November 29, 2005

Roger Daltrey – the who, what, why, when

By Steve James

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Who are you, Roger Daltrey?To millions of his generation (the ones who didn't die before we got old!), he will always be the frontman for one of the greatest rock bands, the Who.

He uttered the best scream on record ("Won't Get Fooled Again") and is enshrined in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame with original bandmates Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon. But Daltrey has always been a bit of an enigma.

Sheet-metal worker, TV Shakespearean actor, trout farmer, commander of the British Empire, 10-time grandad, "Scrooge" on Broadway and the personification of the Who's "Tommy." They're all Daltrey.

Who are you? Indeed.

Daltrey, a spry 61, his golden locks cropped close now, gave a few insights in a recent interview with Reuters while in New York to promote a DVD set of Who live performances of "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia."

"Tommy? There's a big part of me in there. That's the beauty of the piece; it's a big part of everybody," he said, with a mouthful of West London vowels. "For a period of our life we feel deaf, dumb and blind.

"I am umbilically linked to Tommy in a way only I can know," he said of the Townshend-penned work about a deaf and blind mute, which the flamboyant British director Ken Russell made into a movie starring Daltrey in 1975.

The Who only performed the "rock opera" a few times in its entirety -- in London in 1969, New York's Metropolitan Opera House in 1970 and some dates on the 1989 reunion tour. When the album was released in 1969, it was considered revolutionary for a rock band to attempt such a comprehensive work.


"We thought, at least it's dangerous. And we were under the wing of two great managers -- Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp," Daltrey said. "They gave us that belief that if we made it dangerous it would work.

"It was a period when the record industry was growing so fast and the business couldn't keep up. Bands were leading the way; it was driven by the art and not the business. Now it's driven by the business."

Does that mean a record company would probably not take a gamble with Tommy nowadays? "You could probably do it now because you could record it in somebody's bedroom. But say you end up with a product, it would be much harder now to get it noticed," he said.

Daltrey never had trouble getting noticed on stage, swinging the microphone like a lasso with self assurance as Townshend windmilled his guitar or smashed it in the amps.

It was all so different back in the Acton and Shepherd's Bush areas of London in 1959, when he was kicked out of school on his 15th birthday. "They weren't teaching me; they were molding me into something that I didn't want to be."

"I wasn't a rebel; I just didn't have their vision of a future for me." So he began molding his own future.

"I was a sheet-metal worker by day and I was playing in bars and pubs at night at the age of 16." That's when he met Townshend and Entwistle and the germ of a rock dynasty was born. "There was no Plan B," said Daltrey.

"If this hadn't happened for me there could have been the council house, the wife and three kids and the beer belly. It could have been, but it was never going to be anything else.

"I never, ever doubted for one minute that we would make it." he said.


His parents were never convinced, however. "Certainly till the last few years of their life, they felt: 'One day you'll get a real job, son.' And that was after Tommy!"

Does he look back fondly now despite the deaths of Moon and Entwistle and Townshend's legal trouble over downloaded child pornography? "Oh yeah. I look back and say what a privileged life I've had.

"I mean, where that musicality came from I don't know. John could kind of read music and play the trumpet and Pete could play the banjo but none of us were thoroughly trained musicians. But the chemistry was extraordinary."

Daltrey is trying to recreate that chemistry in a new album with Townshend due next year. "Pete called a halt to it (last year). I think it wasn't quite ready and we lost our drummer (Zak Starkey) who went on the road with Oasis for a year."

In the meantime, what music does he listen to now? "There's some great bands in England, Kaiser Chiefs, Muse and Kasabian.

"(But) to be honest with you, since the '70s, I don't listen to much music apart from classical. I still listen to Dylan and some of the old blues, but I'm very particular about blues, it can bore me to tears."

Reminded of his burgeoning acting career, Daltrey recalled playing the two Dromios in a BBC-TV production of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors."

"I was in the same room as Cyril Cusak, Dame Wendy Hiller and all these wonderful, larger-than-life English stage actors and they were all shaking like jellies.

"And I was thinking: 'Shakespeare? This is the Pete Townshend of his day writing Tommy or Quadrophenia.' Intimidated? Nah, fuck it, it's Shakespeare!"