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When I was a pimply, quivery-voiced teenager trying to act cool whilst my balls dropped, like every teen, I knew everything. At least I thought I did. No-one could tell me anything, because I just wouldn’t listen. In my little bubble world, I also thought I knew everything about music.
I would look down my blackhead festooned nose at any record or artist that made it into the Top 40. As far as I was concerned, my ‘sophisticated’ musical tastes dictated that any band that had clawed their way into the charts were, by definition, uncool. (However, there are always exceptions to any rule; Smiths, Jam, Specials, Stone Roses anyone?) To a music snob, the bigger and more popular a band get, the more uncool they become. Take ‘The Cult’ for example. If you could get past the religion-revealing leathers and pseudo-mysticism they were a half decent rock band. Then they had to go and ruin it by tearing into the charts with some of the biggest albums and singles of the ‘80s. Almost overnight they had turned into a bloated bunch of cocks with lead singer Ian Astbury being the most turgid (in my skewed mind at any rate). Then something happened to turn my view of him on its head.
It was a bank holiday afternoon. I was lying on my bed in as the radio purred gently in the background. A DJ (possibly Tommy Vance) was interviewing Ian Astbury. As Astbury plugged The Cult’s new album, I absent-mindedly rolled the lint up that had gathered in my belly button. I was about to flick it across the room when BANG An urgent, wiry guitar riff cut through my daydream like a dentist’s drill. A growling bass joined the guitar riff that circled again before colliding headlong into a car crash of frantic drumming. The cymbals fizzled out to silence.I sat up and whacked the volume up to ‘Piss me parents off’ level. Then the vocals split the silence; a raw, angry voice spat out words about a young man?
What the f**k? This can’t be The Cult It certainly didn’t sound like Asbury singing. Or was a new direction? If it was, I was following. What actually followed was a trouser-browning assault on the earholes that lasted four minutes and fifty-six seconds. There was no let up, nowhere to hide. The violence just grew and grew. Abrasive, distorted guitar chords chopped through, and hung in the air. The bass guitar was unlike any I had heard before; the treble, mid and bass all seemed to be turned up to number eleven simultaneously. There was no real underpinning bassline as such, it was more like a bunch of solos glued together by the odd, thundering riff. On top of all this mayhem, and the thing that still makes the hairs on my neck try and uproot themselves and scatter to the safety of my bumcrack, were the drums.
Simply mind-blowing. They were right up there at the front of the mix, and they were relentless. When they first barged their way into the track, they sounded as though every single skin and cymbal was being randomly pummelled into submission at the speed of light. Outrageous. Spellbound, I bent my ear closer to the stereo as the song reached a shuddering climax with the singer screaming over the top of the mayhem, How ‘tis if yer a young man, ya ain’t got nuthin’ in the world these days, SWEET F**K ALL. He swore the singer bloody well swore On daytime radio I had to find out what the hell this was. I listened as Tommy Vance leant into the mic. He didn’t mention or apologise for the profanity; instead, his Woodbine-scorched voice took on the gravity of a Community Support Officer breaking the news of the death of a loved one. That was The Who with Young Man Blues from the album, Live at Leeds He continued, "I am here with Ian Astbury of The Cult and the records that changed his life."
Never mind Ian Astbury, what I had just heard had the potential to change my life I had to hear more. The following week I rode the 118 bus to Kingston, home of the imaginatively entitled ‘The Record Shop’, and made my purchase. I sprinted from the bus stop to home, took the stairs in pairs and slammed my bedroom door firmly shut. With trembling hands, I slipped the onyx-black vinyl from its sleeve, placed the centre hole over the spindle of the turntable and sunk the needle into intro groove. I kicked my shoes across the room, dived onto my bed and waited as the crackles spilled from the speakers.
At that time, I am a little embarrassed to say that I was a fully paid up fan of ‘Beard Orientated Rock Epics’. ‘BORES’ for short. For the uninitiated, this meant that any bewhiskered ‘70s rock band that could hold a groove, held my ear, man. These bands usually featured at least one person wearing a cape, banks of unfeasibly large keyboards, virtuoso guitar and bass noodling and a singer warbling on about Lord of the Rings characters for the entire side of an LP.I was however, also a fan of The Who. Their film and album, ‘Quadrophenia’ played a huge part in my formative years, but The Who track that had pricked my bubble sounded completely different to anything I had heard from them before.
For a start it was recorded live. Fired up, and pin-sharp after a European tour, The Who had never been more on form, and every track reflected this. The album was recorded on one of only two dates the band played in February 1970; The University of Leeds on February 14th, and Hull on the 15th. Both shows were recorded but unfortunately, John Entwistle’s bass guitar didn’t record properly at the Hull concert so it was Leeds that became immortally scorched into black vinyl.
The album sleeve was also a revelation. Packaged in what looked like brown paper, it was designed to look like a bootleg album. Roughly stamped in a distressed font in the top right hand corner was THE WHO - LIVE AT LEEDS. (Apparently, this led to a record company exec to comment that he thought The Who lived in London, not Leeds). On the reverse of the sleeve, in minimal, no frills typography was the track listing; only six songs in total on the original vinyl release (subsequent reissues on CD carry virtually the whole set). The rough and ready bootleg feel of the sleeve continued on the inside, with photos of documents, receipts and other band paraphernalia arranged as though loosely held in a manilla folder. One of these documents even contains an early example what we now call text speak; scrawled in red across the top of a page are the letters, ‘YR N ‘LD CNT’, no prizes for guessing what that really meant. Handwritten on the record label, supposedly by Townshend, were the words, CRACKLING NOISES OK. DO NOT CORRECT - asserting the rawness of the recording and ensuring spotty ‘erberts like myself wouldn’t to rush it back to Our Price and ask for another copy.
Crackling and all, the album got me by the balls, bit down, and held me tightly. I was obsessed with it. It would happen to me quite often. I would latch onto a record and wear the grooves flat, rendering it unplayable. (I actually did this once on Led Zeppelin’s patchy live album, ‘The Song Remains The Same’). Or I would play it to the point of never wanting to hear it ever again. ‘Live at Leeds’ stayed on my turntable and was played at volume whenever I was in my room. Before digital technology allowed the luxury of pausing mid track and skipping backwards, I would repeatedly lift the needle and replace it a couple of millimetres backwards just to hear a bass lick or snare fill that had fired me up.
Then the inevitable happened. I got bored of it. Music never stands still, nor do music fans. For me, one of the great powers of music is its ability to leave you with a thirst. A thirst to explore. This happened with The Who; I exhausted their expansive catalogue and then moved on to the other great 60s mod bands such as the Kinks, The Creation and of course, Small Faces. They in turn led me to listen to their influences such as the classic soul of Stax and Motown. So many great sounds, so little time. In short, I left ‘Live at Leeds’ behind.
Fast-forward a few years. Due to a lack of space and the birth of my first child (the thought of him chewing on a corner of my original issue of Humble Pie’ ‘Thunderbox’ was too painful), I begrudgingly packed my vinyl into a large box and banished it to the safety of the loft. Then I stuffed my turntable on top of the wardrobe and set about rebuilding my record collection in the more space-saving and dribble resistant format of compact disc.
During a lunch break at work, I found myself killing time in HMV, perusing the miles of CDs when I stumbled upon my old lover, ‘Live at Leeds’. And just like the moment you unexpectedly bump into an old lover, my heart quickened a little. Memories of good times past came flooding back. I hadn’t heard the album for years. Would it still sound as electrifying? Would the hairs on my neck stand to attention as they used to? Oh, sweet mistress, I MUST HAVE YOU AGAIN And for the bargain price of £7.99, she wasn’t putting up much resistance.
I purchased the CD and legged it back to work where I excitedly sat at my computer and tore at the shrink wrap cellophane. I placed the disc into the outstretched tray, nudged it gently back into the machine, took the headphones from around my neck and placed them over my ears. I selected the track I was most interested in hearing again and clicked on play.It is a cliché to say that the hairs on my neck stood up, but they did. As that old familiar riff rudely crashed into earshot, I literally had a sudden shiver convulse my body. As my mum would have said, Someone had walked over my grave. And it sounded better than I remembered.
Throughout the years, there have been countless live albums. Some are pretty special; Bob Marley - Live at the Lyceum, Talking Heads - Stop Making Sense, James Brown at The Apollo and The Rolling Stones’ - Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out, to name but a few. For me though, ‘Live at Leeds’ remains the greatest live album I have ever heard. Nothing else comes close to the sheer power and energy that it forces through the speakers. It is also something of a memorial, leaving the listener with a teasing taste of what it must have been like to actually see the band in their windmilling, microphone twirling glory, which is the whole purpose of a live album really.
The last I heard about Ian Astbury was that he was fronting the ‘60’s psychedelic, pop poets The Doors a few years back. He may have even released another Cult album or two in the meantime for all I know. But whatever his crimes, I forgive him, because if it wasn’t for me stumbling across his interview with Tommy Vance all those years ago. I could still be listening to Yes.
© Words – Arron O’Hare/ ZANI