The Who Know Who They Are and From Whence They Came

The first band I ever saw was the Who — those rip-roaring, one-time mod marauders — in quite incendiary form at the Odeon, Manchester, an old-style, plush-seated cinema, with ornate Deco details and red-carpeted foyer, green exit signs and ice creams carried in those strap-on trays. It was a place more used to the larger-than-life film legends than brash rockers. Yet I doubt Hollywood itself could have brought more crackling action, more pulsating romance, or more star-studded explosiveness, to the venue on that evening in October 1971. The legendary quartet from Shepherd’s Bush, shimmering under the flash of stage lights, delivered its cacophonous, heart-pumping assault: guitarist Pete Townshend flailed away at maverick guitar chords, singer Roger Daltrey clad in fringed leather like a Wild West Byron, drummer Keith Moon manically attacked every square inch of metal and skin, and bassist John Entwistle stood enigmatic and stoic, expressionless and solid.

It was certainly the best way to take one’s first dive into the choppy oceans of live rock ‘n’ roll. As the circles and aisles vibrated in the sonic swell, it was a Damascene moment for a young teen fan who’d seen the group singing “I’m a Boy” in the black and white majesty of Ready Steady Go in 1966; who’d witnessed the band say goodbye to the ’60s in an epoch-closing TV special; who’d thrilled to the acerbic riposte to the optimisms of the counterculture (and unfolding of a new decade) with the sensational “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

By that point, the Who had already been anointed the greatest live rock band of all, after blazing a fiery trail though Britain and then the USA. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin may have tilted at the crown, but the throne had already been taken. After a Stateside introduction at Monterey in 1967, Townshend and Co. stamped their mighty footprint on America two years later with a show-stopping set to the half-a-million strong Woodstock crowd, a performance soon witnessed around the world in the documentary film. But it was after the Who’s gig at Leeds University in 1970, and particularly with the album that followed in its wake, that the band truly left its mark on the planet.

Live at Leeds was hailed as the definitive live album when it emerged. Well over three decades later, it remains the quintessential in-concert recording. One of the earliest live rock releases, it helped set a vogue for on-stage albums with the Stones, Dylan and the Beatles adding to the canon in subsequent years. It is both a treasure and a treat that the Who’s most celebrated performance should be delivered and captured within the University’s forever-after famous refectory.

The campus refectory is exactly what one would expect: a very long, fairly narrow room where students have enjoyed their lunches and teas since the mid-’50s. It’s a functional, somewhat innocuous, institutional space to buy meals and beverages. But, over many years, this voluminous diner has been regularly transformed by the magic of darkness, lights and sound into a rock venue of striking atmosphere. Hundreds of thousands of undergraduates have flocked there, thrilling to everyone from Pink Floyd to Bob Marley, the Stones to the Clash, Bill Haley to the Kinks, Black Uhuru to the Stranglers, James Brown to Queens of the Stone Age… a cavalcade of rock and reggae, blues and soul. But it was a result of that 14 February, 1970 night, when the Who plugged in to play, that the venue would become etched in the annals of popular music history. Once Live at Leeds had been issued (snaring the key moments of an impassioned performance) the refectory, the University, and Leeds itself, would assume an international reputation. No longer just another concert hall on the college gigging circuit, it emerged as a landmark on the map of musical excellence.

Ironically, such a Valentine’s Day gift to the University might never have happened. The Who was determined to record and release a live album from its winter tour, and the cumbersome hardware associated with such an exercise trailed the band to more than just the Leeds concert. The previous evening, the Who’s appearance at Hull had been earmarked for taping. But the equipment played up in some way, and the recording of the night was just not up to scratch: whatever was captured on Humberside was simply unusable. On such premises does history sometimes rest, and the less alliterative Live at Hull, or The Who at Hull, could have become the celebrated long player instead. But in Leeds, the show worked in all respects — a capacity audience present, a band at the height of its form, a largely functioning technical rig — and the record that followed later that year, replete with some of the rough edges that characterised an authentic concert, distilled the essence of an epic occasion for the millions who couldn’t be there for the show in person.

And so to 2006. On 17 June, one of those little miracles in the post-millennium monolith of mass entertainment occurred when the Who — at least what is left of the band — re-trod its steps and returned to the city, with that evening of 36 years prior still reverberating in so many fans’ minds. This time however, it was less about a rabblerousing foursome tumbling from a transit van and singeing the crowd with its ragged and youthful inferno. On this occasion, Townshend and Daltrey came back as honoured guests with a little pomp, a little circumstance, trumpeting their re-entry into the campus universe. A blue Civic Trust plaque to celebrate the venue’s long-standing reputation and the group’s appearance there was unveiled by the two musicians, and new artwork for the band, by the great pop painter Peter Blake (the legendary creator of the Sgt. Pepper cover, the Mona Lisa of rock’n’roll) was unveiled for the first time.

As Blake and Pete Townshend signed copies of Live at Leeds 2 (the piece may become the cover of a second live recording at the venue) in the Sir Peter Blake Music Art Gallery, located in the University’s music school, the crowd milling there surely recalled the synergy between pop music and pop art, that great tradition that united British rockers and British art schools in the 1960s… Blake, a master of the craft and huge Who fan, and Townshend, the one-time art student and huge Blake fan. Later, Blake joined with some 2,000 others to catch another electrifying version of the Who (the two principals, joined by Townshend’s brother Simon, John “Rabbit” Bundrick and Zak Starkey) who reminded the heaving, seething house that middle-age does not have to mean middle-of-the-road, that the greying of temples does not have to mean monochrome music.

“Who Are You?” asked the performers from the outset, and the answer was evident: here was a sold-out audience that cut across age and class, across time itself perhaps, a bridge between one of rock ‘n’ roll’s awe-inspiring occasions and the present. It was confirmation of an ongoing hunger for a time when this music was a symbol of social and political possibility. The sounds may not carry quite the same weight, but their power is, I think, largely undiminished.

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Editor’s Note: It is with this final installment that long-time PopMatters’ columnist Simon Warner brings Anglo Visions to a close. We will miss these regular contributions on pop culture in Britain. Fifty columns for Anglo Visions — a testament to Simon’s interest in and devotion to the topic — will remain available in our archives. Thank you, Simon.