Live at Leeds: Who's best...

Their 1970 performance, before 2,000 students at a university refectory, produced what has been described as the best live album of all time. Now Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are to return to the site of their rock masterpiece. Ian Herbert reports

It was with a sense of anxiety as well as fervour that the Leeds University student union awaited the arrival of its latest big-name band, The Who, on St Valentine's Day, 1970.

A newly purchased stage ensured that Townshend, Daltrey and Co would not have to jump up on tables to perform, as some previous bands had done. But there were serious concerns about the group's 10 massive amplifiers, the like of which had never been seen before in the student refectory which doubled up as a rock venue. "We stacked the amps on dining tables, five each side of the stage, and hoped for the best," recalls John Standerline, one of the university entertainments committee which received the band that day.

Happily, the amps did remain intact, delivering the mighty, primal sounds which, though Leeds did not know it at the time, were to assume a seminal part in rock history. The furious three-hour concert in the refectory that Saturday night was recorded for The Who's legendary Live at Leeds album, which is still considered by many critics to be the best live album made and an inspiration to the heavy metal genre. It is also common consensus that Townshend's searing, improvised guitar solos during a 15-minute take on My Generation have never been bettered.

Now, minus their drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978, and John Entwistle, the bassist who died four years ago, they are to make a return pilgrimage. The university announced yesterday that Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey would kick off The Who's forthcoming world tour later this month with another gig in the refectory. The legends will also unveil a local civic trust blue plaque at the venue to mark the 1970 gig.

The inspiration for Live at Leeds II is Andy Kershaw, who was entertainments officer at the university for two years in the early 1980s before pursuing his BBC career. Kershaw found himself in conversation on the refectory stage with the university's vice-chancellor, Professor Michael Arthur, last year, after receiving an honorary doctorate in music. He was informed of the plans for the blue plaque and two weeks later, a chance encounter with The Who's manager Bill Curbishley at Womad - Peter Gabriel's festival of world music, arts and dance - led to an approach to Townshend, 60, and Daltrey, 61.

Both musicians are said to be delighted by the idea of returning to the refectory, the compact, low-ceilinged art deco building which became one of Britain's most improbable rock venues in the 1960s and has remained one ever since. "Doctor Andy, I'm really excited about this," Townshend told Kershaw in a recent e-mail, which revealed that Kershaw's doctorate is evidently taking some living down.

"Both of these musicians have a real grasp of the historical and emotional significance of them coming back," Kershaw said yesterday. "They are doing this because they want to do it, not because they are going to make any money out if it. It will be the starting point for a tour which will take in football stadiums and baseball stadiums across Britain and the US." Fittingly, the band will be supported by the mod rockers Casbah Club, featuring Pete Townshend's younger brother, Simon, as guitarist and vocalist, when they play the venue a week on Saturday.

The refectory, a long, narrow room where Leeds students have dined since 1955, had its share of big names before The Who rolled into town. Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin had all gone before. But few groups were making waves quite like Daltrey, Townshend, Moon and Entwistle. The Leeds concert came on the back of the band's success at Woodstock, broadcast to the world in an accompanying documentary film, where they performed much of their rock opera Tommy. A live album had remained beyond them, though. The group balked at the idea of wading through recordings from their American tour to produce one, so decided to make one at a British concert. The band's appearance at Hull on 13 February seemed the perfect opportunity and the concert which made Leeds a household name might have been called Live at Hull, had the line connecting the bass guitar to the tape recorder been working properly on Humberside. It was not - and the concert at Leeds, which was arranged at just two weeks' notice, suddenly assumed a huge significance.

For a time it seemed the Leeds concert was destined to go the same way. "During the afternoon, we realised that the recording would need double the electricity that was available," recalls Simon Grogan, an ents officer, who secured the gig for the university and went on to work for Chrysalis before swapping music for a life as a sheep farmer in Scotland. "Luckily, two students on the committee were technical whiz kids and got the problem sorted."

The band launched the concert with "Can't Explain" and "Substitute" moving on to Townshend's masterpiece Tommy. With two hours' furious music behind them, there was no let up. "Summertime Blues", "Shaking All Over" and "My Generation" were to follow.

A delirious audience must have helped. The gig had prompted 6am queues at the student union that day. Even the queues became a story for the university newspaper, which reported on "a rota system for leaving the queue to warm up" which was in operation. The 11s 6d tickets (£6 in today's money) sold out in an hour. More than 2,000 students crammed into the refectory for the gig and 1,000 listened on the roof.

"We just had a feeling it was going to be good," Townshend told the Yorkshire Evening Post a few days later. "We played better than we have for a long time." The band's fee for the concert was £1,000 but they didn't even cash the cheque. "I had to give them another cheque when they came [the following] November to play Leeds again," says Brogan.

Only six tracks made it on to the famous album which, with its plain brown cardboard cover and ink lettering, was designed to look like the simple cover of a bootleg LP of the era. The label was handwritten (apparently by Townshend), and included instructions to the engineers not to attempt to remove any crackling noise. Townshend remixed the Live at Leeds tapes when the full concert was finally released four years ago.

Q magazine recently voted the work the greatest live rock album of all time. "We may never see the likes of such an event again," says Kershaw. "It's a corporate world now. The venues are bigger and the student unions just don't wield any power."

To celebrate the concert, Sir Peter Blake, art director for The Who's Face Dances album, will also create a new artwork, to be added to the Sir Peter Blake Music Art Gallery at the University's School of Music.

The Who will play the Leeds University refectory on 17 June. Tickets go on sale on 9 June at 9am at the Leeds University Union on the university campus, £37.50. No telephone bookings. Two tickets per person.

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