[16 February 2005]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Contrary to popular belief and custom, St. Valentine’s Day is not embodied by heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and long-stemmed roses, but rather by slashing power chords, frenetic windmills and howling feedback. On 14 February 1970 a nice rock and roll band from Shepherd’s Bush, London, took the stage at Leeds University and committed to tape a performance that fully defined amplified aggression. That band was the ‘orrible ‘Oo and the album was Live At Leeds.
Generally acknowledged as the most aggressive live album ever recorded (challenged only by the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams), Live at Leeds marks more than simply a watershed moment in the Who’s illustrious career. It symbolizes the end of one decade and beginning of another, serving as a sonic harbinger of things to come for both the band and industry as a whole. While Altamont had effectively extinguished the prevailing naivety and altruism of the 1960s, it was the majestic brutality of Leeds that summarily ended rock’s fixation with peace, love, and happiness, providing the template for incendiary no-holds-barred music. Three and a half decades after the opening salvo, the album continues to resonate as loudly today as it did in 1970.
Emerging as nattily clad pop-artsters amidst the mid ‘60s Mod movement, the Who had morphed into top-tier headliners in less than five years. The band’s notorious live sound would eventually allow them to stake their claim to “Loudest Band in the World”, and their reputation for auto-destruction would precede them wherever they played. Yet the Who were far more than celebrated noisemakers, a la Blue Cheer. The 1969 rock-opera Tommy boasted the band’s cerebral side, a creative component that was further showcased several years later with Quadrophenia.
Having conquered the large-scale crowds of Monterey (1967), Woodstock and the second Isle of Wight festival (both 1969), the Who sought to revisit the intimate venue atmosphere offered by Leeds University and Hull City Hall on successive days in February 1970. Despite the relatively modest confines, the band was able to harness a gargantuan sound and tailor it for the respective stages at Leeds and Hull. Offering a unique mix of aggression and sophistication, the set list amalgamated everything the Who could conjure; from classic singles to covers, from the mini opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away” to the full-blown rock opera Tommy, the Who traversed the musical landscape with ease while unceremoniously destroying any doubts as to their prowess as a premier touring act.
What’s most startling about the Leeds recording is this: There are only three musicians and a single vocalist on stage, each battling one another for superiority, yet complimenting each other in a manner that seems incomprehensible. No band has ever been comprised of four lead-participants-as-competing-forces who managed to play together so seamlessly. Pete Townshend’s fret work is augmented by Keith Moon’s machine-gun fills and John Entwistle’s bone-jarring bass rumble, as Roger Daltrey’s vocals alternate between lushly melodic and sneering. The result is a display of power and volume appropriate for the huge festivals they played but unleashed within an auditorium without a hint of technical compromise.
Hidden behind Leeds’s thunderous wall of sound lies a rare intimacy shared between artist and audience. Townshend’s lengthy introduction of his mini opera is met by rousing cheers (eliciting a particularly enthusiastic response when he mentions his playing the role of “girl guide”) while the subsequent good-humored stage banter epitomizes the band’s comfort level in front of its native English crowd. Those in attendance were rewarded with a vintage two-hour Who set, the entirety of which was finally available to the rest of us in 2001—the album was initially released in 1970 with a paltry six songs, then re-released with a handful of bonus tracks in 1995.
Capturing the Who in the midst of their live-performance zenith, Leeds would come to serve as the barometer for all successive Who concerts, from the Young Vic Theater to the Charlton Football Ground. The show highlighted the band’s ability for juxtaposing finely crafted pop tunes (“I Can’t Explain” and “Substitute”) with supercharged renditions of songs they’d adopted and made their own (“Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over”), while balancing everything with the grandeur of the Tommy material. Leeds also provided the musical world with the ultimate take on Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues”, which ranks with the Jimi Hendrix recreation of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as one of rock’s most electrifying covers.
The album’s scope also merits special mention as it hinted at the arena-rock methodology which was to epitomize the early- and mid-1970s. The Who opened the new decade with a deafening flourish, laying the flagstones for countless bands following in their amplified footsteps. For groups like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and AC/DC who built their resumes upon live touring, it was the roar of Leeds that they tried to emulate.
Live at Leeds was one of a handful of legendary Who moments that can be accurately described as catching lightning in a bottle. Though the Who’s legacy spans over forty years, it is the single shining performance at Leeds University that is representative of the band’s legendary brilliance. The venue was small, but the sound was huge on that special St. Valentine’s Day in 1970, as the Who gave us the greatest gift of passion imaginable.