The Who by Fire
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend have known each other for 60 years. They love each other. “I used to say that I love him, but with my fingers crossed,” says Townshend of Daltrey. Townshend, gangly and hunched, his angular face having grown into his long nose, sits in a Dallas Ritz-Carlton suite wearing gray clothes on a white-hot day. “Now, I like him too. I like all his eccentricities, his foibles, his self-obsession, and his singer thing. Everything about him.” Daltrey feels the same. He sits in a comfy chair later the same afternoon. “I’ve always kind of known Pete cares for me,” says Daltrey, crossing his legs in blue cargo shorts. He’s a little impatient because my time with Townshend ran long. “I hope he realizes I care about him. I think my actions through our career have shown that.”
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend have known each other for 60 years. They tolerate each other.
Daltrey and Townshend have a new album, simply called Who. It’s only the second album from the band in 37 years. Through the magic of modern technology, Daltrey and Townshend recorded it earlier this year in London and Los Angeles without ever being in the same room. (Townshend says they were once in the same building. Daltrey isn’t so sure.) Townshend wrote and recorded demos and sent them to the singer. During recording, they communicated through their individual personal producers, both with the first name David, which must have been confusing.
Separately, Daltrey and Townshend express excitement for the new songs. (Daltrey told me it’s the Who’s best work since Quadrophenia.) They’re back on the road, playing with a 48-piece orchestra. The refrain I heard from multiple learned attendants of the tour was “Wow, that show was way better than it had any right to be.”
The same can be said for the record. Daltrey’s weary vocals, particularly on the back half, are marvelous, and Townshend’s ability to write an anthemic earworm remains intact. It’s enough to make you regret all the music the two have not made together over the past 30 years.
But there is a reason for the long breaks. The two remain detached, if not estranged, from each other. Townshend, 74, is engaged in modern music and still capable of jackjawing a listener into submission about any subject from climate crisis to the shelf life of teen idols. Daltrey? At 75, he’s happy to churn out low-key solo albums and live offline on his country estate.
At a show in L.A., Daltrey chatted with a sound guy about his vocals while Townshend joked with bassist Jon Button. Whenever one of them hit the other’s magnetic field, they bounced away. They never made eye contact. It reminded me of when an ex-girlfriend and I worked together and made ostentatious attempts to avoid each other at holiday parties.
Things don’t change that much when the lights go up. “If you watch Roger onstage, he goes through a lot of visual phases,” says Townshend. “Sometimes, he can’t stop himself looking over at me. It’s irritation.” He arches his eyebrows. “It’s irritation that I’m even there.”
Daltrey is also unsatisfied. He wants to change the set list, maybe add some lesser-known songs, but says it is a no-go. “Pete doesn’t remember words much,” says Daltrey, “and he doesn’t remember chord shapes, and he finds it hard to change the show on the road.”
Later, Daltrey talks about the role he has played in Townshend’s songwriting. Since 1964, Townshend has been the band’s primary songwriter, and his creative dominance has tended to overshadow Daltrey’s contributions. Townshend might have been an editor at Faber & Faber, but Daltrey has been his editor. Well, according to Daltrey. On the new record, Daltrey toned down what he saw as irresponsible political rhetoric, deleted a rap, and changed pronouns. Now, I ask if he thinks he should have gotten more songwriting credits over the band’s half-century history. “I wrote all the ad-libs,” says Daltrey with a smile. “I should have, but I can’t be bothered to make a fuss about it now. It’s fucking bollocks.” Daltrey trails off. “If he needs the money…”
Daltrey and Townshend grew up in the same West London area, but Daltrey claims he’s hardscrabble while Townshend is a poseur. “Well, I’m Shepherd’s Bush, and he’s Ealing middle class,” says Daltrey. (Their homes were about 300 yards apart.) Sure, but what about Townshend’s solo song “White City Fighting,” talking about all the scrapes and bloodshed he got into as a kid? Daltrey smiles. “Well, he likes to think he did.”
On it goes.
“We ended up living parallel lives,” says Townshend. It’s true. Today, Roger Daltrey, for reasons unknown, has checked out of the Ritz-Carlton and moved to another five-star place 100 yards away. Now, a traffic light and a Shake Shack separate the two men.
I traveled to London, Dallas, and the Hollywood Bowl to see and talk with the Who. It gave me plenty of time to think about Townshend and Daltrey. One concept kept coming back to me in Economy Plus: They give zero fucks. This should not be mistaken for not giving a shit. They still share a devotion to their music and a caring for their careers that some rock-veterans-turned-Vegas-acts long ago abandoned.
But you have to be realistic. If you view their new album and tour as Daltrey & Townshend Play the Hits & a Couple of New Ones, their shows can be seen as a fuck-you to musical fashion and Father Time. If you see this as a continuation of the Who the way your teen self or your father knew them, you’re going to be disappointed.
Keith Moon, the band’s original drummer, died in 1978, and in the succeeding years the Who became less a creative enterprise and more a carnival of commerce, only accentuated after bassist John Entwistle’s death in a Vegas hotel room in 2002. There have been more farewell tours than new records.
Townshend says it best: “We’re not a band anymore. There’s a lot of people who don’t like it when I say it, but we’re just not a fucking band. Even when we were, I used to sit there thinking, ‘This is a fucking waste of time. Take 26 because Keith Moon has had one glass of brandy too many.’” You shouldn’t be sentimental. God knows Townshend is not.
Well, sometimes he is. Over the years, Townshend has lamented the long-gone Moon, and after Entwistle’s death, Townshend said, “Without him, I wouldn’t be here…. When I did look over and he wasn’t there, I wanted to die.”
Today, he’s feeling less charitable. The Who’s current shows feature two video screens full of vintage shots of mad, mad Moon and Entwistle in his bemused and haunting solitude. I asked Townshend if he ever got nostalgic looking up at the pictures of his fallen bandmates. He snorted like an old horse.
“It’s not going to make Who fans very happy, but thank God they’re gone.”
“Because they were fucking difficult to play with. They never, ever managed to create bands for themselves. I think my musical discipline, my musical efficiency as a rhythm player, held the band together.”
Townshend took on his bass player first. “John’s bass sound was like a Messiaen organ,” he says, waving his angular limbs. “Every note, every harmonic in the sky. When he passed away and I did the first few shows without him, with Pino [Palladino] on bass, he was playing without all that stuff…. I said, ‘Wow, I have a job.’ ”
He was not finished. Moon is an easier target; he once passed out during a 1970s show in San Francisco, forcing the band to pull a drummer out of the crowd. “With Keith, my job was keeping time, because he didn’t do that,” says Townshend. “So when he passed away, it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to keep time anymore.’”
The word “happy” doesn’t really apply to someone as complex as Townshend. Yet there seems to be a sense of contentment brought on by his 20-year relationship with the composer Rachel Fuller. Still, he is fragile, and the death in July of his guitar tech of 40 years, Alan Rogan, left him in a bad place. (He described Rogan as “my guitar tech, friend, savior, and good buddy.”) “I was a fucking mess,” says Townshend. “Usually, I’m so unaffected by death. My mother, father, Keith Moon. Maybe because he was in a hospital bed and fighting back so hard. When he finally passed, I just thought, ‘Fuck.’”
He is alternately defiant and cheeky. I ask if he had left instructions on how to handle his voluminous archives and unfinished projects after he is gone. He leaned in close and quipped, “I’d really like to finish them.”
Townshend is a man who has suffered and has turned that suffering into great art. He was left by his mum to live with a mentally deteriorating grandma for two years. As a young boy, and then at around age 11, he was sexually abused. Seventy years later, he is still staring at the scars. His awakening has been incremental. During a rambling intro for the 1970 Live at Leeds version of “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” a song about a young girl molested by a train engineer, Townshend said, “John Entwistle plays the engine driver, and I play the Girl Guide.” It wasn’t a joke. Years later, Townshend admitted similar activities happened to him while in his grandmother’s care. “I’m not angry about it,” he says. “But I can’t process it. I did three years of serious therapy, and I’ve done loads of counseling and therapeutic work since.” It has helped, but not enough.
That ache has been processed through heartbreaking songs about maladjusted characters; namely the title character in Tommy and the Mod boy Jimmy in Quadrophenia. Still, Townshend’s ability to turn horror into magic doesn’t change his reality. He tells me about a friend who was kidnapped and sexually abused as a boy. A few years ago, the Who were doing a Tommy fundraiser show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Townshend could see his friend in the front rows. When it came time for him to sing Tommy’s “The Acid Queen,” told from the viewpoint of a female abuser, he lost it. “I just blew the whole show,” remembers Townshend. “It’s on TV, you can see it. I look like I’m in pain.”
He’s hardly sung “Acid Queen” since. The lingering wounds have left Townshend a volatile mixture of empathy and cynicism. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is an anthem against idealism that still drives him. Teen activist Greta Thunberg had been making the rounds when we talked, and he was troubled: “I worry that little Greta — I don’t want to patronize her, because she’s so fucking great — will be pretty pissed off.”
Townshend relates her work to his involvement in the 1960s Ban the Bomb movement and how the Cuban missile crisis came and went and London was still there. It left Townshend wondering what the point was. “She says, ‘You stole my childhood.’ Actually, she’s stealing her childhood. That’s the thing, whether or not we steal our own childhoods by worrying too much about things that we can’t control.”
The endless whirring of Townshend’s brain has only gotten louder in the 25 years since he got sober. “What I know is that when I drank, I won’t say I was happy, but I certainly was unaware of the darkness that I was carrying,” he says.
Now he’s fully aware of the things that made him reach for the bottle. They could be incidents of abuse. They could be slights from his adolescence. “Living stone-cold sober, there’s no escape,” says Townshend.
Today, Townshend looks for nonalcoholic escapes. “It could be shopping. It could be time with my wife. We work together and have lots of fun.” Townshend pauses, and it seems like he worries that his “escapes” sound banal. He mentions an escape might happen when a beautiful woman mentions she liked a show.
“There’s that moment when you just think you’re young again,” he says. “That fantasy.” He becomes more animated, and his blue eyes light up. “Or embracing darkness. Thinking, ‘God, it would be such fun if I just fucking killed myself now. We’ve got Wembley Stadium tomorrow — God, it would just be so fucking great.’”
He pauses for a moment as if startled he said that last thought aloud. He wondered later, “I find sometimes I’ll be saying things and I think, ‘Do I really feel that, or is my mouth just fucking with me?’”
Roger Daltrey doesn’t dwell in the darkness. Well, except if you bring up Brexit. He then will rhapsodize about the gangsters in Europe ruining merrie olde England and how the Germans have an ironclad grip on the Euro.
Daltrey insists he’s been misunderstood all these years. This is sort of his fault for projecting an image of a West London bantam tough who once knocked Townshend out in the early 1970s with a single punch (Townshend started it). “I come across as kind of a hard nut,” says Daltrey, near a whisper. “But people got it backwards. I’m not. I’m a softy. I’m the softest person in the world.”
Daltrey was the only member of the Who to not abuse drugs, and that left him the grown-up in the band, drawing up set lists and making sure the trains ran on time. I ask if he ever grew tired of being chaperone to three very naughty boys. “I still am!” he says. “It always has been ‘Pete does the album, but don’t expect him to put the tour together,’ right? That’s always on my lap. It has all worked out very well. So I’m happy to shoulder that. I’m good at it.”
Daltrey has also had something that either eluded or did not appeal to the other Who members: a domestic life. (Townshend didn’t settle down until he approached 60.) Daltrey has been with his wife, Heather, for 50 years, pledging fidelity, when the band was off the road, at least. It’s worked for them while providing more heirs. (Daltrey has three children with Heather; one with his first wife, Jackie; and four out of wedlock, three of whom he fathered in the Sixties but didn’t learn about until middle age.) Almost 50 years ago, they bought Holmhurst Manor, a 400-year-old Jacobean mansion in East Sussex. Daltrey has done a lot of work on the house, and it has kept him sane.
“It saved me,” says Daltrey. While he enjoyed the rock lifestyle for a while, he was ready to get out before he was 30. “When you’re young, it was part of a movement. It felt really good, but I couldn’t wait to get out of it.”
Daltrey got into film. (He starred in Tommy and some other less-notable movies.) But he found that to be just a different type of nightmare. “I felt like a drowning penguin. I didn’t like being fawned over. I didn’t like being pulled at. We’d been pulled at all our lives.”
He tries to set a good example for the young folks. A few years ago, he did a charity gig with Babyshambles’ Pete Doherty, a puckish songwriter in the Townshend tradition and a longtime heroin addict. Daltrey tried to share a few stories of friends lost and lives ruined by hard drugs. Doherty was not receptive.
“You might as well talk to the wall,” says Daltrey with a shrug. And then he thought again. Doherty is still with us. “You only need a few words to go in that get thought about later on. You just start the key in the lock.”
While Daltrey is happily living the undiscovered life, Townshend continues to pick over the bones of his past. And it no longer is only in verse. He has just published an operatic novel, called The Age of Anxiety, after years of delays. (Like Townshend’s never-completed and now middle-aged Lifehouse project, the book is intended to be part of a larger multimedia project.)
There’s a character in the novel named Louis. He is an art dealer who happens to be the exact age as Townshend. He is accused of a ghastly sex crime on a drugged-out teenager that he may or may not have committed. It’s a stark echo of a deeply painful moment. In 2003, Townshend was arrested for paying to access a child-pornography site. He has always claimed that he was compiling evidence to go after child-sex-ring runners and the banks that processed their transactions. Daltrey valiantly came to his defense, and eventually Townshend wasn’t charged with any crime. Rather than leave that alone, Townshend has published a novel in which he dares readers to connect the dots.
“It made it feel real to me,” says Townshend in a quiet voice. He then re-enters his prideful zone: “But the interesting thing about that was I anticipated the MeToo movement. Louis is not based really on me, but there will be me in there somewhere.”
The novel also features a rock star who sells his catalog to a truck company, allowing him to retire and regroup his life. This one is easy: Townshend has taken crap for years for licensing Who songs to CSI, truck manufacturers, and other companies. (Baseball is playing in the background as I write this, and the synth opening of “Baba O’Riley” is pushing T-Mobile between innings.) He points out how the band was ripped off for its first 20 years and he had to make up for lost time. Today, he can’t be bothered. “I never gave a shit,” says Townshend. “I’ve always said the composer is king. It’s my music, not yours.” He doesn’t care if some musicians think he’s a sellout. “I knew that in the end they would be doing the same thing,” says Townshend. “One other difference between me and the Lou Reed and Iggy Pop smart-alecks of the New York art scene is that I fucking saw the internet coming. I knew music was going down the tubes, and they didn’t.”
The typical combination of hope and disgust is present in Daltrey and Townshend’s new work. There was a period when Townshend wondered if the record would happen at all; after he sent Daltrey the demos, it was months before Daltrey relayed his thoughts. Daltrey says there was a good reason for the radio silence: “These are really great songs, but what do I tell him? It sounds to me like a really great Pete Townshend solo album. What can I do in these to make them better?”
Townshend rolls his eyes about this. Apparently, Daltrey had told a version of the story from the stage earlier in the tour. “He hadn’t actually really listened to it, I don’t think,” says Townshend with a chuckle.
The album dares you to push “stop” in the first 10 seconds. “All This Music Must Fade” begins with Daltrey growling, “I don’t care/I know you’re gonna hate this song.” “I hated it at first,” says Daltrey. “But it’s such a catchy song.” He’s clearly proud of his editing job. “On the demo, he had some rapping on it. Well, no fucking way I’m going to rap. No way. Let the youngsters wear those clothes.” When I mention to Townshend that the song was a tough entry into the album, he tartly replies, “It’s not a song for the listener, it’s a song for another songwriter.” He mentions a current song goddess’s battles to copyright words and album titles. “Watching Taylor Swift go through what she’s putting herself through at the moment is heartbreaking. She doesn’t own the fucking music. She doesn’t own the words. I think she has a financial right to it, but she shouldn’t screw herself up about this stuff. It’s just songs, for fuck’s sake.”
The best track is “Street Song,” about the Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 72 people in 2017. Daltrey wouldn’t sing the original words: “It had a lot of political lyrics that kind of pointed fingers, and I thought, ‘This is not the time to point fingers until the inquiry is over and you can make a judgment along what really, really happened.’ ” Townshend conceded, and Daltrey’s anguished vocal is among the more moving performances of his career.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, this is great, because I’m singing this,’ ” says Townshend with a hint of envy. “And suddenly he delivered this killer vocal for it.” Townshend offers a historical anecdote as explanation for why he and Daltrey have been such a magnificent if excruciating pairing. “When we recorded Quadrophenia . . . this is brutal, but I didn’t care what Roger thought,” says Townshend. “And he did a version of ‘Love Reign O’er Me,’ which was like a wailing banshee scream. I turned to my engineer Ron Nevison and said, ‘This is a kid on a rock. He’s wet, he’s cold. He’s had the most awful day of his life. Everything’s gone. The last thing he’s going to do is scream out. He’s going to whimper.’ ”
Nevison urged him to give it another listen.
“Roger was in a booth, I couldn’t see him,” says Townshend. “I was hearing it from the mixing desk. And I listened back, and I thought, ‘Fuck. He’s nailed it. He’s nailed it, because this is an internal voice.’ ”
Townshend smiles and throws up his hands.
“He becomes an actor. It’s almost like he’s a late-Fifties, early-Sixties Method actor, who when you say, ‘Here’s the script,’ he goes, ‘Oh, uh…’ and the directors go, ‘For fuck’s sake, just say the words.’”
And then Townshend laughs.
I go to say hello to Daltrey at the end of the Hollywood Bowl rehearsal where the two of them avoided acknowledging each other’s existence. He’s wearing the same blue cargo shorts as in Dallas. The band had recently canceled some gigs after Daltrey’s voice gave out in Houston. I ask how his voice was holding up. He stops short.
“It wasn’t my voice,” Daltrey says coldly. “It was allergies.” After I apologize for the misunderstanding, he smiles. He points at the orchestra, which includes a golden harp and a cymbals guy. He gestures with his hands: “You can have all this.” He then touches his throat. “But without this, you have nothing.” He then disappears stage-right with a cup of tea.
The show that night was a blast if you took to heart Townshend’s words that they were no longer a band. Middle-aged couples ate picnic baskets full of carb-free meals and drank champagne that retailed for nearly $200 in the Hollywood Bowl concession stand. We were half a century and a few tax brackets removed from 1970 and the Leeds University Refectory. The set flowed beautifully, with Townshend’s brother Simon on guitar and drummer Zak Starkey maintaining a controlled-frenzy version of the Moon style. Still, there was never any chance that your ears would bleed.
Some decisions were questionable: Did “Eminence Front” really need a giant harp? Liam Gallagher, the ex-Oasis frontman and the show’s opening act, watched from the side of the stage. He had his arm around his son Gene, a young musician. They both wore parkas despite the October heat. Gallagher was coaching his boy, pointing out things he could learn from his dad’s idols. They shook their heads in unison like Wayne and Garth and grinned like kids on Christmas Day as Daltrey pulled off his millionth mic toss.
And our two friends? It was as advertised. Townshend barked at some overzealous security guards manhandling fans who had already qualified for their AARP cards. “Usually, I’m the one Pete is mad at,” joked Daltrey. Townshend shot him a look. “Uh-oh,” said Daltrey. “I’m in the doghouse.”
At times, Townshend’s duck walk and windmilling threatened to collide with Daltrey’s theatrics, but at the end of each song they returned to their own corners. Finally, the orchestra left the stage, as did the rest of the band. It was just Daltrey and Townshend to perform “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” still the best argument against idealism in the annals of Western civilization. As the only two humans on the stage, they had to actually look at each other.
Townshend had his doubts about the acoustic approach. “It feels like we’re throwing away one of the great, great pinions of anthemic rock,” he told me before the show. “It’s a song that, on its own, if we both just stood there like vegetables, would fill the room and do the job.”
Daltrey started it stomping out a beat. Townshend chimed in with some sublime strumming. The song still rose to a crescendo even if it was one that the crowd had heard a thousand times already. Then Daltrey growled.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
At that moment, no one cared who loved who.