Vinyl Sessions - The Who: Tommy from Live at Leeds

Vinyl Sessions - The Who: Tommy from Live at Leeds

19th February 2023

“If you don't want anyone to know anything about you, don't write anything.” Pete Townshend

The year 1969 was a pivotal year for The Who. In May, they unveiled Townshend’s rock opera, now titled ‘Tommy’, at a launch gig at London’s Ronnie Scott’s on 2nd May. They then took the opera on the road, performing it over 160 times in a series of performances across the UK and US. The last performance with Keith Moon was at London’s Roundhouse on 20th December 1970, when they dedicated it to the support act and ‘Pinball Wizard’ in waiting, Elton John.

Along the way, ‘Tommy’ became the first work of contemporary popular music to be performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. They played it to vast audiences at the Isle of Wight festivals in 1969 and 1970 and, of course, Woodstock. Their memorable appearance at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, was captured for posterity in the Woodstock film, which was a box office smash when it opened in the spring of 1970. ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ from that famous live set also appeared on the big selling accompanying soundtrack album.

Following the worldwide success of ‘Tommy’ the former Shepherd’s Bush mods were now an unquestionably ‘serious’ albums act and were freed from their tag as 60s singles merchants. Their stage shows now lasted well into the two hour mark, usually involving an entire performance of ‘Tommy’ and a host of oldies and blues and rock ‘n’ roll classics close to their hearts, all boosted by Pete’s guitar hysterics, John Entwistle’s thundering bass and Keith Moon’s apoplectic drumming. What’s more, singer Roger Daltrey had grown into the role of charismatic, mic-twirling frontman.

The enormous success of ‘Tommy’ forced the band to think more seriously about recording their shows. The rock opera gave them a huge new audience, but it was largely a studio creation that didn’t capture their explosive onstage sound. When they headed to America in the autumn of 1969, around 30 shows were recorded for a projected live album that was envisioned as the perfect follow-up to ‘Tommy’. When they got back, the band’s sound man Bob Pridden waded through the tapes for three weeks and reported back that they were all good. He didn’t know where to start. With a deadline looming, it was decided that the easiest way forward was to record two shows that coming Valentine’s Day weekend – in Leeds and Hull. The band were on a decisive roll by the time the shows were recorded. “It was our playing peak, that came out of playing Tommy in its entirety on stage – or almost in its entirety,” says Roger Daltrey. Townshend paradoxically longed for and was suspicious of artistic legitimacy. This was, after all, a guy who smashed his guitar and then talked ceaselessly afterwards about what it “meant”. Who else would have embraced the classical pretensions of rock opera on the studio version of ‘Tommy’ and then proceed to tear them to shreds when he played the piece live with The Who? Rock opera made people take The Who very seriously, which Townshend loved and Townshend loathed. The pendulum had to be swung back again. A roaring live document would remind people that The Who were no longer a singles pop band. The familiar songs all receive major transformations, emphasizing that the band wasn’t content just to play their songs exactly as they were in the studio. The rendition of ‘Tommy’ strips away all of the quiet acoustic aspects of the studio version and grabs onto the great riffs and turns the tracks into simply ferocious rockers. The Who never sounded so focused and this rendition of ‘Tommy’ takes on an entirely different dimension. The original double LP had been criticised for being “thin and reedy” - this was as much to do with the production as it was to the serious cost of studio time. The Live at Leeds version allows the band to take ownership of ‘Tommy’ and present it as it was surely intended. Like all good opera, the beauty is not only in the music but in the performance.

Photos of The Who from the ‘Tommy’ era remain some of the most impressive on-stage shots of any band. Townshend’s monkey boots and no nonsense boiler suit; Enwistle in his two sizes too small skeleton suit (probably only ever worn once at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 but indelibly embedded in the consciousness); Moon in his white skin tight jeans and mod trainers; all complemented by the flamboyant fringe jackets of Roger Daltrey, casting him in the role of a counterculture rock Adonis, are memorable images forever ingrained in countless books on the band. The original release of ‘Live at Leeds’, in 1970, did not contain the ‘Tommy’ performance but was subsequently released in an upgraded CD version in 2001 and finally getting a full vinyl release in 2016, from which today's session will be extracted. Time does not permit us to play the entire ‘Live at Leeds’ album, perhaps that will be for another time.

Today, ‘Tommy’ has entered the public consciousness via the Ken Russell film, West End and Broadway critically acclaimed shows and is regularly performed by youth theatre companies throughout the land. But in 1970, on a damp and cold St Valentine’s Day in Leeds ‘Tommy’ belonged to The Who.

The session will conclude with a Q&A section. So if you’ve ever wondered if ‘Tommy’ was the first rock opera? Or pondered on just what exactly is a rock opera? Was ‘Tommy’ based on anyone? Just what is ‘Tommy’ all about? Well, here’s your chance to ask such questions and more. No doubt we’ll do our best to answer but I suspect that we won’t know either. The session will be curated by Vinyl Sessionist Barry Fuller.

After a short break, we'll follow the album with our usual ‘Dead Wax’ session. Bring along a 7” of your choice and hear it played through the Arts Centre PA. This can be anything you like, for any reason – the more ‘out there’ the better.

The bar will be open throughout.

Doors  12pm, Starts 12.30pm

Tickets £3

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