The Who kicked off the 2015 leg of their 50th anniversary tour earlier this week, and days before it began, Roger Daltrey called into Rolling Stone to explain why this is probably the beginning of the end. “I do know this is the last big tour we’ll ever do,” he says. “We have to be realistic. I want us to stop at the top of our game when we are still really good at what we do. The quality of the music is really what this is all about.”
Ever since the band reformed in 1989, their tours have either focused on the group’s vast catalog of hits or complete albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia. This one is largely a hits affair, though the band is breaking out tunes like “So Sad About Us,” “I Can See For Miles,” “Pictures of Lily,” “Slip Kid” and “A Quick One, While He’s Away” that haven’t been played in many years. “We have songs that if we don’t play, 85 percent to 90 percent of our audience will be disappointed,” says Daltrey. “But we are doing a few obscure ones to please our hardcore fans.”
How are rehearsals going?
Great. It’s not like we don’t know the songs! I mean, the band is amazing; as fresh as ever. There’s something about old rock musicians with good music. It just gets better. Maturity brings something extra to it. What it loses in the youthful exuberance, it makes up with the scars of age.
You’re about to spend the next year traveling the globe and playing a ton of concerts. How do you physically prepare for that?
You just roll with the punches, basically, because there’s nothing you can really do. I maintain my voice to the best of my ability. You just have to hope that your body holds up. The shows are the joy. We do the shows for free. We get paid for the traveling and the schlepping. That’s the grueling bit. After 50 years on the road, with hit records, that’s the bit that becomes lonely at times. We’re away from our families. We’re in a different bed every night, or every other night. The bones aren’t quite as forgiving as they used to be!
Do you worry about your voice a lot?
Oh, my voice is fine. I’m quite lucky that I met the genius Dr. Steven Zeitels up in Boston. My vocal cords are better now than they’ve ever been! I’m actually enjoying playing. There’s something about looking down the end of a telescope and seeing a potential end. It brings me more joy when I sing the songs because it might be the last time. I’ve always tried to sing as though I’m singing a song for the first time, now I sing it as though I’m singing the song for what might be the last time.
“There’s something about looking down the end of a telescope and seeing a potential end. It brings me more joy when I sing the songs because it might be the last time.”
It must make this more emotional for you than usual.
It is. It’s just great to see an audience that goes from the grandchildren to the children of our original fans, with our original fans. It’s just great to see that kind of audience at a rock show. When we started, it was all teenagers or people in their early twenties. Now you get eight-year-olds with eighty-year-olds. I’m proud of that. We’ve always believed that music could unite people, but that demographic at a show was unheard of 50 years ago.
Whose idea was it to bring “A Quick One, While He’s Away” back into the set list after all these years?
We wanted to do it for ages. It’s important to show that The Who’s music came out of nowhere, unlike so many of the great bands like the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton or whoever. They started in the tradition that was already laid by B.B. King and all those blues players, down to Chuck Berry. But The Who came out of left field and took an incredible music journey from 1966 to 1978 when Keith [Moon] died. It was a huge, enormous music journey.
With the mini-opera [“A Quick One”], it’s just so fresh. Back in 1966 it was groundbreaking; an eight-minute piece of music that tells a story and makes you laugh.
Was it challenging to rehearse something so complex for this tour?
It was fun! It just makes you smile. When it gets to the “You are forgiven” thing, we’ve got a band now that can reproduce all of the backing vocals, which always played an enormous part in our early sound. They got neglected for years and years when John [Entwistle] lost his high voice and we lost Keith. The backing vocals got scratched, but now we’ve brought them back in the full quality we used to do them back in the day. It brings an enormous dimension to the sound. How many bands use backing vocals in that way? It’s us and the Beach Boys. It’s just so uplifting. The human voice is the most uplifting music instrument of all.
I was thrilled to see that you guys are doing “I Can See For Miles.”
Again, built out of backing vocals. At the end of that song, there are six harmonies. [Laughs] That’s crazy.
I also can’t wait to see “So Sad About Us.”
It’s a song that people forgot. It’s a silly pop song, but the lyrics are very deep.
Looking through set lists, I saw you didn’t do “My Generation” at many of the early shows.
We’ve brought it back in. We’ve got so many songs we can bring in. We are doing “Slip Kid” for the first time. We got it down. We bumped the tempo up a bit so it’s not so sludgy. Of course, people in the States know it from Sons of Anarchy. They forget it was a Who song.
The whole Who By Numbers album is so great, and most of the songs have never really been played live.
I’m going to talk to Pete about that. I would love to do “How Many Friends,” but I don’t want to copy the record. I would like to do that song as who I am now. It’s done in a half-falsetto voice, very high. The lyrics are really interesting and I’d love to sing it as a 71-year-old singer and do it differently. That could be really interesting. Maybe we wouldn’t try to make it a big anthemic thing, but maybe just an acoustic thing with Pete and I.
Any other rare songs you want to bring back?
Well, I’m sure the set list will change as the tour goes on. But we’ve also got to try and cut. We’ve been playing about two hours and 45 minutes. A lot of audiences find it too long and they have curfews on buildings and it does create all kinds of problems. And sooner or later that might actually catch up with us and bite us in the ass and lay us low because of the physical effort, so we are trying to cut the show down to two and a quarter hours. We are contracted for 90 minutes, but that would be cheating for us. We have never done a 90-minute show unless it was demanded because of a curfew.
Who actually sits down and writes out the set list?
Well, mainly me. But I have run out of formulas. [Laughs] Now we just throw it in the air. It is what it is. The thing we try and do is move people; take them high and bring them low. If you get one song in the wrong place, it throws the mood. It doesn’t carry the audience. It puts them off balance.
It seems like no matter what, you like to begin with “I Can’t Explain.”
It’s got to be “I Can’t Explain.” We don’t even need the music. We should just say it like a poem. Here we are at our age and we still can’t explain!
“We try and move people; take them high and bring them low. If you get one song in the wrong place, it throws the mood.”
Do you feel 71?
Yeah, but if I shut my eyes, I’m 21. [Laughs] I try and avoid the mirror. Obviously, I hope I’m wiser. I hope I’m less arrogant. Of course, you feel different, but life is a joy. I’m very aware that I’ve had a life of privilege thanks to the music business and the support of our audience. I’m very aware of that.
Pete says that the two of you are closer now than you’ve ever been. Do you feel that way?
I do. After all the testosterone of youth, all of the problems and middle age and drugs and losing people we love, in the end you suddenly realize you deeply love each other. We are like brothers. Family is like that, aren’t they? One minute you love them, the next minute you can’t stand them. But as soon as it looks like they’re not going to be around, they’re knocking on the door.
Did losing John change the dynamic between the two of you?
Yeah. It woke us up to our mortality. Of course, it’s a different world now. The horrible shock of 9/11 shocked the world. And then John dying the next year did make us realize we’re mortal. If we believed in anything, it was the power of music bringing people together. If we’re touring for anything, that’s a good enough reason for me.
You have 54 shows on the books this year. Will the tour go beyond that?
If people want to add shows and we still feel great, then it will go for a while longer, but not that much longer. It might last two years. I also know that Pete wants to make another record.
What’s the status of that?
He’s just talking about it. I’ve heard a couple of tracks, which are great. There are loads of things we can do in the future, but we can’t keep doing this sort of tour. This bit of our career is closed, but maybe two more doors open up. Pete is an incredibly vibrant musician. I could see us playing acoustically in some ways.
An acoustic theater show with just the two of you could be amazing.
Then you don’t have to tour. You just get down in New York for a couple of weeks. That’s not touring. It’s a piece of cake. You go home every night. It would be civilized.