Saturday, 1 September 2007

Top 100 Albums - #68: Live At Leeds (1970)

Number 68 sees the entrance of The Who onto our chart, with Live At Leeds, widely considered the greatest live album of all time.After spending four years recording and touring, The Who finally cracked America with Tommy (1969), the first 'rock opera' about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes famous through playing pinball and starts his own religion to enlighten those of his generation. Having set the bar high in the studio, The Who spent the remainder of 1969 on a world tour, conducted almost as proof that The Who could still wow live audiences even with such ambitious and complicated material. But upon returning to England and going through the tapes of the live recordings, Pete Townshend was not satisfied to release any of them as or as part of a live album. So, on Valentine's Day, 1970, the band played at Leeds University Refectory and recorded the results in a mobile studio (a van parked down an empty street, to be precise).

Being the 1995 remaster, this version includes all the banter and gaps between songs phased out the original. So the first sound is that of the audience applauding, following by Keith Moon and John Entwistle tuning up. But all such matters aside, we kick off. The opening to 'Heaven And Hell' can only be described as blistering. Rick Wakeman likened it to a sledgehammer¹ - and he wasn't far off. From the first power chord to the beginning of Entwistle on vocals, you are flung backwards into your chair by about 3 feet, if you play it loud enough. Moon plays at his best, so quick that you can't keep up and yet so easy to comprehend. Sure, Entwistle is not the best vocalist - his rhotacism does become noticeable after round and round. On the other hand, we are treated to Townshend's glorious shredding, and the whole thing is just plain powerful.

Having started with a B-side, the band follow straight through into 'I Can't Explain', their first single as The Who. Released in 1964 at the height of the mod movement, here it is presented without the glossy production of the single. Roger Daltrey's voice is louder, angrier and a lot more powerful - a sure sign that he has started to find the voice needed to express Townshend's songs which the early singles lacked. Moon is completely let loose, hitting his crash cymbal and hammering down the tom-toms at every conceivable opportunity. It's quite faithful to the original, and yet it does this while sounding absolutely nothing like it.

The next two songs, 'Fortune Teller' by Benny Spellman and 'Tattoo' by Townshend, are segued together. 'Fortune Teller' is a little disjunctive. The pace and style of the song doesn't suit Daltrey's voice as much as it would Townshend's or even Entwistle's. The time signature change before the final verse is clumsy and the song itself is quite middle-of-the-road - so it's easy to see why The Rolling Stones covered it. 'Tattoo' is better because it shares the vocals out between Daltrey and Townshend according to range. It's also littered with the sense of humour characteristic of Entwistle's work, like 'Boris The Spider'. Just look at the third verse: My Dad beat me, 'cos mine said 'Mother'/ But my Mother naturally liked it, and beat my brother/ 'Cos his tattoo was of a lady in the nude/ And she throught that was mighty rude.

Mose Allison's 'Young Man Blues' became a fixture of The Who's live setlist up to Quadrophenia (1973), partially thanks to this performance (for cultists, a different version exists on the deluxe version of Who's Next (1971)). Here we see Keith Moon in riotous form, both with his drumming and his banter on-stage with Townshend. The song is an ideal showcase for Daltrey's bluster, and the opening sees the perfect combination of Townshend and Entwistle in question-and-answer riffs, which come out beautifully in stereo.

Following this, we are treated to three of The Who's best known singles. In introducing them, Townshend is nicely self-deprecating about their performance in the charts - The Who are probably the most successful band never to have had a No. 1 single. Although a truncated version, 'Substitute' benefits greatly from the turned-up bass, and Townshend's guitar sounds much brighter than the jangly mod version released as a single. 'Happy Jack', taken from A Quick One (1966), is too kooky and strange to pass muster live, and the audience all seem to agree. And 'I'm A Boy' works just as well live as on record, even if on this occassion Townshend seems a little stretched or nasal for many's liking.

The next 'song' is the strangest article on the album. 'A Quick One, While He's Away', again from A Quick One, is a mini-rock opera about a girl guide being seduced by an old engine driver - as Townshend describes it, "it's one of those social comment... things." This begins well, as Townshend speaks to the audience and Moon interjects your expectation rise by their reactions. But then the bubble bursts, first as the band go barbershop and then venture into the convoluted sequence of songs. Townshend's other attempts at rock opera - Tommy, Quadrophenia and Wire and Glass, which takes up the second half of Endless Wire (2006) - are given room to develop and evolve, producing magic. This is squashed and compressed beyond recognition; the fact that Pete has to explain the story to the crowd before subjecting them to the mediocre music can hardly be a good sign.

We then jump forward quite a bit. 'Amazing Journey/ Sparks' is taken from a performance of Tommy in its near-entirely which came after 'A Quick One, While He's Away' (this can be found on the double disc deluxe edition from 2001). While this musical jump is more than obvious enough to annoy you, the quality of the performance - Moon especially - leaves you feeling much more well-disposed towards the track. Even those who aren't Tommy fans will agree that this stands well on its own. And at least it's somewhat in the right place - on the 2001 version, all the Tommy tracks are bunged onto a second disc, rather defeating the point of a live record.

'Summertime Blues' by Eddie Cochran is a great rocker to restore tempo after the relative introspection of Tommy. Entwistle is given a lot of room on this song, both on his bass and the supporting vocals. Daltrey is his usual brilliant, youthful self, playing off Keith so well as he would do on Who's Next. 'Shaking All Over' is another classic rock'n'roll song, which, if done by anyone else, would sound hopelessly passé. There is just something this version which redeems it. Maybe it's Daltrey's screeching delivery, maybe it's Moon's powerful drumming, maybe it's the interplay between Townshend and Entwistle - who knows?

Who fans who prefer their output from the 1970s may choose to skip over 'My Generation'. But even those who are tired of that anthem should give this a second look. Clocking in at 14:52, this is not simply an extended version of the song like 'I Can't Explain' was - now that would be a turn-off. Instead, this is a medley of sorts. After a great version of a great anthem ends at 1:47, we are treated to some aggressive instrumentalism before plunging into the 'See Me, Feel Me' section from 'We're Not Gonna Take It' (Tommy). Then 'Naked Eye', followed by random improvising over riffs from 'Overture' and what sounds like an early version of 'Relay'. It's a labyrinth of leitmotifs and half-songs which takes time and patience to unravel, but it's worth it.

The album, if not the concert, finishes with 'Magic Bus'. Taken from the live album of the same time - released in 1968 - this is a much better version. The slightly kooky percussion is still there, but it sounds more well-rounded live. Townshend's echoey guitar is glorious over Moon's efforts and Daltrey is in much better shape. It is fair to assume that Entwistle was not happy here - he always complained of playing this song because it only featured one or two chords (while he preferred half a dozen a second). For the keen listener, listen to Moon's ending on the drums - it's uncanny similar to that of 'Rock And Roll' off Led Zeppelin IV (1971) - QED...

Live albums are always difficult to judge, especially against the rest of a band's repertoire. With The Who, it's reputation precedes it even more by the members' admission that they could never capture their live energy on record, at least not completely. As it stands, Live At Leeds is a fascinating record, a time capsule into a band in its prime between two of the most original albums in rock history. It's not just an album, it's an historical reference point, the dawn of the age of rock music for real after the end of the hippie movement which had prolongued psychedelic music long after its death. The only problems with Live At Leeds are that, as a fan, it features too many covers (the original 6-track version had only 3 originals on it) and it focusses too much on the singles which, when compared to subsequent output, don't justify The Who's reputation as fully as it might have been. Nonetheless, it's a marvellous record to have which, even after 37 years, still has that sledgehammer power.

3.79 out of 5

¹ 'The Who Live At Leeds 2 - BBC Look North', Accessed on September 3 2007.

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