The live rock ‘n’ roll album has never gotten a lot of respect. Conventional wisdom says that a rock show is best experienced in the moment, with a beer in hand and beefy bouncers nearby cracking skulls. Experts also maintain that live albums exist only to fulfill contractual obligations and feature much self-indulgent posturing and tiresome sing-alongs.
Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for the live rock ‘n’ roll album. At its best (and even its worst), the live rock ‘n’ roll album is a fascinating snapshot of a particular time and place. Think Bob Dylan sneering down an audience of European hipsters on Live 1966, or Otis Redding charming an audience of European hipsters on Live in Europe, or the Rolling Stones burning down Madison Square Garden just over a week before Altamont on Get Yer Yas Yas Out. The drama of these moments is hardly diluted when reduced to just the music. You’re not in the moment, but you still experience the moment in a very real way decades after it has drifted into the ether. Play fucking loud, indeed.
Live at Leeds, culled from a concert performed by the Who on Valentine’s Day 1970 at Leeds University in England, is not only the best live rock ‘n’ roll album ever, but the best rock album period. It also happens to be my favorite album of all time, making it perfect for inclusion in this series and another notch in my belt of good taste.
Fuck the competition. Sgt. Pepper? Pet Sounds? We’re talking rock ‘n’ roll here, not belabored “artistic” statements with strings and French horns and shit. (As much as I love those albums). Rock ‘n’ roll is about carpe diem, seize the day. It’s about being loose, naked, free, dirty, and instinct-driven. It’s about four guys who hate each other off stage but complete each other on it making music more relentless and pulverizing than even the desire to die before you get old.
Let’s talk about those four guys for a second. There’s Pete Townshend, the guitarist, the man we call the leader. He writes the songs, acts as the spokesman, and internalizes the contradictions and perpetual identity crisis of his band. There’s Roger Daltrey, the singer, the macho man’s man. He twirls his microphone and turns Pete’s introspective musings into fist-pumping anthems. There’s John Entwistle, the bassist, the quiet one. He lets his thundering fleet fingers do the talking. The guy in back is Keith Moon, the drummer, the destroyer. He will kill you with his bare hands. He’s also the most overwhelming musician ever to play rock ‘n’ roll.
When these fellas recorded and released Live at Leeds in 1970, it was equivalent to ripping a long smelly fart in an opera house. The Who had played plenty of those the previous year. The success of Tommy made the faux mods “more” than a rock band; they were rock opera singers, artists making statements with strings and French horns and shit on top of it. It was long way from Shepherd’s Bush and “Can’t Explain”, that’s for sure.
It was an evolution and it wasn’t entirely welcome. Townshend, he of the aforementioned identity crisis, paradoxically longed for and was suspicious of artistic legitimacy. This was, after all, a guy who smashed his guitar and then talked ceaselessly afterward about what it “meant”. Who else would have embraced the classical pretensions of rock opera on the studio version of Tommy and then proceed to tear them to shreds when he played the piece live with the Who? Rock opera made people take the Who very seriously, which Townshend loved and Townshend hated. The pendulum had to be swung back again. A roaring live document would remind people that the Who weren’t fey British pishers after all.
When Live at Leeds was originally released, it contained only six songs, hardly representative of the Who’s sprawling live show but damn potent nonetheless. Three of the songs were covers, including the single “Summertime Blues”. The other two had long been staples of the Who’s live act: “Shakin’ All Over” was originally a hit by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates and a standard for any rock band worth its salt in England; Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues”, the album’s devastating opener, was a more obscure number pumped solid by the Who with enough erectile Led Zeppelin juice to choke the Acid Queen.
The other three songs were among the Who’s most enduring classics, including a truncated “Substitute”, a hilarious “Magic Bus”, and a rambling 15-minute version of “My Generation” that not-so-succinctly summed up everything you would ever need to know about the band.
Having shoplifted a tape of Live at Leeds from a local used record store when I was 13, I had no idea what I was in for the first time I heard it. Up until then I had been spoon-fed finely manicured dance pop by the likes of Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson. My underdeveloped brain wasn’t ready for the non-stop pummeling that is Live at Leeds. Its rawness rubbed my cerebral cortex beet red.
Fortunately, I wasn’t a total dolt and eventually came to love what I was hearing. I soon understood what dynamite each part of the operation here delivered. Townshend’s soloing, especially on “My Generation”, sounds improvised but can’t be. It’s too melodic and directed to be drug-induced wonkery. Maybe the credit here should go to Entwistle, whose hard-hitting bass lines cling to Townshend’s like metallic tentacles, creating a framework that makes his magic possible. On “My Generation”, their jamming stops and surges in two minute intervals, with Townshend plucking staccato guitar parts and Entwistle honing in on him every step of the way. Together they rise and rise until it all collapses and starts over again. Meanwhile Daltrey scats bloody murder along the way like He-Man bellowing atop Mount Olympus.
Have I not mentioned Moon? In a band of instrumental superstars, he is the superest supernova . This is a man whose gift for spontaneous genius and disaster was wasted in the studio. The stage brought out the best in him. The 1995 reissue of Live at Leeds with its eight extra tracks brings this more into light, revealing just how brilliantly reckless Moon’s “timekeeping” was. Or should I say timing? To make a hackneyed “Seinfeld” analogy, Moon comes into “Amazing Journey” like Kramer through Jerry’s door (literally) by way of nuclear cannon. On “A Quick One While He’s Away”, the Who’s first (and probably best) rock opera, he brings eight minutes of breathtaking action to a climax with a swirl of cascading drum runs so tremendous that they are still echoing in the Alps somewhere deep in Switzerland.
Toward the end of “Magic Bus”, the last song on both the 1970 and 1995 versions, Moon finally appears to be mortal. His energy is sapped. After remaining silent for the first three minutes of the song, he charges in and demolishes everything again. No more, I’m done, he seems to say as the beat peters out. Then comes the Townshend staccato. A beat, a second beat, and Moonie is back in there pounding away stronger than ever. Entwistle adds to the stomp with his nimble digits. Daltrey scats some more murder. Why do I always expect the Who to be spent when I’m the one who’s exhausted by album’s end?
Live at Leeds was reissued again in 2001 with a complete version of Tommy from the concert on a second disc. I’m not a fan of buying the same album more than twice, so I’ve stuck with the 1995 version. Besides, Live at Leeds has no business mixing with Tommy. They exist at opposite ends of the Who spectrum. The rock opera and the fart.