The Great (Live) Albums: The Who’s ‘Live at Leeds’

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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Live at Leeds, The Who (1970, Decca/MCA)

Any time someone asks whether I’m a Beatles guy or a Stones guy, I immediately throw a cup of hot piss in their face, flip ‘em off with a backwards peach sign, and say “Oi. The Who, mate!” Okay, fine. So I’ve never actually done this. But it is my go-to fantasy reaction, which probably makes me sound like some sort of diehard Who super-fan. But if I’m being honest, my adoration for the London-based classic rock group really comes down to two specific artifacts: the pinball-themed 1969 rock opera Tommy, and the 1970 live album Live at Leeds—in my adolescence, one of the very few cassette tapes I ever literally wore out.

As with many of the records we’ve talked about in this column, Leeds exits in a variety of different permutations, reissues, and expanded editions that can be difficult to parse. Originally, it featured just six tracks: “Young Man Blues,” “Substitute,” “Summertime Blues,” “Shakin’ All Over,” My Generation,” and “Magic Bus.” The version I’ll be talking about here, however, is the one I’m most familiar with: the 1995 CD reissue, boasting 14 tracks and totaling roughly the length of one extra-long Game of Thrones episode.

The Who’s performance (recorded on February 14, 1970 at the University of Leeds) also included an entire full-rendition of Tommy, which can be found on subsequent reissues in whole or in part. But regardless of what version you’re sitting down with, one thing is certain: Leeds is the fucking Platonic ideal of rock ‘n roll, preserving in amber a show that simultaneously highlights the group’s exacting pop acumen even as its individual players—singer Roger Daltry, guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon—all seem like they could fly off the rails at any moment.

The 1995 CD reissue version opens with the Entwistle composition “Heaven and Hell”—and immediately, all four band members surge into beast-mode: Townshend and his chunky guitar (at this time a Gibson SG), Entwistle’s busy bass (it sounds like he’s being paid by the note), and Moon’s frenetic octopod-on-Adderall drumming. The only member sitting on the sidelines is Daltry, who comes in as backup to augment Entwistle’s lead vocal, adding a little bit of golden god heft to the cheekily direct lyrics about the actual biblical heaven and hell.

Daltry finally gets to step out on the second track, the early Who hit “I Can’t Explain”—which like The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” turns a simple descending-barre-chord riff into the foundation of a great pop tune. Daltry’s voice sounds great, pinched and cracking just so. He’s no less in control of his tone than any guitar player, greedily surveying his array of effects pedals.

A bit of Daltry stage banter follows (I think it’s Daltry, though I have a hard time telling his voice apart from Townshend’s) to introduce a cover of Benny Spellman’s “Fortune Teller,” which abruptly segues into the comic trifle “Tattoo,” the song’s dreamy verses propped up by Townshend’s shimmery arpeggios punctuated by a swaggering bridge and finally rounded out by some high harmonies, made all the more charming by being less than perfect.

After a ramshackle take on Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues,” Townshend delivers a self-deprecating monologue to introduce a brisk triptych of early-career Who chart-toppers: “Substitute,” “Happy Jack,” and “I’m a Boy,” Townshend’s London-mod reimagining of “A Boy Named Sue,” casting himself as the song’s irritated, androgynous protagonist.

 That's the good stuff: back cover of the 'Live at Leeds' 1995 CD reissue

That's the good stuff: back cover of the 'Live at Leeds' 1995 CD reissue

Now comes the album’s centerpiece stretch: two lengthy, ambitious numbers representing the before-and-after of Townshend’s ascendant ability to spin complex narratives out of rock music. First is “A Quick One While He’s Away”—a six-part mini-opera from the band’s 1966 sophomore album of the same name, detailing the cheeky (there’s that word again) love triangle between a sexually frustrated Girl Guide, a waylaid soldier, and a horny old engine driver. Again, Townshend casts himself in the feminine role, as the band crashes through each movement like a gaggle of anthropomorphic Kool-Aid pitchers busting through successive partitions of thin drywall. Next is an eight-minute “Amazing Journey,” the CD version’s only remnant from the original Tommy suite. Once again, Townshend’s guitar twinkles like starlight one minute, then crashes like a wave the next, finding time in-between to do an ace Jimi Hendrix impression for a few bars in the album’s most psychedelic moment.

The band then takes a breather with a pair of fun covers: Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over,” proving that for all of their conceptual ambition Townshend and Co. remained ace interpreters of outside material. The penultimate track on the 1995 CD is an expansive “My Generation,” one of The Who’s earliest and most enduring statements, propelled by Entwistle’s visionary bass, which hits like a hundred arrows sailing out of the rainforest and ka-thunk’ing into the side of your banana boat. The band takes one final victory lap with “Magic Bus,” which sounds like a band putting on its board shorts to head out on a well-earned holiday after a job well done.

Along with Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square, Leeds has been my favorite album that I’ve written about (thus far) for this column. What attracts me to both records is their seemingly magical combination of ragged this-could-go-off-the-rails-at-any-point humanity and solid, old school pop song craft. So grease up those rotator cuffs. Involuntary air guitar is an inevitable occupational hazard.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)