Live At Leeds
Best song: My Generation
Worst song: A Quick One While He’s Away (introduction too long, and while it’s a career landmark it didn’t need to be played live)
Overall grade: 5 / 6 / low 6 (original LP / 1995 reissue / 2001 deluxe)
It’s impossible to write about Live At Leeds without acknowledging its status of being generally considered “the best live album of all time”, a reputation I was well aware of before I even heard it for the first time. And after I had actually heard it, my first reaction was ‘Wow, that’s a bit short, isn’t it?’ And with regards to the original LP (I’ll discuss other versions too, though) that’s certainly stuck with me. Live albums are great for two reasons: they show a side of a band that’s not present on their studio recordings, and they recreate the experience of going to a concert. The original Live At Leeds scores excellently on the first point: this is The Who as you’ve never seen them before, fuelled purely by adrenaline, climbing higher and higher and attempting to embody the very definition of rock’n’roll. But as far as the second point goes, concerts are generally longer than 36 minutes, and so this version kind of seems like a teaser trailer for something much bigger. Although unlike a movie’s teaser trailer, it doesn’t even include the best bits.
Also unlike a movie’s teaser trailer, the definitive version wasn’t released until a full 25 years later. And the extended edition/director’s cut wasn’t released for another six years after that. Consequently, there are three different versions of Live At Leeds (there’s actually more, but they include Live At Hull and I’m not even going to go there) – so which one of these, if any, deserves this honour of being the world’s greatest live album?
Point one: ‘My Generation’. This song appears on every version and is also the best song on every version – in the 1970 LP it takes up over a third of the record, so that’s a point in its favour. It’d be easy to love the original studio version of this song and hate this one, or vice versa, but I see the appeal in both: the original was a triumph of proto-punk that succeeded in its brevity, while here the band stretch out a little more and engage in a customary-for-the-time jam session that’s cool because it’s not at all random, it includes excerpts from a bunch of other songs.
Point two: covers. The Who used to play a lot of cover songs live, and three are included on the original version, with a fourth on the extended. They’re mostly R’n’B songs from the 50s and early 60s that the band have sped up and given a harder edge to, and in actual fact, my favourite is ‘Fortune Teller’, and I can’t understand why it was left off the original. It may have been covered by a huge number of bands, but this is by far and away my favourite version. One point to the reissue.
Point four: ‘Tommy’. 2001’s deluxe edition is the only one to include a live performance of almost the entire rock opera, shortened only slightly, and although I’m hardly the biggest fan of the original, but performed on stage it comes into its own, giving life to the most aimless songs. Townshend, who at times in his career has tried to be too calculating and mathematical in his songwriting, is thinking less here about the story of a pinball-obsessed deaf, dumb and blind boy and more about his own exciting and ferocious guitar work. One point to the 2001 expanded edition for creating something great out of something very patchy (although the live version lacks diversity compared to the studio.)
Point four: all other songs. ‘Substitute’ and ‘Magic Bus’ are the only two to appear on all versions – both non-album singles, they’re both very obvious choices which are obviously awesome but don’t leave room for any more underappreciated choices. One of my favourite moments from the 1995 reissue is the opener, Entwhistle’s B-side ‘Heaven And Hell’, featuring a great bassline that really gets the crowd excited for the coming set. ‘Tattoo’, from Sell Out, is another hidden gem in this version, sandwiched between two covers, and shows Keith Moon’s drums basically taking on a life of their own. This extended version allows for a greater variety of songs, and I like the varied lengths and styles they cover, so one point for the reissue.
Point five: timing. The concert was recorded in 1970, after the Who’s first four albums, but before the great trio that were still to come. All songs on all versions come from this concert, meaning they don’t capture the spread of a whole career. No additional points for any version.
Of the three options here, I think it’s safe to say that the LP version is the weakest; its only selling point being that it’s available on vinyl, which to my knowledge the later ones are not. I think the 1995 edition is plenty long enough to satisfy most fans and give the full concert experience, and it’s also more structured than the 2001 version, where some songs are re-ordered so that Tommy can have its own disc. Whether they like Tommy particularly or not, every fan of the band should hear the live version to compare and contrast, but in my mind the single greatest version of Live At Leeds is the 1995 reissue, with the 2001 version playing more like two entirely separate concerts rather than the single entity that a great live album should be.
As to whether it’s the greatest live album of all time, it’s certainly a contender for its raw power (you honestly get the feeling that the band physically couldn’t have stopped playing, even in the face of an explosion or something) and encapsulation of the concertgoing experience, but it fails to capture some other sides of the band, released as it was at a time when their intelligence played less of a part in songwriting. That said, the first two elements were probably lost as the band progressed further. In short, it captures the band at their live peak but not at their musical peak, and so it’s a great album, but I can think of a few better examples from where bands’ peaks in both areas overlapped.