What I really want to get across here is how much I love this album. It is absolutely the greatest live album in the history of recorded music! I grew up listening to my mom’s original copy that had the faux bootleg cover and all the extra papers in it, including: the typed lyrics to “My Generation;” their contract to perform at Woodstock; a delivery note to confirm their order of smoke generators from Brock’s Crystal Palace Fireworks Ltd. in 1967; a county court notice warning that they need to return a guitar case and piano bass due to an outstanding balance; a letter informing the band that a gig in Swindon in 1965 has been cancelled because the concert promoter “has had a lot of trouble there recently and feels that THE WHO are not the type of Group that would go well in his Ballroom.” Along with The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers I was fascinated by Live at Leeds as much for the album packaging as by the music on the record itself.
I first heard Live at Leeds in the 1980s when vinyl was still king. CDs were starting out, but I didn’t know anyone who had any yet. I don’t remember a lot of people my age being excited about listening to music on this new format, especially since it was more expensive than vinyl. I loved albums, real record albums, and I knew that rock and roll was supposed to be transmitted through a record player. There weren’t a lot of cool covers like Live at Leeds and Sticky Fingers by then, but you could still have posters or lyrics or other stuff inside an album; CDs were simply too small for all that. I could never see myself abandoning vinyl for compact discs.
My mother and my uncle loved The Who, and to this day whenever they are mentioned my mom likes to talk about seeing them perform in Cleveland in 1970 or 1971, and how she loved watching the fringe on Roger Daltrey’s leather coat fly as he whipped his microphone around on its cord. Hell. Yes. My love of rock and roll—and thus, my love of music in general—comes from my mom and uncle. I listened to their records when I was a kid and they told me stories about the artists and the music itself, and I could not have been more intrigued. I am so thankful that they passed along their love for music to me.
This album reminds me of how much I wished I were a hippy. When I was in junior high school I would wear peace signs and love beads and dream of how much better I would have liked everything had I been born two decades earlier. I would have had so many more records and seen all my favorite bands perform in their prime. I have, however, seen The Who twice: in Cleveland in September of 2000 on one of John Entwistle’s last tours, and in Columbus in February of 2013. Those were definitely highlights of my life. (As far as other childhood heroes go, I have also seen Paul McCartney, Little Richard, The Monkees, Herman’s Hermits, and, the biggest thrill of my life, Chuck Berry!)
Having listened to the original version of Live at Leeds throughout my youth it was strange to hear the 1995 rerelease that has 8 extra songs on it. Now that I’m used to hearing that version, it’s strange to hear the original. It’s very short. I love the 1995 one because of the between-songs banter and the brilliant performances that were for some reason left off the 1970 release. There are some deluxe editions that I don’t have yet that contain the Tommy songs not available on earlier copies.
I wonder how different my life would be had I grown up hearing those extra songs. For the past 18 years I have listened to “Heaven and Hell,” “Tattoo,” and “A Quick One While He’s Away,” and I think about what might have changed had I known them then as I do now. There’s a lot of music that for whatever reason I wasn’t into when it was first released but that I came to love later on. Foo Fighters, for example; they are now my favorite band of the past two decades. I look at music the same way I look at everything else, that it comes into your life when it’s meant to.
“Young Man Blues” is the first song on the original album, and it sets the stage for an incredible rock and roll experience. Though it’s not a Pete Townshend composition, you’d never know it by the way they own that shit. Mose Allison’s 1957 blues song fits perfectly with the generation that grew up listening to rock and roll. “I said a young man/ain’t got nothin’ in the world these days!” Not much has changed through 2013, either.
“Summertime Blues” is another song they didn’t write but which The Who made their own. Eddie Cochran’s ode to the white boy teenage blues is another example of rock and roll’s timelessness.
I’m gonna raise a fuss
I’m gonna raise a holler
About workin’ all summer
Just to try to earn a dollar
Of course, the song everyone wants to hear The Who perform is “My Generation,” and I have to say that I almost like this live version better than the studio one. I love singing along with Roger as he does his fake meth-stutter. We get to live inside “My Generation” for almost 15 minutes on this album.
The best song on Live at Leeds is that nearly 8-minute version of “Magic Bus.” I always laugh when I think about it, because my mom grew to really hate that song. My uncle was in a rock band, The Deadbeets, with some cousins in the 1960s, and they played “Magic Bus” pretty much non-stop. My mom just couldn’t take it! I have no idea how good or bad The Deadbeets were, but I bet they weren’t the only band out there trying out out-Who The Who!
This version of “Magic Bus” is a very large throbbing, pulsing, thumping slice of rock and roll perfection. Keith introduces the song with the tapping of his drumsticks. John’s bass guitar brings the funk. Our be-fringed hero Roger sets up the premise: “Every day I get in the queue/to get on a bus that takes me to you.” The chorus chimes in to tell us that it costs too much to ride this magic bus, but still, Roger wants to take the bus to see his girl. “Okay…you can have the magic bus for one hundred…English pounds,” explains guitar-pounding sage Pete. Who cares what the song is about? Drugs? A girl? It’s a kick-ass masterpiece. Loud and quiet and mysterious and obvious at the same time. “I’m gonna ride her,” Roger screams. “Ride her!” Yes, you will ride her, you sexy motherfucker! Ride that bitch!
The way “Magic Bus” wraps up on Live at Leeds is simply perfect. Roger continues his primal screaming while Pete and Moonie work their shit out to bring everyone in for one final and much-needed rock and roll climax. And that’s exactly how a rock and roll album should end. You should feel spent yet invigorated, satisfied yet wanting more. Very few can accomplish this feat. But you know who can? The Who, that’s who.