The Who’s Live at Leeds is a Warhead of Innocent Joy

Morgan Enos (Other Houses) on how the Who’s 50-year-old live album inspired his middle-school garage band.

My dad Scott came up as a rock & roll fan east of Los Angeles in the 1970s, where a typical weekend meant cruising with a six while one of his buddies in the backseat knocked drumsticks on his headrest to the eight-track. 35 years later, the muscle car had long since turned into a Honda Accord, and he was a devout Christian who loved nature and quietude and wore dress clothes about a quarter of the time. But despite having sanded the edges off his lifestyle and settled into his family and religious beliefs — and here’s the crux of my entire personality — he never quite shook the rock.

If my dad never chose to commune with me over his CD collection, my life would be very small today. He died a few years ago, so these musical memories are all mine now, many of them taking place in cars: He’d pause Jethro Tull’s “Moths” every five seconds so I could absorb the poetry in each line, slowly increase the volume to max on the Beatles’ mouldering “A Day in the Life” piano chord, and crank Tom Waits’ preposterous interlude “Kommienezuspadt” until we were both doubled over laughing. And he cherished the Who’s Live at Leeds, which he considered to be the ultimate live album — rock’s dynamite band at full tilt. Or, as he put it, “four guys making a lot of noise.”

He wasn’t alone. The New York Times called Live at Leeds, which turns 50 this month, “quite simply… the best live rock and roll album ever made.” Singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon specifically played the show so it could be recorded: “I played more carefully than usual and tried to avoid the careless bum notes that often occurred because I was trying to play and jump around at the same time,” Townshend wrote in his 2012 memoir Who I Am. Regardless, highlights like “I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation” and “Magic Bus,” are the product of relentless, boyish abandon.

15 years ago, my best friend Evan and I absorbed my dad’s music and mixed it with scary 1970s punk music we’d heard about. In the family garage, which was at the summit of a steep driveway above a vista of greenery, we decided to form a rock band. I had a G&L Stratocaster and a Peavey combo amp with a broken reverb tank; Evan had a royal blue Pulse kit that (to my knowledge) never had a single drumhead replaced. Our friend Andrea, who my dad affectionately nicknamed “Entwistle,” joined on Thunderbird bass. Moon and Entwistle they weren’t. Townshend I will never be. But we fumbled through Live at Leeds songs anyway. Honestly, I think my dad got more out of it than any of us did, transforming every rehearsal into a miniature gala complete with a full-on cookout and the ice cream maker humming inside.

And that was P.S.A., my first band if you can call it that, with my dad as our Brian Epstein-style proponent. (The name, which I picked, was an obscure Smashing Pumpkins-related reference. I’ll spare you the details.)

My dad had the right attitude; neurotic, ambitious and high-strung by nature, I didn’t have as much fun as I should have. Call it the young man blues: I was unhappy in the religious community we were all raised in, and having been exposed to the fundamentals of rock history, I decided it was all too irresistible to pass up for a less stimulating life. Evan was in a similar boat, although he was in a more vulnerable situation than I was and his near-constant groundings threw our rehearsals into jeopardy. Some in the religious community gave me static for putting unwholesome characters like Iggy Pop in their kids’ brains. Evan and I couldn’t even grow our hair past our ears. We were a long way from Leeds.

It got dark sometimes. I remember a bedroom full of Who posters being stripped to the bone. But on my march to potential parenthood today, I understand why the adults reacted the way they did. Out of the many, many things you can call Keith Moon, “role model” isn’t one of them, and I’d personally teach my kids that you can access the fun of rock without becoming a pariah. Because Live at Leeds isn’t about smutty humor and seedy living just as the rest of classic rock really isn’t; it’s about the magic that happens when weird, intelligent people choose to plug in and express themselves. When I write about classic rock today, I try to avoid the “lore” and dig into the joy.

I don’t remember how P.S.A. “broke up”; it doesn’t matter. I started writing my own songs on a Martin steel-string around then and I’ve had a universe of musical experiences ever since. I’m still friends with Evan and Andrea — Theo, too, who played lead guitar for us for a while. I want to remember the small, fleeting moments: Watching Moon fire a drumstick into the rafters and effortlessly catch it during the Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 concert. Seeing the real deal with my dad and Evan and the way a punchy Townshend pronounced the town “Fress-no.” The target logo belt buckle I wore to school every day after that evening at Save Mart Center. If offered a chance to relive that part of my life, I’d take a pass, but those times were formative and precious, and Live at Leeds blared through them all.

My dad unexpectedly boarded the magic bus three years ago on the same patch of earth where he roared his approval for yet another unsteady rendition of “I Can’t Explain.” One night during that nightmarish week back home, I was lying on a friend’s bedroom floor, inconsolable, when I thought of Theo. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but we usually remembered to fire a Who-related YouTube video back and forth and wax about the P.S.A. days. I called him up and he’d already heard the news. He has a beautiful family now and he ended up way more rock & roll than I did. Anyway, I’ll share what Theo said to me because it hit me like a kick drum filled with gunpowder and ignited on national TV:

“Your dad was our champion,” he said.

Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in BillboardHuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.