Great Punk Rock Albums That Weren’t Punk Rock Albums: #1 The Who, Live at Leeds

Having grown up in southern Ontario in the 1970’s, it is not at all surprising the I have a long history with The Who.  Along with Rush, The Doors, and those holiest of holies, Led Zeppelin, they made up the social context for an entire generation of tweens, teens, and underemployed young adults.   3/4 length arm concert shirts with Pete Townshend mid-windmill, Maximum R&B-style, silk flags of the Swan Song logo tacked to wood paneling in basement rec-rooms, feathered-haired boyfriends of lipped-glossed older sisters getting you high on oil: These things defined the structure of much of one’s existence. Drawn to the inescapable gravity of these stellar bodies of rock were the lesser entities of Aerosmith, Queen, AC/DC, Bad Company, and countless others. With real punk rock only a hushed murmur in the UK (or in the bedrooms of those with questionable sexualities), the rock dinosaurs migrated to North America. In 1978 this seemed the way the world might always be, and until 1982 or so it was.


How then, coming from the era of classic rock dominance, could this be a great punk rock album? Sandwiched between the muddy, barely-live live albums of the 1960’s (The Stones’ Got Live If You Want It! comes to mind) and the triple-disc, multigatefold gluttony of the mid-1970’s (16 words: Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends… Ladies and Gentlemen: Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Live At Leeds in its original form is an interesting choice. Released in May 1970 after a grueling tour for their breakthrough album, Tommy, that album is represented only fleetingly. Instead, of the six tracks, three are covers and three are reworkings of 1960’s singles. Taking the tracks from their context in a set list surprisingly succeeds in giving the album an identity apart from being just another live album and places it on even standing with their studio releases (a feat accomplished rarely, as with Slade’s Alive, or Frampton Comes Alive!).

Sonically the album is a distinct break from the band’s previous work. Their output in the 1960’s had been softened by psychedelia and other recording styles, and while elements of their sound had emerged previously, on Live at Leeds these elements exploded outwards. Keith Moon’s drums are barely restrained, like watching a friend on too much coke and who knows what else, worrying they’ll go too far (and assuming they probably will). Roger Daltrey is foul-mouthed and raspy, and Pete Townshend’s backing vocals slur with frustration and Remy Martin. Here, more than it had been allowed to be before, his guitar is distorted, sloppy, and LOUD, a blueprint on which bands like the Sex Pistols and The Ramones would build considerably.

John Entwistle’s bass is revelatory, not just for his frantic runs, but for his sound. Loud, gutteral, and distorted, the first time I heard his solo on this live version of “My Generation” I knew I wanted to play the bass guitar (along with JJ Burnel, Peter Hook, and others, and largely due to this album, he motivated me to turn up the gain and the treble, attack the strings with my fingers, plectrums, or loose change, and snarl at sound men who wanted to direct inject to the soundboard). Hearing the album for the first time was unexpected, shocking, and exciting, as all great discoveries should be.

While the many re-releases of the album have increased the percentage of the actual setlist of the concert to nearly 100% and double-CD proportions, I much prefer the original 37 minute, six-track single-LP version. I don’t mind live albums as historical documents, but it is so rare that they contribute something essential that I hate to mess with something that works. The correct-order/full-setlist/bonus-packaging versions feel like artifacts from our Starbucks compilation/acquisition age. There is a defiance that is missing from the original, those six angry tracks packaged in a faux-bootleg rubber stamp cover, and it feels awkward to hear them any other way. As with much punk rock, to understand you’ll really have to play this loudly and through a shitty stereo.


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September 2009
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