Two years ago, they reunited for the final time, one more time, hauling out Quadrophenia for the arena circuit while digging up Gary Glitter and Billy Idol and Ringo's son Zak Starkey for a little jaunt down the greenback road. They stood on stage after stage in city after city and--gloriously! miraculously!--they were The Who once more, reunited 'cause it sounds so good 35 years after it all began in a small London club. There stood John Entwistle, the immovable ox with his white-man's funk and his stoic frown. Beside him was, as always, Pete Townshend, the respectable old man still aching to rock and roll despite his ringing ears. And there was Roger Daltrey, his hair still golden and his jacket still frilly and his voice still coming from his toes till it reverberated off the back of the stadium wall. Long live rock.
That they could still get it together and get it up after all those years was astonishing. The Who said good-bye in 1983, then again in 1989 with a stadium concert that barely escaped tarnishing the legend for good. There was Pete with his hand plastered and bandaged after having impaled himself on his guitar's whammy bar; most of the time he played acoustic anyway, the electric proving too painful for his near-deaf ears. There was Roger with his golden mane and fine-toned frame throwing his microphone into the air one more time, catching it as well as he should after decades of practice. There was John thumping and plucking and teasing his instrument as he had for so many unappreciated years as Rock and Roll's Best Bassist. And there were the dozens of extra musicians fleshing out the former quartet--two drummers to fill in for Keith Moon, all those goddamned horns and backup singers and other needless hacks turning what was once the world's greatest rock-and-roll band into the Late Show with David Letterman band.
Then came Tommy the Musical in London, New York, a dinner playhouse near you. Pete Townshend managed to turn The Who's worst album--an indecipherable parable about teen alienation, his pretentious attempt to bring rock to the "respectable" audiences--into a smash stage production, no better than Cats and just as difficult to follow. Townshend's recording output post-Who amounted to a bunch of concept albums whose sole concept was that they sucked, so he cashed in and sold out like the real pro he always threatened to be. Tommy on Ice premieres next year, doesn't it? No, wait--the stage production of Psychoderelict is next on his plate, that steaming pile of shit about an aging rock star who comes out of retirement to endure so much vilification at the hands of the media. Autobiography? You betcha.
And what about Roger? Was he much better? After all, in 1994, he assembled his own orchestra, signed on notable rock legends David Sanborn and Linda Perry, and hit the road on a tour called A Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and The Who; there's even a recorded document of it on some tiny label called Continuum Records--so much for MCA. It all seemed, of course, rather odd to find Daltrey making such a big stink about singing Townshend's songs--wasn't that, like, his whole career? Talk about having trouble reconciling your past and future. But how in the world could you accuse a band that titled its third album The Who Sell Out of, well, selling out?
"Americans never did understand irony," says Daltrey, who, once more, is on the road touring with an orchestra, singing Pete Townshend (and Beatles and Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd and, gawd, Procol Harum) songs. That's right: While Entwistle's out there playing the clubs, having only just come through Caravan of Dreams, and Townshend's gearing up to play Woodstock once more on August 15 at the Day in the Garden festival, Daltrey's fronting the British Rock Symphony, a 75-piece orchestra performing 54 rock songs from the 1960s and '70s. And yes, even his closest friends want to know why in the hell he's doing it. But he has his reasons: There's the charity (VH1's Save the Music, which gives instruments to underprivileged children interested in music). There's the chance to perform with a bunch of young classically trained musicians who've never toured on such a grand scale. There's the opportunity to keep his voice in shape. And, well, there's the money.
"We came to America at the start of the hippie thing, and we found a lot of really rich people trying to pretend they were poor," Daltrey says. "And we were coming from post-war England, where we were all incredibly poor. We had just gotten rid of our ration books and couldn't believe what was going on over here, and all we wanted to do was be rich. We made no excuses about that, and no apologies. We wanted to be fair to our fans, fair to the people we worked with, but we wanted to be rich, and we wanted to be famous. If Americans could have understood what Europe was like after the war, I think they would have wanted the same things for themselves. In fact, I think most of them do and pretend they don't. They're the ones writing about how we sold out. How could we ever sell out? We were selling out from day one."
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.
"When I listen to his solo records since The Who went into semi-retirement," says Daltrey, "I must say there's nothing he couldn't have done better with The Who. There's nothing any of us couldn't have done better with The Who. It was a stupid move to get rid of that brand name, and I think if you take the best of his two or three solo albums released since The Who folded and made one great Who album, it would have been a real classic."
Daltrey says he doesn't know whether he will ever record another solo record; he has a label deal, but not the material. He would, of course, love to do another Who album, especially with Starkey as the drummer--Daltrey never made a secret of his unhappiness when Kenny Jones replaced the late Keith Moon on 1981's Face Dances. But again, he reminds, the decision is not his to make.
"Who knows what Pete will want to do next," Daltrey says. "He's the kind of guy who will ring up and say, 'C'mon, Rog, let's do something new.' But it has to be Pete. He has to be the one who wants to do it. And you never know. That's the problem. I love the group. Pete loves...Pete."
The British Rock Symphony, featuring Roger Daltrey, will perform August 1 at the Bronco Bowl.
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