Sunday, July 25, 2010

February 14, 2010: ‘Live at Leeds’: 40 Years of Rock’s Definitive Live Album

On February 14, 1970, The Who played a one night stand at Leeds University that was most likely the best Valentine’s Day gift anyone in the audience ever received. White hot from near constant touring in support of their latest album, Tommy, The Who performed the Rock Opera, a first-rate selection of singles, a couple of stray album tracks, and a quartet of covers with incomparable fervor. They had long since earned their title as Rock & Roll’s most electrifying, most explosive, most deafening live band, but they were rarely this on. As fortune would have it, the gig was captured on tape for release as The Who’s very first live record the following May 23rd. Live at Leeds has long been considered the greatest Rock & Roll live album, but it’s greatness wasn’t even fully realized upon it’s release 40 years ago. Over the ensuing 31 years, Live at Leeds would expand from an eardrum-rending six-song sampler to a dynamically-varied 14-track monster to a complete 34-track document of the entire Valentine’s Day gig. Unlike so many “expanded” albums, Leeds just grew more and more enjoyable with each edition, making the original sound relatively insubstantial. Yet one cannot underestimate the important role the original Live at Leeds played in The Who’s evolution as a band and the live album’s evolution as a Rock & Roll commodity.

Throughout the ‘60s, live albums tended to be little more footnotes in a band’s discography. Primitive stage technology and overzealous audiences made live shows difficult to capture (remember that The Beatles played their historic gig at Shea Stadium through their wimpy little Vox amplifiers which were probably inaudible to them, let alone the screaming teenies in the nosebleed section). Records such as The Kinks’ Live at Kelvin Hall and The Rolling Stones’ Got Live If You Want It (both 1966) were basically souvenirs of ineptly amplified groups struggling to out-shout their audiences. In it’s L.P. form (in the UK, Got Live at You Want It was released as an E.P. with a totally different track line-up in 1965), the Stones’ album was a particular mess, containing two studio tracks with dubbed audience screams and one left-over from the UK E.P. Because they could barely hear themselves play, the performances weren’t particularly spectacular even though both The Kinks and The Stones delivered a fair amount of energy. Well-recorded live Rock records with their integrity intact were virtually non-existent, one notable exception being Five Live Yardbirds, a well-captured set of blues and early Rock & Roll covers released in 1964 when Eric Clapton was still in the band.

As the ‘60s zipped along, rumblings of “Rock is Art” began drifting up from the underground. The studio L.P. started to be regarded as a legitimate art form, and even the most blinkered “serious” music critics started acknowledging the worth of some of the members of Rock’s upper echelon, like The Beatles and Dylan. The idea of releasing a sub-standard, cash-in live album in this environment would have been a major step backward for groups fighting for legitimacy. Imagine the horror of The Who— a group whose instrumental prowess, unmatched energy, and violent theatrics garnered them the title of World’s Greatest Live Band ever since their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67— when MCA records in the U.S. released Magic Bus—The Who on Tour in 1968. Contrary to the “on tour” addendum to its title, Magic Bus was not a live album, but a mindlessly compiled grab-bag of studio tracks, several already available on L.P. The Who had been talking about releasing a live album that truly captured their abilities for some time (their studio records of the ‘60s are often criticized for sounding weak in comparison to their stage act, although there’s little denying the fine quality of those records when considered on their own terms). They recorded a set at the Fillmore East in New York City on April 5, 1968 for a possible live album, but the set was too rough—tuning and tempos problems abounded—to warrant official release (bootleggers were happy to pick up the pieces, though). Frustrated, MCA released their sham compilation instead.

Meanwhile, other bands threatened to sprint ahead of The Who in the race to release the first truly great live Rock album. Cream released Wheels of Fire in July, 1968, which paired a disc of excellent new studio material with a selection of live cuts recorded at Winterland and the Fillmore East in San Francisco that upped the quality of live recording, yet also highlighted some of the band’s more indulgent on-stage tendencies. A high-energy reading of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” was superb; sixteen minutes of Ginger Baker slamming his drums on “Toad” was not. Throughout October and November of ’68, America’s best live act, Jefferson Airplane, played a series of shows at the Fillmores East and West that would be edited together to form their first live platter. Released the following year, Bless Its Pointed Little Head was the first live album to really deliver on the medium’s promise. The band sounded full-bodied and played at the top of their skills, and the more mature, less screamy audience never overwhelmed the recording. In 1969, The Beatles began rehearsing material for their first live gig in three years. They planned to perform all-new material at the show for a proposed live album. The project collapsed amidst their bickering, although they managed to capture four numbers performed live on the rooftop of Apple headquarters that would become the backbone of their final album, Let It Be, in 1970.

Bless It’s Pointed little Head may have been Rock’s first great live album, but The Who were still responsible for Rock’s definitive one in 1970. In its original incarnation, Live at Leeds is a frightening record. For anyone familiar with The Who’s recordings but not their stage show, the album must have been a shock. The band transformed Tommy into a monster on stage, but the studio version was a fairly light, largely acoustic pop record along the lines of The Who Sell Out. Live at Leeds presented them as a much heavier group and set the style for their studio records throughout the ‘70s. The only track that bore any similarity to The Who as they sounded on record in the ‘60s was a truncated rendition of “Substitute”, and even that was a lot weightier in its live setting. The rest of the record was made up of extended versions of “My Generation” (which became a sort of free-floating medley incorporating bits of “See Me, Feel Me”, “Sparks”, and the seeds of “Naked Eye”) and “Magic Bus”, as well as a trio of oldies the band had recorded in the studio but hadn’t released properly. These performances of jazzman Mose Alison’s “Young Man Blues”, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over”, and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” were the real treasures of Live at Leeds, showcasing the group’s unique instrumental interplay in more listenable, compact packages than the marathon runs of “My Generation” and “Magic Bus”.

Live at Leeds was a smash for The Who making the Top 5 on both sides of the Atlantic. The single release of “Summertime Blues” made the top forty. Rock fans were wowed by the band’s power and instrumental prowess and impressed with Roger Daltrey’s ability to shout as powerfully as Pete Townshend’s thrashing power chords, Keith Moon’s kit-pummeling, and John Entwistle’s nimble, thick bass lines. If Bless Its Pointed Little Head wasn’t far behind Leeds in terms of quality, it certainly lagged regarded commercial success and artistic influence. Before the end of the year, The Stones’ got in on the act with their fine Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out!: The Rolling Stones in Concert. The remainder of the decade saw the live album grow into a major commercial property, with artists like Cheap Trick, Wings, Peter Frampton, Kiss, and Led Zeppelin releasing sprawling, million-selling live statements. Some (like the Cheap Trick record) were very good, but others were often bloated and pretentious.

By the ‘80s, the live album had basically devolved back to the same slap-dash, stop-gap status it held prior to Bless Its Pointed Little Head and Live at Leeds. The Who were just as guilty as anyone else, putting out lazy, money-grabs like Who’s Last (1984) and Join Together (1990). They were more than redeemed when MCA expanded the original Live at Leeds to include all of the non-Tommy material (with the exception of a stunning “Amazing Journey/Sparks”) in 1995. With this release, Live at Leeds grew from simply the greatest live album to one of The Who’s most enjoyable. The extended set revealed more traces of The Who as they sounded on record in the ‘60s. Comical pop songs like “Happy Jack”, “I’m a Boy” and “Tattoo” were couldn’t lose their sweetness and grace no matter how heavily the group hammered them out. Along with “I Can’t Explain”, Benny Spellman’s “Fortune Teller’, and a jolly rendition of “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, these numbers also highlighted the band’s exceptional vocal harmonies better than anything on the original Leeds. Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell”, the standard opening number of the Tommy concerts, is given its definitive performance here, as fast and frenetic as The Who ever sounded.

But the greatest revelation may be the between-song interchanges between the band and the audience. With all crowd sounds and dialogue edited from the six-song version, it never really hinted at how much fun everyone was having during this particular gig. Now you could hear Keith Moon’s clowning asides during Townshend’s lengthy song introductions. You could hear the crowd cheering on the hero and hissing at the villain of “A Quick One”. Even Townshend, who could be a real sourpuss sometimes, sounds like he’s having a ball. After “My Generation” he says “Well, this is certainly the nicest thing that’s ever happened to us,” and really sounds like he means it.

Live at Leeds was expanded once more to include all of the Tommy numbers in 2001, and although live versions of these songs had already been officially released on Join Together and Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (1996), they’d never sounded better, making the “deluxe edition” an essential Who release. It’s also nice to have the full-set collected. If nothing else, two discs worth of Live at Leeds is a testament to The Who’s incredible stamina. Just listening to this much high-energy material is exhausting. Imagine what it was like to play it!
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