1970, Music

Live at Leeds (1970) by the Who

Is this the greatest live album of all time? I never used to care about live albums. I never used to care about live music. Music used to live in my bedroom and I had no idea that there was some other side to it. Frankly I didn’t understand why people went to concerts. The idea that a band could be better on stage than in the studio seemed totally insane to me. Totally unfathomable.

I was forced to confront that idea when I went away to university and seeing (not very famous) bands became a standard thing: a couple times per month or more I would see bands, usually with no intent to see a band, it’s just what happened at the bar I frequented. And I encountered a Canadian musician named Chris Colepaugh, who frequented our town because of our partying nature (I guess) and who became something of a favourite of everyone’s. And he played showy classic rock which was right up my alley when I was 19 and 20. And so I bought one of his albums.

And though at first I didn’t hate it, as I got older and my tastes changed I began to dislike it rather intensely. Perhaps more than I should. And I guess I realized (slowly) that bands could be better live than in the studio.

So after the last decade+ I have managed to see some reasonably famous bands as well as to collect more than a few live albums – unfortunately mostly by just a couple band). I’d like to think I have a much better idea of what makes a good live album now than I did 15 years ago, as I’ve now seen a fair number of shows and listened to a fair number of live albums.

But I still have a problem with Live at Leeds and that is that I’ve only ever known the 1995 expanded edition. For years that seemed to me like it could be called “The Greatest Live Album of All Time.” Why? Everything’s better than in the studio: “Heaven and Hell” no longer sucks, “Tattoo” is better, “Young Man Blues” is definitive as is “Summertime Blues”, this version of “A Quick One” is one of the highlights of their entire catalogue, there’s really not much Tommy (which is a good thing) and “Magic Bus” is so much better than the studio it kind of melts my brain. The hits are also at least louder here than in the studio. Also, funny banter.

But only six of these songs were on the original and I can’t even imagine the record with just six songs. It’s six of the best, but it omits my favourite or second favourite and their excellent cover of “Fortune Teller” among other things. Turns out, during the actual show they played 33 songs – much of them Tommy filler – and that wasn’t available until 2001, 30 years later. So unless you went to the show, you really had no idea what the concert was like. The album people have constantly championed as “The Greatest” had only six of these songs and no banter. What was wrong with people?

Well, at least 5 of the six tracks on the original are indeed awesome. But I don’t think that’s it. Think about the context:

People were not used to listen to loud rock music on record in 1970. Sabbath was just getting started. Zeppelin had only released two albums. Purple wasn’t a metal band yet. Only a few other bands qualified as as loud as those. Certainly the Who were not one of them, unless you had the opportunity to see them live, or you watched Monterey Pop. What were the live rock albums at this time? Half of Wheels of Fire; Live/Dead;Get Yer Ya Yas Out. What else? Not much. Of those, only Cream’s was loud and it wasn’t curated very well. (I for one just love 13 minute drum solos…)

Before Live at Leeds came out, you know what people thought was the Greatest Live Album of All Time? Live at the Apollo or Live at the Star Hamburg Club. That was the competition. It’s pretty easy to beat that competition when you have distortion and power chords.

I don’t think this is the Greatest Live Album of All Time in part because I think that’s kind of a stupid question and in part because it’s based on a rather old assessment of live albums, when the Dead had only released one, for example. There are now literally hundreds of thousands of (rock) live albums. How can anyone figure it out?

But what it is is a portrait of a great live band at the peak of their powers. Every song on this is better than its studio version – “Fortune Teller” excepted as I don’t think they did that one in the studio. And that’s all we should ever want of a live album (or a concert for that matter).


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