Considering the Who are one of the finest live bands in rock & roll history, it’s almost scandalous how few of their classic performances have received an official release. There is, of course, 1970’s vaunted Live at Leeds, a nice compilation of BBC recordings that spans 1965 to 1973, and the underrated Houston ’75 gig that turned up on DVD a few years ago. Unfortunately, that’s about it.
Myriad unreleased shows, however, have just as much power, flare and personality as any of those: Live at Wealdstone, a tape documenting a show performed 50 years ago this week is an astonishingly fascinating Who bootleg, and arguably the best pre-fame tape recorded by any of the Sixties’ classic rock icons.
On October 20th, 1964, when Messrs. Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle and Moon turned up at London’s Railway Hotel, they were still, on some posters, being billed as the High Numbers, a dodgy name that tapped into Mod slang. The previous month, the band had waxed “I Can’t Explain.” A few months later they’d do the same for “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and the seismic “My Generation.” But on that fall day at the Railway, the Who were a covers band like few before them, a unit re-assimilating the past, torching it and providing deep looks into their own soon-to-be-storied future.
The group plays no originals on the tape. The fidelity, which might give your Beats-loving ears pause, is actually quite clear considering the vintage – rough and ready like the Who themselves. They ease into the gig with a sashaying performance of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles‘ “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying.” Keith Moon’s drums, even at this early date, serve as the lead instrument. No rock band had ever taken this approach, and it was a tactic that, right from the start, freed up Pete Townshend to deploy his guitar in an almost painterly fashion, offering framework and texture rather than directive and chops.
From there, they romp through the Kinks‘ recent single, “You Really Got Me.” Townshend slows the famed riff down, and you can just about feel how much the audience loves being bludgeoned by something so loud, so sludgy and so invasive. By the conclusion of the song, John Entwistle’s bass is all Macbethian thunder, Moon’s drums are sea of polyrhythms and Townshend is navigating between those two sonic forces, starting a riff here, capping another there and playing off echoes of his own lines. In other words, it’s a bit like the instrumental wig-out from the fourteen-and-a-half minute version of “My Generation” played in Live at Leeds – but over five years earlier.
Speaking of Leeds, “Young Man Blues” is here, but this time, the Who handle it with calypso swing. Latin rhythms (and Grant Green guitar nods) were prevalent in the band’s sound at the time, but you can tell that they still fancy themselves a blues outfit. Roger Daltrey’s alligator-skinned growl, for instance, is alternately humorous in its mimicry of Chicago blues masters and intimidating in its self-belief and zealotry. But this is the blues crossed with what would later be called metal, and you could even dance to it.
Performances are repeated because songs break down, and looking back, it’s the multi-song jams that surprise most. Bo Diddley‘s “Pretty Thing” bleeds into Howlin’ Wolf‘s “Smokestack Lighting,” which then bleeds into Barrett Strong’s “Money.” Townshend’s guitar shrieks at Hendrix levels, and his amp just provides more juice – its signature tone already in evidence.
Moon is a dervish at his kit, his rolls and fills portending stuff like “The Kids Are Alright” and “Happy Jack.” Daltrey can’t let go the pilled-up Big Bill Broonzy routine, and during “Money” he improvs lines like, “Got my needle in you baby, and it sure feels good.” Naive, yes, but it hardly matters: These kids are all the way in, and that, as much as anything, would serve as their defining quality and the core strength of Townshend’s writing.
Eight days later, this group would be billed as the High Numbers for the final time. Listening to this tape 50 years after the fact, you wonder how it even took that long.