Songs: “Young Man Blues,” “Substitute,” “The Summertime Blues,” “Shaking All Over,” “My Generation,” et al, & “Magic Bus.” Audience participation minimal.
For America the Who‘s live album comes out at just that time when, commercially, it is most appropriate; that is, after the band has finally escaped from its status as a critic’s darling to satisfy the half-formed intellectual yearnings of an American record-buying public. We shouldn’t fool ourselves: a good part of the appeal of Tommy was its claim to profundity, a claim that was hardly lost on the hundreds of thousands who bought it (and who bought Led Zeppelin to satisfy other sorts of needs), and a claim which had no need of legitimizing verbiage from attendant writers to help it along. Writers felt compelled to write about Tommy – but for some reason it wasn’t at all fun to read about, most likely because the ideas were clear enough. Tommy was an album of ideas first and foremost; on record, it didn’t have much value as rock and roll.
So the Who made it, commercially. It was time to document themselves on record, and of course the only way to do that was to release a live album (because the Who, up until now, have equaled The Who On Stage). The problem was that they’d been trying to do that for at least two years without coming up with anything that sounded good enough to spring on the public – and before Tommy, they were at that point where a bad album with a lot of hype could have killed their commercial potential.
After Tommy it wasn’t so risky and it was time for it. They did a gig at a college in England, recorded it, dug it, and came up with The Who Live At Leeds. Peter Townshend, who is the best critic of rock and roll in the world (his two interviews in Rolling Stone, at any rate, are the most brilliant and provocative dissertations on what rock and roll is, how it works, and what it’s for that I’ve ever read), packaged the record in such a way as to heighten its function as a document (included are a lyric sheet for “My Generation” in Townshend’s own hand, rejection slips from record companies and cancellations of gigs, old pay sheets, a great poster from the Marquee Club in London, circa about 1964, a receipt for smoke-bombs, a line-up for a strings-and-flute band called Brian Carroll and the Playboys affixed to a few lines from Tommy . . . wonderful stuff). Townshend also arranged the cover in such a way as to satirize, take advantage of the commercial potential of, and avoid – bootlegging. It’s a tour-de-force of the rock and roll imagination.
The music itself is not nearly so fine. It has aged, and while the time for the album is right, the time for the music has passed, for the band, and perhaps for us as well. The Who on stage, in the first place, were the product of Townshend’s mind, his emotions, and his desires; and now those desires have been mostly fulfilled, at least within the context originally set up for their expression. Thus, on several cuts, we find the Who curiously disguised as Led Zeppelin (and not just Daltrey either). It might make a good joke in the telling but it sure pales in the listening. “My Generation,” once a cataclysm (the real “Young Man’s Blues,” a song that in its prime made the number that begins the LP irrelevant), was recorded too late. It’s no longer necessary or, perhaps, save at rare moments, not captured here, possible for the Who to speak this piece; but what genius it was for Townshend to make the primal teenager sing with a stutter!
The fact that put-downs-because-they-get-around have changed to praise in the New York Times can’t help but turn the music in odd directions. “My Generation” is listed here with a running time of 14:27, but with this take it’s a few minutes of the old anthem and nearly a dozen of a medley from Tommy and other bits of sound. In the abstract, it all sounds good to me, but for all who found their way into its frenzy, “My Generation” was an event, on record and on stage. The first time I saw it happen I was honestly scared. It’s tame here. There is a lot of good music around these days – but very few events. We used to mark time by records – “a few months after Rubber Soul” – but the music is a little weaker and the rest of the world is a great deal stronger. It’s a couple of months since Kent, now.
The two cuts that break off the album like the Who-classics they are may well be the songs the band has played for the longest time every gig for years: “The Summertime Blues” and “Shaking All Over.” Perhaps because Townshend didn’t write them they have changed – in spirit – the least. These songs still play the same role with the audience that they always did, which isn’t true for “My Generation,” These songs, simple, perfect, and in the case of “Summertime Blues,” universal, still uphold the same values when they go down between the Who and a crowd and those values are still valid. The absurd doesn’t go out of date. Townshend found Eddie Cochran‘s song, or it was given to him on some half-forgotten tour ten years ago – it might be the reason the whole Who extravaganza got off the ground in the first place – and it’s the grammar-book of his rock and roll language. The Who found a way to play it on their terms, let it form their identity, and since they didn’t create it there was never any need to reject it. Their performance here is glorious.
The rest of the album is good music.
The Who Live was not simply music, or “show,” but something a great deal more than the sum of its obvious parts. You understood it viscerally and carried that understanding around like a catch-phrase of the shared private mind of a generation. That isn’t here on this record, because it does seem as if the Who recorded a memory of the past and ended up with what was left over in the present.
The album is a document, as it ought to be: the formal commercial end of the first great stage of their great career. With all the ordinary milestones behind them, thanks to their vision and their sound, we and they arrive, with a Led Zeppelin joke on one side and the crunch of the Who on the other, at that point where Peter Townshend and his band will begin to translate the Seventies into rock and roll. It’s a language that seems to speak most clearly when it stutters, after all.