How The Who made Leeds come alive
An essay by Simon Warner
The first band I ever saw were the Who: those rip-roaring, one-time mod marauders, now established transatlantic heroes, in quite incendiary form at the Odeon, Manchester, an old-style, plush-seated cinema, with ornate Deco details and red-carpeted foyer, green exit signs and ice-creams carried in those strap-on trays, a place more used to the larger-than-life legends of big screen movies.
Yet I doubt Hollywood itself could have brought more crackling action, anything more pulsatingly romantic, a show more star-studdedly explosive, to that venue, on that evening in October, 1971. The classic quartet, flickering in the flash of stage-lights, delivered their cacophonous, heart-pumping assault: Townshend flailing maverick guitar chords, singer Daltrey in fringed leather like a Wild West Byron, drummer Moon manically attacking every square inch of metal and skin and bassist Entwistle, enigmatic and stolid, expressionless and solid.
It was certainly the best way to take your first dive into the choppy oceans of live rock’n’roll. As the circles and aisles vibrated in the sonic swell, it was a Damascene moment for a young teen fan who’d seen the group in monochrome majesty singing ‘I’m a Boy’ on Ready Steady Go in 1966, who’d witnessed them say goodbye to the Sixties in an epoch-closing TV special, who’d thrilled, on record, to their acerbic riposte to the optimisms of the counterculture, the sensational ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, as a new decade unfolded.
By then, of course, the Who had been anointed the greatest live rock band of all after blazing a fiery trail though Britain then the USA. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin may have tilted at their crown but the throne had already been taken. At Woodstock in 1969, Townshend and co stamped their mighty footprint on America, with a show-stopping set to a half-a-million festival crowd, soon witnessed around the world in the documentary film that followed. But it was after their gig at Leeds University in 1970, and particularly with the album that followed in its wake, that the band truly left their mark on the planet.
Live at Leeds was hailed as the definitive live album when it emerged. Well over three decades later it remains the quintessential in-concert recording. One of the earliest live rock releases, it helped set a vogue for on-stage albums with the Stones, Dylan and the Beatles adding to the canon in subsequent years. It is both a treasure and a treat that the Who’s most celebrated per-formance should be delivered and captured within the university’s forever-after-famous refectory.
The campus refectory is exactly what you’d expect - a very long, fairly narrow room where students have eaten their lunches and teas since 1955. It’s a functional, somewhat innocuous, institutional space to buy meals and drink coffee. But, over many years, this voluminous diner has been regularly transformed by the magic of darkness, lights and sound into a rock venue of striking atmosphere.
Hundreds of thousands of undergraduates have flocked there, thrilling to everyone from Pink Floyd to Bob Marley, the Stones to the Clash, Bill Haley to the Kinks, Black Uhuru to the StranglersJames Brown to Queens of the Stone Age and so many more: a cavalcade of rock and reggae, blues and soul.
But it was a result of that February 14th, 1970 night, when the Who plugged in to play, that the venue would become etched in the annals of popular music history. Once the album had been issued, snaring the key moments of an impassioned performance, the refectory, the university, Leeds itself, would assume an international reputation. No longer just another concert hall on the college gigging circuit, it would emerge as a landmark on the map of rock’n’roll excellence.
Yet such a Valentine’s Day gift to this university may never have happened at all. The Who were determined to record and release a live album of that winter tour and the cumbersome hardware associated with such an exercise trailed them to more than just the Leeds concert.
The previous evening, the band’s appearance at Hull had also been earmarked for taping. But the equipment played up in some way and the recording of the night was just not up to scratch: whatever was captured on Humberside was simply not usable. On such premises does history sometimes rest. Live at Hull, less alliterative, or The Who at Hull, a little more so, may have become the celebrated long player instead.
But in Leeds the show worked in all respects – a capacity audience present, a band at the height of their form, a largely functioning technical rig – and the record that followed later that year, replete with some of the rough edges that symbolised an authentic concert, distilled the essence of an epic occasion for the millions who couldn’t be there for the show in person.
In the early years of the new millennium I was asked by Baker’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Popular Music, one of the standard American works, to portray the Who in a few hundred words. I suggested that the band had “produced sufficient material of worth and consolidated a unique reputation as a live act to ensure their status in the upper pantheon of rock performers”. Yet, I added: “Along the way, the group’s history has been peppered by the same tragedies that scarred many of the leading groups who came to prominence in the 1960s”.
And, yes, as we arrive at 2006 with the prospect of another Live at Leeds, plans to install a Civic Trust plaque to celebrate the venue’s long-standing reputation, and an imminent new artwork by the painter Peter Blake to further commemorate the band’s return, half the group who contributed to the exhilarating alchemy of the Who – Keith Moon, dead in 1978, John Entwistle lost in 2002 - will not be around. But Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, survivors in so many ways, truly will be.
Vast volumes of water have flowed along the local River Aire’s course and under the city’s bridges since the Who first set alight the massed hordes of the refectory in 1970. But the great record that first froze that moment in vinyl is still with us, re-released as a deluxe edition double CD in 2002, and the band play on with their talismanic front pairing still firing on stage and in the studio, too, with a new album soon expected to surface.
The refectory, transcending its everyday role, continues to mutate into
a hall where bands can play and the students still clamour to hear the contemporary,
cutting-edge sounds of Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys. But on June
17th, when the Who, bloodied maybe but yet unbowed, step back on to that
stage, a magic moment of the past will be re-conjured to remind us that
the very best in rock music retains a compelling and enduring power.