Leeds album showcases the Who's live improvisation
The Who is finally given its due as a live band with the
re-release of Live at Leeds, a spirited live recordings of rock and blues.
Live at Leeds
MCA Records.By Scott Deskin
The Who remains one of the most underappreciated rock groups of the '60s and '70s. They're continuously compared (by the public and critics alike) to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, two other supergroups spawned by the British Invasion. Although the Beatles myth was capped in 1970, when that group dissolved, and the Rolling Stones evolved into a glamorous media machine (far removed from their ground-breaking blues-rock emulations in the early '70s), the Who burned out somewhere in between. Its status as a "rock legend" has been devalued since original drummer Keith Moon died in 1978. In addition, many people view guitarist and chief composer Pete Townshend's latest project, the Broadway musical "Tommy," as a sell-out, untrue to his original leadership in the Who.
The latest re-issue of the Who's Live at Leeds takes the listener back to 1970, a time when the band was still a viable musical force on stage. In this fertile period between the rock opera Tommy and the synthesizer-based tour de force of Who's Next, contractual obligations forced the band into making an album comprised of some live performances at Leeds University in England. The album brings to light the extraordinary qualities of the Who as a live band - the band on this album is closer in spirit to the early punkish anthems "My Generation" and "Substitute" than to the orchestral excesses of Tommy. In fact, the track listing of the new Live at Leeds excises all Tommy material except "Amazing Journey/Sparks" and a bit of "See Me, Feel Me" in the middle of the 14-minute "My Generation," but leaves the rest of the original concert intact.
For diehard fans of the original album, the new sequence of songs may be a bit confusing. Bassist John Entwistle's "Heaven and Hell" (echoing bits of his "Cousin Kevin") is a worthy opening number; yet, nothing really can top the regalvanized epiphany of "Young Man Blues," here buried in the middle of the new album, which opened the original. I also miss the rougher sound of the original album, which has been cleaned up for the re-issue ("Crackling noises OK! No need to correct!" has now been changed to "Crackling noises have been corrected!").
Aside from those objections, the re-issue is superior in every way, from the addition of eight new tracks (compared to the original six), plus vintage photos and informative liner notes that recompense fans for the shoddy "budget bin" packaging of the original CD version. Welcome live versions of "Happy Jack" and "I'm a Boy" complement "Substitute" nicely: along with songs like "I Can't Explain," these Townshend songs epitomized the growing pains and social/sexual frustrations of adolescence. "Substitute - me for him / Substitute - my coke for gin" is every bit a classic line as the familiar refrain of Eddie Cochrane's "Summertime Blues" or the lyric of disaffection from "jazz sage" Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues": "But you know nowadays / It's the old man who's got all the money / And a young man ain't got nothin' in the world these days." In these songs, the band really does work as a unit, with Entwistle's solid bass and Moon's explosive drumming providing the rhythmic backbone, Townshend's guitar grinding out crunching riffs, and lead singer Roger Daltrey's voice alternating between soft harmonies and deep-chested howls that provide the ideal counterpoint to Townshend's lyrical guitar.
The two songs that close the album, "My Generation" and "Magic Bus," are two examples of the Who's refusal to get bogged down in their material. The instrumentation on both live versions is loud and sufficiently tuneful to hold my attention, although "My Generation" loses steam towards the end and "Magic Bus" doesn't wholly redeem itself as a mediocre Who song. Also noteworthy: "A Quick One (While He's Away)," a precursor to the rock-opera concept that Townshend would explore fully on Tommy and Quadrophenia, and "Tattoo," a fine track from The Who Sell Out (although "I Can See for Miles," also from that album, would have been a standout live track).
This album provides a coherent document of the Who as a live band. For avid fans and amateurs alike, I highly recommend it. Whatever you think of Townshend's later work, (e.g., the post-Who Are You material), you can't dismiss the Who's physical nature on stage (Townshend's guitar-smashing, after all, predates the Jimi Hendrix ritual of setting his own guitar ablaze). Who's Next probably stands alone as the band's most accessible work, but MCA has taken another step to rectify the status of Live at Leeds in the Who's canon.