Anthony Clavane: Today the words ‘Leeds’ and ‘culture’ featuring in the same sentence continues to provoke incredulity

Pete Townsend (left)  and Roger Daltrey unveil a civic plaque at Leeds University to mark their famous performance at the Refectory in Leeds where the 1970 'Live at Leeds' album was recorded. (Picture credit: Ross Parry Agency).
Pete Townsend (left) and Roger Daltrey unveil a civic plaque at Leeds University to mark their famous performance at the Refectory in Leeds where the 1970 'Live at Leeds' album was recorded. (Picture credit: Ross Parry Agency).
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We are fast approaching the 49th anniversary of the best live rock recording of all time. I know I am obliged to follow this sentence with the words “in my humble opinion” but I’m sorry – it just is.

Performed on February 14, 1970, Live at Leeds showcased The Who at their peak. Along with their rock opera Quadrophenia, I took the album to Sussex University when I was exiled to Brighton at the end of that decade. Listening to the latest Desert Island Discs episode, I discovered that the comedian Bob Mortimer was studying in Brighton at the same time. He chose The Punk and the Godfather, from Quadrophenia, as one of his eight tracks.

In a frank, gentle and revealing interview with Lauren Laverne, he opened up about his “crippling” shyness. “Throughout my entire three years there,” he admitted. “I never spoke to another law student. We talked in tutorials but as soon as they finished, I was away back to my room to listen to my records.”

Although now considered a classic, I remember the title Live at Leeds prompting a fair amount of sniggering on campus. This was a time when the city was still deemed, by my newly-acquired southern friends, to be a dirty, northern industrial town, a small-minded, parochial place, a byword for uncoolness.

And still, today, despite The Times awarding it the top spot in a list of best cultural places to live, despite it bursting with art exhibitions, live performance shows and fashion events, despite the great David Peace launching a city-wide literature festival in ten days time, the words ‘Leeds’ and ‘culture’ featuring in the same sentence continues to provoke incredulity.

Ah yes, David Peace, chortle my long-since-discarded southern friends. The writer who exposed the city’s psychological flaws in several of his books and reinforced the myth of “dirty Leeds” in The Damned Utd.

Well, I haven’t seen David for a while – he is exiled in Japan – but we often used to meet at the Queens Hotel, next to Leeds Station, and spend hours chatting about God’s own county as a hotbed of culture. As he pointed out in a magazine interview conducted to promote the Lit Fest launch, “Leeds has a long and rich literary history and a tradition of staging great local literary events.”

Harry Enfield has a lot to answer for. Back in the 1990s his blunt Yorkshireman – George “I-say-what-I-like-and-I-like-what-I-bloody-well-say” Whitebread – came out with a line that was repeated to me on many occasions by my soon-to-be-jettisoned southern friends. “Sophistication?” shouted Whitebread. “Sophistication? Don’t talk to me about sophistication love, I’ve been to Leeds.”

Hilarious. How amusing that a Yorkshire bigot should consider the city to be the height of culture.

The strange thing was that this was an era when Leeds was reborn as a cosmopolitan metropolis. From the mid-90s, when Harvey Nichols opened its first regional store and the £40 million Royal Armouries was relocated on the waterfront, to the 2013 opening of the First Direct Arena, chic city revellers thronged its pedestrianised streets, renovated mills and swanky restaurants.

Mortimer, a comedy chum of Enfield’s, was far more respectful about Leeds on Desert Island Discs. On the Radio 4 show he spoke movingly about the death of his father, his love for his mother and his time in a homeless hostel. He was very matter of fact about the major heart surgery he underwent in 2015.

Not long after his illness he appeared at the Leeds Arena and wore a heart monitor throughout the performance. His doctor told him to stop if his heart rate went above 153 but “it was about 160 after the first song we did (and) I carried on. A lot of the problems are psychological after a heart operation… I am grateful to those 7,500 scary faces in Leeds because I was forced to go through that and to realise I was absolutely fine.”

This Live at Leeds gig was clearly a credit to Mortimer and the self-appointed capital of God’s Own County. I wish I had been there. It sounded like a truly inspirational, and hilarious, night.

Not as great as The Who’s back in 1970, obviously.