In a contrary act of rock band taxonomy, Time magazine once wrote that while The Beatles aimed for the head and The Kinks for the funny bone, The Who went straight for the crotch.
It’s true to an extent. Think of a rock gig as a sort of Dionysian frenzy and the strutting rock frontman as a satyr in figure-hugging blue jeans and it won’t be long before an image pops into your head of The Who’s cocky, mop-haired singer Roger Daltrey. Perhaps he’s prowling the stage with his shirt open to the navel and deploying his trademark stage move – throwing his microphone high into the air and catching it again. Perhaps he’s howling “Hope I die before I get old”, from the band’s iconic 1965 hit My Generation. Perhaps you own a copy of his 1975 solo album Ride A Rock Horse, with its cover image of a naked Daltrey done up as a sort of sexy centaur.
Combined with the sonic assault provided by wind-milling, scissor-kicking guitarist Pete Townshend and the manic antics of drummer Keith Moon, who nearly deafened himself blowing up his kit on live television one time, there have been few bands as eye-catchingly kinetic as The Who. Or as gleefully, unapologetically, viscerally loud. So yes, it’s hard to imagine the crotch remaining unaffected.
The Who at Glasgow Apollo in 1981
But that’s not to say the head and the funny bone were never on The Who’s list of targets. This is the band, remember, who wrote not one but two rock operas – Tommy and Quadrophenia – and whose lyrics tackle everything from suburban ennui and inter-generational conflict (the head) to, er, spiders called Boris (the funny bone).
Moon’s death from an overdose of prescription drugs in September 1978, a month after the release of the Who Are You album, effectively pulled the plug on the band. Collectively they were so much more than the sum of their parts, so without their totemic drummer they struggled. Two albums followed in the early 1980s with Kenney Jones of The Faces on drums, but in 1983 Townshend left and The Who ceased to function as a going concern – until, after a couple of partial reunions, they returned to the stage with Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey on drums in 1996.
“Keith was his babysitter, so he survived Keith Moon,” Roger Daltrey tells me when we talk. “But he’s wonderful and he’s the closest you can get in drumming style to Keith, which is important for The Who. Something about the way Keith drummed and Zak drums just suits the Who. It wouldn’t suit any other band, but it works with us.”
Is it a looseness?
“Dunno. They’re both just fearless. They’ll hear something and try it and sometimes it won’t come off but you’ll forgive them because the trying is everything. They don’t just dial it in. A bum note and a bead of sweat is far better than getting every note right and playing like it’s a record. That’s what Zak does. He’s willing to gamble on a drum roll in a place you’ll never expect it, and sometimes it won’t come off but he’s willing to try. It gives you an edge.”
Bassist John Entwistle died in 2002 – a cocaine-induced heart attack in a hotel room in Paradise, Nevada, a stripper by his side in bed – but a quarter of a century, on Starkey is still there. Together with The Who’s remaining members, he’s part of a rock and roll juggernaut which just keeps on going despite claims that this time really will be the last. Townshend has been saying it since at least 2013, but in 2019 the band mounted their Moving On! tour and released a new album, Who. In April they began The Who Hits Back!, a two-part, 29-date US tour, this time in the company of an orchestra.
“We’re six shows in and we’re really firing on all cylinders,” says Daltrey, speaking from Dallas the morning after the band’s gig there. “The hardest thing has been getting used to the noise because it is so loud. We’ve had two and a half years of silence. I haven’t had that for 60 years.”
And will there be UK dates to look forward to next year as The Who close in on an incredible 60th anniversary? “We won’t depart the stage without making sure we do the tour with the orchestra in the UK,” is all he will say.
Roger Daltrey's 1975 solo album, Ride A Rock Horse
But behind the jocularity and the confidence there is relief. When the pandemic began, the singer thought this time his touring days really were over.
“The last two and a half years haven’t been easy,” he says. “I didn’t think we would ever go back. But now we are and I’ve got my solo thing coming up which was postponed from last year, then The Who are touring again in October. I’m really happy to be doing it because I know it can’t go on for too much longer. Singers can’t change the strings and I don’t want to go out and be mediocre.”
That ‘solo thing’, as he calls it, is Who Was I, a memoir-as-gig tour he’s undertaking in the company of a 10-strong band and which brings him to Glasgow’s Armadillo on July 6. Daltrey, now 78, will play re-arranged versions of Who classics – probably, anyway: “If I do any Who songs we’ll do them completely differently from the way The Who do them, just to explore them” – and he is promising a Q&A section in which he will field audience questions drawn from a bucket. But mostly he’ll be running through his not insignificant solo career, beginning with selections from 1973’s Daltrey and continuing with picks from Ride A Rock Horse and 1980’s McVicar (the soundtrack to Tom Clegg’s film about notorious armed robber John McVicar in which Daltrey starred). He’ll also dip into 1984’s Parting Should Be Painless and 2018’s As Long As I Have You, his most recent effort.
“In between the duffers there’s some fabulous songs,” he says when I ask how it feels revisiting those earlier solo albums. “They’re the ones I’m going to explore. There won’t be a list, I’ll probably change it every night. But the most important thing is I’m going to be employing 20 people, 10 of them musicians who have been out of work for two and a half years.”
One solo work which is entirely duffer free is 2014’s Going Back Home, an album of covers of Dr Feelgood songs recorded with that band’s inimitable guitarist, Wilko Johnson. At the time, Johnson thought he was dying having been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given less than a year to live.
“I’m proud of that album, it was all heart,” Daltrey says. “We were all in the studio making music because one of our mates was in trouble, and one of the best things for him was getting his mind off his problems. It was done for no other reason than to make music. We didn’t have a contract or anything. We made it very, very quickly and it was very successful.”
It may also have saved Johnson’s life in a roundabout way. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row about the new record, Johnson spoke about his cancer. At one point he was asked what the hospital would tell him when he returned for check-ups. Daltrey takes up the tale. “He said: ‘Well I ain’t been back’, which is such a rock answer. It’s so Wilko. And of course listening to him is a fan and a surgeon who thinks ‘I must have a look at him’.”
Johnson’s cancer turned out to be operable and, eight years on, the now-74-year-old guitarist is still alive, still playing, still touring. You can catch him fronting the Wilko Johnson Band in Manchester on July 1.
One question I have for Daltrey’s putative bucket is this: why call the tour Who Was I?
“Because the longer the lockdown went on the more I wondered who the f*** I was,” he laughs. “It was driving me insane. You’ve got to remember we’ve been gypsies all our lives, travelled the whole world, then we’re shut up for two years.
“There was a huge part of me missing, which is the part of me that gets on a stage and sings. There’s something in me that seems to have to do that, or transmit whatever I’m thinking and touch people with the voice I was given as a gift. Unless you’ve done it, it’s very difficult to explain.”
And how do his younger musical helpmates feel sharing a stage with one of the few bona fide rock superstars still standing and swinging a microphone?
“I’m only a dumb singer so I’m just one of the band, though equally I do have to be captain of the ship,” he says. “But I’ve always found the only way to get the best out of any band is to create a sense of camaraderie. We seem to be able to do that, especially with The Who at the moment. It’s fabulous the atmosphere we’ve got now. We’re all friends after the years of turmoil.”
He chuckles at that. So what does he call the years of turmoil?
“I’m not going to say. Well, the 1970s and 1980s, when the Colombian snowstorms hit. It’s nice to just have a really easy-going bunch of guys that get on. We get on stage, we all do our job really well. It’s just a good vibe. The darkness has gone. The drug situation in the 1970s and up to the 1990s, it was fun if you were doing it but I didn’t so it was weird for me. You kind of felt ostracised. You can’t do it for long and be creative, that’s for sure. It’ll get you in the end.”
BORN in West London in March 1944 during one of the heaviest periods of German bombing, Daltrey was evacuated to Scotland and spent most of the first year of his life sharing one room of a four bedroom Stranraer farmhouse with his mother, aunt and two female cousins.
Returning eventually to Shepherd’s Bush, he went to school, learned to fight, heard Elvis – a Eureka! moment, as it was for so many baby boomers – and made his first guitar aged 12. Three years later, on the day of his 15th birthday, he was expelled from school. He joined a skiffle band and then, in 1961, formed a group called The Detours with old friend Entwistle. Townshend, who like Daltrey and Entwistle had attended Acton County Grammar School, joined in January 1962. Moon came on board in early 1964.
“Keith was the last in and the first out, bless him,” Daltrey writes in his autobiography. He also notes the opinion of two of Moon’s teachers. One found the boy “retarded artistically, idiotic in other respects”, the other praised his musical ability but warned against his tendency to show off. “In other words, he was born to be our drummer.”
As he dabbled in music, Daltrey continued to make guitars, eye-balling Fender Stratocasters in shop windows and then cutting expert facsimiles of them in wood and adding pick-ups. He learned the necessary skills from his work as an electrician’s mate on a building site. Later he worked as a tea boy in a sheet-metal factory before becoming an apprentice filer there.
Not that everyone in the band appreciated the beauty and sanctity of the electric guitar in the way Daltrey did. In September 1964, during a gig at the Railway Tavern in Richmond, something happened which Rolling Stone magazine would later include in its list of 50 Moments That Changed Rock History: Pete Townshend smashed a guitar.
“It was an accident,” Daltrey says when I ask. “When it hit the ceiling it broke the neck, but then Pete just lost his rag with it.”
And Daltrey’s reaction? “It was horror. For me personally it was horror. What I would not have given to have that guitar when I think I was trying to make them out of wood and string – and there was that Rickenbacker, which would have cost £100, maybe £200. That was a lot of money in those days, equal to about five grand today. To watch it getting smashed up made me want to cry.”
For the record, Townshend hasn’t smashed a guitar on stage since the early Noughties, during a gig in Japan. “I’ve got it in my cupboard at home,” says Daltrey. “Well, most of it.”
HOME today for Roger Daltrey is London, the place of his birth – or near enough. In 1970 he did the rock star thing and purchased Holmshurst Manor, a Jacobean manor house near the East Sussex village which Rudyard Kipling once called home.
“We were the only band to stay during the 1970s when it was 90% tax,” he recalls. “We didn’t leave, we stayed. We voted Harold Wilson in and we thought: ‘We can’t leave, it’ll be a bit hypocritical, won’t it?’. But what we thought was a good idea, making the pips of the rich squeak, did nothing of the sort. It just bankrupted the country in five years because that’s the rouble with thinking that [taxing] the rich can solve everything. It can’t. They just leave.”
Still on politics, Daltrey was one of the few rock stars to come out in support of Brexit but later he faced accusations of hypocrisy when he signed a letter supporting visa-free travel for musicians. How does he feel about it all now?
“I have mixed feeling about the European Union,” he replies. “I think the idea is brilliant but it’s the political construct which has removed people’s direct connection to the seat of power so that you feel helpless. At least in America, where there’s 300 million people, they have a system where if they don’t like the president or the party that’s governing, they can kick the f****** out … If we had more of that kind of power I would have voted to stay in what we agreed to go into, which was the Common Market trading area. It’s the political side of it that I’m not interested in.”
Back to the music. As an 80-year-old Sir Paul McCartney entertains the Glastonbury crowd tonight with Beatles songs and 78-year-old Mick Jagger fronts the Rolling Stones at the first of their two Hyde Park gigs, it’s worth remembering those other great 1960s survivors, The Who, and the contribution they made to the story. So if the young Roger Daltrey could see the man he became, if the tough, scrappy working class kid working in a factory and dreaming of singing in a skiffle band could look forward in time, what would he – what would you – make of it all?
“I’d be extremely happy,” he says, without a moment’s thought. “I had a five year apprenticeship as a sheet metal worker and did four years of it and I must say they were some of the happiest times of my life. I liked it. But singing was even better, and to leave the factory on a wing and a prayer, as I did in 1964, throw the job in and go out and say: ‘I’m going to earn my living singing’ and to end up where we are now – no, I could never have imagined that. If it had gone on for a few years it would have kept me happy.”
Happy for just a few years? After nearly 60, and with 100 million records sold, he must be absolutely delirious. Not bad for a man who is only a dumb singer.
Roger Daltrey is at the SEC Armadillo, Glasgow on July 6