(This post refers to the re-mastered 1995 edition.)
It was the thump of John Entwistle’s bass guitar that caught my attention. The band hadn’t even begun playing yet, and the crowd was roaring in approval. BOMP, BOMP, BOOOOMP went Entwistle’s fat bass. His plucks couldn’t have prepared me for what came next, but knew that I was about to hear something unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
And just as I was able to catch my breathe from the excitement, off The Who went like a train about to fly off the rails. Keith Moon’s drums rolls and cymbals washes crashed wildly in my shitty headphones. There was no straight beat, and Moon played around it in every single possible way he could. Pete Townshend’s power chords sliced through the air with a vengeance. Entwistle’s somehow managed to hold the chaos together with his melodic yet aggressive bass-lines.
It was the night of my 15th birthday. My sister had given me the re-issed Live at Leeds as a birthday present. “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Baba O’Riley” and “Who Are You” were the only songs by The Who I knew. Before I put the CD in my disc-man in the back seat of my parents car on the ride home, I looked at the track-listing. I was shocked to discover that none one of those songs was on the album.
I was only four minutes in and my musical world was suddenly shaken to the core. It seems appropriate that the first song would be titled “Heaven and Hell”. Most of the bands I had listened to previously like the Waterboys, R.E.M., U2 and the Smiths seemed like angels compared to this. Just four minutes in, without ever reading much about them (other than the liner notes) I could tell The Who were trouble-makers and loved every single second of it.
On the hour-long ride home, I was treated to aggressive takes on Who classics: “I Can’t Explain”, “Substitute”, “I’m a Boy”, “Happy Jack” and the 15 minute ear-splitting jam on “My Generation”. Every single second I heard in my head-phones was sonic anarchy. By the time I got home, I knew that The Who were going to be my band.
My birthday is in early December, so its arrival almost always signals the beginning of the Christmas season. About a week later, my parents set up the Christmas tree in the living room. Putting up the tree is never an easy task in my family – something disastrous is almost always bound to happen. My dad probably spent about 2 hours fiddling with the tree-stand to make sure it would not fall over. We had put lights on but no decorations – that was for the next day.
Around 6 o’clock, my parents told me that they were going out for the night to a Christmas party. As soon as they left, I ran over to the stereo in the living room and cranked it up. Within seconds, it sounded like The Who were performing in the house. Like many teenagers I’m sure, time alone with a stereo means air-guitar. As the opening riff of “Young Man Blues” erupted behind me, I tested out a few windmills. My right-arm never felt so alive. I have no doubt that if Pete Townshend saw me, he would have corrected me on the proper way to do it, but nonetheless I felt like a rock-star.
Half-way through the song, I decided to be bold. There were several pictures in the liner of Pete Townshend in mid-flight. Without even thinking, I leapt into the air at the précise moment (a Townshend-style jump must always be executed at the right moment). As soon as I hit the ground, I heard a loud crash.
My eyes widened in fear as soon as I realized what had happened. My jump had caused the Christmas tree to fall. Shit, this is not good. I knew my parents were going to be pissed when they came back and found the tree on the floor. I tried to get it back up, but being a scrawny 16-year old, I wasn’t strong enough. In a panic, I called all of my older siblings. Though I knew I would leave out the exact cause of the accident.
“Well what do you want me to do about it?” My eldest brother said over the phone. “I’m 8 hours away.”
Shaken up by what had just occurred and without any help out of the situation, I thought back to “Heaven Hell” and John Entwistle’s dour warning: “and down in the ground there’s a place where you go if you’ve been a bad boy.” When my parents got home, I explained to them that I was in the room and that the tree had just fallen on its own. To my surprise, they not only believed me but assured me that everything was okay. I helped my dad put the tree back up, and that was that. And then Pete Townshend’s voice at the end of “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” popped into my head: “you are forgiven”. So maybe I wasn’t forgiven (because I had lied), but I figured no one was none the wiser.
In the years since, my love of Live at Leeds has not diminished. It’s not only the perfect document of The Who live in their prime, but rock and roll unhinged. Other live albums try to capture the experience of a live show (and the the best do a spectacular job of that), but Live at Leeds is transcendent. Each time I listen to it, I’m in awe of how a band could sound that fucking good live.
The aggression and sheer loudness is a huge part of its appeal, but recently I’ve been attracted to its subtleties. On “My Generation” the band goes into several tightly controlled (yet chaotic) jams by a single cue from Pete Townshend’s chords. Roger Daltrey may not have the prettiest voice, but it takes a powerful lung to be heard over the rest of the band. On Live at Leeds, The Who churned out several 60’s power-pop gems, but then could stretch out on “Magic Bus” and “My Generation”. Critics of Keith Moon love to suggest that he couldn’t keep time, but listen closely to “Tattoo” from Live at Leeds and you’ll realize that his drum fills follow Roger Daltrey vocals, perfectly accenting the lead singer’s tough-guy delivery.
There are many albums I adore and love, but Live at Leeds is one of the few that changed my life.