Backstage Pass: Roger Daltrey: A reluctant solo artist

(Photo by Alex Hough)

(Photo by Alex Hough)
by Peter Lindblad
To rise above the roaring din of The Who for the last 45 years, Roger Daltrey has had to summon every bit of strength from a voice that seems ageless.

Daltrey has fought to be heard over Pete Townshend’s loud, explosive guitars, and before they died, he did battle with John Entwistle’s bass and Keith Moon’s crashing drums, too. Nobody but Daltrey could have raged against such a mighty racket and come out on top.

But there have been moments when Daltrey has sung with much less bravado. His first solo album, 1973’s Daltrey, allowed a more thoughtful, less bombastic side to emerge. And he continued to explore other facets of his vocals on 1975’s Ride A Rock Horse.

Now, Daltrey is once again ready to showcase the multi-dimensional vocalist he’s always been in a fall solo tour, dubbed the “Use It Or Lose It” tour, that will find him performing a mix of Who songs, covers and solo material in 30 shows at smaller venues than he’s used to playing. It starts Oct. 10 in Vancouver (visit www.thewho.com for more information).

Daltrey will be backed by longtime collaborator, guitarist/backup singer Simon Townshend, and American musicians like guitarist/musical director Frank Simes, keyboardist Loren Gold, bassist Jon Button and drummer Scott Devours.

In this interview, Daltrey shares his thoughts on the tour and his often-overlooked solo career.

Why did you want to do this fall tour?

Roger Daltrey: Basically, I feel the need to keep singing. I feel I’m at that age now where I’ve got a feeling [that] if I stop, it will go on me. And up ’til now, the voice is still pretty good, so …

The Who aren’t going to be working anymore this year. That stopped in April. And we’re not planning on doing anything too early next year, so I just thought, “Well, better get out there and do something on my own, just to have some fun and keep the voice oiled.”

I never wanted to be a solo artist, as such, ’cause I’m the singer in The Who. I don’t need any more than that, really. But I’m really starting to feel now that, as I said, if I don’t use this voice, it’ll go on me.

Had you wanted to take a solo tour here and there and just never got around to it?

RD: No, never. We’ve been working solidly for the last four or five years, so I haven’t needed to. I feel like being off the road now for four or five months that — and Pete’s planning on doing some recording early next year — I just feel the need to get out there and air the pipes so that when I do get in the studio, my voice will be at its best rather than a bit rusty. Nothing’s easy about getting older, especially if you’re a singer, because they’re not like guitar strings. You can’t just change the vocal chords. It doesn’t work like that. To keep singing in the range I’m singing at, I have to keep doing it.

I know you’re expecting to play a number of Who songs on this tour. What’s it like playing them away from Pete?

RD: Well, I can pretend I’m a Who tribute band, but I’m not quite that. And I like singing Who songs. I’d like to do some other, different ones that The Who don’t do anymore, and I’d also like to present songs that we have done regularly in my own way.

I do an acoustic version of “Who Are You?” which is very, very different, but it’s still got its own merit. You strip all the synthesizers and things out of “Who Are You?” and it’s basically a blues song. So I do a kind of bluesy version of that. It’s some interesting stuff. There’s also lots of covers of other people and a lot of solo stuff that I’d like to get my tonsils around.

I think that’s something that’ll be interesting for people who haven’t heard the solo material in a while.

RD: Well, I just want to give people a good night out with some good music, good fun and have a good laugh, and get to talk to an audience in an intimate situation … I’ve been playing arenas for the last 25 to 30 years. We came down from stadiums. They were too impersonal, but it’ll be nice to get back to where I started — small places — and be able to talk eyeball to eyeball with an audience. It’ll be real nice.

I wanted to take you back to that first solo album, the Daltrey album. How did you become aware of Leo Sayer and his writing?

RD: Well, he was brought into my studio by a friend of mine, who discovered him in a seaside town here called Brighton.

And we had enormous links with Brighton from an album we did called Quadrophenia. And I thought, “Well, God, this is kind of organic.” And there was this young kid and he was playing and singing all these incredible songs, but he couldn’t get a record deal. So I just off-the-cuff said to him, “Why don’t you write a few songs for me and I’ll do a solo album and see if that helps you, see if it gets you recognized for being a songwriter, and it just might give you a leg up in the business.”

I didn’t really understand how dead seriously he took it because within 10 days, he was knocking on my door with 10 songs that made the album. We knocked the album together in three or four weeks, all very organically, and Leo got a record deal and he had an enormously success pop career. He went more pop than he was when he came into my studio. He was much more avant-garde, very quirky artist, but I suppose what he really wanted to be was a pop star.

Was there something in particular about his songwriting that you liked?

RD: Yeah, just the way the lyrics came from a space that just kind of turned your head. And it was also very different from anything The Who were doing at the time, so I thought, “Well, if ever I were going to do anything on my own, this would be the kind of stuff to do.”

How different was it to sing the songs on Daltrey, as opposed to what you’d sung with The Who?

RD: Well, I could use the quiet voice. I mean, I’ve got several voices and sadly sometimes I just feel that in The Who it’s just swamped all the time by this wall of noise. And that’s all very well and fabulous. I’m not knocking it. But I have got loads of other facets to my voice that people haven’t heard yet, and again, I hope to explore those in this show we’re going to do on this tour.

What do you remember about recording “Giving It All Away”?

RD: Oh, not a lot to be honest. Just a great song. I just remember that whole album was incredible fun. We used to knock off two tracks a day and then we’d add the orchestra, and it was in the days when anything was possible. And the artists were running the record companies, so nobody ever said, “No, you can’t do this. You can’t do that.” You just did as you liked, so it was wonderful.

Afterwards, did it feel satisfying to be able to show a different side of yourself from what you’d shown with The Who?

RD: I was very happy with the album. I was very happy with the way it was received. I mean, around the world, it was incredibly successful. But I think I was more happy that it did what we wanted it to do, that it got Leo Sayer noticed and got him a record deal. And he had a very successful career as well.

I did find it hard convincing people that I never, ever had any intention of ever leaving The Who for a solo career. I mean, a lot of people went, “Oh, God. He’ll leave The Who and that’ll be the end of The Who.” But never, ever did I have that intention. It was just done as a hobby. I’d gotten used to being bored when The Who weren’t working, which I am a bit at the moment with us not working (laughs). But then if I got out on my own and [was able to] have some fun with another bunch of musicians, it kills two birds with one stone. It keeps me singing and it alleviates the actual boredom.

Was it a similar thing with Ride A Rock Horse, where you worked with Russ Ballard? Was he a songwriter similar to Leo?

RD: Um, no, but he played on that first album. We were just really good friends, and it was much more of a solo album, more staked in the old-fashioned soul tradition. It was a good album, but [after that], I kind of all of a sudden was having to make albums because of a record contract rather than [create] an album that I really wanted to make.

I mean, that was the last one of the albums that I really wanted to make. I felt like once it went past then, until I got to Under A Raging Moon, and perhaps the last album I ever did, which was Rocks In The Head, the other albums in between those albums were done because of a contract. I was never happy with them.

With Under A Raging Moon, the material sounds like it had some pent-up frustration got released.

RD: Yeah, it did. I mean, it’s dated now. I listened to it the other day, and it hasn’t stood the test of time very well. It stayed somewhat … it’s very dated, whereas [Rocks In The Head], a lot of that stuff stands up good to this day.

I wanted to ask you about your acting career. About being in “Tommy,” what do you remember about that experience?

RD: What I remember is, why me? That’s what I remember of it, being cold, wet, burned to death (laughs), frozen to death … but again, it’s something that I pinch myself every day to think that I was going to be working on a film. Waking up and going to work on a film with people like [director] Ken Russell and Ann Margaret, Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson … I mean, how good does it get? I had to keep pinching myself.

How did you prepare to play composer Franz Liszt (“Lisztomania”)?

RD: Oh, don’t go into that one. I didn’t know what I was doing when I got to that one (laughs). It was a disaster. I just shagged around a lot (laughs).

No, but then, I suddenly realized that I’d fallen in love with the process of filmmaking, because it was so creative in other ways than music. I suddenly realized I don’t know anything about acting at all.

“Tommy” was easy because it was a musical, something I understood. As soon as it got into drama and dialogue and all those things, I suddenly realized I’ve got a bloody lot to learn. But then like all these things, if you really do love what you’re doing and are determined to at least learn the ropes, and you’ve got it a little bit, you have to make all your mistakes in the public eye.

I went out and did loads and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of small acting jobs, and slowly, but surely, you learn the ropes, you learn the craft of it.

You’ve been referred to by Pete as the ultimate interpreter of his work. Was there ever a point at which you felt that way, too?

RD: Um, I don’t really think about it. All I know is I get a song of his, [and] I will give it another dimension than what it has when he does it on his own. And if the song is enhanced by that, I don’t try and analyze it. I don’t think about it.

I guess that raw immediacy of just going out and doing it is what makes it special.

RD: That’s right. It’s not the kind of thing you think about. It happens. Once you start trying to analyze stuff, you’ll analyze yourself right up your own ass.

And is that the way you still record?

RD: Yeah, often I sing a totally different performance than he’s imagining. He doesn’t know what he’s going to get ’til I sing it. But somehow or the other, it seems to get what we’re doing. So let’s not dissect it. Let’s just accept it.

With this tour, what are you most looking forward to?

RD: I’m mostly looking forward to, as I say, the intimacy of these smaller places and doing some stuff, just standing up there, with a guitar on my own in certain songs. It’s going to be nice. It’s where I started. That’s what I used to do when I was 15, 16 years old.

Do you think it’s going to bring back memories of those days with The Detours?

RD: (Laughs) Those memories have never gone away.


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