show. However, the songs sound exactly as they do on the album. And you may click on the hyperlinks throughout the piece to read my reviews of other albums by The Who.

A Valentine’s Day gift to all rock ‘n roll fans

The Who’s Live At Leeds, recorded on February 14, 1970, is unquestionably deserving of its reputation as one of the greatest live recordings in rock ‘n roll. One should put aside whatever reservations he or she might have about live albums and embrace it in all of its bombastic glory.

As rightfully skeptical, however, as one should be of a live album as an introduction to a band, Live At Leeds might be the best disc in The Who’s catalog to serve as such. True, more succinct and more comprehensive compilations are available, but Live At Leeds – released the year prior to the masterpiece Who’s Next and the compilation Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy – is a superb brew of hits, covers, and epics. Plus, at the time the album was recorded, The Who had one foot on either side of the dividing line between their early R&B-influenced pop songs and the ambitious, larger-canvas rockers of the late 60s and early 70s.

The first of the hits on the album is “I Can’t Explain,” which (although it isn’t here) was and continues to this day to be the opening number to almost every Who concert. About halfway through the CD’s set list come what Pete Townshend calls “three selected hit singles…the three easiest”: “Substitute,” “Happy Jack,” and “I’m A Boy”. They might be easy and simple, but they are also catchy, intelligent, and even – in the case of “I’m A Boy” – a bit risqué. Each of these songs is presented in a no-frills fashion.

Two epics follow on the heels of these less-than-three minute pop songs. On their second LP, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” was impressive but brittle. In this live setting, it is pumped up significantly. The spectacular “Amazing Journey/Sparks,” from their 1969 LP Tommy, is arguably the highlight of the set. The whole of Tommy was played at the original Leeds concert, and is available on disc 2 of the 2001 deluxe edition of Live At Leeds. The Who was wise to select this one particular track for the expanded 1995 remastered version.

Two other classic hits are given mammoth treatment at the end of the show. “My Generation” runs for almost fifteen minutes, and is interspersed with lyrical and musical references to songs from Tommy (including some riffs that had originally appeared in “Rael I” from The Who Sell Out). I have never personally cared much for “Magic Bus,” which runs for nearly eight minutes. However, it was definitely a crowd pleaser, and the band did a fine job of mixing it up here.

Finally, the band revisits its roots with four covers throughout the disc. These are the obscure blues numbers “Fortune Teller” and “Young Man Blues” and the rock `n roll classics “Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over”. The Who made the former two tracks very much their own, but the latter two feel a bit perfunctory and surprisingly uninspired.

Several better-known songs – such as “The Kids Are Alright,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and “Pictures of Lily” – were not performed at the Leeds concert. However, they are not that noticeably absent on the disc. The Who wisely treated Live At Leeds as an opportunity to present themselves in not-so-obvious ways. John Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell,” the opening number, was never included in a studio version on a Who album. The Who Sell Out – the band’s first great album – is represented not by the ornate hit single “I Can See for Miles,” but by the poignant “Tattoo”. As mentioned before, Tommy is represented by “Amazing Journey/Sparks” rather than by the classic “Pinball Wizard.”

The greatest thing about The Who in a live setting is that each member played as if he were the only one on stage. John Entwistle and Keith Moon don’t just keep the beat, they rise above the surface of the songs. Pete Townshend was never quite the soloist that his contemporaries were, but given the chance to spread out, he proved himself to be at least as good of a riffer and every bit as inspired as his fellow axemen. Roger Daltrey literally and figuratively speaks for himself, especially on “Young Man Blues,” which might be his finest performance of the show.

Live At Leeds was pretty much by accident the first Who concert made available to record buyers. The band had done an extensive tour in support of Tommy, and planned to release a live album afterward. Townshend balked at the idea of listening to and sifting through all of the shows, so he scheduled two dates to be recorded specifically for a live album. When the mics failed to record John Entwistle’s bass at Hull City Hall on February 15, the concert at Leeds University became the show for the live LP by default. However great any of the shows might have been, it is hard to imagine them being as good as or better than the one at Leeds. Whatever the case might have been, rock fans of every generation are lucky to have at least one of them preserved for prosperity.

Advertisements

AMAZON FLASHBACK: ALL MOD CONS BY THE JAM

This is my Amazon.com review from November 15, 2006. Perhaps I should have said in the third paragraph that the cover of The Kinks song “David Watts” was an indication that Paul Weller’s main influence was shifting from Pete Townshend to Ray Davies. After all, the influence of The Who is still pretty evident on this album. Otherwise, I am pretty happy with this review, and a couple people have made some nice comments about it on Amazon.

I have always been a bit bothered by the fact that 1978’s All Mod Cons is considered by many to be The Jam’s best record. If nothing else, this misjudgement steals the thunder of their actual best record, 1979’s Setting Sons (click for my Amazon review). AMC is simply not consistently impressive enough to qualify for this distinction. Granted, it was the record that sprung the band back to life after the critically and commercially lackluster This Is the Modern World. Thus, it allowed them to secure a legacy with even greater follow-ups. So while I agree that AMC was the most important album of The Jam’s career, it only consistently pretty to really good, and indisputably great in only one case.

The trio of songs that open All Mod Cons includes the vitriolic title track, with verses that stumble over themselves as the guitar, bass, and drums stomp along in unison. “To Be Someone” seamlessly goes from dreams of stardom, to its realization (including guitar-shaped pools and cocaine), to its disappearance, all in the course of 2-1/2 minutes: “And the bread I spend is like my fame – its quickly diminished.” Thankfully, Jam leader Paul Weller doesn’t sound the least bit glib until “Mr. Clean,” one of the weakest spots on the record. It’s not that great of a song to begin with, but it is also unjustifiably venomous toward the square community. (Not everyone can be a cool, rich, devil-may-care rock star like you, Paul.)

The record picks up slowly but very surely after this. “David Watts,” sung by bassist Bruce Foxton, is too faithful to the original version to be any sort of revelation, but it is enjoyable for the very same reason. It is also a subtle indication that Weller’s main influence for the time being would be Ray Davies, not Pete Townshend.

Still, the jaunty pop tune “It’s Too Bad” – also a very enjoyable but not revelatory song – sounds like a re-write of The Who’s “So Sad About Us,” which The Jam also covered.

In fact, the more you get to know The Jam, implicit and explicit homages to The Who abound. For example, not only did The Jam cover a few Who songs, they also covered songs that The Who themselves covered, like “Heat Wave” and “Batman.”

Weller also tosses in a few beautiful and affecting acoustic love songs, “English Rose”  – the original name and inspiration for the band that would become The Stone Roses – and “Fly”. Finally, there is the impassioned manifesto “In The Crowd”, which is part of Weller’s live show to this day, the punky “Billy Hunt”, and the Clash-y, staccato “A-Bomb in Wardour Street.”

AMC closes with a mini-mini-opera, the frightening hate crime tale “Down In the Tube Station at Midnight.” This is one of Weller’s two or three finest songwriting moments. His conviction is genuine, the music is sparse but rock solid (with Foxton’s bass mimicing menacing footsteps), and the lyrical imagery is vivid from start to finish, with brilliant lyrics like “They smelt of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right-wing meetings.”

Weller, showing a keen ability to read the news one day and recreate it in song the next, comes so completely into his own on this song that it squashes all claims that he was a Pete Townshend wannabe or a punk poseur, which were baseless to begin with. (But I must say that he sings with such force that his English accent, which is perfect for The Jam’s blend of punk/pop/mod-rock, might sound a bit unintelligible to American ears.)

The Jam’s All Mod Cons had to happen. As evidenced by their subsequent string of top 40 hits, including four #1s, they simply had too much great stuff in them for their career to be stillborn by a sophomore slump.

Weller’s lyrics on AMC were more trenchant than before, and he, Foxton, and drummer Rick Buckler benefited more than ever from being great players, which was more important to their sound than being great musicians. And even if Weller’s songwriting slips in a few spots (e.g., “Mr. Clean”, “The Place I Love”), one should keep in mind that he was barely 20 years old when the album was being recorded. All Mod Cons was where The Jam became great, but over the next few years, they would become even greater.

(The video above is the 36-minute DVD that is included with the 2006 deluxe edition of All Mod Cons.)

MY LIFE WAS FOREVER CHANGED BY LOVE

Nine years ago today (apparently), I posted the first of almost but not quite 100 CD reviews on Amazon.com. To commemorate that red-letter day in music criticism, here is that review, complete with what I am sure were ultimately ineffectual attempts to take The Beatles down a notch.

I remember that hot and sunny July 4th in the year 2002. Having read more than enough about how great this CD was, I headed up to Harvard Square early in the afternoon determined to buy this CD, which I had never heard a single note of. When I got home, put it in my CD player, and heard the gentle, tip-toeing opening notes of “Alone Again Or,” my life forever changed.

There is something way too beautiful about this CD. (Or, more correctly, there are too many beautiful things about this CD.) It sounds like nothing I had ever heard before or have heard since, and is, to the extent that such a thing can be ascertained, one of the greatest CDs ever recorded.

Released in 1967, Forever Changes has the general sound and feel of a hippie record. That is, it is easy to guess it was recorded in the late 60s. However, it is a bit too dark at times to have been written by hippies. The lyrics are often ominous and apocalyptic, eg, “And the water’s turned to blood, and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub” and “They’re locking me up today, they’re throwing away the key, I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me.” The clearest indictment of the hippie mentality, however, occurs on the first track, the impeccably beautiful “Alone Again Or”: “Yeah, I heard a funny thing/Somebody said to me/’You know that I could be in love/With almost everyone./I think that people are the greatest fun.’/And I will be alone again tonight my dear.” Note that the singer is quoting someone else in between the lyrics “You know” and “the greatest fun.” It is clear from the song that he is too in love with one particular person to be in love with everyone. And when Arthur Lee sings “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow,” he is clearly resigned to the fact that the scars of wars never heal, even after the wars themselves have ended. (So much for peace and love.)

“Alone Again Or” – written by the band’s guitarist, Bryan Maclean, who also wrote the gorgeous “Old Man” – is surely one of the greatest opening tracks on any CD. (If it is not enough to convince you that you are in for a real treat, go ahead and stop listening.) The opening notes of the song, though quiet and nonintrusive, sound soaring, and are enough to give a robot a spine-tingling sensation. The harmonies on the song are warm, embracing, and ever-so-slightly subdued (and put to shame some of the annoying harmonies found on Rubber Soul). The song’s strings underscore the song’s melancholy lyrics, while the trumpets – which get the solo – provide a musical accentuation of the aforementioned vocals.

While this song alone is worth the price of admission, the entire CD is a cup that runneth over. While soft and gentle – but at times ominous – acoustic riffs and arpeggios are sprinkled generously throughout, Love doesn’t forget the value and power of an electric guitar, as demonstrated on “A House is Not A Motel” and “Live and Let Live.” The brass and strings – on “Alone Again Or,” “Old Man,” “You Set the Scene,” and elsewhere – adorn each song in an unpretentious and unforced way that The Beatles could have only dreamed of when they made Sgt. Pepper.

The lyrics always sound emotional and sincere when sang in Arthur Lee’s fragile and ghostly voice, whether they are all-too-simple (“And you don’t know how much I love you”, “I feel shivers in my spine”), or slightly more profound (“Served my time/Served it well/You made my soul/A cell”, “There’s a man who can’t decide if he should fight for what his father thinks is right.”) Sometimes, alas, the lyrics are too obscure for their own good: “I feel real phoney when my name is Phil,” “I believe in magic, Why?/Because it is so quick,” and the classic “The snot has caked against my pants.”

But perhaps lyrics such as these just add to the eccentricity of the CD, as they always sound poetic and interesting. Only on a CD as strange and beautiful as this one would such lyrics be forgivable. And Love manages to deal with the overdone themes of popular music (unrequited love, uncontrollable lust, etc) in refreshingly unique ways on “Alone Again Or,” “Andmoreagain, “and “Bummer in the Summer.”

The only problem that I have ever had with this CD is the first two tracks are so powerful that they threatened to overwhelm the entire disc, and I sometimes had trouble moving beyond them. And while “Alone Again Or” will always be one of my all-time favorite songs, I have since learned the folly of my ways.

I would like to say that anyone with an ear for great music will like this CD. However, any record that is as unique as this one is bound to not sit well with some people, and that I can forgive that. It does not spoonfeed it virtues to the listener the way punk or power pop does. Its appeal is simply not obvious enough to be widespread. One will either sink into this CD as if it were quicksand, or it will just sound too unexpected to be likable. It is, whether you like it or not, one of the greatest masterpieces of popular music, even if it isn’t right up there with The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975 or Michael Jackson’s Thriller in terms of sales. And don’t let the constant references to minor-key acoustic guitars and apocalyptic lyrics scare you. This CD has always made me feel like I was sitting atop a mountain on a sunny day in California, even though I had never been there until eight months after I bought it. Having been there since, Forever Changes always takes me right back.

(PS – The remastered edition with seven bonus tracks – including alternate takes and 3 songs that did not apprear on the original record – is the one to get, and is well worth whatever extra money you will spend on it. And I recently saw Arthur Lee perform live with a new band in Boston. The whole of Forever Changes was played, along with at least a half-dozen other Love nuggets. I met him and got his autograph after the show. I am a happier person nowadays. – blakeus13@hotmail.com)

Yes, that is my slightly hairier head singing along with Arthur Lee at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. Lee knelt down in front of me when he realized that I was singing along with every word of “Old Man.” (Photo courtesy of love.torbenskott.dk.)

Me again, looking on in awe when Arthur Lee climbed down from the stage and into the crowd. (Photo courtesy of love.torbenskott.dk.)