On this day 50 years ago, one of the greatest, live, rock albums was recorded.
The Who’s live performances had always been more about extended versions of RnB covers and their own tracks (with improvisations included) than about simply reproducing 3-minute pop singles. Their 1969/70 tours had involved performances of the “Tommy” (at opera houses as well as rock venues) as well as favourite live tracks such as “Summertime Blues”, “Shakin’ All Over” and “My Generation” (at Woodstock, for example). By 1970, Townshend had tired of performing the whole of “Tommy” live and wanted set lists that showcased the Who’s abilities as a live, rock band. Townshend was also considering future projects (including Thunderclap Newman) and the recording of the Who’s first post-Tommy record, “The Seeker”, heralded what would become the “Lifehouse” project and result in the “Who’s Next” album.
In the meantime, Townshend wanted to capture the experience of the Who’s live performances on record and planned to create a live album from their 1969 performances. He pored through all of the concert tapes recorded during the 1969 North America tour but found them all unsatisfactory in one way or another. He even claims to have destroyed many tapes to ensure that they would never be used. New live recordings were therefore needed.
Two concerts were booked for mid-February, at the Universities of Leeds and Hull. The first of these, Leeds, was on Valentine’s Day and at a student refectory with a capacity of 2000. The Who were in top form that night, giving a great performance the entirety of which was recorded but a loose cable created a ‘crackling noise’ in the recording.
(i) Leeds University refectory stage in 2019
The next night at Hull University featured another great performance. This time there was no crackling but a quick listen to the beginning of the tape convinced Pete that the bass guitar had not been recorded. The absence was later found to affect only the first four songs and the entire performance was eventually released in 2010 (and can be found in You Tube).
But in February 1970, it was decided that they would fall back on the Leeds recording and use 6 of the tracks for the live album. The resultant “Live at Leeds” album was released 23rd May 1970. The handwritten record label (with instructions to the engineers not to attempt to remove any crackling noise) and stapled gatefold, beige cardboard cover with a ‘rubber stamped’ title were made to resemble a bootleg album (several of which were already circulating at the time). Inserts were facsimiles of documents representing the band’s history and the first 1000 copies contained a reproduction of the iconic, Maximum RnB, Marquee poster. I still have my copy and do not regret the fact that I no longer have the poster because it was more important as a wall decoration during my student days.
(ii) Live at Leeds: original album cover
It was the only live album to be released by the band while they were still actively performing in their original line-up. “Live at Leeds” has been cited as the best live rock recording of all time by many sources including The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, the BBC, Q magazine, and Rolling Stone. In 2003, it was ranked number 170 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time and maintained this rating in a 2012 revised list. A commemorative blue plaque has been placed at the University of Leeds refectory where it was recorded. The Leeds recording was used in the soundtracks to the movies “Goodfellas” and “Jerry Maguire”.
(iii) Blue Plaque at Leeds University Campus
The live version of “Magic Bus” played at Leeds, with its Bo Diddley guitar rhythm, is a favourite amongst Who fans. The video version below is popular by virtue of its sound quality and video. The audio is from the Leeds University concert (without the section of reversed guitar that was added to the album version) but the video footage is not from the Leeds gig. It is actually from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival and was presumably added as a visual representation of a live performance of the period.
Some sections of the Leeds concert were shot on b/w 16mm film by a student. In 2007, the film was linked up with the audio and some of it was released on the “Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who” DVD. A link to this footage can be found below.
1. 16mm footage from the Leeds gig synced to audio from same
2. “Magic Bus” from “Live at Leeds” album with slideshow of photographs from the Leeds gig
3. “Magic Bus” original recording without reversed guitar
4. “My Generation” from the Leeds concert mixing desk (differs from album and includes “Sparks”)
5. Marc Starcke’s album of photographs taken at the Leeds concert 14.02.70
(i) Leeds refectory – By North8000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84986714
(ii) Album cover – By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20132115
(iii) Blue plaque – By stevo3 – The Who, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2234205
“Live at Leeds” at Wikipedia