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.
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.
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