‘It was the glue that would make what we became’: the wild rock ‘n’ roll legacy of Roger Daltrey and The Who

Roger Daltrey and his band, The Who, were rock and roll revolutionaries. They were sexy. Dangerous. Verging on insanity. A raw passion for the power of music.

Sitting down with Sunday Night’s Angela Cox, Daltrey explains why their music remains so popular today – particularly the song My Generation. “I remember the day in the studio, screwing up the first line. It was a mistake at first, because I do have a stutter and I fight it all the time,” Daltrey chuckles.

“It’s a genius statement – ‘people try to put us down.’ It’s the same for every generation coming through. It stands the test of time, and it always will because there is something about that period of our lives that I will never forget. It’s all that frustration, you’re not understood, you’re not heard.”

Much later, Daltrey would turn his youthful frustration into the ground-breaking rock opera, Tommy.

Yet from Daltrey’s roots in post-war East London, no one could have imagined the success that lay ahead. He was kicked out of high school, and got a job as a sheet metal worker.

“If you wanted anything, you went out and earned the money to either scrimp and scrape to buy it, and if it’s something you could never afford, you built it.” Daltrey explains that’s exactly what he did with his first guitar. “That was quite common to a lot of rockers. Like Keith Richards built his first guitar. Keith’s first guitar was probably as good as mine… which was pretty awful.”

Daltrey soon recruited songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle, and a crazy-eyed drummer – Keith “the Loon” Moon.

“It was like putting the key in the engine of a jet – all of a sudden, it kind of lifted to a new level,” Daltrey recalls. “It was quite obvious that [Keith] was bringing something to the band… it was the glue that would make what we became, and that came from Keith. Our algorithm was formed virtually that night.”

On stage, The Who was a sweaty explosion of energy, ego and eccentricities – all underpinned by extraordinary musicianship. Their calling card became destroying their instruments on stage.

“The first time it happened, it was an accident,” Daltrey reveals. “Pete got angry. He broke the top of the guitar, so the guitar was kind of stuffed, and then decided to break the rest of it. The audience went crazy, so suddenly with these creative managers they said, ‘Better do that again,’ not realising that these guitars were very expensive. Hence we were in debt until at least 1972 to the tune of hundreds of thousands. It was a joke.”

Fans never knew what The Who would do next – but it was on a U.S. tour when Keith pushed things a step too far.

“Keith decides that he wants a little bit more coming out the bass drum, and with the help of a bottle of brandy, a couple of glasses and a little chat with the pyrotechnic guy, managed to get the charge upgraded to something akin to a hand grenade,” Daltrey laughs. “There was this giant explosion which blew me flat on my face, Pete’s hair straight up in the air and frazzled it. His hair was alight.”

“We nearly ended up in jail for months from that show… not kidding you. But equally, it made every youngster in America want to come see The Who.”

Unlike the other band members, Daltrey says he stayed off drugs to protect his voice. However, he was a willing participant in all the mayhem – including a wild 1968 tour of Australia. The Prime Minister of the day, John Gorton, was apparently so disgusted that he fired off a telegram to the band.

Daltrey still remembers the message. “He said, ‘Dear Whos, we never wanted you in our country in the first place,’” he laughs. “’And we never want you back.’ Pete just said, ‘Right. We’re never going back.’”

The Who didn’t return for nearly 40 years, but they did play almost everywhere else, as they continued to create hit songs that have stood the test of time – including the epic Who Are You.

“I think Pete wrote that song after a very drunken night with the Sex Pistols,” Daltrey recalls. “He was so drunk, he fell down the doorway and decided to have a little sleep! [So] actually that was Pete waking up in the Soho doorway, you know, ‘Who the f*!k are you?’”

On stage and off, The Who played hard – so much so, the magic wasn’t destined to last. Keith Moon died of a drug overdose in 1978.

“He was the funniest man I ever met in my life,” Daltrey says of his bandmate. “Everything about him was enormous. He was the most generous, the most mean, the most spiteful, the most caring, the most loving, the most hateful, everything about him was crazy.”

Then, in 2002, on the eve of another U.S. tour, 57-year-old John Entwistle’s life ended in quintessential rock star style. He died from a cocaine overdose in a Las Vegas hotel room with a stripper.

“We were at the beginning of a tour and we had two choices,” Daltrey explains. “We could stop, and that would be the end of The Who, or we still had the music. Once you’ve got the music and you’ve created the music, that’s always going to be there, and the music kind of helped us through it.”

 

Reporter: Angela Cox

Producers: Stefan Mitchell & Kristy-Lee Lorraway

 

Roger Daltrey’s bestselling autobiography Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite is available now from all good bookstores.