Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Amazing Journey - The road to "Live at Leeds". The Who Live in Philadelphia 19/10/1969

Live At Leeds
The Who's Live At Leeds is undoubtedly one of the most iconic albums of the rock era. If anyone from the future wants to know what 1960s and 1970s rock music was really all about, they will undoubtedly go no further than the recording of The Who's historic performance at Leeds University on February 14th 1970. It has precision, power and musical artistry. It set the bar then, and still does now, for what rock music could and should do. Everything that was magnificent about The Who is there - great songs, great riffs, exemplary musicianship (balanced with a sense of impending chaos) and there are even a few good jokes too.

In 1970 The Who were a live band capable of taking on all comers and seeing them off with a musical dynamism that combined brute force with artistic sensibility. Don't forget that only a year or so before the band had upstaged the Rolling Stones on their Rock'n'Roll Circus TV show. Such was Mick Jagger's dismay at coming in second best on his own TV show that it was quietly filed away and forgotten until its belated release in the 90s.

And Live At Leeds was no one-off. The Who were on a roll. The previous night's show at Hull University was just as good but technical problems stymied its release. Six months earlier the band had triumphed at Woodstock. Six months later the Isle Of Wight Festival would show the band as all conquering heroes. 1970 saw The Who at the peak of their powers. No other band came close. How did they get this good?

Amazing Journey
The answer is non-stop touring through 1968 and 1969 in the USA. Tommy was released in 1969 to massive critical and commercial success and anyone who went to see them at that time would have been treated to a performance of the new album in full plus razor sharp versions of the band's better known singles, some LP material and a handful of cover versions. So good were they that a potential live album was mooted as a stop-gap follow-up to Tommy and many of the autumn 1969 US tour shows were recorded for that purpose. Unfortunately for us, Pete Townshend couldn't be bothered to listen to them all and had all the tapes destroyed. An act that must figure as one of the great losses in rock history.

Well, almost all of them were destroyed. Partial recordings of a few shows seem to have survived. The 2nd show at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia on October 19th 1969 is one of them and it is a remarkable record of The Who at their incandescent best. It may not have the precision and finesse of Live At Leeds but all the energy and momentum are definitely there (see the YouTube audio clip below). This 38 minute long recording still remains unreleased in any official form.

Moon Rocks
One of the most outstanding aspects of The Who's sound was Keith Moon's drumming. The Philadelphia show is more evidence (if any more were needed) that Keith Moon really was one of rock's most original and pioneering drummers. He was very much part of what made them unique and this period from 1969 to 1970 is probably his finest. It is Moon's jazz inspired fills and effects that colour the music and give it that thrilling balance between chaos and art. Ginger Baker was capable of the same but was actually a more dependable drummer. Baker played jazz in a rock band. Moon was not a jazz drummer but often played like one. He took all kinds of risks and you were never quite sure what was going to happen happen next. This gave the band a tension that, when it worked, was exhilarating and awe-inspiring. Moon quite often leads and the others respond. He propels the band and demands they match him. Playing with Moon must have been like walking on a knife edge. Both Townshend and Entwistle would have needed to stay fully conscious and attuned to what was Moon was doing. Having built a bridge between musicality and chaos they then have to keep it up. And therein lies the art.

This knife edge tension is the first thing you hear when the Electric Factory tape cuts in. They are in the middle of playing John Entwistle's show opener Heaven and Hell and although Townshend is nominally supposed to be taking the lead, Entwistle and Moon are playing with Townshend, rather than just backing him up as any normal rhythm section would do. They all seem to be playing lead. Each musician is claiming his space within the band's sound-scape. However this is a sound-scape that the musicians are also creating by simultaneously interacting with each other. It's like jazz. The first 30 seconds of the Philadelphia tape sound like a rock version of John Coltrane's Chasing The Train. Brilliant and sometimes gravity defying. God they were good. I can think of only a few other rock bands who could do this. Cream and The Grateful Dead come to mind.

The Electric Factory, Philadelphia
The Electric Factory, 19th October 1969
The Philadelphia Electric Factory was an ex tyre warehouse and the kind of small size venue The Who would not be playing again in the wake of Tommy's success. This recording from the 2nd show that night (the first stated at 4pm!) has pristine sound quality and features highlights from Tommy. Especially noteworthy are the triumphant sounding Amazing Journey / Sparks (featuring the always transcendental amazing orgasmo-riff at around 19:00 onwards), a storming Summertime Blues and an extended My Generation which, although it may not have the pace and stucture of the Leeds version, certainly matches it for sheer aggressive in-yer-face Whoness. As the song segues into the instrumental section it almost sounds like it's about to go into sizzling feedback auto-destruct mode but then Townshend starts pulling out the stops and we get the Tommy revisited rifferama a la Leeds. This is Townshend in full command. Now he really is leading the band and boy is it ever his band. They've done Tommy and its his work and the world is at his feet and he knows it. It's an astonishingly assertive performance that just keeps peaking. It's full of Townshendesque swagger and in-yer-face-told-yer-so-up-yours-fuck-youness. Quintessential Who.

The Who at their peak. Sublime, glorious and affirmatory. Some of the best rock music ever recorded.

The Electric Factory in Philadelphia, 19th October 1969. 8pm Show
Heaven and Hell (fades in) /  I Can't Explain /  Overture /  It's A Boy / 1921 / Amazing Journey / Sparks / The Acid Queen / Summertime Blues / My Generation

Sparks at New York's Fillmore East a few days later on the 22nd October 1969. Hear the always transcendental amazing orgasmo-riff tear through the very fabric of reality at 6:05.

1 comment:

  1. Great article with which I totally agree, the Who were just about THE best live act around during that period... far better than the Rolling Stones could ever hope to be.