By 1970 The Who had played Monterey, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, they had overcome their massive debts and made the step up from being a singles band to a fully fledged, album based rock leviathan. What they had not overcome (gladly for us) was the innate tensions between the four members. Entwistle and Moon had nearly constituted half of Led Zeppelin, Daltrey had found his voice in Tommy and Townshend fretted over where to take the band next. In the middle of this maelstrom of success and pain lies one truly great live record, Live at Leeds. Not recorded at the Hollywood Bowl or Madison Square Garden as was de rigour for the 70s rock cognoscenti but at the Leeds University refectory and released in a brown sleeve made to look like a bootleg this record swept away the pretentious over-reach of 1969’s double LP Tommy. Live at Leeds has all the power and glory of The Who in their prime; now beyond the three minute single recorded on the cheap but before the conceptual mire of Lifehouse and Quadrophenia. This is The Who at their most basic and most complex at the same time. Everyman and no-one.
The LP was originally released with 6 tracks, this was expanded to thirteen in ’95 and finally the full concert with complete Tommy section was released earlier this decade. What turned my head was the combination of power and tension along with great crowd interaction and a track-listing that made for a powerful and playful retrospective of the first 6 years of their career. They were and always will be much more interesting than their most obvious followers, who were very popular upon the original CD reissue, Oasis and Pearl Jam. All versions of the album open with the John Entwistle number ‘Heaven and Hell’ which gets everyone warmed up especially Keith Moon whose flamboyant drumming and background capering illuminates the whole set and never diminishes for a second. Next up is a mini-set of their best sixties singles, ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Tattoo’, ‘Substitute’, ‘Happy Jack’ and some choice covers which encompass most of their early influences.
The band speed through the gears at will supercharging their original pop opera, ‘A Quick One’ and blasting through two sharp, short renditions of live favourites ‘Summertime Blues’ and ‘Shakin’ All Over’ showing their enduring love of early rock n’ roll. To end this section Townshend leads the band through the elongated, improvisatory version of iconic single ‘My Generation’ which morphs into a hydra headed monster of fuck you lyrics, false ending and three instrumentalists soloing in unison. In a word its huge. Entwistle often dismissed ‘Magic Bus’ as eight minutes of B but his boredom isn’t shared as Pete shows off his chops here ably demonstrating why he should be held in the same regard as Page, Beck and Clapton. He riffs relentlessly, wrestling with feedback and channelling all that angst into a throwaway song elevating it into eight minutes of rock and roll ecstasy.
When you consider there’s a whole other disc dedicated to Tommy it seems like an hour too much but the energy of the first set is simply transferred into the album transforming the brittle and tinny studio recording of Tommy into an irrelevancy. The album simply works better live; connecting with the audience on a much more immediate and daresay it, spiritual level.
The band would go on releasing complex, honest records but in my opinion this was their finest two hours. Sweat drenched, brutish & tender and uncompromising: all hail Live at Leeds the greatest live rock and roll record there is.