Live and kicking at Leeds
As Pete Townshend slashed out the opening chords to "Substitute" I found myself involuntarily yellin
The guy at the edge of our group - dressed in trainers, jeans and a loose, untucked shirt - was babbling boyishly about his love of The Who and leaping around like a spaniel puppy. "This man," I said to Pete Townshend, steering him towards the admirer, "is the deputy director general of the BBC." Mark Byford, like many other former Leeds students, was back at the university last Saturday for the historic return of The Who.
It was on 14 February 1970 that the band recorded their landmark Live at Leeds album in the hallowed 2,000-capacity Refectory, and 36 years later, with a little encouragement from me (a former Leeds Uni ents sec), they were back to do it all over again. Only louder.
From Orkney and Shanghai
Tickets had sold out in 20 minutes the week before. Some fans had travelled from as far as San Francisco and Shanghai for the chance to see their heroes perform close-up. Most satisfyingly, so did many veterans of the 1970 concert, including several of those who had organised the original event.
Simon Brogan, the ents sec at the time, came down with his family from Orkney, where he has been sheep-farming since 1975. And we'd only tracked down Pete Hart, student stage manager for Live at Leeds, three days before last Saturday's concert. Pete dropped everything to fly in from his home in Dallas. Few of these veterans had seen each other in more than 30 years.
The spirit on the day was ecstatic and moving: Pete Townshend in particular seemed genuinely touched to meet those who'd staged the original gig. A good-natured, noisy crowd gathered on the Refectory steps in the late-afternoon sunshine for the unveiling of the "Live at Leeds" commemorative blue plaque.
Welling up, I spoke about how, when I was ents sec in the early 1980s, I felt a heavy responsibility to maintain the highest standards for concerts, the benchmark for which had been The Who. And that not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would happen again. Roger Daltrey and Townshend said it was a thrill to be starting their world tour in a place they had such affection for, and sounded like they really meant it. I had to cajole them back indoors for the soundcheck: chatting to fans and journalists, their enthusiasm was obvious.
Both are now in their sixties. Both have seen it all and done it all. Yet here they were in a state of youthful arousal! They were playing in the Refec not for the money or for the big crowds, but because they wanted to play there again. "Dr Kershaw, I'm so excited about this," Townshend told me. "And it's all your fault."
One unforgettable day
In a virtually empty hall, he slashed out the ear-splitting opening chords to "Substitute". The drums and bass kicked in with a wallop to the stomach and I found myself involuntarily running, cartwheeling and yelling towards the front of the stage as Daltrey recalled the plastic spoon in his infant mouth. They were performing just to me. For one unforgettable day, I was Leeds University ents sec again.
The gig itself was one of the most magnificent I have ever seen. It ended with a terrifying "Won't Get Fooled Again" amid beams of blinding white light, Townshend leaping and slashing and windmilling those mighty power chords from his guitar, Daltrey whirling and snatching his flying microphone.
The BBC deputy director general's post-gig verdict was that if one had to make a list of the top 20 experiences in one's life, Live at Leeds Again would have to be in there. I can't disagree. And Simon Brogan (the Orkney shepherd who had booked The Who for the 1970 concert) and his nine-year-old son Hamish had, I was delighted to notice, managed to get right to the front, against the barrier, directly below Daltrey.
The band had spotted this, too. As they took their final bow, the drummer Zak Starkey bent down and handed Hamish his drumsticks. Daltrey took a soaking towel from round his neck and tossed it to Simon. "Here," he said with a grin, "dry your fucking sheep with that."
Andy Kershaw's documentary about the concert (part of his series School of Rock) is broadcast on Radio 4, 24 June, at 10.30am
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis