Exactly twice in my life have I heard a work of music and thought, Wait, what? You can do that? That’s allowed? These internal queries tend to occur when we’re younger and possessed of a capacity for wonder that, alas, tends to lessen as we get older and pleasing puzzlement gives way to concerns of how best to organize one’s collection of downloaded music. Not so very romantic a notion. Then again, there’s nothing especially romantic about the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK,” a song that induced that questioning wonderment in me as I listened to Johnny Rotten bray a lyric that seemed like it could put its writer in jail. But as awesome as that sense of being in on something both illicit and epic was, it didn’t really compare to the first time I heard the fourteen-and-a-half minute version of “My Generation” from the Who’s Live at Leeds.
I had a friend who lived down the street when I was fifteen whose room was all tricked out in music posters. The Dead, Beatles, Doors, Hendrix, Zeppelin — it was like this shrine to rock and roll, with the posters hung at these strange, rakish angles, bottom portions gummed to the top portions of walls, top halves tacked to the sloped ceiling so it was like a veritable awning-fest of classic rock iconography hanging above you. In other words, this was a kid to trust when it came to music.
He had this compilation of the Who called Who’s Better, Who’s Best. Horrible compilation, actually, just super tacky, this grab bag that cherry picked hits with no thought whatsoever to overall presentation. Of course, that’s not what you’re thinking then, as you’re hearing the Who for the first time, and boy did they do my head in, Keith Moon in particular. I’d never heard someone approach the drums like that, as a lead instrument. There was such athleticism to his playing, and as you listened to cuts like “The Kids are Alright” and “I Can’t Explain,” there’d be the accompanying image of some drummer flying madly around his kit, making sure that each component of it was given equal say in that mighty percussive attack, as though the floor tom had it written into its performance contract to get thwacked as much as the ride cymbal.
Needless to say, I borrowed that CD to the tune of owning it for about six months. I had gone Beatles mad a couple years before, but the Who were a whole ‘nother pot of meat. It’s funny how first impressions, in some instances, can stay with you and prove themselves correct. I think that has more to do with how singular, how indomitable, the thing in question is than anything else, and the Who easily fit that twin bill. They were so loud. And edgy. But dead clever, too. Hell, a song like “Pictures of Lilly,” from 1967, was this bish-bash noise maelstrom of power chords and drum fusillades housing a really touching love story that also happened to be about masturbation. It was like Onan done had his heart broke. Romantic.
Which, at first blush, is not what you’d expect the rapacious — and oddly instructive — beast that was the Who to be. Most writers learn, in large part, how to write from what they read. Other writers are aped, and sometimes, if the writer in question is any good, he breaks off into his own channels. But that’s never how it was for me. A goodly amount of the tutorial side of my own personal writing matters came from the Who and stuff like “Pictures of Lilly.” Not just the lyric, or primarily the lyric, but the whole composition, the way John Entwistle’s bass lent contrast to Pete Townshend’s shimmering guitar arpeggios, with the ever insistent Moon simply wanting to get on with things and charge into the future, as singer Roger Daltrey blended blood and thunder with quotidian concerns of where love might come from next, where one might lay one’s head, or what might be fun to do tonight. The bish-bash of life, you might say. The Who didn’t really write love songs like we tend to think of them. But that’s like saying Boswell didn’t really do romance when, really, his journals explode with a kind of love for a time and place. It’s just not super obvious and it doesn’t announce itself. Instead, you might say the concern — the point, the value — is in being that very thing itself. The Who were like that. Which is why I loved them right from the start. Rock and roll valentine.
When the cool kid down the street with the rakishly angled posters came to claim his CD, he brought a trade in, you might say: a six-song Who LP called Live at Leeds which was recorded on Valentine’s Day, 1970. Now, the studio version of “My Generation,” from ’65, has probably knocked me on my ass about 3,000 times in my life. Hearing it as an adult, I am blown away afresh each time I listen, and it is still hard for me to reconcile how something so aggro-assaultive — right from the obscene rumble-blast of the opening bass figure — can be so futuristic as well. H.G. Wells would cut one mad reel to this sucker. From the first time you encounter it, it’s almost impossible to believe that it could in any way be further taken out, to use a jazz phrase, in any other iteration, be that in another studio take, a live version, a cover, what have you. How many rock and roll songs are better than “My Generation?” I’m going to go with less than ten.
My friend, meanwhile, sits down in my room, gets all serious like he’s Ward Cleaver come to instill some knowledge in the Beaver, and tells me that I’ve been listening to the wrong version of “My Generation.” This Leeds version, that’s the one to hear.
“It goes on for thirty minutes.”
“That’s not possible.”
Grave pause in which possibilities are pondered.
“OK. Fifteen minutes then. Here. Put it in.”
So, I fired up the cheap stereo I had that sat on the empty toy box I’d use to hide in when I was pretending to be a vampire as a kid, and life changed. This version of “My Generation” beat the absolute bag out of its studio counterpart. It was almost too much to handle. Some songs careen, but this cut was all over the road, ponging in every direction possible at once, but controlled at the same time, four guys making a sound that was the most rapacious — and still sophisticated — I had ever heard, and from that first encounter, the Leeds “My Generation” began to bleed into other aspects of my life. For starters, there was the writing side of things, and how I thought about the mechanics of prose, and then on the sports side of things, the latter of which fostered a sensibility of tenacity and will that would be crucial to future writerly matters, long after the games had ended. If you play hockey, there’s a good chance you’ll come across a coach all too happy to line you up on the goal line and make you do sprints until you vomit. He’ll tell you this is for your own good, that you’ll be in better shape come the end of the next game than your opponent will be. My coach at the time I was first hearing the Live at Leeds version of “My Generation” liked to say — as you were doubled-over in pain, trying to catch your breath — “The legs feed the wolf, boys. The legs feed the wolf.” After I gathered myself and revisited the Leeds’ “My Generation” a few more times, listening as studiously as I could, making mental notes on all of the component parts of what really was a baroque piece of rock and roll that someone like Bach would have totally gotten and dug, I realized that here was that wolf in sonic form.
A fairly British wolf, too, you might say. The Who were English in a way that even the Beatles weren’t. The latter could get all Edwardian, like around the time of Revolver, whose black and white etching-suggestive cover has an Edwardian element to it, but the Who had songs like “Magic Bus” and albums with cool names like Quadrophenia that were so non-American, as though the band and its music emanated from some place where you’d understand the language but everything else would be new, even if by new what was meant was really old. The Who took all of that and shot it through with more electricity than a James Whale Frankenstein flick, claiming dual citizenship in a world gone past, and a future yet to come.
They have the rep of being rock’s greatest live band. Hence, Leeds. But Leeds is weird, with a fascinating backstory. In the sixties, the Who were a singles band, mostly. They had a great run from ’65 to ’67, but then they got all had-too-many-lagers-at-the-pub eccentric, and ’68 was a loss, despite an April show at NYC’s Fillmore East that would go on to become one of the classic bootlegs of any era. Cash-strapped, for a number of reasons — one being that the band destroyed their instruments at the close of every gig; huzzah — the Who were on the verge of breaking up, unless they could come up with some huge revenue reaping success. Enter, then, Tommy, Townshend’s famous, infamous, whichever you prefer, rock opera which isn’t really a rock opera at all, but sod it. The album was awesome, and Townshend had the brilliance to have the band play the material in the studio a touch slower than normal, believing that if the record broke big, the band could go on tour, put the speed of the songs back to normal, and there’d be all of these historic, messianic type performances where Tommy the set of studio songs became the legs that fed the wolf of Tommy the on-stage behemoth.
In the run-up to Tommy’s release, the Who appeared at the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, a decent idea for a film, with a multi-bill of performers doing sets in carnival-type setting, that ended up being dross largely because the Stones themselves were. The Who, ridiculously tight from months of working at Tommy in the studio, gave what I’d rate as the best single-song live performance of the 1960s. They had what they were billing as a mini-opera called “A Quick One While He’s Away,” a story of lust and betrayal — a lot of betrayal. A girl guide, an engine driver, and a coda whose voicings — a series of benedictions, first, for forgiveness, and then blessings of forgiveness, with salvation meted around — could have slotted into Handel’s Messiah. Moon had never drummed better, and something got into Townshend on that evening to make his performance one that seemed to have his own salvation invested in it. The Stones must have heard this and thought, well, there’s us done. Can’t follow that. The film was shelved. No one saw the Who’s performance for an age, and the best live band in rock and roll left the 1960s without releasing any live material. A baffler.
The post-Tommy problem was how to follow Tommy. You go the rock opera route, and you probably feel the pressure to come up with something similarly grandiose. But, first, you could put out a live album, get some easily assembled product on the shelves while you’re squirreled away composing opus the next. Townshend ordered the sound guys to record all of the shows of the band’s ’69 US tour, upon the close of which he’d sit down with all of the tapes back in England and pick the best material for release. Good plan. Only, Townshend gets back to England, looks at a room full of tapes, says, in effect, screw this, orders one of the sound guys to burn it all (seriously — it was a purgative thing, so fire was deemed necessary) and decides that it’d be easier to book two local shows, play really well, and get the live album from that. They’d go to Leeds University on Valentine’s Day 1970, and then Hull — which isn’t so very romantic — on the 15th, in case Leeds hadn’t worked out. Or Leeds could be the rehearsal. Either way, so long as a live album was in the can.
It was believed that Entwistle’s bass didn’t record at Hull, which scotched that possibility. As it turned out, a number of the ’69 shows did survive — some historically-minded roadie must have saved them from getting torched — but all that mattered, in the end, was Leeds. The very title Live at Leeds suggested Leeds was less of a town and more like some magical music-conducive getaway, with the words “Leeds” and “Live” suggestive of etymological cousins, such was their close link here. Kissing cousins. The Who did a long set: a bunch of pre-Tommy numbers that ranged from early singles like “I’m a Boy” to the “A Quick One” mini-opera, and then a run through of Thomas, as Townshend sometimes called Tommy, all leading into a gig-concluding titanic run of “Summertime Blues,” “Shakin’ All Over” — performances that rate among the finest covers in rock — and then the momentous version of “My Generation” capped by “Magic Bus.” A six song album was cleaved from twenty plus numbers. It clocked in at less than forty minutes. More than a third of it was “My Generation.” Eight minutes of it was “Magic Bus.” There were tape drops, crackles, and hisses, which a disclaimer on the album warned listeners about. Now, also, there was the greatest live album that anyone had ever made, or has made since. And some potential quandaries.
For years, I’ve had a complex relationship with Leeds. An extended “official” version was released in 1995, but it wasn’t the whole gig. That would come a few years later, but with some musical quotations left out — for copyright purposes — and with the concert sequenced, maddeningly, out of order. The whole gig is available on bootleg, and it’s a stunner to hear, even if the band’s energy does flag during portions of Tommy. All of this got me thinking: what’ s a live album, really? Is it a record of what went down, in full, on a given night? Or is it like a studio album, in a way, in that you’re talking the best takes, the best performances, either from one gig, or across a range of gigs? That seemed a little more conceptual than a live album should be, almost like we’re talking collage art.
To say that there is a power to the original six song version of Leeds is an understatement, but there’s as much ingenuity as power. It’s sculptural, honed, and it took me a while to come around to what I feel is tantamount to a heady concept, but much as I enjoy listening to the full Leeds show, doing so is like adding water to a dram of Laphroaig cask strength whisky compared to having the six song version straight up. The record begins with a cover of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues.” Allison was a jazz musician who played piano and sang. Bluesy music, but not Big Bill Broonzy bluesy. The song is segmented to start, with wailing passages petering out into these interludes that are brought on by Moon unleashing these seismic polyrhythms. That’s one of the first things you notice about Leeds: Moonie is on. Super on. But then the petering out stops, and the wailing passages beget other wailing passages, with Townshend’s guitar riffing away in one channel, Entwistle’s bass, with its guitar-like tone, dominating the other, Moon bouncing from one to the other, Daltrey emerging as the great singer he was.
There are a lot of versions of “Young Man Blues” on bootleg from this era. It’s always driven me crazy how little great live rock and roll music has been released. Basically, every top band released one classic live set, when some of them, like the Who, had two dozen they could have dropped on you. Which is odd — the stuff would sell. Jazz giants like John Coltrane and Miles Davis had so much live product released. But that’s not how it has ever gone in rock, even for a band of live giants like the Who. But even if it was all out there, and consumers had a dozen versions of “Young Man Blues” to pick from, the Leeds performance cuts them all down. We’re roiling away in this sea of sound, Townshend has a tight grip on his guitar — the kind of grip you actually have to put your back and shoulders into — when Daltrey cuts loose with a cry of “Git it!” You can tell this is all totally extemporaneous, not some pre-arranged signal; I’ve never heard Daltrey do this on any other Who recording. He does his cry, and then Townshend uncorks the solo of his career. It’s short — just a few rapid-paced bars — but perfectly balanced, and perfectly rapacious. A guitar solo as the wolf.
There’s a version of “Substitute” with popping drum fills from Moon and a riff that has elements of country, bop, and heavy metal, plus some Byrds-type jangle. After those first two numbers, we cut to the whole of the post-Tommy portion of the gig. In other words, there’s nothing from Tommy, save a foray into “See Me, Feel Me” in the gargantuan “My Generation.” You get the best ever version of “Magic Bus” to conclude the record in an arrangement that the band uses nowhere else. Townshend hits this syncopated riff, and he gets downright percussive with his guitar strings, like he’s discovered some exceedingly rhythmic ostinato by accident, which he’s then happy to explore. Takes a lot of courage to hang a song on a riff, a figure that repeats again and again. You have to have real confidence in your figure to keep running it out, for it is, after all, the same thing over and over again, and it must remain fresh with each airing. At the end of “Magic Bus,” the riff gives way to another ostensibly invented on the spot, and one that lesser bands like Zeppelin would base an entire career period around.
But it is the labyrinthine “My Generation” that is perhaps the ultimate tour-de-force of guitar playing as a kind of sonic architecture. Townshend, simply, builds and builds one edifice of sound after another over the course of these fourteen plus minutes. The riffs might as well be whole new songs, such is their level of invention. His guitar doubles as conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler in Gibson form cuing Moon, Entwistle, and Daltrey, directing advances, signaling when to back off, when to charge hard, when to charge harder, and when to up and try and blow the entire place down.
There’s this one moment where you can hear Townshend listening to himself on that most rock and roll of Valentine’s Days. He plays a passage, and it echoes around the hall — you can tell everyone is listening hard — before ending up back onstage. Townshend plays another passage; once again, the echo bounces and returns. The effect is antiphonal, like the implied response present in Miles Davis’s “So What.” Townshend — and I’ve never heard anyone else do this — starts playing off of the echo, making it a component in the next “My Generation”-based excursion, so that now we have sound, and sound’s ghost, made to dance together as one, a distinctly Whovian Valentine’s embrace. I picture Cupid listening intently under headphones, neglecting his responsibilities for the day and mulling over his own version of Wait? That’s allowed? Hot damn. And probably throwing some of those spicy mini-heart candy things into his mouth, too. Maybe that’s where they come from.