By Dave Thompson
From the moment it was released, in May 1970, The Who’s “Live At Leeds” has grown accustomed to being described as one of, if not the, greatest rock live albums ever released. Of course, it did not have much competition in those early days. The only other album that has ever genuinely challenged it for that title, the Rolling Stones’ “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out,” would not be released for another four months, and the only other contender on the racks that year was John and Yoko’s “Live Peace In Toronto” — an album that fiercely divided listeners by the simple expedient of itself being divided between Lennon’s rock and Ono’s more abstract performance.
Before that, such noble contract fillers as The Kinks’ “Live at Kelvin Hall” and another Stones’ set, 1966’s “Got Live If You Want It,” were as much documents of fans’ hysteria as they were attempts to capture a great band in concert. If “Live At Leeds” had any competition for whatever lofty titles the critics wanted to confer upon it, then, it came from within the murky world of bootlegging — a point that the band itself conceded with their choice of ultra-minimalist artwork. (Be sure to turn to page 36 for more about bootlegs.)
“I’d been planning a live album for ages,” Pete Townshend said at the time. “We recorded all the shows on the last American tour thinking that would be where we would get the best material. When we got back [to London] we had 80 hours of tape, and, well, we couldn’t sort that lot out, so we booked the Pye Mobile Studio and took it to Leeds …”
The gig preserved on “Live at Leeds” was, in fact, the opening night of The Who’s latest U.K. tour, itself undertaken just six months after its last British journey (as highlighted by their filmed performance at the Isle of Wight festival). But it followed on, too, from a solid five-week scouring of the United States that took them through until mid-November, and five further performances around the U.K., airing the band’s most recent album, the rock opera Tommy, in its entirety.
Footage of one of these shows, shot at the Coliseum Theatre in London, was released on DVD a couple of years back, and captures the band in seething form, as, indeed, does the wealth of tape that was preserved from the American shows that preceded it. The Who’s own recordings of the U.S. gigs apparently were destroyed to try and halt further bootlegs from emerging. But that has not prevented at least a few songs from almost every night on the tour from surviving, to allow the conscientious collector endless opportunity to experience The Who at the very top of its game.
It was not a position that surprised The Who; it was what they had been working toward for the past two years, ever since they tired of being regarded as a novelty-strewn, hit-single machine, and decided to weigh in on heavier matters, instead. The Who toured constantly throughout 1967 and 1968 and were swiftly rewarded when the band topped the Rock ’n’ Roll Group of the Year poll in the newly established voice of the American underground, Rolling Stone. Townshend, although painfully aware that such polls were no more indicative of artistic success than a hit single, celebrated the victory in loud style.
“We’ve found in America that we’ve accomplished in a short time what it took us three years to do in England. [There] it wasn’t just automatic success. We didn’t bring out a hit record and suddenly make it.”
In America, however, “we are regarded as part of the British underground. We were not that easily obtainable, we and our records became exclusive, and everyone wanted to know more.” Bolstered by the Rolling Stone award; inspired, too, by the band’s last single, “I Can See For Miles,” cracking the U.S. Top 10, Townshend determined that The Who’s future now lay in the United States. Because the British scene is so much smaller than its American counterpart, Townshend knew the opportunities for success were proportionately greater. The British artist “stands to gain less if he makes it, but he stands a good chance of making it if he is good.
“No matter how good he is, though, the British scene cannot sustain him forever. We have too much talent and not enough audience.” On another occasion he openly confessed, “The English scene for us, unfortunately, doesn’t compare with America. The States offer us more money, fans and excitement.”
Still, it was an enormous gamble. The annals of British pop are lousy with the corpses of bands who, having reached the top of the tree at home, turned their back on the motherland and set out to crack America. T Rex, Slade, The Sweet and The Bay City Rollers are all acts whose British success seemed irrevocable, until they defected. And while The Who did not have those examples to learn from — rather, those groups took their own impetus from the ease with which The Who broke the USA — they nevertheless appreciated the risks they were taking.
But it was worth it. “We have regarded success in the States as being far more important to us than any other English group,” Townshend confessed. Not for the money, or the girls, or any of the other trappings of fame. What Townshend thirsted for, again, was intellectual acceptance. And he aimed to get it on any terms he could.
In the past, he had bemoaned the music industry’s reliance on crass marketing techniques, and the way in which artistic worth could be measured only in terms of sales. “Whoever put Beethoven under contract?” he once demanded. “Prince Charming may have asked him to do this or that, but there was none of this ‘six records a year’.” Now, however, he was embracing these demands, to the point where the title of the band’s last album, once simply a self-deprecating pun, now appeared a shockingly accurate description of the band’s state of mind. The Who were going to “Sell Out.”
And they were going to do it with something that no other rock artists had ever even dreamed of. A little deaf, dumb and blind boy who would, contrarily, transform The Who into an all-seeing, all-hearing mouthpiece for a generation.