I Call That a Bargain
“I used to think we’d last as long as out hair did, but that doesn’t seem to matter anymore which is good for business”.
—John Entwistle, Live at Leeds (Deluxe Edition)
For those of you who are fed up with the inorganic whines and beeps—and that’s just talking about the vocalists—found in today’s contemporary pop music, let me suggest you take a trip backward to a period in time when rock ‘n’ roll was a bit more, well, naturally aggressive. Aggressive in its conceptual design, aggressive in its emotional delivery, aggressive on its limited instruments, aggressive in its heart and mind—and exceedingly lazy in its marketing strategies.
The Who’s Live at Leeds release has always stood in contrast to the fearsome band’s earlier self-conscious crack at commodification, The Who Sell Out. While the latter was sprinkled with commercial jingles, its cover emblazoned with each member’s utilization of some crappy necessity—Pete Townshend’s deodorant scowl still ranks among the coolest of all album covers ever—the former featured only the finest of musical mayhem wrapped in a nondescript, barf-colored brown. As if the Who had stuffed a good hour’s worth of songcraft into a paper bag so listeners could sneak their sonic contraband past the dollar-hungry advertising police. And that was still a deal when the original Live at Leeds—which used to cost fans in the know a cheap two or three bucks, as underrated as it was—contained only six tracks, albeit six tracks that were a fair sampling of the band’s entire catalogue.
So you can only calculate the resultant inflation now that MCA Universal finally got off their asses and decided to include not only the conventional first half—thirteen songs, instead of six—of the Valentine’s Day, 1970 concert, but to broker a second disc including the live version of Tommy that Pete, Roger, Moon and the Ox ripped to shreds the same night at lucky Leeds University. The product? Live at Leeds (Deluxe Edition). Yeah, it sounds cheesy, especially considering that the first time around, namely the 1995 re-release of Live at Leeds, the record company left off this version, the “best Tommy song cycle ever recorded live” crows the press release, altogether—hmm, do I smell a rat? If it was the best ever, why the wait, people? But whatever—MCA Universal has eventually made good after these six long years, and the result is still a priceless bargain at the 30 or so bucks most places are charging for it—the Who, in all their unbridled, breakneck, maximum R&B glory.
True to such glory, this new edition has stashed the live version of Tommy on disc two where it really belonged—“Some people think the band’s called Tommy and the album’s called ‘The Who’”, bass player John Entwistle once grumpily remarked—and elected to foreground the barnburners the Who were known for commandeering during their live acts. So the happy result for you Happy Jacks is an entire first disc jam-packed with standards and covers featuring ferocious guitar, chaotic yet precise drum and bass rhythms, and Roger Daltrey’s continually underrated vocals. And as much as Tommy might have been the group’s calling card to immortality, it is on disc one where the band truly shines as something more than a talented accompaniment to a daring concept.
Songs like disc one’s “Heaven and Hell”—a John Entwistle-penned warmer perfect for turning up the intensity of both the band’s skills and the audience’s interaction—come on like thunder, in which the storm of Pete’s raging guitar and especially Keith Moon’s frenetic skin-slamming keep pace with the tune’s remarkably melodic vocal line. “Heaven and Hell” is an Exhibit A defense for why record companies need to just throw whatever is bothering them to the wind and open the vaults to the fans (and their checkbooks)—never recorded in the studio to anyone’s satisfaction, the version available on Live at Leeds is the only one you’re gonna find this side of the 1970 “Summertime Blues” single’s B-side discovery at some village idiot’s yard sale.
The same goes for “Fortune Teller” and “Tattoo”, two nuggets that were ignored until the 1995 re-release, the former a Benny Spellman tune covered by many Britpoppers, including the Stones and the Merseybeats, and the latter a ditty about one of Townshend’s favorite themes, masculinity, off of The Who Sell Out. While both songs may have come across tame in their studio incarnations—especially “Tattoo”, since all almost all of The Who Sell Out save “I Can See for Miles” is a long road down snooze highway—they are positively riveting live, a fact that speaks volumes to the breathtaking musical talent and chemistry of what could arguably be considered rock ‘n’ roll’s first and perhaps finest Power Trio. For those who might disagree on that point, there is always the sonic pinnacle of Live at Leeds, the Who’s cover of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues”, a raunchy, unstoppable feast of riffs, loud-quiet-loud schematics, and jagged rhythms culminating in Daltrey’s spine-tingling howls about how young men have “sweet fuck-all” in the world these days.
And as weird and anticlimactic as it may seem, the Who don’t tear apart the stage and their instruments after ramming “Young Man’s Blues”—only the fifth song on disc one, after all—into your ears. Actually, as after most songs on the disc, they do the opposite—talk quietly, almost mumble, to the audience about the songs, their writers, where they ended up on the charts, who liked them, who hated them, and more. It actually is rather charming to hear what amounts to the rugged, boisterous noise of their performance followed by Townshend and Daltrey’s smarmy stage banter about the Stones, before they start up again, ready to rip into the next tune. But it comes in handy when giving a casual listen to “A Quick One While He’s Away,” one of Townshend’s early cracks at rock opera, whose final piece, “You Are Forgiven”, was memorably employed in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore as the backing track for Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman’s attempts to kill each other off. Rather than engaging in the usual historical wisecracking, Townshend gives the audience what amounts to a Table of Contents, laying out the six acts, er, songs, of “A Quick One While He’s Away” for the audience, comic asides and buffoonery in full swing.
And although you expect things to get deadly serious once you head over to disc two’s performance of the Tommy song cycle—the sinful dessert of the release—the Who never did let their weighty considerations of the revered genre of opera get in the way of their disarming sense of humor. As the extensive and informative liner notes—which deliver histories of each song, reproductions of the original album’s inserts, interviews and loads more—for the Live at Leeds, Deluxe Edition explain, “‘Stop laughing’, [Moon would] yell from behind his drums. ‘This is serious. It’s fuckin’ opera, ain’t it?’” Moon’s self-conscious jokes always lightened the load, and this version of Tommy is a seriously heavy one. Unlike the endlessly praised album itself, the live version is LOUD, real loud, and you should thank your lucky stars for that. Because, like so many Steve Albini-engineered projects—I’m thinking specifically of PJ Harvey’s brilliant Rid of Me—the Who’s studio release of Tommy does not do justice to the raw power of the band’s live version, nor to their imposing musicianship and performative fury.
And although that may have been their producers’ inability to funnel the Who’s relentless and energetic stage antics into a crisp studio performance when they got near the knob-tweaking stages, it still serves as a reminder of where the true talent of the band lay, complex operas and social critiques aside. “We are difficult to record because we don’t work any different in the studio to on stage”, Keith confessed to a Leeds University student the day of their ecstatic performance. “Drumsticks are in the air when they should be on the drums and arms are flying when they should be on the guitar”.
You might do as I have done lately, and spin this live version of Tommy in favor of the studio release the next time you feel like taking a trip down memory lane—to the time you first heard it, not to when it was issued, that is. Because what the world needs now is unbridled garage noise, and lots of it. And as much as Staind or Korn or other cleverly spelled bands might think they’re serving you angst and aggression, most of their fare is so clean and spotless that you could eat off of it. And as much as Tommy is an ambitious narrative knot, Tommy performed live, at the peak of the Who’s power, is pure, rough, old-school jam, the kind you have to eat with peanut butter so it goes down smooth.
Thank god someone caught all of that chaos on tape. Because even in the brutal grip of a recession, 30 bucks for Live at Leeds (Deluxe Edition) is still a bargain. The best you’ve ever had.