LONDON — "I don't think Tommy held the band back – it's just that nobody wanted to listen to what [else] we were doing. Who's Next holds up much better, but nobody wanted to take it seriously because it was just nine songs and no great thing about a bloody spastic."
The speaker is Who lead singer Roger Daltrey, the "bloody spastic" from the film version of the group's 1969 rock saga about the deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard. He's in the canteen of Shepperton Studios in Middlesex, a London suburb, where he's taking a lunchtime break from the final day's shooting of Lisztomania, his second film for director Ken Russell. A few minutes ago, as space-suited composer Franz Liszt, he was in a silver space capsule, plummeting toward earth and an enormous inflatable lady dressed in red satin knickers and racy black lace. But now, after shedding his fancy outfit for well-worn denims, his mind is "miles and miles and miles" away from the morning's work, focused instead on the Who and their recent difficulties.
"The problems started before the Tommy film," he said. "It's us, we take ourselves too seriously, that's the main problem. It got to the point where it wasn't fun anymore."
So there was a year of group inactivity, during which time bassist John Entwistle recorded Mad Dog with Ox, drummer Keith Moon cut Two Sides of the Moon and Daltrey released Ride a Rock Horse, the most recent of their solo projects. But the Who are back together and trying again. They're putting the final touches on their next album; with Glyn Johns producing, it's scheduled for a late September or early October release. And they're looking ahead toward a tour of the States, perhaps in November.
"I'd love to see the Who back on the road as a good rock & roll band," Daltrey said between bites of roast chicken. "I won't try to hide the fact that we are having problems. On the surface, the group vehicle seems to have found its limitations."
That feeling came, in part, from a sound that the group locked itself into, Daltrey explained. "We got drowned in synthesizers in Quadrophenia [their 1973 autobiographical concept album]. That was my main argument; you'll never get the Who to play like machines. We're not robots." At times during their 1973 tour, tapes of synthesizers and horns were used and the Who would often find themselves performing out of sync with the tapes.
"It's down to us. If you want to add musicians, then it's not the Who. We've outlasted everyone because kids want to see the Who, these four people. You can't just turn it on and off. Our audience wouldn't put up with it if the Who went onstage like Pink Floyd with an incredible light show and stood there like four dead people that sounded great. But Pete [Townshend] seems to want to get better immediately when nothing has changed, so what do you do?
"Rock & roll got caught up in technology. It took an enormous leap between 1964 and 1974, and suddenly it's got nowhere to go. Rock isn't going to change and you can't let it die. That's why being flexible is so important. At the moment the Who isn't very flexible."
A return to the basics seems to be the answer now. The new album features less reliance on synthesizers, nor is it a concept album. Townshend, the least visible member in recent months, spent most of the spring composing the songs – they're in the rowdier vein of Who's Next, a 1971 release that Daltrey apparently favors over the group's concept albums.
Daltrey seems to have prepared himself for the Who's return to their guitar-smashing roots; his Ride a Rock Horse features the raunchiness of the early Who. "This album is more the way I sing," he said. "When I did the first album [Daltrey], everyone said, 'Oh, Daltrey's gone soft.' But that was just one side of me that got overshadowed in the Who. This one has more balls on it.
"What I tried to do is get all my influences on the album – me old soul days, the whole flower power period, influences like Otis Redding, the Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder. Of course," he smiled, "the Who stinks all the way through it.
"As usual, I didn't write any of the songs. But if I can't write, at least I can expose other artists [Russ Ballard, Paul Korda and Philip Goodhand-Tait contributed songs to Rock Horse, while Daltrey featured tunes cowritten by then unknown Leo Sayer]. I could have produced the album myself but it wouldn't have been as good as what Russ did. You've got to get that something else."
As he put on his silver costume and returned to the space capsule for the afternoon's shooting, Daltrey repeated that the Who would also have to continue looking for that "something else" to "get that energy back." But he remained optimistic: "Once we get down to it, we'll find new boundaries."
This story is from the September 11th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.