Roger Daltrey: 'I’ve come to the belief that Tommy is probably the best opera ever written'

Soaking up the sun before The Who hit the road with an orchestra for two months of touring, Roger Daltrey is in a genial mood. “It’s beautiful,” the 79-year-old singer marvels at the weather. “England in the summer – where better in the world?”
Roger Daltrey and Pete Tonwshend of The Who.Roger Daltrey and Pete Tonwshend of The Who.
Roger Daltrey and Pete Tonwshend of The Who.

The band’s concert schedule for July and August will allow Daltrey and his long-time musical partner Pete Townshend to see some lesser-visited parts of the country. As well as at London’s O2 Arena and Edinburgh Castle, The Who are due to visit rugby league stadiums in Hull and St Helens, cricket grounds in Chester-le-Street and Derby, the Gloucestershire home of the Badminton horse trials and the Eden Project in Cornwall.

Practicality might have played a part in the choice of venues, Daltrey explains: “We planned to tour this show in 2020 and of course we were shut down for two years with Covid and by the time the business opened up there weren’t any venues to get this tour back into within the next five years of our lives, and I don’t know if I’m going to be in five years’ time”. Nevertheless he says the sound “should be great” and that he is determined to “enjoy every minute of it”.

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Travelling with an orchestra “adds so much to what we do”, he feels, adding: “Our music is very different to most rock music that’s out’s almost written in a classical form, and we make no compromises on the sound that The Who are usually making. It’s still that sound and then you’ve got this orchestra playing these incredibly complicated arrangements that just lift you out of your seat, it’s so powerful.”

The effect of “real” instruments is physical as well as aural, he believes. “They have a different effect on the body, they make the hairs stand on end, whereas synthesisers they sound similar but they don’t have the same effect on you. It’s really weird and it really is an astonishing noise that this thing makes.”

Then there’s Townshend’s fondness for diminished chords which makes the combination of strings and rock band so effective. “There’s always some kind of drone underneath things that’s going on, quite a lot of classical writers use that technique. But it’s not only that he writes with the strangest chords that sound like one thing but actually are something else, it’s the lyric quality of his songs,” Daltrey says.

“Pete Townshend has always had the courage to really write his innermost feelings, and not many writers do that. There’s a centre to his songs that is unlike most people who are out there songwriting, they’re more than just rock/pop songs. Tommy, for instance, we all called it tongue-in-cheek a rock opera at the time because we were walking on a razor’s edge trying to feel the way through but in the fullness of time, and now I’ve done it with orchestrated arrangements added to a rock band, I’ve come to the belief that it is probably the best opera ever written. It certainly has the best lyrics, it certainly has the most interesting plot, and it’s incredibly musical.

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“I’ve been to some grand operas in the last few years and I’ve got to say although there’s some really nice melodies and if you like that kind of singing that’s all right, but lyrically and plot-wise it’s kind of a bit thin on the ground, to say the least. All the right there’s a lot of fancy dresses and pantomime sets but it doesn’t quite do it for me. I like something that digs in, and there’s certainly something about Who music that still, 50 years later, really digs in and doesn’t seem to date. We’re very blessed in that sense.”

The Who perform at Wembley Stadium in Wembley, England as part of The Who's Moving On Tour in July 4, 2019.The Who perform at Wembley Stadium in Wembley, England as part of The Who's Moving On Tour in July 4, 2019.
The Who perform at Wembley Stadium in Wembley, England as part of The Who's Moving On Tour in July 4, 2019.

Daltrey was impressed by David Campbell’s arrangements of The Who’s songs. “I gave him a remit, we had a meeting before,” the singer says. “He scored Tommy for me, that was the first thing, and I sat him down and said, ‘What I want out of this, David, is for it to be majestic’. All the things that an orchestra can do with the arrangements that is more than a synthesiser playing a pad, a chord, which is what most orchestras with rock bands seem to do. When I listen to them they’re not playing anything that’s really adding anything other than a kind of drone underneath, there are very few things that are really lifting the songs, so I said, ‘I want you to go out and have fun with this. I want it to be really percussive, I want it to have light and shade, but most of all make it majestic and triumphant’, and he certainly came up with it.”

The Who famously visited Hull on their 1970 UK tour which yielded the raucous Live At Leeds album. In fact, the gig at City Hall came the day after they performed at the University of Leeds. Today, Daltrey says: “I don’t know what stands out in my mind (from that gig), all I know is our work ethic has always been the same. We go out there to drive our music through an audience and that energy and that commitment we give hasn’t changed over 50 years. In that sense, I’m really proud of it.

“But what I remember most about those early years, and this is the only downside of having orchestrations, is that you have to play to the music. We do have breaks where we do freeform stuff but in those days the whole show used to be ‘well, we’ll start off with that song and let’s just see where we go’, so everything was being pulled out of the air, and that was great fun to do. We were a four-piece really interesting bunch of musicians with John (Entwistle) and Keith (Moon). You can’t replace what they brought in those days. You can copy what they did in their time and the music lives, the music will live on way past all of us, but you can’t replace what they did, they were extraordinary musicians, both of them.”

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Even in their late 70s, Daltrey and Townshend like to keep challenging themselves. “Our career has always been a challenge because there wasn’t any room for another Rolling Stones,” the singer says. “At the time we were coming up, we supported the Rolling Stones and The Beatles and The Kinks, and of course they had such solid images and fan bases so we had to find our own niche. So everything has been just pushing, pushing, let’s try this, let’s try that. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

“This one works, but how much longer it will work I don’t know. I don’t think there’s possibly much more we could do with this tour… There’s only one possibility we could do with the orchestra again in the future because it hasn’t been covered and that is to do an orchestrated and the rock band similar to this tour Quadrophenia. But that depends on whether I can sing it well enough. I wouldn’t even attempt it if I couldn’t sing it and bring it home because there’s no point. Who songs are very difficult to sing at the best of times, especially Quadrophenia, but if I can still do it in the future I won’t say no.”

Back in April, The Who released an album recorded at their Wembley Stadium show in 2019. It was a gig that Daltrey was keen to see preserved for posterity. “It was an extraordinary day,” he says. “When I listened to the tapes I thought ‘there’s something special going on in this performance’. When you hear it on vinyl you really get an idea of what it’s like at the gig…

“Pete’s guitar tech that he had for 30 years, a guy called Alan Rogan, a Geordie lad, died of cancer about four days before that gig and Pete was in quite a traumatic state, he really felt the loss and he was very wobbly before that show. I said to him, ‘Come on, we’ll be all right, let’s just go out and play it for Alan’ and he got onstage and he really dug in and played some great guitar. And it had some very special moments. It was just turning to dusk when we got to Love Reign O’er Me and as I got to the chorus it started to rain. Come on, you don’t expect it to rain over Wembley when I get to (sings) ‘Love reign o’er me’, but it did. It was extraordinary, and once we did the last bit of the song it stopped. The audience must have looked up at the sky thinking ‘how are they doing this?’ Of course, we weren’t doing it at all.”

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This year sees several key anniversaries for The Who – one of which is their change of band name from The Detours, which Daltrey founded as a skiffle group with Pete Townshend and John Entwistle in 1962. “We were The Who for about four months right at the end of ’63,” he recalls. “Then we went to The High Numbers...A manager came in, who was a lovely guy called Peter Meaden, he worked with the Stones as a publicity guy, and he said, ‘The name The Who is terrible, what you need is to become mods and we’re going to call you The High Numbers’ because the mods were taking amphetamines and stealing bowling shoes from ​​​​​​​ten-pin bowling places​​​​​​​ that had numbers on the feet, and you know what they say about boys and their feet​​​? They had the size of the shoe on the back. They were all walking around with shoes that were far too big. They were good days, and then we met our to-be managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp and they said ‘We prefer the name The Who, it’s much simpler, it’s easier to publicise’ and they were correct.”

Playing bars and social clubs as The Detours, Daltrey remembers that they were obliged to play songs from “the hit parade”, which in those days included everything from Del Shannon to Johnny Cash. “I didn’t quite do a Lulu, but bless her, what a singer,” he says. The change of name to The Who signalled a change in approach. “We changed the name when we started to discover Bob Dylan, we didn’t play any of his songs, he was a folk singer. Then from Bob Dylan, Pete was at art school and he had this friend who had all these blues records – John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williams and all those guys – and we totally got the energy in that music. Those guys were on the bottom rung of the ladder in America, as far as we were concerned we were on the bottom rung of the ladder over here, so we totally got it and we worshipped them and the rest is history. People like the Stones and The Who and The Yardbirds, all those bands that were playing the blues in those days, we managed to get those guys to come over here because people became aware of their music, it took off really quickly.

“So ’64 was the year when all those guys were coming over here playing the clubs, and it would not be unusual to have someone come out of the audience (at Who shows) like Sonny Boy Williamson with his bowler hat and his shiny brown suit and his little briefcase, saying ‘Can I jam with you?’ You’ve got no idea what that felt like – it was like looking down at God. Could he play a harmonica, he was fantastic.”

Fifty-five years ago Townshend had the germ of an idea for Tommy while the band were touring the US. “It wasn’t a complete idea,” Daltrey recalls. “It was about imagining the experiences in life if you had all those faculties taken away, you couldn’t see, you couldn’t hear and you couldn’t speak and you couldn’t communicate in that way. Everything would be done through vibration, which that’s what music is basically. I thought it was a really interesting idea but it did literally spring out of one song, which was Amazing Journey, about this strange vibration, and it was pieced together song by song by song over a two and a half month period in the recording studio, and we still didn’t know what we had until about three weeks after we’d finished in the studio and Kit Lambert, our record producer at the time, pieced it all together and at first it was 10 minutes short so we had to make every side of the record longer so you could get a good cut. So he decided to add bits of the overture and bits of the middle of Amazing Journey and make an ‘underture’. That’s how we used to go along, it was just making it up on the spot.”

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With Tommy, The Who created a new genre: rock opera. Daltrey says back in 1968 they “didn’t know” if it would take off. “We had the one hit single, Pinball Wizard, but it was only once we got it onto the stage and started to breathe the live thing into it that The Who can do live, that we never quite captured in the studio. There’s an energy that The Who produce onstage that you have to see to know what we’re about. It was only when we started to play it live onstage and people didn’t applaud. I think it was an hour and 10 minutes long and they used to sit there open-mouthed, but at the end they used to go bananas, so we thought we might be on to something.

“It took the courage to push my voice out there and discover what I can do with it in every way. There’s so much to be explored in Tommy.”

Fifty years ago the band recorded Quadrophenia, another rock opera, about young mod Jimmy and his search for self-worth. Its setting, in London and Brighton in 1965, took The Who back to their mod roots. Today, Daltrey views it as “a lumpy piece”, adding: “I don’t think it was quite as well thought-out as Tommy, but musically it’s brilliant.”

He continues: “For me, it always felt like there were a couple of songs missing in the narrative. Like a lot of Pete’s ideas, he was very good at coming up with a sketch but he needed to collaborate to make the fullness of its potential, and it never happened on Quadrophenia. He held such tight reins on it.”

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In Tommy, he says, “Pinball Wizard was just a song, it was never going to be part of an opera, but then it became part of an opera. In things like that, the sketch became a real finished piece, but with Quadrophenia, he kept such a tight rein on what he was doing, we didn’t have much chance to say ‘do you not think the narrative needs something there?’ It always felt one or two songs light to me, and they wouldn’t have to be big songs, but something that joins the poetic narrative together that’s going on in the music.”

Despite the fact that Daltrey’s 80th birthday is looming in March 2024, his appetite for performing is undiminished. “I love doing the shows, I still perform with the same attitude I’ve always had, I give everything out there,” he says. The problem now, he finds, is that “the travelling is starting to become an absolute nightmare”. He’s realistic that that The Who might finally be winding down after 60 years – “it’s got to happen sooner or later,” he acknowledges – but he’s reluctant to call it quits just yet.

“If anything new and challenging comes up that we can say ‘yeah, that really works, that’s a really good show, let’s go and do it’, I’m up for it, but these big tours that we’ve been doing, the travel is getting harder. If I could be wrapped in cotton wool, put in a box after every show, unpacked at the next gig, brushed down and put on the stage and do that every night, I could tour, but the rest of it you can have it, I’m done with the travelling. I want to spend some time just rooted to the ground.”

If The Who’s touring days do finally ground to a halt, Daltrey holds out the possibility of at least one more album of original material. “I would never say never,” he says. “I’d like to go in the studio with (Pete) and just kick things around. He’s got snippets of bits and pieces that he’s never quite finished, I’ve got some little things that I’ve worked on and never quite finished. Who knows if we collaborated what we could come up with?”

The Who Hits Back! tour starts at Sewell Group Craven Park, Hull on July 6.