It’s Halloween and the obligatory horror movie viewing is on its way but there’s time first to revisit some classic sounds. Live albums are for some an acquired taste – for me they’re often as not the high water mark of an artist’s output and this is the fucking king of them all, The Who’s Live at Leeds.
Over the last decade or two this album has been revamped and re-released several times. The thing about live albums, particularly from ‘back in the day’ is that limitations of space on vinyl – even double albums – would often lead to large parts of a set list being left off of the finished result. Now by my reckoning, this was no bad thing for the live album as a format.
Particularly in the world of rock music, the live gig is more than “just” the music. In fact, even at a great gig the music may well be slightly compromised by a physically demanding performance, not to mention the missing visual and visceral impact of a spectacular light show. Lasers. Fireworks. That sort of thing.
Don’t believe me? Then try listening all the way through pretty much any live version of the guitar solo from Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused without recourse to Jimmy Page’s theatrics or the fancy laser show. Seriously. Mind, that’s not so much a recommendation as a dare.
So, trimming out these numbers from a live recording can lead to a more cohesive listening experience – a better album. Adding tracks from original concert recordings back in to a live album reissue has become common practice over the years and, while good for completists, it’s not always the best thing for the album itself.
Among the most notable Live at Leeds reissues is a great mid 1990s expanded version presenting the complete kinda-sorta first set played on the night. That’s the version I’m most familiar with … and it is awesome. Then there’s the twice-as-long-again version from the early 2000s which features the entire kinda-sorta second set which is a performance of Tommy in its entirety. I’d avoided listening to that one for a very long time indeed (too much, I felt, of a good thing) but finally checked it out recently … and it is awesome. Since then it’s had the full box set treatment with a whole other concert from the same tour added. I haven’t heard that one … I expect it’s awesome.
Here’s the thing, though. Live at Leeds has long been held as one of the very best live albums, often cited as the greatest of them all. That reputation didn’t come from any digitally remastered two hour spectacular; it came from the original single album, a mere six tracks long.
I have the original tape release here, still sounding great. The CD reissue opens with a phenomenal version of Heaven and Hell which isn’t on the original at all. Yes, I miss it, but this kicks off with Mose Allison’s Young Man Blues, a real gut punch of a slab of heavy electric blues at its most brutal. It sets up the album perfectly and all these years later begs the question, why isn’t Pete Townshend’s rep as one of the great ’60s/’70s guitar heroes more in line with the giants of that scene – Clapton, Beck – yes, even Hendrix? Here, Townshend’s playing is phenomenal (lead and rhythm both). Savage and attacking like virtually no other player of the day – it really doesn’t get better than this. An epic take on My Generation brings the first side to a close (the tape’s running order being different to that of the LP) while Side Two opens with The Who completely owning another couple of covers – an explosive version of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues and a gloriously sleazy Shakin’ All Over (originally by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates). Back to the Townshend originals for definitive takes on Substitute and Magic Bus, each member of the band at the very top of their game.
Here in its original form Live at Leeds is a wonder. At well under 40 minutes it is barely more than half the length of the running time of that terrific ’90s reissue but the sheer impact here is undeniable. “The Greatest Live Album Ever”? Not the kind of terminology I like to apply to music but in this instance, I’m not going to argue.