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.

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