The Who Live at Leeds

The beginning - 14/02/70
The plan - 06/07/05The return - 16/07/06

Andy Kershaw's New Statesman diary

The guy at the edge of our group - dressed in trainers, jeans and a loose, untucked shirt - was babbling boyishly about his love of the Who and leaping around like a spaniel puppy. “This man,” I said to Pete Townshend, steering him towards his latest admirer, “is the Deputy Director General of the BBC.”

Mark Byford, like many other former Leeds students, was back at the University last Saturday for the historic return of the Who. It was on February 14 1970 that the band recorded their landmark Live At Leeds album in the hallowed 2000 capacity Refectory and thirty-six years later, with a little encouragement from me (a formerLeeds Uni Ents Secretary), they were back to do it all over again. Only louder

Pete TownshendThe idea for this implausible opening show of their world tour (and the most intimate gig they’ve played in decades) began when I was flattered by the University with an honorary doctorate last July. Following the formal ceremony, the University laid on for me and my guests a drinks party on that historic Refectory stage. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Michael Arthur, and I were staring out across the hall when he mentioned that he was applying to the Civic Trust to have a blue plaque put on the outside wall of the Refectory to commemorate Live At Leeds. I was thrilled that overdue recognition had at last come with academics of the rock generation assuming power in the university but thought little more about it. Until two weeks later...

At the Womad festival, I bumped into Bill Curbishley, manager of both Robert Plant and the Who. (Robert had just finished a rip-roaring headlining show). I mentioned the Live At Leeds plaque to Bill. He seemed very pleased. “There are though, Bill, only two people who should really unveil that plaque. [Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend] What do you think?” Bill said he thought they’d be honoured. “And,” I pressed on, sensing I may be on a roll, “while they’re up there...” I didn’t have to finish the sentence. Bill Curbishley did it for me. “They’ll do it,” he said.

So last Saturday, after months of secret planning - but without, to my knowledge, any discussions about contracts or money - the army that is the Who on the road (crew, trucks, caterers, tons of lighting and sound equipment) rolled up in front of the art-deco student dining hall. So did the fans. Tickets had sold out in twenty minutes the week before. Some had travelled from as far as San Francisco and Shanghai for the chance to see their heroes perform close-up. Most satisfyingly, so did many veterans of the 1970 concert, including several of those who had organised the original event. Simon Brogan, the Ents Sec at the time, came down with his family from Orkney where he has been sheep-farming since 1975. And we’d only tracked down Pete Hart, student stage-manager for Live At Leeds, three days before last Saturday’s concert. Pete dropped everything to fly in from his home in Dallas. Few of these veterans had seen each other in more than thirty years. The spirit on the day was ecstatic and moving. Pete Townshend, in particular, seemed genuinely touched to meet those who’d staged the original gig.

A good-natured, noisy crowd gathered in the late afternoon sunshine for the unveiling of the plaque on the Refectory steps. Welling up, I spoke about how when I was Ents Sec at Leeds in the early eighties, I felt a heavy responsibility to maintain the highest standards of concerts, the benchmark for which had been the Who’s Live At Leeds. And that not even in my wildest dreams did imagine it would happen again. Daltrey and Townshend said it was a thrill to be starting their world tour in a place for which they had such affection and historical links. Television rolling news channels took the ceremony live for fifteen minutes.

I had to cajole them back indoors for the soundcheck: Chatting to fans and journalists, their enthusiasm was visible and amazing. Both are now in their sixties. Both have seen it all and done it all. Yet here they were in a state of youthfularousal. They were playing in the Refec not for the money, nor for the big crowds but because they wanted to play there again. “Dr Kershaw, I’m so excited about this,” Townshend told me. “And it’s all your fault.” His readiness was giddying.

In a virtually empty hall, he slashed out the ear-splitting opening chords to Substitute, the drums and bass kicked with a wallop to the stomach and, involuntarily, I found myself running, cartwheeling and yelling towards the front of the stage as Daltrey recalled the plastic spoon in his infant mouth. They were performing just to me. And, for just one unforgettable day, I was Leeds University Ents Sec again.

The gig itself was among the most magnificent I have ever seen, ending with a terrifying Won’t Get Fooled Again amid beams of blinding white light, Townshend leaping and slashing and windmilling those mighty power chords from his guitar, Daltrey whirling and snatching his flying microphone.

The BBC Deputy Director General’s post-gig verdict was that if one had to make a list of the top twenty experiences in one’s life, Live At Leeds Again would have to be in there. I can’t disagree.

And Simon Brogan (the Orkney shepherd who had booked the Who for their 1970 concert) and his nine year old son, Hamish, had, I was delighted to notice, managed to get right to the front, against the barrier, directly below Roger Daltrey. The band had spotted this too. As they took their final bow drummer, Zak Starkey, bent down and handed Hamish his drumsticks. Daltrey took a soaking towel from round his neck and and tossed it to Simon. “Here,” he said with a grin. “Dry your fucking sheep with that.”

Page owner: | Updated: 15/05/06