By Ken Sharp
Judged against their fellow ‘60s contemporaries, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, The Who’s recorded body of work is relatively small. But what they lack for in sheer quantity is made up by their must listen collection of classic albums; witness the pop art swagger of The Who Sell Out, groundbreaking pop-operas Tommy and Quadrophenia and the introspective angst of Who By Numbers. Simply titled WHO, the band’s first album in 13 years is a thrilling spirited snapshot of the group in the 21 century delivering exquisite songs penned by Pete Townshend (and one by brother Simon), inventive arrangements, powerhouse vocals of Roger Daltrey and spectacular musicianship. Vital and bold, ambitious and defiant, The Who continue to forge their legacy with snotty pride and a winning f**k you attitude.
GM: Roger, you grew up in the hard scrap working town of Shepherd’s Bush, London. What’s the most Sheppard’s Bush thing about you?
ROGER DALTREY: Most Sheppard’s Bush thing? That’s a really tricky one to answer. (long pause) Well, you never forget where you came from. I always feel very much at home even when I go back there today. And it’s very, very different today from when I grew up there. It’s what created our work ethic so it was very important and I always carry that with me.
GM: 52 years ago, The Who came to America for the first time and played your very first shows at the RKO Theater in New York City. Being a huge fan of American music, blues and Elvis Presley, in particular, what did it mean for you and the band to set foot in the U.S.?
RD: I was just astounded at the scale of it. I was open mouthed at the amount of food. (laughs) We’ve never seen food like it. We’d just come out of rationing from the war. In those days we used to smuggle steak home. (laughs) We used to call England “the land of suet” and America “the land of steak.” As for the shows at the RKO Theater, we did four shows a day. It was ridiculous. We only were able to play two songs; it was just crazy but that’s the way things were then. We used to do “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation” and destroy our equipment, smash a guitar every show. It was crazy. Musically, it meant nothing but what it did is... it was the statement that put The Who on the map, of course. They thought we were all mad and, of course, we all were. (laughs)
GM: Throughout your life, has there been someone you’ve always been able to go to who will tell you the truth and not tell you what you want to hear?
RD: In the early years, not really. You’re just driven by your ambition and your youth but then around late ’67 I met the woman who would be my wife and she’s been the one personally in my life who’s helped to keep me relatively balanced.It’s not an easy life to live, the kind of life we lived. It was hard. I was away for long periods of time and we were young and stupid and getting robbed left, right and center but she was the one who kept me as centered as I could be at the time.
GM: And your wife is still the one to give it to you straight?
RD: Oh blimey…you don’t row with my missus. (laughs)
GM: When Pete sent you the tracks for the new Who album, what was your initial impression of the songs?
RD: My initial reaction was that they’re really interesting songs but it’s a Pete Townshend solo album, not a Who album. I did quite a lot of work on the songs melodically and changed some of the tenses of the songs to make them connect with an audience rather than being “I” songs, you know.
GM: I was reading the lyrics for the songs on the album and they must be Pete’s original lyrics; in the song “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise,” there are quite a few fixes on the recorded version with tenses of words from “I” to “we” and “you” to “us.”
RD: Well, that song puts in a nutshell things I was trying to get my head around because to me it screamed at me and I don’t like music to be screaming at me. I like music that sings to me.
GM: How were you able to eventually find your way into the material?
RD: Well, I kept listening to it and kept thinking, “How the f**k am I gonna do this? How the f**k am I gonna do this?” It has to come from my heart; it can’t come from my head, otherwise I’m gonna sing it terribly. It’s all about connecting what’s going on in your heart through your vocals and into the ears of the listener. To do that, you really have to understand and mean every word you sing. So it wasn’t easy but Pete gave me permission to change the tenses and I did. I changed it to “he was” from “I was,” “we were,” “we’re all.” Things like that. In my opinion it’s made them better songs and more interesting songs for everyone when you broaden the scope from a single individual.
GM: When did you realize it was gonna work and that you would find your way inside the songs and be able to deliver them authentically and from the heart?
RD: I knew after three weeks in a demo studio. I do vocals completely separate from the band and Pete. I don’t like to be with anyone. I have to be alone with a lyric and just let myself fly with it. I can’t have any intervention from anybody. So I work with the same producer all the time, which is why it’s a different producer for the vocals on the record than the producer of the album. It takes me a long time where I can get really comfortable with someone and really let it fly because vocals are all about freedom of the heart. So after about three weeks I suddenly thought, "Yeah, I’m getting to grips with this." One of the first songs I did was “Beads On One String” and also “Hero Ground Zero.” And I thought this could be all right. I was rushing though at the first because the album was supposed to come out (laughs) originally in May. If I could go back and redo a few of the vocals I could still polish them even a little bit more and make them even better. But sadly when we recorded it it had to be finished by May so I was under enormous pressure. Of course now it’s coming out in December and I could have gone back in and done a few little things that I only can hear and no one else would notice. But I do and I would have changed them. But that’s my business. (laughs)
GM: When you were laying down vocals on Who songs in the '60s and '70s, you didn’t have the luxury to go off and put down your vocals in the same manner. How were you able to connect with the songs vocal-wise and sing them from the heart under those constraints where you weren’t afforded three weeks to find your way into the material?
RD: Well, I didn’t use to sketch my vocals in those days, it was always working straight away with the producer, which was usually Glyn Johns in those days. But with Who’s Next, for instance, that was a piece of cake. It was easier than anything 'cause we played it live for about three or four months before we actually recorded it so it was living in my head already and I already got my head around what I wanted to do with it and got it out of my head to where I wanted the voice to be. So that was easy. With Quadrophenia I didn’t do any of my vocals with the band in the studio; I worked alone. I mean, with “Love, Reign O’er Me” it was myself and Glyn Johns in the studio and we recorded “Love, Reign O’er Me” way before we even started recording Quadrophenia. We recorded “Love, Reign O’er Me’ when Lou Reisner recorded the orchestrated classical Tommy album. I did that version of “Love, Reign O’er Me” as I heard it, which was exactly the opposite of how Pete wrote it. He wrote it as a gentle love song and I sang it as a primal orgasmic scream. The ultimate orgasm! (laughs) So that’s the way I’ve always worked, really. If I go in and do guide vocals by the time I come to do the real vocals it doesn’t work for me. When the band are trying to learn a song, let someone else do the guide vocals. As long as the band plays the chords, I’ll find the melody and the connection once you’ve done your work. (laughs) I can’t do it while you’re trying to find your bit.
GM: Looking back at The Who’s career, what have been the most challenging songs for you to sing?
RD: There’s no Who song that’s easy. There is no such thing as an easy Who song to sing; okay, maybe “Squeeze Box.” (laughs) We’ve done some concerts where people come up and sing Who songs when we’re celebrating the music of The Who and they always come up afterwards and say to me, “How the f**k do you do this for two hours?” (laughs) They can’t believe how difficult the songs are to sing because they’re all lyrics and there’s very few solos. If there were 10 minute solos I wouldn’t know what to do, I would have been bored with it.
GM: Listening to Pete’s “Scoop” collection of his demos, it’s an eye opener to discover how you’ve reinvented the songs by your own vocal interpretations, and for the better, I might add.
RD: I feel very strongly about making them into Who songs. It’s more than just singing them, that’s all that I can say. It’s much, much more than being the singer in the band.
GM: You and Pete are diametrically opposite personalities and individuals, yet there’s no singer in the world that inhabits his songs like you do. What’s the connective tissue in Pete’s songwriting that pulls you in?
RD: Well, I don’t know if it’s true that there’s no one else that can sing Pete songs better than me. You’d have to spend a long time looking but there might.
GM: Does Pete still surprise you as a writer?
RD: Yeah, he always surprises me as a writer. I’m such a fan of his writing. I’ve always been a fan of his musical ability because I’m bored of quite a lot of rock music generally, you know. It doesn’t seem to have expanded much since the late '70s. (laughs) It seems to be stuck but Townshend some way or another always seems he is able to break the mold. He seems to be able to push it that extra bit further that turns your head. I’ve always, always had incredible admiration for him for doing that.
GM: Is there a song on the new album that best sums up the record for you?
RD: I can’t be objective about that. That’s a tough one. Music is what you like at the time and whatever is gonna touch you at the moment. Music is a strange thing. Like when I released my solo album last year; the album was not supposed to come out at the time of year when they released it. The whole album was a lament; it was all about lost love, an aching heart. It was all about that. It only works in the fall, it can’t work in the spring. Spring is when you want to hear party time music but in the fall you sit back by the fire when it’s snowing out and go, “’Let’s have a bit of sad music.” (laughs) You can feel a bit sorry for yourself.
GM: The lead-off track, “All This Music Must Fade” really grabs you.
RD: Yes, that’s true but it’s very old time Who. For me, I like it when The Who break the rules and do something like “She Rocked My World.” The Who will always surprise you like that.
GM: I mentioned “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” earlier; that song carries the fire of classic Who.
RD: It’s a song about all of us. We’re all hypocrites. I mean, we’ve got this general election going on over here at the moment and everyone is saying our current prime minister is a liar. We’ve all told lies at some time in our life. We’re all liars. We are human. (laughs) It is true. The Who were a bunch of sh*ts in the early days and made lots of mistakes but we did get lucky and it did trigger our breaks. But hopefully now we don’t stay stupid forever. (laughs)
GM: The Who By Numbers album, for example, is filled with songs that don’t fit the archetype of the epic power-chord driven music that you expect from The Who; the song “How Many Friends” is a perfect example of being a song that veers from that.
RD: Yes. “How Many Friends” is a song I do with my solo band fairly regularly; I love doing that song, And that’s not to say I don’t like the others that sound more like you expect from The Who, but what I love about The Who is we do those songs that are not instant ball grabbers but they’ll take you on a journey somewhere else and you’ll go, “F**k me, is that The Who?”
GM: “Imagine a Man” from The Who By Numbers is a song the band never played live and it worked beautifully on the recent Who shows with the orchestra. What inspired you to pull that one out?
RD: I’ve always loved that song and I just feel it’s more in tune with today’s world. I think men at the moment are kind of like a lost species, aren’t they? (laughs) “Imagine A Man” is a wonderful, wonderful song. You have to remember that Pete was 29 year’s old when he wrote that. It’s a beautiful song and I felt it would work well augmented by an orchestra.
GM: A track from the new album, “Rockin’ In Rage” mines the anger, aggression and rage that’s a big part of The Who’s story.
RD: I think with Pete writing that song it’s an awareness of where he is in his life. We’re getting old. I don’t think I’ve ever been so far out on the margins and too old to fight the machetes and blades. That’s how you feel as you’re getting older. You used to walk down the street with cocky bravado and now it’s hope I don’t get blown over. (laughs)
GM: I find that hard to believe — you’re a tough guy.
RD: I’m not a tough guy. I’m just five foot four and a half of bloody muscle that’s all I am. (laughs) I am 75 year’s old and I don’t bounce.
GM: Getting back to the essence of “Rockin’ In Rage,” is it important to have some of that friction and rage to produce vital art?
RD: It’s necessary to have that fuel of friction. You’ve gotta remember, with The Who it used to be we were four individual and creative artists working together. When you think of a rock band, it’s a group of artists presenting their art as a group of artists. Alright, they all do different jobs. The art only gets better if you’ve all got a little bit more to add to it, which can cause friction. So yes, it is very necessary.
GM: Judged against your fellow contemporaries, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, Pete has expressed his regret that The Who’s catalog of studio releases is not stacked nearly as high. Do you, too, regret that the band was not more prolific?
RD: To me, it’s right but I wish we had done more live shows. I wish we had done more touring when we were red hot and razor sharp. You know, coming off the road the amount we did in the '70s, we did films and Tommy and all that other stuff, it was very good for our career generally. But as a rock band it would have been better if we had done a few more tours, which might have led to more albums. But Pete generally in those days got a lot of his song ideas from the band touring.
GM: Do you recall the first time someone said you had a good voice?
RD: Believe it or not, it’s just starting to happen. (laughs) It’s driven me on. (Keith) Moon was always saying, “We need to change our singer.” (laughs) I wasn’t the kind of guy who liked people blowing smoke up my ass so I really wasn’t joking when I said it’s only been recently in the last few years where I’ve got to grips with my condition in my voice and got it sorted out that people have been telling me, “Wow! You’ve really got a set of pipes!”
GM: Having seen you play the closing show of the band’s U.S. tour at the Hollywood Bowl, and having seen The Who live over the past 40 years, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you sing as well. Did you make some kind of devil at the crossroads deal?
RD: (laughs) I’m singing for my life 'cause I know I don’t have long. I’m running out of years 'cause I can’t live forever. I just give it everything I’ve got. Basically, that’s it. I’ve been very lucky to find a voice doctor to sort out a pre-cancerous thing that I’ve got and he takes care of me in a way that I couldn’t ever have imagined could have happened to me.
GM: You’ve worked with orchestras in the past, most recently on your last solo tour. Discuss how the songs performed in the current Who show are enhanced by orchestration.
RD: What made it work was because of the arrangements. That happened mostly because I found such a great arranger, David Campbell. It all started when I did Tommy the previous year, which he orchestrated. My instruction to him was I didn’t want this to sound like any other rock band playing with an orchestra. I wanted it to sound percussive and melodic but I didn’t want anything to sound like it could be played on a keyboard. (laughs) And that’s what he came up with. I think he’s done spectacular work and to me this is like neo-classical music now. It’s the pinnacle of the pyramid, isn’t it? A lot of people were skeptical if this could work but I do have to tell you I was absolutely gobsmacked when people told me it was the best show they’d ever seen. People forget the power of an orchestra when you hear real strings. We’ve become so used to the sh*t sound of digital. When they hear real instruments being played really well with really good arrangements and with a really good rock band giving it some stick like Townshend does, and the way I sing, it’s f**king mega! It makes every hair on your body standing up, doesn’t it? Whoosh! (laughs)
GM: Finally, for many years you’ve spearheaded a Keith Moon film. I’m hearing things might be finally moving forward. What can you tell us about it?
RD: I can’t tell you much about it until it’s done. We’re still working on the screenplay. It’s a very difficult subject but when we get it ready I’ll be happy to speak to you again. I’m very optimistic we’re on the right track at last.