Legendary front man, Roger Daltrey speaks to Zelda Cunningham about the saga of The Who as a changing force through the generations.
“There are too many areas of our idealistic generation that I think we’ve failed in,” sighs one of the most iconic figures of one of the most iconic decades in history. Roger Daltrey, lead signer of Sixties British rock band, The Who, mulls over this statement with a cup of tea in hand before adding with a grin, “It was wonderful though. From what I remember, there are no other words to describe it. We had so much freedom. Everything was possible.”
Before receiving the Literary and Historical Society’s (L&H) James Joyce award, Roger Daltrey is remarkably at ease amongst a flurry of photographers and journalists who have gathered in UCD’s Newman Building to capture a piece of a living legend. Despite cutting his mane of curly locks which would put Robert Plant to shame, Daltrey’s front man confidence is unflinching – something which can only be the result of five decades in the spotlight. His face his expressive and his boisterous laugh compensates for his surprisingly modest height.
The Who, along with The Beatles, were figureheads for worldwide societal change amongst the younger generations during the tremulous 1960s. Daltrey symbolised rebellion against what was seen as a conservative society. However, the now 65 year-old refutes his role as a ringleader of the veritable swinging circus of 40 years ago.
“We didn’t act as the voice of a generation. I think we reflected a generation. We thought we had good ideas, most of which didn’t come to much!” Daltrey espouses with almost a Dickons-esque cockney accent.
The Who, now in their fifth decade on the music circuit, has been an ever-evolving force. With an undeniable nostalgic tone, Daltrey reminisces about the band’s genesis in post-World War II London.
“Pete Townsend and I had home made guitars, because in those days, you either made your own guitars or stole them. We had various lead singers, people come and go, but one night we were playing a gig and this guy turned up in a yucky ginger suit. He had red hair and black eyebrows; he looked like the gingerbread man”.
“He came up to us and said that he could play ten times better than our drummer, so we thought we’d give him a chance. His name was Keith Moon. He started changing the tempo during the songs- speeding them all up. The crowd went mad and we were The Who.”
Despite the huge fan base The Who garnered, the much cronicalised struggles of the band became a tragic stereotype for rock musicians. The band was plagued with breakdowns, temper tantrums and the damaging effects of narcotics. Keith Moon’s infamous drug addiction lead to the implosion of the group, and ultimately his untimely death. Daltrey admits that he too added fuel to the fire of an incandescent young band.
“If I swung the microphone at Keith Moon, I wouldn’t get a drumstick for the next half-an-hour”
“It was my insecurity about my stutter that led me to fight. Someone would hit me with words so I would physically hit them. Times were tough. We were ego-maniacs. We had ten times too much testosterone but we had the strength of character to get through it.”
Unfortunately, there are few refugees left from the Sixties. Drug use and a loss of inhibitions, the cornerstones of Generation X, proved a fatal mix for many of the protagonists from that era. The Who, however, has somehow managed to endure the difficult times and the momentum of the band has not been substantially hindered.
The band toured the festival circuit in 2006, and if Daltrey is to be believed, it will not be long before fans will bear witness to another iconic Who performance.
“The Who, for my liking, don’t work enough! I am a singer. I need to sing. The trouble is, especially at my age, if I don’t sing for any long period of time, I may loose my voice. You have to use it or loose it,” Daltrey states, before wryly adding with a smirk, “like everything else!”
The Who’s live performances are as iconic as the hypnotic guitar riffs and powerful lyrics of the band’s albums. Guitarist and composer Peter Townsend’s ‘windmill’ guitar strumming has been emulated as well as satirised. Similarly, Daltrey’s lavish microphone swirling is an exhilarating aspect of the band’s live performance. However, Daltrey explains that this technique emerged from necessity rather than artistic innovation.
“Keith Moon believed that the drummer should be at the front of the stage and that the singer should be at the back. Consequently, I was continually bombarded with drum sticks. I needed retaliation. If I swung the microphone at Keith Moon, I wouldn’t get a drumstick for the next half-an-hour.”
Daltrey retains a joie de vivre, which is intrinsic to keeping The Who a vitalic life-force. It is with this gusto that Daltrey has assumed a number of different job descriptions – actor, composer, and philanthropist to name but a few.
During his time as a musician, Daltrey has released eight solo albums including an illusive and somewhat ill-advised punk album. He has appeared on TV programmes, ranging from CSI to The Bill. He has embarked on numerous charitable endeavours and appeared in films, including his own rock opera, Tommy.
Although Daltrey downplays these projects as “hobbies and experiments”, he clearly enjoys a ‘carpe diem’ approach to life. “The way I see it is that I only have one life. I am out on the wire and I can’t really go backwards. My life is incredibly chaotic, and I tend to react to everything that comes in the letterbox.”
“We were ego-maniacs. We had ten times too much testosterone but we had the strength of character to get through it”
Despite this, Daltrey and his band mates have had to adapt to a world which is entirely different from the idealistic days of the Sixties. During their first years as a band, music was a driving force of change. The Who acted as a soundtrack to the anger and discontent of a generation that was vehement in its struggle for a new departure in society.
However, in our generation of non-descript identity, and, for better or for worse, little rebellious aspirations, music can be observed to lack relevance as a true vehicle of motivation.
When asked if the new breed of music fans is wrought with cynicism, Daltrey admits that young people have less urgency to react to society today. He comments that people have become engrossed in technology, whilst neglecting the truly important aspects of life.
“I think society has sped up so much. I find the computer age terrifying, in the sense that it is meant to be broadening your horizons but I think it is creating control barriers. The idea of 24 hour news is also something I would cut back on. Emails are not conversation. It isn’t like interacting with someone personally. I think we are losing that to our peril.”
This distaste for online communication is unusual amongst musicians. Myspace, iTunes and other internet sites are undoubtedly utilised to the point of exhaustion by most bands. However, Daltrey is adamant in his conviction against such outreach mechanisms.
“I never go near the bloody things. I use my computer for the radio and for getting information, but if I actually want correct information, I go to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
Despite acknowledging the internet as a means of reaching out to burgeoning young Who fans, Daltrey maintains his scepticism. “In some ways [the internet] gives people freedom, but in other ways it traps people in their little boxes. I mean, it’s a lot more subversive than people think.”
The Who is a band that carved a unique niche for themselves in an era where the status quo was to be alternative. The band laid the foundations for practically every other rock outfit since their explosion onto the music scene. With so many acts basing themselves on what was laid out by Daltrey and his band mates, does the veteran front man feel that music has somewhat stagnated since the belle epoch of the Sixties?
“Well, I don’t really like to comment on things like that. I think in our day, it was easy to be original because nothing had been done. There was us, a few others and the Beatles. It was still a big empty canvas, but now so much of the canvas has been filled. That isn’t to say that some other bugger won’t come along and paint a completely different picture.”
Daltrey, it appears, will not solely subsist on his legacy. Although Daltrey and Townsend are relics from a much romanticised era, The Who still perform with an enthusiasm which has not waned. They are still the crowd-pleasers they ever were, attracting new audiences with every gig they play.
Despite a catalogue of some of the most famed tracks in the history of music, Daltrey is confident that composer, Townsend can continue to produce songs that have the same importance as the band did in their heyday.
When asked about The Who’s place in history, Daltrey is casual in response, reiterating the idea that iconic status is not of much concern to him. “Time is the judge of what is good. I think that Townsend articulates feelings so well that our songs are timeless, they can go on forever.”