There were, of course, rock & roll frontmen before Roger Daltrey. But really, what was the point of ’em? When it came to the Who’s magic bus, Pete Townshend’s songs formed the engine, John Entwistle provided the chassis and Keith Moon brought the high octane rocket fuel, but it was always Daltrey who commanded the wheel. And it wasn’t just his powerhouse voice and epic stage presence that put him in that position. It was Daltrey who founded the Who [as the Detours] in 1962; Daltrey who built the band’s guitars out of plywood; Daltrey who drove the van; and Daltrey who cracked the whip when it needed to be cracked. “Good old Rog,” wrote Townshend in the 1994 Who box set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B, ” . . . without his driving, tin-plate, cutter-uppers force I would still be languishing in the garret of the visual artist I was training to be.”
Not surprisingly, Daltrey has long been the foremost champion of the Who. He’s currently plotting a biopic on the life of the late Moon, and even in the off years since 1982 when the band wasn’t reuniting, he’s never stopped promoting and performing Townshend’s songs, being arguably prouder of them than Townshend himself. So expect him to be in fine fighting form this summer on the band’s stripped-down, rock & roll amphitheater tour.
Whenever the Who reunites, it often seems like Pete has to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, John couldn’t care either way, and you’re playing cheerleader.
In actual fact, it’s Pete this time who really wants to go out and do it. And I can’t believe it’s happening! To be really honest, this is something that’s grown out of those benefit shows last year, and I’m just taking it a day at a time. And of course, I love being with the band — to be on a stage, and even though we’re playing songs that are old, they’re our songs . . .
At the press conference announcing the tour, how did you feel when the “nostalgia question” came up?
What a load of bullshit that is. I mean, if you went to see a Beethoven concert tonight, is that nostalgia? If you go to a museum and look at a Renoir exhibition, is that nostalgia? How can it be nostalgia if it’s our fucking music? It fucking belongs to us and we can play it when and where ever we like. And if people don’t want to come and see it, then that’s up to them — we don’t force anyone. But it’s certainly not nostalgia. And sometimes you go onstage, and mostly by accident, things happen and a musical direction gets switched in a certain way, and it’s just pure fucking magic. And that to me is probably the single most beautiful thing in my life, to have ever achieved something that wondrous. And it happens quite regularly with the Who, so of course I enjoy it and I’m enthusiastic.
What is it about Pete’s songs that allows you to never get tired of them?
There’s a courage and an honesty about them. And I know they were written really about problems of adolescence and just a little bit beyond that, most of them, but they equally apply to problems of middle age and onwards too. I think there are other problems of middle age and onwards, but it’s frustrated me that Pete has never managed to put pen to paper or pen to guitar and write more about them. It always frustrated me that Pete could do it so well about adolescence and about the young boy growing up, but he can’t write about the middle-aged man figuring out his life with all the problems he faces. I mean, what’s the fucking difference?
Did you ever listen to his solo albums and think, “I’d love to get my hands on that song, see what we could do with it with the Who”?
Yep. I’m a Pete-fucking-Townshend fan. But when we’re in a working relationship, I am honest enough to say, “Maybe you could do something a bit better,” or, “Why don’t you try something a different way?” Pete’s always known that I’ll be honest with him. I would never tell him that something that wasn’t very good was. There’s an awful lot of people who will. I think he is a genius. Well, let’s put it this way — he was a genius. I don’t know whether he is now. There’s a difference between talent and genius. Talent you possess, which is what he’s still got, but genius is when you are possessed, which is what he was. I think when he wrote the songs, there was no doubt that he was a genius. And he’s still got potential to become obsessive again and get back to there, but when you are like that, far too often you’re surrounded by people who just tell you that everything you do is wonderful. And it’s death to an artist — fucking death. Because of course a lot of what you do is wonderful, but nobody — nobody — can do everything wonderfully. We all need that person to say, “Buddy, don’t be a prat — that’s crap!” [laughs]
When the subject of a new Who album has come up recently, you’ve mentioned having some songs of your own that you thought were up to par.
I’m so critical of myself because I lived in paranoia of writing anything for years and years because Pete to me was the ultimate, and it’s kind of a hard place to be when you think, “Let me have a go at writing,” because what can you do? You have no confidence whatsoever. But when I did Rocks in the Head [Daltrey’s 1992 solo album], I took it down to Pete and said, “Just tell me what you think of the lyrics, Pete, because I think I can write now.” And God bless him, he listened to it and said, “They lyrics are great, Roger.” That meant so much to me. And I’ve got three songs now which lyrically I think are really good. I’ve already played him a few demos.
You’ve expressed interest in doing a movie about Keith Moon’s life. What was your relationship with him like?
For the first ten years of the Who, I think I was probably his number one enemy — mainly because I was in front of him. In Keith’s opinion, the drums should be at the front of the stage and the singer should be in the back. And there was a tour of Europe where they were doing speed more and more and more — I couldn’t do speed, because it’ll dry your throat up — but we did this tour and we were all so out of it and the music was going down the tubes, it was fucking dire. Finally I was so fed up with it, I went in the dressing room and there was Moon’s big bag of pills and I just threw them down the toilet. And he went crazy, came at me with a cymbal, and of course we ended up in a big fight, and I was thrown out of the band. Fortunately, management stood by me, and I promised never to fight again.
And I didn’t fight. For years, I was the butt of all of Moon’s jokes — and he could be wicked — and I had to just bite my lip, but I did it because I loved the band. Once we did Who’s Next, I kind of passed my apprenticeship, and we became more friendly. And when Keith started to have a really bad time, I was the only constant because I was at a period then where I didn’t do any drugs. We got closer and closer and closer, ’til right towards the end when he was cleaning himself up and he finally got off of the drink and the drugs. I had a pact with him, because he said, “I’ve got to tour, we haven’t toured for three years — drummers have to work.” But he’d put on all this weight, and he was brokenhearted. And I said, “Look, Keith, if you get yourself set, we’ll get you a training program, and I’ll make sure we tour.” That was the deal, though God knows how I was going to make sure we toured. But anything to get him to get himself in shape. And we were working on it, and then, boom — he died of the bloody drug that he was taking to cure him.
How have the potential scripts for the movie that you’ve seen missed the mark?
They always just go for the cliches. I don’t want to see a script about the Who on stage at Woodstock. I’m not interested in that. I know how to deal with the Who in film. But none of them seem to have the balls to go to the depths that they’ve got to go to get to the center of Keith Moon. He was an incredibly complex character.
Speaking of complex characters, did you enjoy playing Scrooge last year in the New York production of A Christmas Carol?
Oh, I loved that. But fifteen shows a week, that’s fuckin’ hard work, I’ll tell you — it was harder than a Who tour or any tour I’ve ever done. Fucking exhausting.
And how about your role as a fairy king in that NBC miniseries, Leprauchans?
Leprechans . . . was just a mess.