Whether or not this is “the best live rock album of all time”, it’s certainly had a phenomenal impact on the world of music, and since not even Wikipedia mentions the availability of a compact cassette version, I’ve done my good deed for the day and added this rather interesting specimen to the Internet.
You know the basics: recorded at Leeds Uni in February 1970, this ass-kickin’ burn-up from the golden age of early rock features the classic line-up of The Who during what was surely their most influential phase.
And influential The Who Live At Leeds certainly was. Even over a decade after the recording, when I was first going to see live bands in the early to mid 1980s, I was hearing a comprehensive barrage of this album’s personality traits blasting out of PA systems in venues large and small.
At that time, I didn’t know where those personality traits were coming from. We all think, as teenagers, that our favourite bands invented rock ‘n’ roll. But I kept hearing the mantra among those in the know… “The Who Live at Leeds”, “The Who Live at Leeds”… When I finally assimilated the hype and checked out the album, everything fell into place. All those ‘fantastically original’ bands I’d been hearing were actually mimicking their idols, and THIS was the source. Some of the bands that appropriated Live at Leeds’ characteristics in the late ’70s and early ’80s were even kitting themselves out with the same gear that The Who had used for the original concert.
Of course, The Who were themselves influenced by others, and you hear that in the performance, which indeed includes covers of other artists’ work. Some sequences do render the album ‘of its time’, but the elements that truly characterised The Who, as opposed to the more fashion-led components, sound as up to date now as ever.
THE ACTUAL TAPE
The cassette is technically nothing special. It has a normal ferric-oxide tape formulation, with heightened visual spectacle courtesy of a bright red leader section. But as is often the case with these old audio cassettes, the balance of frequencies is perfect, and the analogue preservation softens and rounds the feel on playback in a way digital storage just can’t replicate. It’s almost like the sound is resting on cushions, as opposed to sitting on a hard stone floor.
I’m not really sure where the magic gets lost in a CD transfer, but it does. More than anything it’s probably the playback system. Reading ones and zeros off a piece of digital media is not going to produce the same variations as the mechanical process of sensing magnetic tape. The subtle distortions, wows and flutters of mechanical playback are evolving all the time. Maybe that’s why, subconsciously, we interpret audio tape playback as somehow fresher and more stimulating.
The recording is presented in stereo, and that couldn’t be more blatantly obvious. It’s got great sonic spaciousness for an old recording without any modern remastering, and the listening experience is moreish… “This really is that last time now – then I’m putting away… No okay then, once more, but I really mean it this time…”
The album’s branding is that of the much-lauded 1960s and 1970s rock label Track Records, with the sleeve inlay clearly citing the product as being manufactured by Polydor Records Ltd, London. The inlay was printed in England too. The product code is SPEMC 50.
Worthy of special mention is the amount of overdrive on John Entwistle’s bass. When integrated with the band it just sounds gritty, defined, detailed and cutting, but during the solo breaks in My Generation you’re thinking: “Oh my God! The amp is literally falling apart.” Extremely heavy, and one of the reasons, I’m sure, why The Who sounded so full with just three instrumental components.
The intricacy and aggression of Keith Moon’s drumming and Entwistle’s bass created sufficient interest to allow guitarist Pete Townshend to fill out the midrange with solid, thick chords and slabs of rhythm work – a different approach from other rock bands of the time, whose guitarists tended to take the elaborate role. Townshend would sometimes comment in interviews:
“If John Entwistle wasn’t the lead guitarist in The Who, then Keith Moon was, because I certainly wasn’t.”
Why am I now feeling the urge to go and grab one of my Gibson electrics and power up an old valve amp?… I suppose that’s what you call inspiration.