Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

The Who Live At Leeds (1970)


I realize it’s a common place – calling Leeds the best live rock album, but hey, what can I do? It’s stronger than me… In case you’re not competent: The Who may have been the third best studio rock band ever, but they were certainly the best live rock band ever. At least, at the time when Leeds was released. The old version included only six songs, three of them covers. The recent remastered version adds a whole eight more, thus making it a much more efficient and finished product.

The effect you get from listening to this stuff is awesome. I mean, at first it sounds like a horrible cacophony; but after a couple of listens, when your ears grow used to the sound, you’ll slowly come to realize that the murky noise generated by the band is actually just a shield under which resides some masterful riffing, fantastically fluent bass lines, steady drumming and powerful singing. And the next stage is to recognize that the ‘murky noise’ actually helps produce such a magnificent effect on the listener; namely, if Townshend weren’t drenching all of his riffs and solos in that dirty distortion, loudness and quasi-chaos, the band would have hardly been any more interesting on stage than, say, Iron Butterfly.

Most of the songs on here are old hits, but I assure you they are very hard to recognize. ‘Happy Jack’? It isn’t a lightweight, bass-dominated pop ditty any more – it’s a powerful rock tune with a roaring guitar and Daltrey sounding as if he was singing ‘Rule, Britannia!’, not ‘Happy Jack wasn’t tall, but he was a man’. ‘I’m A Boy’? Where are those sissy backing vocals and soft guitar lines (not that I have anything against these in the studio version)? They are replaced by powerful windmills!

‘Sparks’? Oh, yeah, ‘Sparks’? Where’s that classical guitar strumming? No, no, be prepared for a monstrous assault on your eardrums, like a thousand wild rhinoceros! It’s hardly possible to think that that thunderstorm on stage was being created by just two guitars and a drumset, but it is so – no overdubs.

‘Magic Bus’? The former three-minute Bo Diddley-ish single has been transformed into an 8-minute theatrical piece with Roger and Pete bartering for the right to drive the magic dingus. And Pete’s riffing at the beginning of the track, when he duels with his own echo coming off the walls, is probably the best example of his amazing guitar technique on the album… maybe even in general. Meanwhile, John sticks to his simple bass riff, distorting it so far that he almost gives the impression of steadily, calmly drilling the stage. Listening to it intently in headphones drives you crazy.

‘My Generation’? Forget it! It’s a 15-minute suite, built on loads of driving riffs, some taken from Tommy, some probably invented right on the place! Oh, that Pete! He knows how to produce a carefully placed riff now and then. More important, he knows how to make a 15-minute improvisation really interesting: unlike Cream, he doesn’t just stick to a monotonous, occasionally boring solo, but instead leads the band into a set of different grooves, all built on these captivating riffs.

Some will sneer and say that he does that only because he simply cannot solo like Clapton, but that’s all right by me. He finds the perfect substitute. Not that he can’t solo at all, mind you: the few solos he plays are no slouch, either. The opening ‘Heaven And Hell’ (an apocalyptic tune written by Entwistle) should put Jimmy Page to shame, not because it’s more perfect technically, but because it really gets your blood pumping without being too self-indulgent and show-off-ey.

The best thing about this furious rock machine, however, are the three covers (the re-mastered version adds a fourth one, ‘Fortune Teller’, but for me it’s really a letdown: it starts off slowly and boringly, and even though it kicks off in the middle, it’s too late to get interested already. The Stones made it much more efficient, I’m forced to admit). Mose Allison’s ‘Young Man Blues’ is my favourite live number by the band (although I prefer the version on Kids): menacing sharp opening riffs, Roger’s famous vocal battle with Moon’s drums, and then the furious middle passage with Pete squeezing everything out of his Gibson. To me, this is what rock’n’roll was all about: fast, angry, uncompromising and intoxicating, with a good deal of teenage angst thrown in so that the fury and anger wouldn’t seem pointless or aimless.

Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ is also reshaped beyond recognition and also turned into a hard rock fiesta, this time with all the band on parade: Pete beating out that famous eight-note riff, Roger screaming out the lines about the kid who didn’t go to work, Keith crashing his cymbals as usual and John adding incredible bass runs and the deep-voiced ‘boss lines’.

Finally, the Pirates’ ‘Shakin’ All Over’ closes off the covers with Roger overdoing himself (who could have thought it was the same guy that whined James Brown’s ‘I Don’t Mind’ on their debut LP and roared the mighty ‘SHAKIN’ ALL OUUUUUVEEEEEEEER!’ on here?) and Pete having fun with a chaotic guitar solo.

Oh, I forgot one more thing. Remember what I said ’bout that ‘A Quick One’ mini-opera on their second LP? Well, it might have sounded feeble there, but this concert version redeems it totally. It’s been slightly shortened, some of the most stupid bits have been thrown out, the rest has been speeded up and tightened, and the result is eight minutes of pure fun, powerful guitar and great harmonies. Unfortunately, the mix does not do justice to the singing; for a truly unique live version of ‘A Quick One’ check out Kids again.

There is, however, a slight sense of uncertainty and tiredness beaming through the general excitement. You won’t be able to notice it if you haven’t heard any live stuff from 1969, but if you have, you’ll be able to notice that Pete’s playing is somewhat more ‘generic’ and less improvised than it used to be. Considering the fact that he ought to have been trying hard that evening (after all, they were recording it), this is even more foreboding. And if you read the interview given on that day (included in the booklet), you’ll see that the band certainly wasn’t on cloud nine at the time. Sad, but true: Leeds was at least several months late.

They were already beginning to exhale, and playing Tommy for the billionth time wasn’t much of a consolation, too. Oh well. ‘You can’t always get what you want’, as fellow Mick once said. At least we got Leeds! And now, come to think of it, we got that other one, too… just take a look forward…

March 6, 2013 - Posted by | The Who Live At Leeds |

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