In early 2012 Roger Daltrey was set to bring his own concert experience of The Who’s iconic 1969 album (and 1975 movie) Tommy to Australia. It was ultimately cancelled for other plans, but not before Bob Gordon interviewed Daltrey in November, 2011, for The West Australian.
Roger Daltrey well remembers The Who’s 1969 first public performance, in Dolton UK, of Tommy, Pete Townshend’s infamous rock opera about a messianic ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’ who sure played a mean pinball.
“The first time we played it onstage everybody sat down,” he laughs down the line from his Sussex home. “We thought, ‘oh shit, that’s a bad sign’. We started it up and they were all sat on the floor. Of course, it doesn’t stop for an hour; so there they were clapping between songs and during other bits and pieces.
“It was a very different reaction to the normal reaction we’d had up until then, but by the time we got to the end they just erupted. It was only then that we knew that this was something very, very special.”
Daltrey says he’s never really wanted a solo career, but when The Who is on downtime he still needs to get up and sing. This in-full presentation of Tommy was initially a one-off performance at the Royal Albert Hall for the Teenage Cancer Trust, but eventually toured through the UK, US and Canada during 2011. It’s been with him for years, but Daltrey will never tire of the 20 million-selling, Grammy Hall Of Fame-inducted Tommy.
“It’s never been an albatross,” he emphasises. “We’ve never allowed it to be. It was always incredibly spiky by its very nature anyway. I mean, these days you can’t even say ‘deaf, dumb and blind boy’ (laughs). How politically incorrect would that be?
“I’ve always felt that the story of Tommy wasn’t about a person, who had an uncle, or who had a cousin. It’s about us all. We’re all Tommy. Those characters in Tommy are just metaphors for parts of the human condition, the traumas we have to go through in life to build our spirituality.”
That possibly goes some way to explaining why Tommy has been so successfully received over four decades. It was acclaimed upon album release in 1969 and again, six years later when the late Ken Russell’s film version (starring Daltrey as Tommy, along with Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed, Ann Margaret, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Elton John) debuted in 1975.
“Those years were just amazing,” Daltrey recalls. “It may have been five or so years between the album and the film, but you’ve got to remember in those years we produced (seminal albums) Live At Leeds, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, and then the film came out. It was an amazing, creative period in our lives.”
Tommy unveiled at a time when The Who were shedding the last of their skinny mod ties. Townshend was influenced by his guru Meher Baba and his writing reflected more spiritual themes. He then took this outlook to the band.
“I was always completely supportive of Pete’s idea,” Daltrey affirms. “I loved the madness of it. The way he put it to me was, ‘imagine if you had to live your life having to feel things only through vibrations’. Which, to me, is what music is.
“I thought it was a genius idea. Then we turned it into this deaf, dumb and blind boy who’s going to go through this. Basically, that’s what’s happening to our spirit all the time; it’s evolving through the vibrations of our life. So I was very enthusiastic. John (Entwistle, bass) was much more of a heavy metal man. He liked a much heavier kind of rock; you can hear it in his writing. So he was a bit ambivalent about it but, equally, he played some fabulous music on it (laughs). They were great, experimental days.”
The band’s fourth album, it was recorded in a six-month haul, whereas their first LP, 1965’s My Generation, was completed in an afternoon. Daltrey feels that Tommy hasn’t dated because it is rock’s version of classical music. It’s a musical suite that changed him as a performer.
“It was very crucial to me,” he states. “You can hear it, right up until My Generation, Substitute and those others I know who I am in The Who. But there was a period of time there where I was kicked out for having a fight with Keith Moon. I was kicked out of my own band, that’s an achievement (laughs).
“I was brought back on probation and we started recording things like Pictures Of Lily, I’m A Boy and Happy Jack and you can hear that I didn’t know who I was in voice anymore, whereas previously I did. It was Tommy that gave me that back.”
Following the Australian Tommy shows, Daltrey is keen to finish his screenplay for a movie about the band’s late drummer Moon (“It’s not gonna be what people think. It’s not gonna be Carry On Keith, that’s for sure.”) and is looking at the possibility of re-teaming with Townshend as The Who to perform a run of Quadrophenia shows.
As ever, it’s a band that plays by its own rules.
“Well that’s The Who,” he laughs. “We’ve got a meeting next week. Pete’s got problems with his ears, there will be some changes, but we will be doing something. As yet we don’t know what. Once again, it’s a reinvention time. So watch this space.”