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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Who - Live At Leeds (1996 expanded version)

Now here's one that's very typical of my old epinions reviews. The writing is often kinda cringe-inducing but there's loads of enthusiasm to make up for it. It's interesting that thought it's been something like 10 years since I first heard Live At Leeds my opinion hasn't changed about it very much at all. Also, while my musical tastes have expanded in those 10 years, "hard rock" is not a genre that I've been all that attracted to. Maybe it's just that once I heard some live Who, all of their imitators feel like exactly that.

From (Originally written 20 March 2004)

The Who are a terrific studio band. From the pop of Sell Out to the hard rocking of Who’s Next to rock operas Quad and Tommy, the band have released some of the most well-written, expertly performed music in the short but turbulent history of rock and roll. The simple fact of the matter though is that the Who are not going to be remembered for their studio work – no matter how impressive it may be. No, the Who are first and foremost going to be remembered as a wildly energetic live act. More accurately, they will probably be remembered as THE wildly energetic live act. 

See, unlike most, the Who understood the difference between the studio and stage. When performing live, it is damn near impossible to create the same intricate, subtle effects that can be achieved in a studio situation so instead of even trying to do so, the band went for an entirely different approach, transforming even the poppiest of songs into powerful, energized juggernauts. Of course having a band of talented musicians like the ‘Oo certainly didn’t hurt. On Live at Leeds, an album often considered to be the Who’s crowning achievement, you get a perfect example of the band at their live peak.

A great live album must of course have a great song selection and Live at Leeds (at least the new fourteen track versions) certainly have that. Mixing some of their best known sixties material with some surprising album cuts and a hefty representation of covers, the track list serves as a perfect catalyst for some great performances. Speaking of which, the performances here are exemplary.

Roger Daltrey doesn’t so much sing as he does roar and though his singing may lack the emotional range that he displays on Quadrophenia, here it is power that is important – and for sheer, manly POWER, Roger is most certainly your man. Keith Moon, in the meantime, is his usual maniacal self. His chaotic drumming style is the main driving force behind all these songs and if there are any doubts as to “Moon the Loon’s” supremacy over hard rock drumming, this album should surely put them to rest once and for all.

On the guitar front, Pete Townshend is in very fine form belting out some of the most demonic sounding riffs you ever shall hear. Also, quite unlike the studio albums, there is plenty of soloing to be found here and though Pete can’t really measure up to Page or Clapton when it comes to complexity, he completely outclasses them at sheer power. Even more impressive, again quite unlike Page or Capton – or for that matter most virtuoso guitarists – his solos are always precise, never becoming monotonous or tedious on even the longest of tracks.

The breakout talent here though, is most certainly John Entwistle. Right from the start of the Who, John’s mastery over the bass was obvious but it was only with Leeds he showed us once and for all that he is THE bass guitar player. The interplay between Pete and John completely redefines the bass/guitar dynamic. John Entwistle does not treat his bass as a rhythm instrument as most bassists do but as a lead instrument every bit as important as the electric guitar. His playing here is so unique, so groundbreaking, that to this day people still ask who the second lead guitarist is on Live at Leeds, not realizing that, at least at that time, the Who never employed a second guitarist. Of course, the fact that the Ox actually managed to better his performance here with his jaw-dropping performance on Quadrophenia only solidifies his position as the ultimate bass guitar player.

Before getting into the specific songs contained within, some background behind this monumental live album is probably in order. 

The original six-track version of the album was culled from a performance at Leeds University in early 1970, right in the middle of some intensive touring promoting their ridiculously successful rock opera, Tommy. Unlike most performances that become the basis for live albums, Leeds was a show that was performed specifically with this reason in mind. Not that that was the only reason, mind you, after all they only used six tracks from a lengthy performance that included the entirety of Tommy as well as a dozen other tracks. For years because of the time constraints of a vinyl record most of the show remained unreleased.

 In the mid-nineties, however, with the advent of the compact disk and the longer running times the format afforded, the album was re-released with a further eight tracks. This meant that all the non-Tommy tracks along with Amazing Journey/Sparks were now readily available for your listening pleasure. This is the version that I’m reviewing but a few years later a deluxe edition was released and at long last the entire show – Tommy included – was available on a double CD set. The rather steep price added to the fact that with the earlier release of Live at the Isle of Wight, I already own a full live performance of Tommy from the same time period (and a superior one, apparently) has stopped me from rushing out and buying this version. Still, if you have the money to spare, the deluxe version is probably the one to buy.

As for the performance itself, remember that unlike Isle of Wight or Woodstock, Leeds is a university hall attended by kids who were not entirely brain dead. A fact that I’m sure sort-of intellectual, Pete was very glad about as you will see especially in the awesome banter between the songs. Some people also call the performance here restrained when compared to Wight because of this but whether they’re right or not is irrelevant. Leeds is a million times tighter than the sometimes overly chaotic Wight and as such is the better performance.

Now, at long last, onto the songs themselves.

The album starts off on an intriguing note. Not only was Heaven and Hell written by John Entwistle but, even stranger, it was never been released on any studio album. Still, you can’t really fault it for being anything less than a perfect beginning to this typically invigoratingly energetic show. It’s actually no real surprise that we have never seen a studio version of the song because, quite frankly, it is only with this almost tangible energy that emerges when the Who perform live that the song really works. The song works here not because it has a strong melody or interesting lyrics – it has neither – but because of the electrified performance that the song affords each and every band member. Roger screams to his hearts content while Pete solos – genuinely solos – with enough ferocity to make even the heaviest of metal guitarists green with envy and Keith bashes away on his drums as only he can. John, in the meantime, lays down a thick, rock-solid foundation with his astonishing bass lines – if, of course, the phrase ‘bass lines’ can even be applied to John’s unique style of playing.

 After that perfect start, we move onto the band’s earliest single (as the Who at least), I Can’t Explain though, as you should realize after about three seconds, it bears little resemblance to the studio version. The original was released long before the Who turned into such tight performers so the booming vocals, even more distorted electric guitar riffing, wild drumming and thick bass lines that are present here, more or less blow the almost amateurish original straight out of the water. One thing that does remain though are the somewhat, well, wimpy backing vocals, which tend to stick out amidst all the heaviness. The funny thing is that this is not actually a complaint at all but another indication of how important these little quirks tend to be when it comes to defining the Who’s personality as a live – and, for that matter, studio – band.

Next up is the first of several covers to found scattered throughout the album. Much like the other covers here, Fortune Teller, is done in such a way as to completely annihilate any real connections between the original and the Who’s version. For the first half of the song it definitely appears to be the weakest of the covers thanks to a horribly plodding pace and boring melody. Suddenly though, about halfway through the song it changes direction with the introduction of an unforgettable guitar riff and sped up pacing and becomes one of the albums most exhilarating moments. Too bad that this part of the song is so short as I would much rather have spent the previous two minutes listening to it rather than the unfortunate first part.

Fortune Teller then segues into a seriously strange choice of a song for the band to play live, the very poppy Tattoo from the very poppy Sell Out album. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the more restrained performances here but it is just rocking enough to make the song a solid contribution to the set. Besides it has always been an immensely enjoyable song so instead of complaining about its inclusion as so many others do, I will state – quite gladly – for the record that the song SHOULD be here. After all, the ‘Oo are nothing if they’re not diverse.

But not to worry all you crazy head bangers because the next song should more than make up for Tattoo’s relative lightness. Young Man Blues was apparently once a jazzy tune by one Mose Alison, as Pete informs us with some enjoyable as ever pre-song banter. Now, I don’t know about the original but this version has got about as much to do with jazz as it does with classical. The Who unleash a performance so powerful and so outright threatening that it is hard to believe that this song ever existed before they left their indelible mark on it. The song is all about youthful aggression and who better to bring it to life than those rascals who brought us My Generation all those years ago. Pete delivers a riff so threatening it sounds more like it was played on a machine gun than a guitar. Keith’s apocalyptic-sounding drums don’t exactly undermine Pete’s guitar attacks and Mr. Entwistle, as ever, supports Pete’s playing (or is that the other way around?) as only he can with some of the most fluid and downright noisy bass playing you ever shall hear. Roger, of course, sings just like a little girl. But then you knew that already, right?

We are then treated to three of the band’s best singles released between the years 1966 and 1967. Or as Pete tells us, they chose them because they are easiest to play. Have I mentioned recently how much I LOVE the hilarious banter between the songs – the Who are seriously some of the funniest down and dirty rockers out there. As for the songs themselves, well, they really are great. They’re all actually quite poppy in their original forms – not that you could tell that from these performances.

First we get an absolutely perfect rendition of substitute, a song that would later become an anthem for one of those first generation punk groups – the Ramones, I think – and I’m fairly certain that they used this version for inspiration rather than the lighter studio version. Still, Substitute is actually quite an obvious candidate for a heavy live treatment.

The same, however, cannot be said about Happy Jack, the next track, a song that was originally so happy and so poppy that only a band of the Who’s gutsy – or insanely – status would be able to pull it off. And pull it off they do, anything of the fun little original is replaced by some pounding drums, powerful singing and… well, I’m sure that by now you’ve gotten the point. Simply put, that fun little pop song called Happy Jack is one mean rock and roll song. Apparently.

As for the last of the three sort-of-hits-because-the-Who-weren’t-exactly-the-Beatles-when-it-comes-to-hit-songs, I’m a Boy, a weird little ditty-opera (Tommy it wasn’t) about a boy living in the future (I think) who was supposed to be a girl, according to his parents who then go on to treat him like a girl. I for one am glad to see that Pete’s operas become slightly less silly as they go along. Anyway, it’s another great rocking reinterpretation of a classic pop song by the ‘orrible ‘Oo.

Next we come to my favourite track here: A Quick One, While He’s Away. It’s my personal favourite for several deep reasons. Firstly it’s by far the best reinterpretation of a Who song. The original was, to be perfectly honest with you dear reader, horribly boring but this version, well what can I say, it’s really, really not. Secondly, it’s got like twenty different melodies, all of them great and the more great ‘Oo melodies the better. Thirdly, the song is absolutely hilarious with one of the simplest but insanely effective stories ever to appear in a Townshend rock opera. Fourthly, it has all four band-members playing the parts of the different characters and they’re all a riot – especially Keith, obviously. Lastly, this song has the funniest pre-song and, for that matter, during-song banter ever. I laugh out loud every single time I hear it and as a favour to you, patient reader, I will not divulge a single line. The song also acts as unrefutable proof that, yes, it is in fact possible for a hard rock band to be extremely heavy and extremely funny at the same time. CLASSIC.

Next up, Tommy (everyone cheer)! Okay, so it’s not the entire performance of Tommy but a wonderful performance of Amazing Journey/Sparks acts as a pretty cool snapshot of the whole rock opera. The Amazing Journey part is actually pretty similar to the studio version only with, you know, electric guitars and stuff – whatever, it’s as good as ever. Sparks, on the other hand, is completely different. Well, all right not completely different, it still has the same basic melody but everything else is a complete departure. While the studio version was based around an acoustic guitar and had a sort of mystical feel to it, the live version is all about heavy electric guitar riffage and heavier soloing.

Next we get a another superb cover in the form of Summertime Blues. Unlike, say, I don’t know, Limp Biskit (the only band in the world who could ruin the foolproof Behind Blue Eyes) for example, the Who really know how to cover someone else’s song. Yet again I’ve never heard the Eddie Cochran original but – between you and me – I have my doubts that it sounds anything like the ‘Oo’s HEAVY version. And yet again the song is absolutely electrifying.

Shaking All Over follows and is another wonderful cover and while I can sort of see Summertime Blues as a non-hard rocking song, the same can not be said for this song. That riff simply begs for a hard and heavy treatment and surprise, surprise, the Who deliver. In spades. Everyone’s instruments are turned up to full volume (even if not literally) for this song resulting a song that could quite easily blow down even the sturdiest of structures if played at full volume. This is hard rock at its most uncompromising and just might be the heaviest song here. Oh, as a side note, also check out Live at the Isle of Wight for a wonderful version of this song that features a surprising rendition of Twist and Shout.

After the sonic onslaught of Shaking All Over you would be forgiven for hoping for a gentler, less ear-shattering song so it is with my greatest sympathies that I report this not to be the case. You all remember this great little three-minute rock and roller released by the Who sometime in 1965. Of course you do, it’s the classic anthem of youthful aggression with the immortal line “Hope I die before I get old” and those killer bass solos. On live at Leeds there is also a song that goes by the moniker My Generation but it is most certainly not that tight, relatively short little rocker that we all remember. No, this song comes in at just under fifteen minutes where only first three or so of which bear any resemblance at all to the 1965 classic.

Starting off as a fairly faithful but much more aggressive adaptation of the original My Generation, the “song” then proceeds to turn into a ten minute jam featuring not only some wonderful improvisation (I assume) but also a return to some of the themes from Tommy – including See Me Feel Me! Unlike your extended jams of any lesser band (even giants like Deep Purple, Cream or Led Zeppelin – sorry but it’s true and you know it is) this jam never grows boring. Not for a single, solitary minute. The band keep things interesting not only by some surprisingly effective false stops but my by keeping the melody in a constant state of change. Finally, and this is important, make no mistake, extended drum solos NEVER make for great extended jams. Never. Keith Moon, the greatest rock and roll drummer of all time (“I’m the greatest Keith Moon-type drummer in the world” – Keith Moon. Cool Guy… but I digress) avoided the things like a plague so you should to (you know who you are). This version may not be better than the original, after all the brevity of the original was an essential ingredient for its tremendous success but it is still an essential, exhilarating listen.

Ending off the album, we come to another radical reinterpretation of a classic Who single, Magic Bus. The original was a straightforward little Bo Didly-ish (that’s what I hear, I’m not familiar enough with the man to say but I can’t think of what else to call it) ditty that though enjoyable pales in comparison to what we have here. The best word I can think of to describe this version is BIG – that is if I’m not allowed to use the word ‘fun’ because more than anything else this song is tremendous FUN. 

The song starts off with some wonderful electric guitar bits courtesy of that Townshend fella then presents us with some equally wonderful vocal interplay between Roger and Pete and John (possible) over some fairly restrained repetitive instrumentation. And as near as I can tell absolutely no drumming. Then, well, the song EXPLODES. Keith comes crashing in with those noisy drums of his at which point everyone else follows suit – for a while before the whole thing sort of repeats itself with another restrained section followed by another musical explosion. Well, sort of because the song never actually repeats itself – not really any way – and the only way to truly understand the epic greatness of the song is to listen to it.

With that we come to the end of the album that is considered by many to be the greatest live album ever. I definitely agree, of course, but seeing as how I haven’t exactly heard every live album ever released, my opinion sounds a bit hollow to these ears. Still, whether or not Live at Leeds is in fact the greatest live album ever by anyone, one thing should be clear: it really is rather good. Simply put this album is the consummate live document from a genuinely dynamic, humorous, energetic, professional and, let’s be honest here – noisy band. It is also against this that I will judge all other live albums. Sadly for everyone else, the standard is immensely high and – between you and me for the last time for this review – I rather doubt anyone else will be able to match it.

Highest of recommendations. 

South African readers buy this version of Live At Leeds from Take2 or Get the later deluxe version

International readers buy any of these versions of Live At Leeds from Amazon:

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