Some have called it the greatest live album, ever. Some think it’s completely overrated. And then some of us just plain think it’s pretty awesome. Originally, THE WHO’s Live at Leeds was issued in 1970 as a short, single record. A supremely truncated representation of the band’s heralded live shows of the time, it nevertheless was widely considered to be a great live record. Well, now – 46 years later! – you can have the entire concert on vinyl, and it’s a pretty sweet package.
First issued in its entirety in 2001, then again in 2010 with more between-songs dialog included and the songs in the original set list order (as part of an over-the-top “super deluxe edition”), the February 14, 1970 concert has finally been released in the fashion it deserves. This vinyl album, which uses the 2001 “remix,” was half-speed mastered at Abbey Road Studio and comes in a tri-gatefold cover, with printed inner sleeves and pretty lengthy (though incomplete) liner notes. I put remix in “quotes” because the credits indicate it has been done, but don’t say whether it is a new mix or the same from 2001, and who knows whether that was really a remix or just the first time the entire concert had been mixed in one go. With The Who and their many re-releases the credits can be confusing! As for the liner notes, each song is discussed – except the entire Tommy set! Yet, the inclusion of the Tommy songs is a big part of why having the entire concert is so important to us rock enthusiasts. You could say they ran out of room but you’d be wrong; there’s plenty of room. (I bet they lifted the notes out of the 2001 release, which had Tommy taken out of its spot in the set and relegated by itself to the second disc.) So, who knows?!
Half-speed mastering is another thing. Some believe it is the salvation of vinyl, some think it’s a gimmick, and then some of us realize there are times when it appears to be a boon and others when it may very well be a bust. Those against it believe the high frequencies benefit from the process but the lows are lessened. (Basically, half speed mastering means the tape is played at half speed and the master is made at half speed, which supposedly lets more information make it into the groove. When you play the resulting record at the proper speed, you are arguably getting more out of your speakers. But even that’s not necessarily so, since your speakers may muddy up the sound from having more information thrown at them!) (I’m so glad I’m not as snobby a hifi enthusiast as some think I am! It’s tiring!) For what it’s worth, you can learn more about Universal’s half speed mastering at their special site.
Despite all the hoo-haa, I gotta say I really like this release. The Who were, indeed, at the top of their game in 1970, as evidenced by this album, the Hull concert from the previous night (included on the 2010 Leeds release and then separately), the official-but-posthumous Live at the Isle of Wight concert from later that year, and the many bootlegs of other shows from that era. Whether you’re a Tommy fan or not, it’s historically enlightening to hear it performed in near-entirety around the time of its debut. The fact of the matter is, you can skip the Tommy bits if they make you want to go to the mirror, boy, and smash it up. As for the half speed mastering, it’s impossible to judge whether or not it makes a difference since the entire show has never come out on vinyl before, and the 1970 album is from the original mix of the six tracks that made it to release then. I can say this: it sounds about as blistering as you’d hope. It’s kind of a hassle to deal with six sides of vinyl (as opposed to just two compact discs), and it’s weird (but unavoidable) that a couple of the side breaks are in the middle of between-song dialog. But the presentation is top notch (despite no discussion of Tommy in the notes) and the price is pretty reasonable (currently listed at $43 on Universal’s site) for a 3LP, audiophile, 180-gram set. I mean, there’s no… ahem… substitute for vinyl!
4/5 (Polydor/Universal, 2016)