The Who—
Live At Leeds

Released 1970 on Track/Decca/MCA
The Seth Man, November 2007ce
“Abandonment is the key to good Rock.” – Peter Townshend, August 1985


During the defining years of 1969-1971, The Who’s none-too secret life as the most consistently energetic live act in Rock dwarfed all their prior studio achievements. A turbulently creative period book-ended by Rock operas (“Tommy” and “Quadrophenia”) with an unresolved third in the centre (“Lifehouse”) would be fully represented by the stop-gap release of “Live At Leeds” -- a 37-minute in-the-red indication that The Who had more in mind, heart, body and soul than their previous compression-laden pop singles or recent libretto-sized storylines. For in concert The Who were unbeatable on a good night, fantastic on a great night and on February 14, 1970 at Leeds University landed a direct hit that was one of the all-time high points of live Rock performance, ever. Luckily, the Shepherd’s Bush demolition crew was captured in full flight that night in a display of overdriven, full blown, high energy Rock as only they could deliver. It’s the best live Rock album. Ever. Nik Cohn wrote that in his New York Times review of it when it was released in 1970 and nearly forty years on there are still NO non-Michigan contenders. It was unskilled labour as art form, frustration as release, a deadly serious piss take as subtle as a flying mallet that landed in your face, your ears and your head all at once and when it was over...well: you were already primed for more, so bring it on already.

Victor Premature

I was more than primed for “Live At Leeds” even before I ever heard it. It was the last Who album with Keith Moon I got to hear and I never owned them all simultaneously -- often falling prey to just scooping up yet another one of their umpteen European collections just for the live sleeve shots while avoiding their discography proper because it was too massive and convoluted to navigate. Over two full-length albums worth of non-LP sides and the latter-day MCA repackaged 2-fers of their first four albums in a set of generic black sleeves kept me wondering where to proceed after “Who’s Next” for months. Later on, a second wave of related tracks began to appear hither, thither and yon upon several film soundtracks, the Mike Heron solo album and a windfall of latter day compilations with indispensable stuff both live and studio. Taken together, it was a potentially expensive mess and being born a generation and a pond away from The Who’s roots made getting it all or even hearing it all next to impossible. So much so, I didn’t even know about the “Ready Steady Who” EP until the early eighties. After buying it, I discovered I already heard most of it on a French compilation I had scored five years earlier. At full import price (sob.)

I bridged both discography and transatlantic gaps by fitfully piecing together their development practically a single at a time, with a comprehensive understanding of the band arriving much, much later. Weirdly, it was only a couple of months ago I realised I had already ‘got’ The Who instinctively from the start: they were visceral, I was a teenager, it lit me up and all the meaning I really ever needed was in those experiences. However, for all the difficulties of getting my head around WHAT The WHO were and WHY they did what they did (as I already knew a lot of the WHEN and WHERE) their music was easily one of the more elevating aural odysseys of my teenaged years. Their output was just too inspired and varied not to. From the instrumental dementia of “Cobwebs And Strange” and “Dogs Part 2” to the lyrically sublime “The Song Is Over” (and therefore: “Pure And Easy”) it ran a full gamut loaded with so many quotable passages, riffs, lyrics, ideas, humour and insane flashpoints that its overall gravity and power touches the same level that it did during those years when I first heard it, located directly fore and aft the passing of Keith Moon.

During those years was a time when it seemed as though The Who were everywhere as anticipation reigned throughout my own personal teenage wasteland with the imminent release of Jeff Stein’s essential documentary, “The Kids Are Alright.” Prior to this, the only footage I’d ever seen of The Who or its members was when Keith Moon cut up a storm on one of the first televised American Music Awards to ceaseless waves of laughter from the glittery, industry-loaded audience. Moon’s remarks even had his podium-sharing hostess doubled over with laughter most unladylike and although not Olivia Newton-John, she was a lady of similar bearing which made it all even funnier. But this was nothing compared to experiencing the waggish Who percussionist in action (for he was rarely anything but) in “The Kids Are Alright” for the first time. Now this was funny AND a different kind of serious all at the same time. His ending pile-up during “Shout And Shimmy” from The Windsor Festival? Or the Shindig performance of “Can’t Explain” where he does those...‘drum rolls’? I don’t know WHAT they are or what you would call them. They are so unbelievably ON and quick that even now I watch them and rewind/play/rewind/play and still marvel at how human coordination can achieve...THAT. So quick, so even, so deftly anarchic and over before you know it. Then he goes and lets loose again like the maniacal, fourth dimensional surf drummer he most definitely was.

Live, The Who was a primeval combination of the four elements shaking out a sound only rivalled by a simultaneous occurrence of volcanic eruption, flood, forest fire and gale force wind with its origin the two intersecting angles of the aggressive one characterised by Townshend and Moon with the passive (OK, the SLIGHTLY LESS aggressive) one of Daltrey and Entwistle. The first pair were the prime destroyers of their own equipment, moved practically every second and for a player supposedly seated at his instrument, Moon was a blur of constant motion and a frenetic force onto himself. Townshend was the naked eye of the Who-icane, generating almost all their original material and unparalleled at channelling frustration through it with such an antagonistic edge that it all threatened to combust until it did (over and over) and then threatened to all over again. During the period from 1969-1971, Townshend embodied for most of the time both enlightenment and practical utility: clad entirely in a pre-“Clockwork Orange” white boiler suit and dark boots (which were put in umpteen times per gig) while wielding a Gibson SG Special that perpetually lived on borrowed time and was abused like the production-line, auto-destruct readymade it became only from the moment Townshend plugged it in.

This left Daltrey to swing his microphone lead in a strenuous fashion as though roping in some invisible Rock horse as he continually expanded the strength of his vocal range with each gig beyond that of maximum R&B. While these three agitated and stormed about, bass player John Entwistle was content to stand stage right, stock still, stationery, stone faced and seemingly playing a different bass every other gig while sporting gear no one in their right mind would dare wear -- much less want to. But for the one they called ‘The Ox’ it all fit like a glove cos perversity was his style and the waters of ‘the dark humour of the Ox’ ran as deep as the rhythm’n’blues’n’brandy in his veins (and he wasn’t ever gonna let on as to how deep) as he rattled off with spidery plectrum and melodic dexterity an unending series of resoundingly percussive bass lines more befitting of a hyperactive timpanist miked at the floor of the Grand Canyon through a circle of PAs ringing its full circumference from above.


Like all great Rock bands, The Who seemed more out to impress themselves and to top their own expectations than those of journalists, critics or fans. But a major turning point occurred in 1967 when Townshend’s hopes for “I Can See For Miles” to hit number one in the British charts were dashed when it only reached number 10. A newfound and spiritually-charged focus strengthened his resolve to pull out all the stops and do himself one better and the fruits of his labours were rewarded when the confirmation of a lifetime arrived eighteen months later in the form of the ambitious double album, “Tommy.” It was an art statement; pop music and Rock opera; high- and low-brow; spiritual yet grounded in earthbound experience all at once and came wrapped up in an amazing tri-fold sleeve and booklet. “Sensation,” a song off the album, hinted at a secondary theme of what lay behind and in front of the realm of human sensation. Which made sense, for although as early as “My Generation” when the band claimed that they didn’t wanna cause a big sensation, that’s exactly what their music was -- and was causing -- in all its eternally shambolic gusto. In fact, in an early interview, Townshend re-confirmed it in so many words: explaining what The Who did was just “musical sensationalism.”

Then again, The Who were their own worst critics. In “The Kids Are Alright,” Daltrey would say “The ‘orrible ‘Oo -- the worst rock’n’roll group in the world” and he was only half-joking. Notoriously self-deprecating of themselves, their music, position in the charts, the pop world and so on; they steered well clear of anything remotely smacking of self-importance or quality. In fact, the issue of quality spent a long time at the core of Townshend’s earliest artistic sensibilities (‘if you steer clear of quality, you’re alright’) and on a variety of levels as he summoned up a rebellion that was in deliberate opposition of its tenets as evidenced by their use of high volume, amplifier feedback, the destruction of instruments and the ‘Crackling noises O.K., do not correct!’ written on the label of “Live At Leeds” while the defiance in many of Townshend’s songs stood in deep relief to those of all other bands. Contradictorily, this characteristic of ‘anti-quality’ wound up elevating itself into an idiosyncratic strength whose consistency became The Who’s approach and method and was one about as incorrigible and volatile as the group themselves.

Underture (Loud As Hell)

Confronted with the task of sifting through an insurmountable stack of recordings made on The Who’s 1969 American tour for a projected live album, a beleaguered Townshend had them resigned to a bonfire and decided to start from scratch and re-record a series of upcoming Who performances in England. The recording of their gig in Hull was marred by malfunctioning equipment, I don’t know what happened in Cleethorpes but the gig at Leeds University was selected as the final choice. Out of a performance of over thirty songs, six were culled from the middle nine songs that preceded a near-complete run-through of “Tommy” along with the final four post-“Tommy” songs that ended the evening’s performance.

“Live At Leeds” was released in a utilitarian, production-line sleeve with the inside two gatefold pockets containing twelve facsimiles of Who-related documents (among them a receipt for a smoke generator, contracts, a notice of a 1965 gig cancellation at the Swindon Locarno, photos and a reproduction of the now highly iconic Marquee gig poster.) Doubling a bland and functional sleeve to mirror the non-aesthetic design of bootleg albums of the period, the aforementioned inserts were also the first instance of The Who casting a backwards glance on their even then lengthy history while its aural contents were a giant step forward in their sonic development and unlike anything The Who had previously committed to vinyl.

In 1995 and 2001, CD reissues of “Live At Leeds” expanded and then included the entire performance with only minor fixes applied: such as Entwistle’s missing vocal on the opening line of “Heaven And Hell,” the eradication of the post-production backwards guitar passage added to “Magic Bus” and finally banishing all crackling noises. Luckily, “Live At Leeds” is such a durable document that its flaws never distracted from the main event. As if they could, loud as hell. It’s a great listen loud as hell. And since it was performed loud as hell (being the dynamic of its original intent and delivery) I always listen to it loud as hell. I love how things happen at high volumes that don’t anywhere else (I said, I LOVE HOW THINGS HAPPEN AT HIGH VOLUMES THAT DON’T ANYWHERE ELSE.) Chris Charlesworth noted inside the 1995 remastered edition that at one point “Pete...appears to play against his own echo bouncing off the back of the hall.” Things happen differently at top volume because you get a different SENSATION from volume that is physical and mental. Namely: when it’s loud enough, it gets you on a physical level and it makes you mental. Makes you want to put the boot in with stinky socks. The level of overdriven sound carries with it a rich distortion and a bleeding of in-between tones that create a sound unlike those set at “proper” levels and these frequencies don’t exist anywhere else except on building sites, air force bases, nuclear testing grounds or Who concerts performed during the period of 1969-1971 (You know, the SG period.)

The original, six track “Live At Leeds” album was comprised of three Townshend originals (“Substitute,” “My Generation,” “Magic Bus”) three covers (Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues,” Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran, “Shakin’ All Over” by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates) but it all sounded like The Who. The first four songs that comprise side one (“Young Man Blues,” “Substitute,” “Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over”) are such a blinding flash that they nearly operate as a single track. It’s a series of short, sharp shocks that jolt the senses until they end -- then begin the process all over again when they recommence for “Young Man Substitute Blues All Over” is The Who kicking it out at top velocity, volume and power. Detailing each song in full is ludicrous. Writing about them is ludicrous. Oh, how I wish I was listening to it instead of writing about it. Or just had a printout of my heart rate and describe it with that. How do YOU define a raging force of nature without sounding like a fucking weatherman reporting on four concurrent acts of nature raging out of control as your face gets beaten to three shades of shit from wind, rain, magma and falling rocks as you do so? I suppose you can only try, but with The Who it’s pretty impossible. That might be why there aren’t reams written about “Live At Leeds”: It’s difficult to concentrate on anything else when you’re in its zone, let alone making sense of notes scribbled when you are. Like: ‘Iommi as fuck SG solo,’ ‘cymbals like seagulls wheeling over the churning storm pounding rocky shoreline below,’ ‘Loud as hell!,’ ‘the heavy part (#8),’ ‘feedback O.K. -- was not corrected.’ But I can testify that this side is high gear, tempestuous Rock music with total balls. Sheer fuck balls.

Side two kicks in with the penultimate song of the evening’s set, “My Generation.” A run-on compilation played at full blast and jammed full of whatever remaining pent-up feelings of frustration and aggression still lingered inside the four members after playing one full set plus “Tommy” nearly in its entirety. One of the longer recorded versions of the famous Who anthem known to exist, it’s interesting to see how the band stretch out then snap back at attention immediately throughout its 14 minute duration. There are few songs I’ve listened to at top level as consistently as this one, except for “Symptom Of The Universe” and “The Song Remains The Same.” When it starts, it always seems I always have to adjust the volume because it never seems to be quite loud enough. And when it’s over, I’m so drained yet imbued with so much life, I usually just skip “Magic Bus” and either run around looking for something to break, burn off the remaining adrenaline coursing through my body before something gets broken, crouch huddled in the quietest corner of the house to wait for my heart to stop pounding in my throat or just sit there stunned until I just take it back to the top and listen to it all over again. Loud as hell.

This suite of noise wends its supercharged way into the valley of the shadow of Hiwatt through improvisations, passages from “Tommy” with linking instrumentals and cascading crescendos. The Canadian pressing detailed on the record label its seven separate sub-parts within: “My Generation;” “See Me, Feel Me (We're Not Gonna Take It);” “Higher;” “Overbridge,” “Coming Out To Get You;” “Underture” and “Driving Four.” Once “My Generation” proper recedes and the improvisation takes over, it becomes a rollercoaster ride over the highest peaks to the lowest of valleys. Several times Townshend will take his feedback-edged, slash-and-burn power chords with the group down to peruse a gentle mountain stream of a riff alone, and always it’s as if to signal of a calm-before-the-storm before the imminent blaring reentry of the rest of the group. Crescendo after crescendo enter and fall away until the final one that ends “Underture” (a.ka. “Sparks”) makes you think that it's not only the end of the song, but the album and universe as well. But being The Who, after a crescendo like THAT, there’s nothing more to do than follow it up with another one even bigger. After Townshend’s introductory lonesome Gibson SG Special guitar forages in the dark of “blinky... blinky... blinky... BLINK...” like Iommi’s “FX” (only two years before the fact and without the FX) it stops. It repeats again, only a little louder. Then repeats again and uh-oh: the riff has just escalated full tilt with the band falling back in to erupt behind Townshend’s already blaring riffage as the finale, “Driving Four” and wouldn’tyaknowit: a further series of crescendos and a howling guitar feedback vignette ends it all.

And for those not entirely exhausted, “Magic Bus” completes the album with half an hour of “Humpty Dumpty” bass lines, wood blocks, a “Smokestack Lightnin’” vamp and several more upsurges to flatten even the strongest of dispositions. Incredible.

In his 1969 review of King Crimson’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King,” Townshend stated that ‘that kind of intensity is music not Rock.’ Maybe he was right. But The Who themselves exhibited an intensity that WAS music and WAS nothing but Rock. Good Rock is intense and The Who were the very first group who fashioned so many contradictory elements, initially slipshod inability and fused it with true passion into a searing explosion whose shock waves informed all Rock. They were short on frills, long on kicks and total abandonment. So much so that when things in rock’n’roll get too precious, too full of itself and all limited-edition-of-reproduced-singles-in-a-box-set-of-2,000-with-a-bonus-live-disc I put on “Live At Leeds” loud as hell to blow all that irrelevant stuff out of the water...alongside most of life’s tedium, boredom and fears as it realigns me to the here and the now. And how.