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Leeds University, Leeds, England. It was Valentine’s Day, 1970 and The Who were about to enter the ’70s with one of the greatest live performances in rock and roll history. Fortunately, the band had already decided to record the gig. It was one of the best decisions Pete Townshend ever made.

The Who were back in England after an impressive U.S. tour, a climactic appearance at Woodstock and the universally lauded and pioneering Tommy album. As musical contemporary Rick Wakeman recalls, “The Who were at the time the loudest band in the world. They had just conquered America, played at Woodstock and Tommy was being hailed as a work of genius. And what did they do? Arrived at Leeds Uni and recorded what I reckon to be the best live album ever.”

The Who had more than 80 hours of tapes from assorted U.S. shows that they’d recorded but Townshend and Co. couldn’t face the chore going through all those tapes and, fearful of bootleggers, destroyed all the American recordings.

A live album would come from two new shows. Using the same engineers who worked with Ginger Baker and Cream they would record two gigs. One in Leeds on Valentine’s Day, the other at Hull the following night. Both were recorded but, as Roger Daltrey explains, only the first was usable.

“We recorded the next night’s gig too – at Hull. To be honest, that was a great gig too – but when we listened back to the tape we hadn’t recorded the bass!”

Leeds University refectory might seem a mighty comedown after playing huge stages in America, but in the early ’70s universities were the hippest venues in England. As Townshend himself said: “If pirate radio stations drove the first wave of rock, then universities drove the second.”

So it was Leeds that would make history. Students lined up for hours for tickets. As Daltrey recalls: “The students there were a great audience for us. It was packed to the rafters, and then some more. I heard there was a thousand fans on the roof!”

Patrick Dean was there that day for the Trend paper: “With two hours of solid furious music The Who showed no sign of letting up and tore into a wild set which included ‘Summertime Blues,’ ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and the legendary ‘My Generation.’”

Keith Moon told the student newspaper after the show that the audience played a major role in the success of the performance: “We fed on the audience as much as they feed on us … they were just too incredible.”

Daltrey said: “Live at Leeds was perfect because it was so simple, it was the raw band!”

Right after the gig, Townshend said he was pleased with how the show had gone. He told Trend: “We just had a feeling it was going to be good.”

Whatever happened on stage that night, a live album was going was coming out. As Townshend later remembered: “We decided before that we were going to put it out whatever. It was lucky it was good.”

At an early stage, he was already willing to discuss the upcoming live album’s release. “We’ll play back the tapes this week and decide what we’re going to see on the LP,” he said. “Probably we shall use part of Tommy and some of the last set. It should be out in about four weeks.”

Simon Brogan was the university entertainment’s secretary, who booked the band in 1970. He recalls that the band were paid $1,500, but they never cashed their check. “I had to give them another check when they came back that November to play at Leeds again.” 

Live at Leeds was actually released in May, 1970, in a plain cover resembling the very bootleg packaging the band were determined to avoid.

Critics hailed the album on its release with the New York Times calling it “the best live rock album ever made.” Over the years the album has grown in stature, with Q magazine naming it the greatest live album of all time.