‘Live At Leeds’ captures the power of The Who at its peak

Two years later, the band that once counted itself lucky to sell a few thousand copies of its latest album in America was on course to celebrate the first few million, and “Tommy” was already a legend.

He may also have felt like an albatross of sorts, hence the band’s decision to omit almost any mention of it from “Live at Leeds.” But still, the success of the world’s first-ever, double-album rock opera afforded The Who the opportunity to play some of the finest venues available to a rock band at the time, to some of the most appreciative audiences. It was as if onlookers were already so stunned by the sheer magnitude of what The Who had accomplished on vinyl that the band could take any liberty it wanted. So it did, by turning in nightly performances that so transcended any other artist’s ideal of stagecraft that even same-year recordings of the Stones — whose own American tour narrowly overlapped The Who’s — sound primitive by comparison.

Any of these tapes are representative, and all deliver one glorious guarantee: a brutal battering for any ears unaccustomed to the sheer oomph of the post-“Tommy” Who, and a sonic treat that will leave converts drooling from every orifice. One bootleg in particular, “Autumn 1969 Acetates,” collects together no less than 14 soundboard recordings from the band’s October/November 1969 tour, all of which have one thing in common — nobody seems to know precisely where or when they were recorded. Think of it as the other side of “Live At Leeds” … “Live At God-Knows-Where.”

Its anonymity only spreads across the source, however. A loosely imperfect “Fortune Teller” gets things under way; “Summertime Blues,” “Shaking All Over,” “My Generation” … you know the song list even before you play it, and the fact that it doesn’t follow the usual pattern of a period Who gig is just one more thing in its favor. “Heaven and Hell” falling five songs in? Why not?

There’s a teasing “Tattoo”… a delightfully clunky “I Can’t Explain,” and another that sounds almost heavy metallic. There are two more versions of “Fortune Teller” and three triumphant roars through “Young Man Blues.” Slice out the duplication and this would be a wonderful album, and the absence of “Tommy” almost allows you to wipe its poisonous existence from your mind for a while. This is the sound of The Who as it really was, a rock ’n’ roll band that remembered what the “’n” originally stood for. No nonsense. It is no surprise that many of these same songs proved highlights of “Live At Leeds.”
“What hits you when you listen to it,” Townshend marveled, “is you realize how much you need to see The Who.”

“Live at Leeds,” in its original vinyl form, carried just six tracks — covers of the old blues and rockers “Young Man Blues,” “Summertime Blues” and
“Shaking All Over,” a reasonably faithful rendition of the five-year-old “Substitute,” a seven-minute “Magic Bus” that still came in at under half the length it sometimes stretched out to, and a marathon “My Generation” that medleyed a few elements from Tommy and beyond — Townshend frequently worked through fresh song ideas on stage, incorporating them into other songs, and at least one of the ideas floating through this performance would later emerge as “Naked Eye.”

Of course, this was just a small portion of the full performance — which was finally released on CD in 1995 as a two-CD deluxe edition. Here, “Tommy” does parade in all of his glory, with the band now so tightly rehearsed that many fans prefer the live version to the studio incarnation. But we also get a full hits show as well, as the band kicks off with its traditional opener, John Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell,” and then drives on through three further hits (“I Can’t Explain,” “Happy Jack” and “I’m A Boy”), the rock-operatic title track from 1966’s “A Quick One” LP, “Tattoo” (from “Who Sell Out”) and another favored oldie, “Fortune Teller” — a song, wryly enough that is among the highlights of The Stones’ first live album.

Unwilling to take any chances with the technology of the day, The Who took the mobile studio along to the following night’s gig in Hull as well, and recorded that set in its entirety, too. But they need not have worried. There were a few minor flaws with the Leeds show, but nothing that damaged the overall mood of the show, and when the band took the tapes into the studio shortly after, even they were surprised at how little extra work the tapes required. According to Entwistle, “the only thing we added was a nit of tape delay. It sounded too clean for a live recording!”

The speed with which the album was rushed out — recorded in February, on sale by May — is another reminder of the ever-present fear of bootlegs at that time. But if anybody thought the band might be scrimping on costs with the minimalist irony of the bootleg-baiting artwork (even the record label appeared handwritten), the packaging itself was in fact exceptionally generous. And exceptionally baffling for subsequent generations.

Barely a month goes by in Goldmine’s Sound Advice mailbag without another lucky reader writing to request the value of the exceedingly rare Who memorabilia they discovered in a discarded record collection. And before the letter has even been read, there’s no doubting what these treasures will include: “the original handwritten lyrics to the ‘Listening to You’ chorus from Tommy” … “a receipt for smoke bombs” … “a rejection letter from EMI”… these, together with a “My Generation” era photograph and the legendary “Maximum R&B” live poster were all painstakingly reproduced for inclusion in the Live at Leeds package – just as The Who Live at Leeds is a painstaking reproduction of one of the most exhilarating nights in rock history.


For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store:
• Buy the brand new edition of “Goldmine Standard Catalog of American Records 1948-1991, 7th Edition”

• Get the new John Lennon book: “John Lennon: Life is What Happens, Music, Memories & Memorabilia”

Get the closest thing to the full Woodstock experience with the book “Woodstock Peace, Music & Memories.”

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