Pros: It's all good.
Cons: Nah . . .
Ever wish you could time travel?
Wouldnt it be stunning to see the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or D-Day, or the people building Stonehenge, or Antietam, or Waterloo, or The Who in their prime playing a show?
Okay, so the last one on the list doesnt exactly fit with other historical events of enormous import. But even so, British rockers The Who earned a solid reputation as an amazing live act. In fact, drummer Keith Moon once quipped that the Who
[didnt] make particularly good records. . . . We are difficult to record because we dont work any different in the studio to on stage. Drumsticks are in the air when they should be on drums and arms are flying when they should be on guitar. In the studio you should be session musicians, but we are not experienced enough at getting the dynamic sound on record without leaping about. We record clumsily and as loud as possible, so you just a hear a long, drawn out row which is old fashioned. Its much the same on stage. *
Picture the scene: vocalist Roger Daltrey flying about the stage in those fringes and 70s rock god hair, guitarist Pete Townshend leaping and whirling (and dont forget the guitar windmills), a frenetic Keith Moon behind the drum kit, and the stoic bassist John Entwhistle casually playing his fat bass lines to hold up the backbone of the sound. We get this in sonic form on the fabulous Live at Leeds, originally released in 1970 and remastered in 1995. A sort of interim release between the renowned and praised Tommy rock opera and their masterpiece Whos Next, Live at Leeds provides a stellar recording of the bands power on the stage. This look at The Who showed a newly confident vocalist Daltrey, whose vocal abilities had improved by leaps and bounds with performing the entire Tommy suite live. Pete, on top of his stellar riffing and writing, provides key, smooth vocals to complement Rogers slightly rougher voice. The Ox, John Entwhistle, lays down splendid bass lines; I love how he played the bass like a lead instrument. And who could forget the drumming genius of Moon the Loon? The guy was a nut, but he was unfairly talented (ha) and his quips between songs give the band a friendly degree of familiarity and human-ness. Live at Leeds showcases a band in their prime, a band on the verge of something huge.
A tight, together version of the Entwhistle composition Heaven and Hell kicks off the set. Entwhistle provides not only a fat, full bass line, but offers his voice as well; when he, Roger, and Pete harmonize, the result is an aural eclair. Apparently, the band never did record this songa satirical and serious look at moralityin the studio to their satisfaction, but released a studio version as a b-side on the Summertime Blues single. This tune benefits from the rawness of a live setting, and not once does the band falter or fall out of rhythm. By this point, The Who were stage veterans and knew how to feed off one another. A rendition of I Cant Explain, their first single with a Kinks-like vibe, follows. Pete and John execute the high harmonies perfectly as Roger carries the main vocal line while Keith sounds like hes hitting every drum head in his kit. How did he do that?! The choppy main riff echoes for a sweet loopy feeling, and the song hits on all elements of Sixties Who. Pete throws down a brief solo or two in between vocal bits, resulting in an enormously solid performance.
Roger then takes the microphone to speak to the audience, providing the intro for the next few songs; he sounds so excited to be up there, which is a nice switch from bands who act like playing on stage is a chore. The rest of the band throws in quips, as Roger lists off bands and artists who have performed Fortune Teller; right after he says, and Wayne Fontana, he did it, Keith hollers, and Felix the Cat. Thats the most important version. He was so random, which was probably why people loved him. The band charges through this medium-paced old-school R&B tune (The Who did call their act Maximum R&B), before taking the song into a full-fledged, fast rock tune, which really makes the song uniquely Who. It segues perfectly into the tongue-in-cheek Tattoo, where Roger and Pete cheekily trade lines about how tattoos apparently make men manly men:
My dad beat me because mine said Mother
But my mother naturally liked it and beat my brother
Because his tattoo was of a lady in the nude
And she thought that was extremely rude . . .
After more stage banter, the band launches into an amazing version of Mose Allisons blues tune Young Man Blues. The syncopated rhythm and attack/counterattack style works perfectly for The Whos rather frenetic style. Tight and perfectly executed, Roger sounds spot-on--well, a young man, he aint got nothin in the world these days! Keith and John form a powerful backbone, playing the heck out of their respective instruments as Roger sings and yowls; Pete riffs away, soloing and almost playing off of his own distortion. The stop-start-stutter shows the bands tightness, as they reconnect sonically after each break and keep the rock and roll flowing steadily. Keiths spontaneous fills stun me every time I hear them; how did he play that fast? And that accurately? A trio of singles follows: the cheeky Substitute, one of Petes best lyrical works, the happy-go-lucky Happy Jack, and the disturbing but funny Im A Boy.
Substitute is only two minutes long in this live rendition, but it retains all of its cheeky charm and classic satire. Those fabulous lines about I look all white but my dad was black and I look bloody young but Im just back dated, yeah not only offer Petes tongue-in-cheek social commentary, but embody the dry humor of the Who as well. And, of course, the music is catchy, bouncy, and solid as always. Happy Jack took a while to catch my attention, but now that this sweet little nonsense ditty has me, I think Im stuck in its clutches of catchiness forevermore. The utter simplicity of it makes it a standout; the lilting riff and the singsong rhyme of the lyrics, combined with the thudding bass and pounding fills, endear this song to the listener in a unique way. Pete even throws in the I saw yer! yell at the end. And then weird Im a Boy, part of a Townshend story where a mother orders four girl babies and gets three girls and a boy, and she subsequently pretends the boy is a girl. Horrifying! as Pete so sagely said. Pete sounds fabulous with his higher singing, especially with the contrast to Rogers deeper singing.
The explanation preceding Petes first try at a rock opera, the eight minute A Quick One While Hes Away, makes for fabulous stage banter and crowd interaction, especially the way Pete and Keith play off one anothers quips. A six song sequence, A Quick One features Roger, John, and Pete sequencing their singing with exact synchronization and an excellent sense of timing. Im not sure if John or Pete sang all the falsetto bits, but oh my! That is some crazily high singingfor a guy, anyway. Combining several styles like campy country/western (The Blues Brothers, anyone? Or maybe not), lush harmonies, and even flavors of music hall playing, the band has an easy-going assurance about the way they execute, lending a feeling of professionalism and confidence to the recording. Amazing Journey/Sparks, part of the Tommy suite, demonstrate the bands synchronization once again as well as their immense abilities with their instruments. Roger sounds so confident and sure of his vocal abilities, as he should have. Pete works with the loud-soft dynamic in a gorgeous way, the Ox thunders away, and Keith Moon sounds immune to fatigue; this was The Who in their prime, and it ought not be forgotten. (An aside: is it just me, or does the beginning of Sparks sound like Foxy Lady by Jimi Hendrix?)
Summertime Blues, an Eddie Cochran cover, appears next; obviously, Cochran was a huge influence on Pete, because this song sounds like it could easily have been written by Pete. Then again, the Who had been playing this song since their early days, so it likely felt like one of their own by that point. Another cover, this time Shakin All Over (written by Johnny Kidd of The Pirates, contemporaries of early Who) shows Petes soloing prowesswhich is funbut I kind of wish they had substituted another song for this one. Not that its bad, its just not quite up to the caliber and standard of the rest of the disc. I do like the chugga-chugga beat, though. Luckily, an extended version of My Generation (extended to the tune of fourteen minutes from the original three) saves the day. Beginning with a spot-on performance of the title track, complete with the stutters, the song morphs into a revved version of See Me, Feel Me, one of my favorite tunes from the Tommy opera. Keith feeds off of John and Pete as they explore soloing potential; I dont know if they were improvising, but something tells me they played much of this instrumental middle section completely by ear. Roger periodically throws in some R&B yowls and shouts to compliment Petes Jimmy Page-esque soloing. Could it have been shortened? Well, sure, but this is loads of fun on its own.
And finally, one of the most overrated Who songs ever: Magic Bus. Thankfully, this song is way more exciting live than as a single. John was stuck in simple riff in A, and hated playing this song, but he makes the best of it here and improvises with his bass lines. Pete loved playing this tune, and at some points plays off of his own echoing (very cool). And cant you just imagine Keith sitting at his drum kit, smiling and grinning like an idiot, as he hits his little wooden block for the beginning beat? Roger brings out his harmonica here as well, showing he was actually quite good. I dont know if you can call them harmonica riffs, but whatever hes doing, he sounds fabulous.
The original setlist was longer than what is on Live at Leeds, so some tracks must have been rearranged and taken out of order; but whoever did the sequencing programmed the segues perfectly, because it sounds like the band played the show this way. Ive often heard people say Live at Leeds is the best live album, period; now that Ive heard it for myself, I believe them. And wish that I could have seen the Who live and in their prime.
Five stars for the oo.
*Originally published by Chris Smith in Union News, the Leeds University magazine on February 20, 1970. This quote from Keith, as well as the other band members, can be found on the final page of the liner notes for the remastered Live at Leeds--copyright 1995, MCA Records.
Great Music to Play While st-st-stuttering and practicing your windmill guitar move