Saturday, April 9, 2011

Heavy Rotation on my iPod: The Who, Live at Leeds

I opened a door into my past when I wrote about The Kids are All Right, the 2010 tale of lesbian love, lust and infidelity in sunny California.  While Juliane Moore has herself quick one while she's away, I found myself missing the music I listened to and loved when I was a teen-ager

When I was a record buyer, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of life's great pleasures was the purchase of a double live album. Even though they were a little more expensive than a single album, they were well worth the money; there were live versions of some of my favorite songs, twice as much vinyl to listen to, plus that neat fold out sleeve with concert pictures. The downsize was encountering the occasional “ Jazz Odyssey” style extended jam (usually on side three or four) to fill out the second disc.

The Who was my then favorite band in the universe, at least before 1983. That was when I went to college and had real college record stores and college radio at my disposal. I reveled in the ability to explore new (to me) artists, such as Siouxie and the Banshees, the Damned and the Cramps, that I hadn't been able to access in Stultifying, Ohio. They quickly began to occupy my listening time (on cassette, in my Walkman!) as I strode around the campus of Miami University.

What live recording The Who did release was Live at Leeds, their 1970, single album. It was a risky purchase for me, because there were only six songs, and half were cover versions of songs I had never heard before. Plus, the packaging was so bland-a single, yellow sleeve with no photographs. But albums were cheap and there wasn't anything new to buy.

It is hard to remember how limited access to new artists was in the days before the Internet. Back then, I relied on magazines to learn about new music. Music that I could only read about because the record store at the mall didn't sell punk rock. 

The Who's (Whose?) live shows were legendary, not just because they used to smash every thing at the end, but also because they played with extreme energy. Or so I had heard because I had never seen them or any footage of them performing live. I was completely unprepared for “Young Man Blues,” the first track. It still kicks my ass. Their performance was not simply intense, that could be said about the other five tracks too, or even ferocious; the band sounds pissed off. Vocalist Roger Daltrey snarls and yells his contempt for the older generation, smug in their armchairs, holding the younger ones back. This is a theme that is visited often on Live at Leeds,

Musically the band is extremely tight. Daltrey is in top for as he and guitarist Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle play off each other, causing the music to spin and careen like a pinball ricocheting around a stadium size pinball machine. And of course drummer Keith Moon; I promised to use energetic only once and it is reserved for him. His drumming was like the syncopated grand finale of a fireworks display.  A friend of mine told me that her uncle, a drummer, would put on a pair of headphones and accompany Moon's frenetic banging.

Track two was “Substitute,” a song from the pre- Tommy Who. That is, before they distinguished themselves from Herman's Hermits and other long defunct bands of the British Invasion. One of Townshend's many portraits of teen angst in Mod England, “Substitute” is a funny tale of a broken heart. Full of classic lines like “Substitute you for my mom, at least I'll get my washing done.” the song is both witty and authentic.

The band's disdain for the older generation shows up strongly in “My Generation,” their signature tune. Legand has it that in their early days, this would be their final song, after which they would smash their instruments in a supreme act of nihilism. I am sure that the line “Hope I die before I get old” has come back to haunt surviving members Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend in the decades the 40+ years since they have been playing it. 

The album ends with “Magic Bus,” one of their early singles and the first Who song I had ever heard. It was one of the collection my older siblings left me when they moved out of the house. This time, the band is satirizing the generation gap. Daltrey's young man is reduced to a whining child, “I want it I want it I want it” he pleads with Townshend's “No, you can't have it!” adult figure.

The Who stopped being a relevant band to me when I the new music I would listen to in college. These new bands, punk and later hardcore, played with the energy and irreverence and that satisfied me. But in my heart, I was always comparing their energy and irreverence to the Live at Leeds Who.

Apologies to any who tried to read my notes, which got published by accident last weekend.  Please feel free to leave any comments below.

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