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by Justin Farrar

January 11, 2012

Source Material | Classic Rock

Source Material: The Who, Live at Leeds

by Justin Farrar  |  January 11, 2012

The Who's Live at Leeds is considered by many rock nerds out there to be the greatest live album of all time; it might be the most brutal and bombastic as well. The music is hard rock, (proto) punk and heavy metal all wrapped into one viciously LOUD assault. Over the course of the 1970 album's six tracks (2001's deluxe edition contains 33), the band kicks your head in as though you were a seedy Rocker on the Brighton pier in need of a savage beating.

Greil Marcus, in his review for Rolling Stone, wrote that he believed the music's primal fury represented a regression for the group: "The Music itself is not nearly so fine. It has aged, and while the time for the album is right, the time for the music has passed, for the band, and perhaps for us as well." The track list was definitely dated for the time. It consists of three covers ("Young Man Blues," "Summertime Blues" and "Shakin' All Over") and three Pete Townshend originals ("My Generation," "The Magic Bus," and "Substitute") that date back to the mid-1960s. Though these recordings were made on the band's supporting tour for Tommy, released just the previous year, that music is for the most part absent from the original version of Live at Leeds. In the middle of a 15-minute "My Generation," they break into "Listening to You" and "See Me, Feel Me" for a spell. But that's just about it. Thus, the progressive Who, the one rapidly gaining popularity for their sweeping rock operas about deep philosophical issues and pinball, is nowhere to be found; for the moment they're just four sonic Neanderthals pulverizing their instruments.

The irony is that Live at Leeds is just as conceptual as Tommy, just in an entirely different way. Rock was evolving at an accelerated clip in the late 1960s. While The Who got all heady and arty on The Who Sell Out and Tommy, a new generation of hard rock bands had emerged that were taking the concept of heavy, a concept The Who had originally helped pioneer, to new extremes: Mountain, Humble Pie, Free, MC5, Black Sabbath, Cactus, Ten Years After and, of course, Zeppelin. The myth is that Live at Leeds was The Who's sonic rebuke to all these upstarts, particularly Zep. They wanted to remind rock fans that they were the real Kings of Heavy. In order to achieve this, they very cleverly edited the live recordings (made at the University of Leeds on February 14, 1970), cutting the Tommy material while stitching together the concert's hardest-rocking moments. As a result, the original Live at Leeds doesn't capture an actual performance; it's more like a simulation of what the heaviest, loudest live performance possible might sound like -- according to The Who.

Though the band didn't know it at the time, Live at Leeds also served as something of a goodbye. In 1971, The Who would release Who's Next, the record that transformed them into arena-sized superstars. Never again would they tour sweaty halls and university auditoriums.

I compiled my Source Material using three criteria: influences (Eddie Cochran, Johnny Kidd, Mose Allison), those hard rock bands that spurred The Who to release Live at Leeds (Zeppelin, Cactus, Humble Pie), and a few tips of the hat to their Mod past (The Mod Scene compilation).

Playlist action: I created two this time around. The first is your standard Source Material playlist (Source Material: The Who, Live at Leeds), consisting of selections from the albums below. The second The Who - Live At Leeds (Original 1970 Track List)) contains the tracklist for the original Live at Leeds release. The 2001 reissue, which is what Rhapsody features in The Who's discography, is fantastic. But because it contains the Tommy material, it's a different beast, conceptually.

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