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The Who: Many Happy Returns To 'Live At Leeds'

Monday, 18 May 2015 Written by Graeme Marsh

Live albums are a staple part of the rock diet, but few end up as career-defining moments. There’s Nirvana, of course, with their modern day classic ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’, Thin Lizzy’s ‘Live And Dangerous’ or Neil Young’s ‘Live Rust’, two cast-iron classics from the late ‘70s.

But a short period in history stands out as a golden one for the live record. In 1968, Johnny Cash released ‘At Folsom Prison’ and a matter of months later, MC5’s raw, punk-inspiring ‘Kick Out The Jams’ emerged. In 1970, the Rolling Stones put out a prize asset, ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out’.

The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’ arrived the same year. But for newcomers it’s probably a little mystifying as to why this album – as well as most of the others mentioned – holds such a revered place in music history. Shorn of grandiose billing or pomp, though, the recording captures the electricity transferred between a band in their prime and an audience that had been a snaking queue for much of a freezing Valentine’s Day.

A representative live recording of the band, who post-’Tommy’ had entered a new phase of controlled fury on stage, had long been elusive. Their previous world tour had been mined for recordings, but Pete Townshend was daunted by the prospect of trawling through all the tapes. Instead, two small shows were hastily booked in Leeds and at Hull City Hall. The second gig was eliminated from the running when John Entwistle’s bass failed to record properly.

With few options available, the Leeds gig then became the focal point. Over 2000 students attended at a cost of around £6 a head, with tickets selling out in just an hour. Another 1000, it’s said, perched to listen on the hall’s roof. "We just had a feeling it was going to be good," Townshend told Patrick Dean of the Yorkshire Evening Post after the show. "We played better than we have for a long time."

The gig sprawled across more than two hours, with expansive cuts from ‘Tommy’ rubbing shoulders with brutish renditions of the band’s early material and several covers. Remarkably, the original LP contained a mere six tracks, half of which were not Who originals. There would be no place for Entwistle’s masterpiece, Heaven And Hell, or the first single released by the band under the Who moniker, I Can’t Explain, with its defining riff.

Covers of Mose Allison’s Young Man Blues, Johnny Kidd And The Pirates’ Shakin’ All Over and Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues would all make the first side, along with Substitute. The second side was simply breathtaking and included a 15-minute version of mod anthem My Generation, where Townshend’s guitar solos led the band through sections of ‘Tommy’ in a stop/start format. The album concluded with fan favourite Magic Bus.

“The Who in action are an incredible experience,” Dean wrote. “[Pete] Townshend leaping and cavorting in a white boiler-suit, the inexhaustible and furious Keith Moon, and [Roger] Daltrey resplendent in his famous fringes, swinging the microphone like a lasso, create an atmosphere of furious excitement. Behind it all, the black-clad figure of John Entwistle stands immobile, laying down the fat, solid, driving bass that is the root of the Who’s dynamic sound.”

Copies of the original release contained photos and replicas of documents from the Who’s career, including show takings, a poster and rejection letters. A deliberate blue ‘stamp’ on the brown sleeve was designed to mimic bootleg releases, while a warning notice - "Crackling noises OK, do not correct" - betrayed the fact that a loose connection caused interference throughout.

Subsequent reissues would see other tracks from the gig surface. In 1995, a CD release contained 14 of the 33 tracks played that night, while 2001 heralded the emergence of the whole thing, including a separate ‘Tommy’ disc. It’s perhaps best to leave the final word to someone who was in the room. As Dean concluded back in 1970: “For all those who were fortunate enough to be there on this memorable night, it will be a constant reminder that pop music has reached standards that five years ago were unthinkable.”

The Who Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sun June 21 2015 - BELFAST Odyssey Arena
Tue June 23 2015 - DUBLIN 3Arena
Fri June 26 2015 - LONDON Hyde Park

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