‘Live at Leeds’ @ 50: On Pete Townshend’s Unsung Solo Mastery

Watch out Slowhand: The Who’s songwriting and rhythm-guitar genius has also been one of rock’s finest soloists.

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Image credit: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage.

Of this there can be no doubt: Fifty years after its initial release on May 23, 1970, Live at Leeds remains the Who’s premier live recording. It’s also firmly in the conversation for other distinctions — best Who album overall, best live album by any rock artist — though in these categories, of course, it faces much stiffer competition. Because it’s occupied a secure place in the critical pantheon for decades, adding any further arguments for its inclusion seems more than a little redundant. Still, there’s something else to be said about Live at Leeds, something that’s not so frequently noted. In short, the album makes a strong case for Pete Townshend — who turned 75 on Tuesday — as one of rock’s all-time greatest lead guitarists.

Lead, mind you, not rhythm. I suspect we can all agree that between the power chords, the trademark right-hand flamenco flourishes and the countless examples of irresistible acoustic propulsion in his back catalog, Townshend already has the rhythm-guitar title in the bag. His ranking as a soloist, however, continues to be more in doubt, and those who lobby for his lead work most fervently tend to cite later examples: 1973’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” say, or 1975’s “Slip Kid,” or 1982’s “Eminence Front.”

Fair enough, to a degree; those solos better demonstrate Townshend’s melodic gifts and his jazzy sense of harmonic sophistication. But what really makes his lead playing exciting has little to do with melody or harmony. It’s about sheer force, the unflinching brutality of his attack and the unmistakable sense one gets that he’s singing or crying or screaming through his guitar — that vocal quality for which all the best soloists on any instrument strive. And every bit of this is on glorious display throughout Live at Leeds.

Granted, it’s a bit harder to support my case using the album’s original six-track vinyl iteration. But the subsequent expanded versions of Leeds make Townshend’s lead skills abundantly clear. Most important, they restore the original concert’s first song, bassist John Entwistle’s deliciously dark “Heaven and Hell.” The way Townshend starts his solo in the middle of that tune, ascending from his ’68 Gibson SG Special’s deepest register and sliding into an angry midrange declaration, evokes mental images of a stegosaur crawling out of a Jurassic mire to bellow at its companions. And then he just keeps going — for more than half the song’s four-and-a-half-minute duration — digging repeatedly into phrases (including one particularly compelling three-note lick) and ripping them apart in a distorted frenzy.

Next comes “I Can’t Explain,” the first single the quartet issued as the Who. Five years on from the jangly 12-string lead of its studio rendition, Townshend has adopted a far more lowdown, almost Duane Eddy-ish twang that perfectly mirrors the enhanced sense of swagger in Roger Daltrey’s vocal.

A couple of tracks later, “Young Man Blues” — the snarling Mose Allison cover that kicked off the original 1970 album — blows the roof off the joint. The opening riff is tough enough by itself, but once Daltrey’s howled his piece, Townshend unleashes a series of spiky bends and pulled-off triplets that are the personification of fury in sound. Two additional cover tunes that also made the vinyl cut, Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over,” aptly display an economy that harks back to those earlier rock-’n’-rollers, based on simple arpeggios and sly double-stops, but the grandeur with which every note is invested is pure Pete. (Yes, it may be a bit harder to support my case using the original Leeds, but only a bit.)

Even many of the “rhythm” guitar parts are so in-your-face that they may as well be leads. Think about the fun Townshend has with the natural reverberation created by the University of Leeds refectory walls during the extended jam on “My Generation,” or the ringing chords of “Fortune Teller,” as the guitarist revels in sizzling harmonic overtones that can only come from Hiwatt stacks cranked louder than God.

All the above moments and many more on Live at Leeds are instantly gripping and indisputably memorable. And if that isn’t great lead guitar playing, what is?

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