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Roger Daltrey Looks Back at 'Tommy'

'People used to call me Tommy,' he says. 'It got on my tits'

John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and Pete Townshend of The Who perform in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Jorgen Angel/Redferns
November 6, 2013 10:00 AM ET

Roger Daltrey recently told Rolling Stone that The Who will launch their "last big tour" in 2015. There's also talk of a new album sometime next year, but as of now, their only planned release is deluxe edition of Tommy, which contains a new mix of the album, unheard Pete Townshend demos and a previously unreleased series of live recordings from the band's 1969 tour. (It hits shelves on November 12th.) We spoke with Daltrey about the legacy of Tommy, the state of his singing voice and his ongoing charitable work with Teen Cancer America.

See Where Tommy Ranks on the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time List

Tell me your first memories of hearing that Pete wanted to write a rock opera.
We'd been influenced by our manager to make the three-minute pop song into something more. We did the mini-opera ["A Quick One While He's Away"] on A Quick One. Then we did another extended piece of music [on The Who Sell Out] called "Rael." That song used loads of backing and vocals – a real interesting piece. 

When we went back into the studio, we just had a mediocre success with "I Can See For Miles." I thought that was was a brilliant single, probably one of the best we ever did. But with us being a singles band, it was wearing thin. Pete was getting worn down, sort've frazzled. Having to come up with hit singles all the time, that's the hard bit of the music industry. But coming up with music? That was much easier. Well, I don't know about easier. . . It was more artistically attractive to him. 

So he came up with this idea of what life would be like if you had lived through just feeling vibrations. The idea was, "Imagine if you were deaf, dumb and blind. What would it be like to experience certain episodes of your life?" We had this one song called "Amazing Journey." That was the beginning of it. My recollection is that we recorded that song about a deaf, dumb and blind boy and the whole thing expanded from there. Basically, Pete went home after we recorded that and came back with other songs that gradually went together and loosely made the groundwork of what would become Tommy

John Entwistle was asked to write about the dark side of things. There were dark characters like Uncle Ernie, which we did in fun at the time. I think everybody in their life has someone whose been kind've mischievous in that area. We always poked fun at it. John wrote that song and "Cousin Kevin," which was the spiteful one. People talk about Pete Townshend's Tommy, but it was really The Who's Tommy.  

How did you grow and change as a singer while making Tommy?
Well, for the first time after "My Generation" – when I got thrown out of the band – we'd done some very strange singles. "I'm A Boy" and "Pictures of Lily" – those were interesting songs. I think that "Pictures of Lily" is a great song, but they were very different in the vocal area than I was ever used to singing and I found it difficult. I was in a vocal no man's land. I started to improve with "I Can See For Miles," but I wasn't quite there.

Once we got into doing all the songs on Tommy, as a vocalist I realized they really needed a stronger interpretation. It gave me a canvas that was big enough to really, really take some chances. Once we got out on the road and sang it live, it just took off on it's own and my voice grew with it.

I hear a confidence in your voice that wasn't quite there before on that tour.
I think I had that confidence because it had a bigger meaning. It was touching people at a different level, not in any of the kind've superfluous ways we had done previously, in the way that "My Generation" had. Songs like "Happy Jack" and "Pictures of Llly" were nice, but they were. . .

Many fans see the Tommy tour as the peak of the Who as a live band. Do you agree?
If I had to choose between Quadrophenia, Who's Next or Tommy, I would always choose Tommy. It's the most complete piece of work. That's not to say that musically it's any better than the other three. I just think it's the most complete. It is for me as a singer, anyway.

When you look at rock concerts before that Tommy tour, most bands were doing forty minutes or less.
We used to do forty minutes of other stuff before we even started Tommy! And at the end of that, we used to get into a free-form jam session where we would do all kinds of stuff, almost to the point where shows would extend to two and a half, sometimes almost three hours. What was extraordinary was we'd play the first bit and the audience would be a rock audience. But once we started playing Tommy, the audience would sit down. [Laughs] And when that first happened, we thought, "Oh shit!" [Laughs] It made you dig deeper as a performer, the fact they were sitting down. You had to dig deeper to get them up again. The whole thing had a very strange chemistry, but it just worked.

The story always goes that you recorded a bunch of shows in late 1969, but Pete ordered all the tapes burned. But there's an unheard show from October 1969 on this new set.

We've got hundreds and hundreds of live shows. But sadly, they're only recorded on two tracks, straight off the deck. There's not really much you can do with them in the mixing area. But it's a good record of the work we were doing. 

Did you ever worry that Tommy was becoming so huge it was starting to overshadow everything else the group made?
I was worried about it when we made the film [in 1975]. I didn't ever realize the difference between being what you would call a film star and a rock star. It was enormously different. It was very hard to deal with for a year or two after that. But ultimately, I was always determined to hang on to The Who through that whole roller coaster of a period. It was just crazy. People just treat you so differently and you go, "I don't want to be treated differently. I want to be in a rock band." It was hard. Just very, very difficult. 

I guess the public just saw you as Tommy.
They would call me Tommy, and it would really get on my tits. 

Film is a powerful medium.
I always saw Tommy as a thing where everybody was Tommy. To me, the journey was inward. It wasn't in this world or of this world. It was what our potential is interiorly – spiritually. And that's what I liked about it. I liked that about the film in a way, too, even though it was kind've loosely based in this world. It was completely mad, and it grew on it's own canvas. 

Did The Who feel competitive when they started Tommy because of Sgt. Pepper and what The Kinks were doing?
No, because Sgt. Pepper gave us confidence that the public would be willing to accept new ideas. There's no doubt about that. George Martin's work with the Beatles and the songs they were writing really gave us confidence that the public would accept anything if it was good.

I've been listening to Pete's demos on the new box set. It's remarkable to hear the songs in their raw form, and then hear what happened when the band got ahold of them.
For quite a long time, people failed to recognize what The Who were adding to Pete's music.

Those songs would have been radically different were it not for your voice, Keith's drums and John's bass.
The whole formula. And it was quite apparent from day one when Keith Moon joined the band. Every piece of music we played up until then was different immediately after Keith joined. The chemistry changed and it was quite clear from day one.

It's a pretty amazing thing that the four of you came together. You're all so different.
The mathematics of our brains just work together. I mean, music is basically mathematics in a funny way. In that sense, we were just a perfect jigsaw puzzle.

I saw the Quadrophenia tour about a year or so ago. It seemed like you were doing better vocally than the tours before that. Is that how you felt?
Yeah. I've been having a lot of problems with my throat for years. I've got a condition that I've got to keep my eye on. But once I knew that I had a condition and I had to keep my eye on it, God, it was a relief. And it was wonderful just to sing again.

You've got to remember that from the early days of The Who all through the 1970s, I was having to scream just to hear myself. It was very, very difficult. I did my voice a lot of damage, but I toughened it up, too. We had to find a new way of working, because the volume was bringing Pete to his knees. His hearing was going, as indeed mine is now. 

I went out with my own band and initially I did it the same way that The Who always did it, with monitors and doctors and all that stuff. Then I suddenly thought, "This is madness. I can't go on. This is a dead end. We can't go any further with this."

Fortunately, we found a way to deal with it. I started to wear the in-ear monitors, which cuts the stage volume way down. Everybody can work their own sounds perfect for them, instead of it being a war between the guitarist being too loud or the bassist being too loud. Drummers are always too loud. You could suddenly create your own world where you were always comfortable and you could always hear your own work as you were doing it. That made a huge difference to me as a singer. And it saved The Who. Well, it kept Pete and I together for the Quadrophenia tour. He could never have done it otherwise. None of us could. 

I'd like to move onto the Teenage Cancer Trust and Teen Cancer America. Tell me your goals with that over the next few years.
Teen Cancer America has spring from my support from Teen Cancer Trust, which is what we've had in Britain for about twenty-four years. The idea is that the ages of thirteen to twenty-three is a completely different period of your life from being a child or an adult in medical care. It has nothing to do with medicine, but the fact that people want to be with other people of their same age. 

The system you had over here – at least before Teen Cancer America came on the scene – was grouping people together from thirteen to thirty-nine. I don't know what a thirteen year-old has in common with a thirty-nine year old apart from the fact they both breathe. It's a totally different period of your life. It's a shame that the medical profession doesn't realize that being comfortable psychologically by being with your own age group has an enormous effect on how people survive treatment. 

I know you've opened Teenage Cancer wings in America. What's the next step?
I hope to push it across America. At the moment, we've got two units at UCLA. We've got an impatient and an outpatient being built at Yale. We're in talks with twenty-five other hospitals, but we need to make money. We've got one in a cancer hospital in Cleveland. So, considering that we've only been going two years, we're doing incredibly well.

Your voice is obviously key here. This isn't an issue I knew much about before you made it your cause.
One of the strange things about our society is that it's easy to raise money for children because of the Bambi effect. When you talk about teenagers it's, whoa, trouble. But they suffer terribly. The isolation that a teenager can suffer – when they're just coming into a period in their life when they're finally going to do all the things they've been dreaming about, and getting wacked with cancer – can be terribly isolating. So the best therapist for a teenager with cancer is another teenager with cancer.

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