By the late ‘60s The Who had forged a considerable reputation as a live act, and this record had a lot to do with cementing that reputation once and for all. The concept of a live album was something the group had been mulling over for quite a while, as a way of capturing their explosive onstage presence. With this in mind, the band booked two shows scheduled for the 14th and 15th of February, 1970 at Leeds University and Hull Theatre respectively, but due to technical difficulties, the Hull performance was deemed unusable (it has however since been issued), therefore Leeds it had to be. And even though The Who had amassed hours of tape from their recent tour in the US, they chose to release an LP comprised of recordings made in their own native country.
“Young Man Blues”, the track which opens the original record, comes and goes like a thunderbolt through the listener’s living room, on which Pete Townshend proves himself as not only one of the most energetic, but also one of the brainiest hard rock guitarists of his generation. Roger Daltrey wails like a demon on heat, John Entwistle establishes himself as the heaviest bass player on the planet, while Keith Moon must have grown an extra pair of arms to do what he’s doing with the drum kit. They pound their way through an immaculately executed “Substitute”, a song which benefits enormously from being performed in a live setting, enhancing its punkish insolence quite considerably from the original 45.
And speaking of punk, Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” gets a serious hard rock facelift (not that the original was in any way lightweight to begin with), after which is a thunderous cover of Johnny Kidd’s 1960 classic “Shakin’ All Over”, here reinvented as a deafening ode to every teenage male whose hormones are all dressed up but with nowhere to go.
“My Generation” is a tornado-like blockbuster, so much so that it’s difficult to discern which instrument is leading. Is it Entwistle’s bass, or Moon’s impossibly hyperactive drumming? Maybe it’s Townshend’s agitated guitar, or Daltrey’s atavistic roar? Who cares – because what we hear are four musicians acting as one cohesive yet chaotic whole. Throughout its fourteen minutes the band play excerpts from their recent album Tommy along with a few volcanic instrumental outbursts in between, and not one of them misses a beat (obviously the drugs were well and truly working that night). And as the audience was managing to catch its breath, the band launch into an extended “Magic Bus”, winding the crowd up (and Keith Moon) in the process, before a rousing outrageous finish.
As of 2016 there are no less than four versions of this album, the 1970 LP, an expanded 1995 release, a 2CD deluxe edition (from 2001), and a whopping 4CD 40th Anniversary box which includes their gig at Hull. Often cited as the greatest live rock album ever, Live At Leeds is a monumental statement. And although the various expanded editions are no doubt essential, they somehow diminish to a certain extent the overall impact of the original. That such a primitive quartet made up of little more than guitar, bass, drums and vocals could generate such a powerful, cacophonous sound is nothing short of remarkable, not unlike Led Zeppelin around the same time. It’s as if each member was competing for dominance over the other, like four twisters attempting to destroy the same town at once.
Though what makes Leeds remarkable isn’t just the powerful performances it contains, but the fact that it didn’t require any editing or overdubs, unlike The Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya Yas out for instance, which was pressed in the same year. That’s due to The Who being competent and confident enough in their own playing to issue a document capable of standing on its own terms, and a rock and roll artifact that remains even to this day a hard one to beat.