Friday, October 28, 2011

The Who Live At Leeds

I bought this the week it came out back in May 1970, when I was not quite 13, from the camera shop where my first crush sometimes worked behind the counter when I walked to town with my lawn mowing money to buy singles and later, bargain bin LPs. To this day, it's one of those albums I can replay in my head note for note (as I recently did while running), even though I haven't owned a copy of the original vinyl in 22 years (since my future ex-wife donated my records to Goodwill in Shreveport).

My interest was piqued by Nik Cohn's preview in the New York Times, wherein he pronounced it the best live rock album ever and promised a setlist that included John Entwistle's "Heaven and Hell," Benny Spellman's "Fortune Teller," "Tattoo" from The Who Sell Out (still my favorite Who song) and then-unheard-by-me early Who gems including "I'm A Boy" and "A Quick One While He's Away" -- none of which were on the LP when it appeared, and which I'd have to wait for the 1995 remastered CD version to hear. Cohn's description of the album's aural impact clicked with the live pics of the band I'd seen -- they looked like they'd sound lethal -- but not with the incandescent and magical, light and airy sound of Sell Out, the album of theirs I'd discovered and become obsessed with after being underwhelmed by Tommy.

It was packaged like a bootleg (plain brown wrapper with stenciled lettering), which was fitting, because it was meant to foil the bootleggers. It smelled like an art book; in the pocket on one side of the gatefold were replicas of memorabilia including bills for equipment and pyrotechnics (evidence that for the first five years of their existence, the Who were like a furnace that burned money), typescript lyrics with hand-scrawled notes in the margins, a rejection letter from EMI, a photo from the session that produced their first U.S. album cover (with Townshend looking like a gargoyle in his pudding-bowl haircut), the contract for their Woodstock appearance and another photo of boiler-suited Townshend leaping with his SG held aloft as the sun rose. Best of all was the Marquee Club "maximum R&B" poster with Richard Barnes' iconic photo of Townshend with his arm about to swoop down on his Rickenbacker, which stayed on my bedroom wall until I moved to Texas, eight years later.

The label info, hand-written by Townshend, included the injunction, "Crackling noises OK - do not correct!" (Apparently Entwistle had a noisy guitar cable.) I dropped the needle on the first side, and the snarling guitar chords that introduced "Young Man Blues" pinned me to the wall. In some ways, I am still there. Mose Allison's original had been a relatively subdued, piano-driven jazz number, really just a snippet of a talking blues.

But in the Who's hands, it was transformed into a taut, tense explosion of frustration and anger -- and a living example of Townshend's claim that rock 'n' roll is about triumph, not rebellion.

Townshend had come a long way since he developed his "ridiculously demonstrative" stage demeanor to compensate for the fact that he couldn't play like Eric Clapton. With a few years of touring under his belt at 25, he'd managed to develop an original and highly aggressive approach to guitar strangling out of an unlikely set of influences: John Lee Hooker, Steve Cropper, flamenco, a little Barney Kessel. On "Young Man Blues," he made his guitar (strung with absurdly heavy gauges -- .056 to .013 -- because he hit them so hard) bark and snarl like a mad dog. (If this doesn't sound like an accomplishment, try bending a wound G string a full step sometime.)

Entwistle and Moon, undeniably the most explosive of the vaunted Brit power trio riddim sections, backed him to the hilt, and Daltrey -- who'd struggled to come up with a frontman persona after the band shifted their focus from R&B covers to Townshend's compositions -- finally found his feet as the Who, with Tommy, progressed from the intimacy of clubs and ballrooms to the larger stages of sheds and stadiums, which required grander gestures. When he ends "Young Man Blues" with a scream of "They got SWEEEEEEET fuck-all," it carries real weight and authority.

Townshend later claimed (in his Rolling Stone preview of Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy) that "Substitute" was intended as a parody of the Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown," but what it really sounds like is an attempt to write a Motown song, loaded with hooks: the chorded guitar intro, the buoyant bass line, Moon's tom-tom fills like the whole stable of Funk Brothers drummers going off at once.

Of course, The Who had plenty of experience covering what were referred to in the UK as "Tamla Motown" artists. At different times, they recorded Martha and the Vandellas' "Heatwave" and "Motoring," Marvin Gaye's "Baby Don't Do It," and Eddie Holland's "Leaving Here." Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp's 1964 footage of the High Numbers, which surfaced in 2007, shows them performing Smokey Robinson's "I Gotta Dance to Keep From Crying."

On the Leeds version of "Substitute," they omit the instrumental verse from the single, and Daltrey sings the original lyrics ("I look all white but my dad was black") that were re-recorded as "I tried going forth but I keep walking back" for the U.S. release.

"Summertime Blues," the Eddie Cochran rock 'n' roll song, was featured in the Woodstock movie and was an AM radio hit the summer of Leeds. What struck me the most about the Leeds version was the way the 3rd interval of the D chord stood out, although I wouldn't learn those terms until I snaked the Music Theory 101 text from a buddy who was taking it at community college a few years later. You could really hear the sound of Townshend's SG-through-Hiwatt, and the acoustics of the university student union where they recorded. I insisted on playing this song in every band I was in between ages 16 and 19. Although I didn't realize it until I heard the '95 remaster, this was actually the first song of the encore, following the Tommy songs.

"Shakin' All Over," by early Brit rocker Johnny Kidd, opens with a stinging guitar line and proceeds with slinky menace into a shuddering jam. What I originally thought was a steal from the Beatles' "Get Back" was actually the Who's take on Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful," which Daltrey avoided singing so as not to have to pay royalties to Willie Dixon. (I'd learn this when I saw the video of the Who's 1970 Isle of Wight performance a couple of decades later.)

Turning the record over, "My Generation" -- a song that started out as a Dylanesque talking blues and wound up being the Who's defining hit until "Won't Get Fooled Again" supplanted it -- begins with a roar of audience approbation. The original single started out in the key of G, but by Valentine's Day 1970, they'd transposed it to A. You've gotta hear the vinyl, because the remastered CD versions tweak out Daltrey's scream before he sings "Just because we get around," and two bars where Entwistle fluffs a line in his iconic bass solo. Instead of smashing their instruments at the end, they go into a reprise of the Tommy finale, with nifty double-stopped lead from Townshend, then the outro jam from "Naked Eye," a song they wouldn't release for another 20 years.

From there, Townshend takes off on a little fingerpicked fantasia against a droning D, playing off the room's echo, before reprising the "Sparks" theme from Tommy. They jam on it for awhile, then Pete noodles some more, hits a heavy chordal lick that sticks, and they ride it until he cues a stop, then they're off into the Tommy "Underture." When that, um, peters out, Townshend gets into something that sounds like a nervous John Lee Hooker boogie, which gallops along until the final rush of feedback and crashing drums.

In the 30 Years of Maximum R&B video, Townshend says that "Magic Bus" is the Who song he loves to play above all others, while Entwistle avers that he hates it because it's "30 minutes of A." You can hear both of their points in the Leeds version, which omits most of the lyrics in favor of a call-and-response routine between Daltrey and Townshend. Townshend sounds absolutely abandoned, while Entwistle gets to ride the Bo Diddley shave-and-a-haircut beat, for a lot less than 30 minutes -- the whole track is under eight on the LP. You get another little taste of Howlin' Wolf -- "Smokestack Lightning" this time -- before they collectively go off in an aural orgy that's the sonic equivalent of wrecking the house.

Sure, much of the second side is formless and self-indulgent in a way no band would dare attempt today, but that's part of its charm. My track-running, bass-playing second college roommate and I, growing up in different towns on Long Island, learned the whole thing by rote, including the mistakes, to the point where we could sing all the parts, and this became the basis for our friendship the night we met. Over the next few months, he slowly and laboriously schooled me in musical structure, and we practiced relentlessly together, all the while abusing substances indiscriminately.

Four years later, I was living in Austin when he called me from Colorado and invited me up to make a band. I didn't tell him I hadn't touched a guitar in a year. Instead, I went out and bought the heaviest strings I could find and practiced like I hadn't in years. When I arrived in Aspen with my SG and tweed Deluxe, he told me, "You're better than I am now. I used to think you were terrible." (He'd frozen his hands and feet, falling asleep drunk while winter camping in New Jersey, and reinvented himself as a punk drummer before learning how to play bass again. The doctors had wanted to take his fingers and toes.) One of the songs we played, before I got run out of town on a rail, was the "My Generation" medley from Leeds.

By now, the thing has been reissued four times: the initial crappy MCA CD from '85, the '95 remaster, the 2001 "deluxe edition" with all the Tommy songs restored, the 2010 40th anniversary edition with all that plus the complete Hull show that was supposed to be released before they discovered that Entwistle's bass didn't record on the first four tracks and assumed the whole recording was flawed (now compensated for digitally, of course -- and "Crackling noises have been corrected!"). While I was happy to hear what Cohn promised in the '95 remaster, I don't think the original six-song LP has ever been surpassed by any of the subsequent CD releases. (For one thing, I'm still kind of indifferent to Tommy.)

That said, if I want to experience the fury of the '70 Who nowadays, I'll reach for a DVD, not a CD or even an LP. What made them great in their heyday was their majestic and ridiculous physical presence, and without it, you're missing half the show -- not just the outrageous ham showmanship of three out of four musos, but also the onstage interplay (and hilarious between-song hijinks) of Townshend and Moon.

Murray Lerner's film of the Isle of Wight performance has been released in a few different video configurations, and its editing actually allows you to enjoy all the good stuff without having to skip through the Tommy bit. True, by August, when the Who played IoW, a lot of the pre-Tommy material had been dropped from their set in favor of inferior later songs like "Water" and "I Don't Even Know Myself." If you're a hardcore fan of the early stuff, you can see a lot of those songs performed in the 1969 London Coliseum show that's included as a bonus disc with Live At Kilburn 1977. But the crappy 8mm video, full of gaps where cameras were being reloaded, is no match for Lerner's snazzy cinematography.

Live At Leeds remains the classic, though. If only due to familiarity, the set sounds formally perfect in a way that none of the filmed ones do. To these feedback-scorched ears, what makes it really resonate is the rough edges and rawness, combined with the cockiness of players performing at their peak, and beginning to comprehend their own power. By their nature, moments like Leeds are fleeting, and if they're documented, we're fortunate to have them.


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