It is hard to believe a seismic rock band like The Who were, at one point, on the brink of bankruptcy. The curtain was coming down on the 1960s hippie counterculture and The Who – a band who have found different identities within trends and cultural movements – had to once again find their place and footing in society in order to remain relevant. In the early ’60s, The Who were at the forefront of the mod movement with brilliant anthems for the youth, such as ‘My Generation‘, ‘I Can’t Explain’, and ‘Substitute’. When Woodstock happened in 1969, The Who had an early bird slot at 5am, and their look had transformed. No longer were they wearing the immaculate suits that screamed dandyism and mod, but instead, Pete Townshend began wearing white jumpsuits, Roger Daltrey wore nice corduroy jackets with frilled sleeves. John Entwhistle was on a different plain entirely, fashion-wise, while Keith Moon was either too quick to even notice or was behind a cloud of explosive smoke.
The Who, and Keith Moon in particular, did not identify with the hippie movement, really. They were reluctant to play Woodstock; Pete Townshend allegedly got into an argument with Jimi Hendrix about who would go on first, as they both were destroying their guitars at the time. Pete Townshend would comment around this time, “I thought the whole of America had gone mad.” The Who would prove themselves to be on a different wavelength than anyone else even before they recorded what many consider the best live rock album, Live at Leeds. They would return to their roots, not as a mod band, but as an art band; this would result in their 1967 album Sell Out, which saw their exploration of advertisement as an art form; they made mock advertisements in their songs, sprinkled with other great hits, such as ‘I Can See For Miles’. They wanted to show the world their use of advertisement as art, as a form of rebellion against the hippie counterculture movement.
By 1968, because of legal issues with their one-time producer Shel Talmy, who produced their hits like ‘I Can’t Explain’, was obtaining a considerable amount of royalties from 1966, whereas The Who had to tour relentlessly and endlessly just to stay afloat, financially. With some key ingredients in place, The Who had become a tight live machine; Pete Townshend had decided to kick the drugs and get sober and began studying the philosophy of Meher Baba, which would directly influence the first ‘rock opera’ of sorts, Tommy. A concept album with a unifying theme and storyline, Tommy tells the story of a boy who goes deaf, dumb and blind after witnessing his parent’s death through a mirror. He eventually regains his senses through a state of grace and joins a cult, for lack of a better word. This is very much a parallel to Pete Townshend’s life. Tommy would prove to be a massive hit, selling 200,000 copies in the States in the first two weeks alone. It would make The Who millionaires. Townshend said about the album, “Tommy’s real self represents the aim – God – and the illusory self is the teacher; life, the way, the path and all this. The coming together of these are what make him aware. They make him see and hear and speak so he becomes a saint who everybody flocks to.”
“The boy’s life starts to represent the whole nature of humanity – we all have this self-imposed deaf, dumb and blindness – but this isn’t something I’m over heavy on,” Pete said, before adding: “I’m more concerned about what actually happens in his life.” With the huge success of Tommy, The Who had to figure out how they were going to follow up this brilliant album. In an attempt to dispel disbelievers that The Who were still a live rock n’ roll force to be reckoned with, Townshend knew he wanted to release a live album.
Having recorded their Woodstock show – which they hated – and two weeks later, their Isle of Wight of gig – which went brilliantly – Townshend now had over 80 hours of live recordings to sift through to figure out what they were going to use. In Pete Townshend’s acclaimed memoir, Who I am, he wrote, “There wasn’t enough time for us to wade through 30 shows again. Plus we now had an additional eight that Bob had recorded in England — including the most recent show at the London Coliseum. For me to listen to 38 shows would take five days in a studio. Even with notes, I would lose track. The live album was never going to happen if we didn’t do something, and fast.”
The original mod rockers would end up throwing the tapes away and burning them so bootleggers couldn’t get a hold of them. However, Townshend would comment on this as “the stupidest decision of my life.” However, burning the bootlegs would light a fire under their asses, so to speak, to get a live album done fast. Bootlegging at the time was a very serious issue as they were making a proper penny. Townshend sought to beat them at their own game and to top it all off? Live at Leeds’ album cover appears as if it were bootlegged.
The Who would instead set up a show at the Leeds University’s Refectory on February 14th, 1970, and at nearby Hull City, the following day and they would record both shows. Bob Pridden, The Who’s longtime sound engineer, said about the band during those days in an interview with The Rolling Stone: “That’s when they were on fire, the band were working all the time and just on top of their game. As a unit of just four people, a band couldn’t be any better.”
Pridden continued in his conversation with journalist, Andy Greene, about the weeks leading up to the record, “About two years before Live at Leeds, I thought I’d try recording them with a couple of microphones plugged into a tape recorder,” Pridden says. “I brought an Akai seven-and-a-half–inch reel-to-reel and started taping shows on it. We went from that to a Vortexion where you can take a D.I. [direct input] into it and then put two mics into it and mix them in together.”
The Who were notorious for their electrifying shows full of chaos and anarchy, mostly on stage. The London boys were on somewhat good behaviour, mostly so they could get the tunes right on tape. Townshend wrote in his memoir, “I played more carefully than usual and tried to avoid the careless bum notes that often occurred because I was trying to play and jump around at the same time.” Live at Leeds, as it would happen, was not completely live. There were some technical issues that had occurred. Upon listening back to the tapes recorded at the Leeds University, the backing vocals had not been recorded properly. Townshend wrote in Who I Am, “I arranged a session at Pye Studios, played the show back, and John and I simply sang along. We covered the backing vocals in one take, preserving the immediacy of the live concert.”
Live at Leeds still remains one of the most revered live rock albums to date, and continues to influence countless musicians – every band looking to play live should definitely listen to the record. As Pridden noted, when looking back at those years, “We were making history. But we weren’t history. We never thought about making history. We were just wandering minstrels out there having fun.”