By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Daltrey says he was initially reluctant to join the British Rock Symphony tour, and that he was cajoled into doing it when producer David Fishof insisted that only Daltrey's involvement would convince promoters to book the rather expensive production. Fishof--the man responsible for tours by Ringo Starr and the Turtles, and the, er, brains behind the American Gladiators and Mortal Kombat "live-action" tours--also guilted Daltrey into joining the show, telling him he was the difference between a bunch of kids touring the U.S. for the summer or going out to get real jobs.
"I agreed to help him all I could, but I told him I would not be interested in headlining it," Daltrey says. "And he came back to me literally three months later and said, 'Look, I can make this work, but I need a headliner.' And I said, 'I don't wanna do it.' He said, 'Yeah, but listen. I've got all these kids from a housing authority in New York, and think of the opportunity for them to see their country. I've got these students from London, from the Royal Academy of Music, and think of the opportunities for them to see what it's like to be on the road playing in an orchestra at that age.'
"So I sat down and went through my conscience"--he laughs--"and I thought it would be, y'know...I could get something out of it more than just being paid as a singer, and I certainly have. It's not my show, and the choice of songs I'm singing is somebody else's. But I've enjoyed it very much. I can express songs I've known for a long time in my own way. I'm doing a Stones song, a Beatles song, a Floyd song, and a Procol Harum song, plus The Who songs. And to do so makes me even prouder of The Who."
The cynic will surely consider this British Rock Symphony gig the final proof that Daltrey has become an oldies act, which he might well be; after all, you don't see Mick Jagger out there singing Who songs in front of a symphony. It sort of signals a weird kind of defeat, if you really think about it. But it hardly matters in the end: The chance to hear Daltrey singing "Who Are You" or "My Generation," orchestra be damned, is something to be cherished. The man was--is?--one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll; he's James Brown strained through the body of a white boy from England who turned pop songs into anthems and anthems into overtures.
From the very beginning, Daltrey gave Pete Townshend's words life, took them out of Pete's basement and sang them to the back row of the stadium. Ever since 1962, he has poured gasoline on the lyric sheet and set it ablaze, soul-shrieking so he could be heard over Townshend's windmill guitar and Keith Moon's thrash-and-bash drumming. To listen to Townshend's demos of songs such as "I Can't Explain" or "Love Reign O'er Me" or "Won't Get Fooled Again" or even "You Better You Bet" is to hear the first lo-fi rock and roll. But they are black-and-white sketches compared to Daltrey's vibrant, primal-scream renderings; Pete needed Roger to make his words come alive as much as Roger relied on Pete to put those words in his mouth. Neither could exist without each other; they were as inextricably bound as earth and sky.
"Pete always used to say he wrote his best songs for me through a third person," Daltrey explains. "And I think I was just confused, angry, bull-headed, but also a great actor and performed those songs as well as he could ever have imagined. I changed them from being the wimpy songs he envisioned, that they were when he sang them...A lot of people say they prefer the wimpy songs, and that's fine. But I can only be what I was to those songs. People try to make it out as though it's always a war between Pete and I. It's not at all. I just changed the songs radically. I think if you listen to the original demos, the way I sang the songs and the notes I put on them were totally different. I think I made the songs more touchable to more people. And that was The Who."
Perhaps that's why Townshend's and Daltrey's solo careers seem so insignificant in comparison to The Who; theirs is a rock-and-roll legacy that erases everything else that stands in its shadow. Like Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, even Paul McCartney and John Lennon, they could hardly exist without each other once the partnership began to wither. Only Townshend's Empty Glass feels at all relevant 18 years after its release; the rest, from All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes to the ridiculous concept album Psychoderelict, are so pompous, pretentious, and dreary, they make you wonder why in God's name Townshend ever got into rock and roll in the first place.
Daltrey, try as he might, wouldn't fare much better: When he decided to go solo, the best songwriters he could come up with were Leo Sayer and Russ Ballard. In the end, Townshend would write Roger's best-known solo hit, "After the Fire," and again, the two were one. Daltrey still wishes he could have had the opportunity to record a handful of Townshend's solo songs, but only as The Who. He's convinced they needed his voice, that band, to make them whole.