Monday, November 16, 2009

The Who - Live at Leeds

Yes, I know, I'm late to the party. Doesn't make much sense reviewing a record that came out almost 40 years ago, does it? Well, it's new to me and sufficiently mind-blowing to necessitate some exposition.

Word on the street is that Pete Townshend burned all the tapes from a US tour in a huge bonfire and then booked a short British tour for the purpose of creating a live album. This is after The Who Sell Out and Tommy, and before Who's Next and Quadrophenia, literally at the very apex of the band's prodigious powers. It was common for the band to perform Tommy in its entirety in this period, which they did at the Leeds show, and whose performance they included in the Deluxe edition of Live at Leeds in 2001.

To be honest, it doesn't make much sense to include the famous (at this point, infamous) rock opera with a live album that was always intended to sound and look like a bootleg. The non-Tommy music is The Who at their most unhinged; Tommy is The Who at their most structured, relying on story and order rather than combustible energy. For this reason, I prefer the 1995 reissue of the album, which includes the original six songs on the 1970 album, along with eight other tunes (including "Amazing Journey" and "Sparks" from the Tommy part of the set.)

Recorded Valentine's Day 1970, Live at Leeds fucking rocks the house, busts eardrums and roofs and molars and loins. It is HEAVY, intense, and insane. The Who go all Cream on our heads with all three instrumentalists soloing at the same time ("Heaven and Hell"), but bassist John Entwistle (known as The Ox) and drummer Keith Moon are incomparably better than Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. When guitarist Pete Townshend solos he sounds like a rhythm player, and of course The Ox knows this and solos himself as Pete is going off and Moon is just himself - nuts and playing fills and rolls without abandon - while vocalist Roger Daltrey wails his way to goldenlocked rock n' roll glory.

All the unexpected segues ("See Me, Feel Me" and "Underture," among them) in "My Generation" are flawless; "Young Man Blues" is protometal; the two chord pounce after the "Soon Be Home" section in the middle of "A Quick One (While He's Away)" is punk and grunge melodic power at its mightiest. It's incredible how the record sounds both so heavy and loud and yet so spare at the same time. There's a lot of space between the instruments. Perhaps that has to do with the lack of rhythmic accompaniment (either bass, keys, rhythm guitar) to "main" instruments, since all musicians are basically playing lead. Everybody is going at it, it's life or death, jam out or risk annihilation. It's the most rock n' roll record I've ever heard, the most unapologetic, and the most prophetic. Yes, The Who's maximum R&B is highlighted here, but there are also punk, metal, and grunge moments.

Listening to this record makes me wonder why The Who is the most underrated band among the rightly famous British bands - Beatles, Stones, Led Zep - from the golden age of rock. I think their reputation has suffered in the last decade or so because the perceived and acknowledged pretentiousness of Tommy the rock opera. The band's standing in rock's pantheon of greatness will surely be subject of another post, but for now, let Live at Leeds be exhibit A for The Who's immortality.

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