Putting the cart before the horse, here’s the introduction I wrote on the upgraded Live At Leeds CD, which was amended along the way as the upgrading process evolved. Like many fans I was dismayed by the quality of the initial Polygram CDs, the ones that came out in the eighties, and sought to put this right. I’m aware that the first wave of new CDs wasn’t perfect but I like to think that I set the ball rolling, sort of laid the foundations, with the work I did for The Who in the nineties, and am delighted that subsequent researchers have improved on it.
Note that this was written long before the expensive mega-packages were conceived, long before the Hull CD was made available on the deluxe Leeds and the Ottawa CD was part of the deluxe Tommy. As I may have mentioned before, I argued long and hard for a complete live Tommy (from Leeds) to be issued as a fifth CD in the 30 Years Of Maximum R&B box set but was told that a five-CD package was out of the question on the grounds of cost and because Pete didn't think it was good enough. Things would change...
To see The Who in concert at the tail end of the sixties was to experience the very best that live rock could offer, anywhere in the world. Like all bands that met as teenagers and managed to stay together through thick and thin, playing on stage became second nature to The Who – at least when they did it regularly. On their best nights a sixth sense seemed to take over the tiller and lead them and their audiences towards a kind of rock nirvana that most bands can only dream about.
Accordingly, Live At Leeds is far and away the best live album of its era. In its original incarnation, it was designed to showcase the rough and ready in-yer-face rock band that The Who had been before rock operas sidetracked their principal writer. As John Entwistle was heard to mutter in disgust, "Some people think the band's called Tommy and the album's called The Who." The original Live At Leeds LP, recorded at Leeds University in northern England on February 14, 1970, put a stop to that.
The previous year The Who had recorded dozens of shows during their tours of the US but when they returned Pete Townshend couldn't face listening to the tapes. So he told sound engineer Bobby Pridden to burn them all on a giant bonfire and asked The Who's managers to book a couple of small shows in the UK, both of which would be recorded on the Pye mobile. (As we now know Pridden did not carry out Pete's wishes to the letter, for which we can all be thankful.) As well as recording at Leeds University, The Who also recorded a show at Hull City Hall the following night, but these tapes malfunctioned and had to be scrapped.
The original album offered just six tracks, 'Young Man Blues', 'Substitute', 'Summertime Blues', 'Shakin' All Over', 'My Generation' and 'Magic Bus', all of them performed as high energy explosions of potent rock, as heavy as anything anyone anywhere was performing at the time. But The Who weren't just a heavy rock band. The three instrumentalists had developed a unique ability to play off one another, to career off into uncharted territory and return to base at the crack of Townshend's baton. Keith Moon never played a drum solo but he always treated the drums as a lead instrument, effectively soloing all the time and, with his emphasis on rolls and cymbal washes, creating a huge wall of sound from behind. John Entwistle, surely the most gifted bass player of his generation, held down the beat but at the same time played imaginative mid-range runs – or fat chords – at every notch on his fretboard. With all this going on around him, Pete was allowed the luxury of soloing at will – knowing that if he missed a note it didn't matter because the sheer din of Moonie and The Ox covered everything up – or doing what he did best, which was to establish a chord riff and ram it home.
That was the old Live At Leeds. When The Who’s back-catalogue was reassessed in the mid-nineties, with bonus tracks added to all the new CDs, together with substantial sleeve-notes, a new Live At Leeds was issued that contained all the songs performed by The Who that night outside of Tommy, barring the ‘Amazing Journey’/‘Sparks’ medley. Finally, on this third edition, The Who’s entire Leeds performance – including Tommy – is made available at last.
The inclusion of Tommy surely proves beyond any doubt that Roger Daltrey belongs among the greats when rock singers are discussed. The experience of singing Tommy to vast audiences across America did wonders for Roger's confidence and his singing improved immeasurably as a result. Always a rocker at heart, Roger was at his best on oldies like 'Summertime Blues' and 'Shakin' All Over', but now he brought a new dimension to more demanding material like 'A Quick One', ‘Tattoo' and some of The Who's early singles on which he, and Pete and John, were called upon to sing in a higher register and deliver more complex harmony lines. Tommy offered Roger the opportunity to stretch out like never before and, as he sang the cycle of Tommy songs, in the eyes of the audience he somehow became Tommy Walker, the deaf, dumb and blind boy of Pete's imagination. The experience probably kick-started his acting career.
Here was a live band capable of outperforming all the competition with breathtaking panache. The result, says Pete, was "the sound of [a] tremendous machine working almost by itself, that incredible chemistry we had in The Who, and that we kept right up until Keith Moon dropped dead."
In its original form, designed to look like a bootleg with a printed warning that scratches weren't the fault of your record player, Live At Leeds reached number 3 in the UK album charts and number 4 in the US. (The package also contained facsimiles of documents dating back to The Who's earliest days, with the result that years afterwards, perhaps even after the original purchaser had died, people who came across them contacted Trinifold, The Who's management company, offering to return them – at a price. Bill still chuckles over that!)
The tracks on CD 1 of this newly extended version feature those songs performed at Leeds before and after Tommy, which came between ‘A Quick One’ and ‘Summertime Blues’. Often, when they reached the end of Tommy – a medley of 21 integrated songs no less, performed virtually back-to-back – it took them less than half a minute to catch their breath before launching into a scorching ‘Summertime Blues’. Such energy puts The Who’s dedication to the art of stagecraft into sharp focus.