Friday, March 30, 2012

Burning the Rulebook: The Who's "Live at Leeds"

In 1986 or so, the very first CD I ever bought was It's Hard by The Who. For quite awhile, it was the only album by The Who I owned, which astounded the more devoted fans I met. In retrospect, it is probably not the strongest entry in The Who's overall canon, but the incredible Eminence Front buoyed the rest of the album and kept it high on my high school playlist.



A decade or so later, I was playing in a band called Fletcher. My bandmates were fans of The Who and had a much deeper understanding of their back catalog than I. Under their influence, I backed into the albums that defined The Who in their prime. The drummer suggested that I check out Live at Leeds,  but back then, with the exception of Zappa's releases, I considered live rock albums as ancillary entries to a band’s studio output.  The Who’s approach to staying relevant at the 60s drew to a close, however, revolved around their live persona. The Beatles may have defined themselves by burrowing deeper into the studio, but The Who is remembered as being a top live rock act – perhaps the best there ever was.



Because it’s such a compelling document of them in 1970, Live at Leeds an essential recording for understanding what The Who was really about. Classic tunes like Substitute and I’m a Boy are injected with a kinetic energy that is nothing short of transcendental, which renders the studio versions of these songs comparatively sterile and limp. The version of My Generation featured on Live at Leeds effectively ends after about two minutes, after which Townshend navigates the band through a thunderous fifteen minute exploration of material from throughout their catalog. Although this performance seems very spontaneous, under Townshend’s intuitive leadership the band remains tight and focused, avoiding the loose noodling that epitomizes most jams.

My Generation by The Who on Grooveshark

Every member of the band is at the top of their game on Live at Leeds, but I think paying respect to Keith Moon’s drumming is in order.  He’s another example of a musician whose style could not be learned in an academic setting, but must have been cultivated in experience.  Its amazing that with such an impulsive approach, he doesn't rush more than he does.  Of course, my immature prejudice against 60s music embarrassingly constrained my view of the band's important history to the short period with Kenney Jones as drummer, so Moon really blew my mind when I started to understand his idiosyncratic technique.  In he end, Live at Leeds ended up being more than an exception to my weird rulebook - it demolished several chapters and provided a whole new perspective on what is now one of my favorite bands.

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