This is a refreshingly honest interview with the one and only frontman of the Who. This one should be read by all as Mrs. Charone conducted a really good interview here. Nice one, Barbara!
Roger rides a rock horse
Exclusive Roger Daltrey interview by Barbara Charone
It was rather bizarre actually. There was this enormous inflatible lady, red satin knickers and racy black lace. But she was headless. And there was this silver space capsule plummeting towards earth. But it wasn`t really moving. And there was a patient Roger Daltrey saying “Lola B flat”. And an even more patient Ken Russell saying “Lola A flat”. It was really rather strange.
The fantasy and illusions stop for lunch. The inflatible lady stays behind in a dingy studio at Shepperton while the rest of the less plastic crew take time out from the very last day of shooting `Lisztomania` for lunch.
Franz Liszt climbs out of the space capsule and suddenly becomes Roger Daltrey. Roger Daltrey, actor, climbs out of some fancy grey threads into some scruffy denims and becomes Roger Daltrey, rock singer. We are back to square one.
The atmosphere is decidely more realistic inside the practical but unglamorous canteen. The food is the same standard, barely edible stuff found in any cafeteria but the clientele is more attractive. People from wardrobe and makeup, directors, sultry female extras, all sorts.
Roger Daltrey looks up from his roast chicken, casting an eager eye over the colourful crowd. He is very tired today, feeling the blunt edge of continuous work for the last 18 months. Not content to stay home and mind the pigs, Roger Daltrey has been busy lately.
We were talking about this dead end rock has run into. “It`s nothing to do with getting old,” says a member of the world`s only intact and unchanged rock and roll band. “It`s just learning things, growing up and becoming mature. It`s the growing up that`s anti-rock. Rock isn`t refusing to grow up, it`s the people that buy it; it`s what they want to hear. That`s what doesn`t want it to change.
“It`s still only the four people in the band. That`s why we`ve lasted because kids want to see the Who, see those four people. You can`t just turn it off, go somewhere else and expect people to put up with it.
“If the Who went onstage like the Pink Floyd, with an incredible light show, and stood there like four dead people that sounded great, our fans wouldn`t put up with that. Nothing is going to change. So what do you do?” The singer asked passionately. “What do you do?”
If you are the Who, you do a great number of things. You let the machinery unravel, slowly, allowing individual components to function without group environments, positively hoping that frustrations will disappear and the machinery emerge well oiled and more impressive than before.
While not known for their intimate comradeship offstage, the Who have seen even less of each other over the last 18 months with each member pursuing various cinematic and musical projects.
This Summer the individual components are being fused together again for the recording of the first Who album since `Quadrophenia`. Before examing the machinery in toto, let us briefly turn our attention to one energetic cog in the cycle.
“This album is very positive,” said Roger Daltrey referring to `Ride A Rock Horse`, his second solo album released next week. “The first one was a bit negative. If I`d been too positive then, it would have done the Who a lot of damage. I`m not insecure about doing a solo album now, which I was before. It`s not a matter of proving anything. It`s just that I love singing.
“It`s more the way I sing ya know?” he looked up intently making you understand instantly. “Like when I did my first album everyone said `oh Daltrey`s gone soft`. But that was just a side of me that got overshadowed in the Who. This one`s got more balls to it. It`s not wishy-washy at all. And the strings,” he says becoming excited,” aren`t any of that Mantovani stuff.”
Solo albums are a curious breed of record, alternating between the good and the not so good, sometimes sinking to new depths of tastelessness. There is no Court of King Arthur concept here, simply 10 musical songs. You remember, those catchy refrains that last a couple of minutes and are easily hummed? That`s right, songs.
“What I tried to do is get all my different influences on the album. There are little bits throughout that you can hear. One song, `Near To Surrender`, is me old soul days. It reminds me very much of an Otis Redding song, not the actual sound but the way it feels, “(emphasis on the feel).
“Little touches are thrown in all the songs. Like on `Hearts Right` there`s a solo bit that`s very Beach Boys with a little Stevie Wonder thrown in.” The singer laughs. “And `Milktrain,`” he says of a song vocally reminiscent of the Who`s `Dogs`, “reminds me of Syd Barrett, it sums up 1967, that whole flower power period.
“And `Ocean`s Away` has that water bit which is `Quadrophenia`. Of Course,” – he flashes a very large grin, eliciting looks of approval from nearby tables filled with the sultry female extras – “the Who stinks all the way through it. The Who are all over the record.”
But only in spirit and inspiration. Like his last solo album, which exposed someone named Leo Sayer to the world, Daltrey has chosen to record songs by less familiar names. This wise move achieves two purposes, simultaneously showing off Daltrey`s voice and new songwriters. Who wants yet another version of the same old songs?
“As usual I didn`t write any of the songs. But if I can`t write, at least I can expose other people because there`s so many artists that can`t get heard. I`d love the album to be a success because the people I`m trying to expose are worthy of getting a bit of success at last. Russ Ballard (who produced the album) has been around for years. He`s Mr Underated.
“I could have produced the album myself but it wouldn`t have been as good as what Russ did. Producing yourself on record is like trying to direct yourself in a film. What`s good to you isn`t necessarily the best you can do. You`ve got to get that something else.”
On the album songwriters like Paul Korda, Bugatti and Musker, Philip Goodhand-Tait, and Ballard, are exposed to an even wider public than before. As if this isn`t enough, Daltrey plans on allowing undiscovered talent to grow and mature on this record label, Goldhawke, of which his album is the first release.
“I feel very good about the record company. The Who should have been doing that a long time ago. When Track was set up those were the original intentions but it backfired.
“In the early days Track was really good. There was Hendrix and Arthur Brown. Then nothing. They lost interest in their own company which is sad. I hope that never happens to me.”
Paul Korda, who wrote three very good songs on `Ride A Rock Horse` is presently in Memphis recording an album for Goldhawke, singing like a `male Nina Simone`. And there are more extraordinary plans.
“We`ve got a group of young girls,” pause for decadent giggles, “who can really sing. And we`ve got this 16-year-old girl we found doing `Lisztomania`. We were doing a scene for a live concert. All the audience were young girls, the blue knicker brigade” – pause for more decadent giggles.
“At dinner they used to get up and entertain each other. And this one girl got up without a microphone and sang `River Deep Mountain High` and I couldn`t believe it! It was incredible. So we signed her up.”
And there`s the story about the guy who works in a `bloody tailor shop` and wrote a song for Roger. In a business continually low on enthusiasm, Roger Daltrey is an enigma, constantly full of enough energy and excitement to infuse any project despite the necessary voltage. Reacquainting themselves with each other again, the Who need an electrical shock.
“The Who need to get all that energy back together as a unit. At the moment we`re having problems finding that sorta energy. I`d like to see the Who back as a good rock and roll band,” Roger says with the vengeance of a real fan. “We are having a lot of problems. I won`t try and hide the fact that we are.”
I wondered if the problems merely revolved around not working together for a long time.
“It`s that and – well the group vehicle seems to have found it`s limitations on the surface. I think once we get down to it and really do it, we`ll find new boundaries. But at the moment, it all feels a bit cramped.”
With all the recent ballyhoo about the overwhelming `Tommy` film, one could easily attribute the band`s queasy feelings about communal confinement to the film. But the problems are deeper than just a fixation with that deaf, dumb, and blind boy.
“No, the film hasn`t affected us,” Roger says somberly. “The problems started before the film. It`s us taking ourselves too seriously. That`s the main problem. You`ve got to draw the line somewhere.
“It definitely got to the point where it wasn`t fun anymore,” he says echoing similar statements made in the Press by Pete Townshend. “And if it ain`t fun why bother?
“It doesn`t all have to be fun but I`ve always enjoyed it. But it`s really a group thing. Pete`s having terrible problems with wanting to play again, play in the situation we were playing in. To me, it`s all down to us. You`ve got to go onstage and try to get better and better. Some nights you don`t succeed but after a length of time you do get better.
“Pete seems to want to be able to get better immediately when nothing has changed. I understand his frustration `cause he doesn`t want to jump, when they say jump. But then again, it`s also entertainment.”
For a long time now, critics have suggested that while elevating them to new heights of commercial and artistic acceptance, the `Tommy` album has done nothing but hold the band back. Daltrey disagrees.
“It`s not `Tommy` that held us back. Nobody wanted to listen to what we were doing. `Who`s Next` holds up much better than `Tommy` but nobody wanted to take it seriously. Nobody wanted to give it the amount of thought they gave `Tommy`, just because it was 10 songs and no great, big, bloody thing about a spastic. It was just a bunch of songs rescued from another concept (Lifehouse).
“The whole head of the group was good at that time. We`d had the huge thing of `Tommy`. We were out there playing because we really wanted to play. No big heavy numbers. It was great,” Roger sighs in fond memory. “That was the most enjoyable period of my time with the group.
“The only thing I was down about then was a fear that the Who were getting overshadowed by the synthesiser. It didn`t happen because we took the songs onstage and did without it.
“In `Quadrophenia` we got drowned in it,” he laughs, “and funny enough `Drowned` was the only song that pulled us out. That was my main argument, you`ll never get the Who to play like machines. We`re not robots.”
Sure enough the inevitable happened. Taking `Quadrophenia` on the road without using additional musicians and destroying what made the Who great, meant using complicated tapes of backing tracks. Being a band that thrived more on emotion than mechanics, the Who would often start before the tapes and the tapes would sometimes start before the Who. On a good night they started together.
“What happened with rock and roll music is that it got caught up in technology. Even though it takes leaps and bounds when new sounds come out, nothing really changes. There`s a parallel everywhere. Only technology changes. Rock took on an enormous race between 1964 and 1974 and that`s slowing down. Suddenly it`s got nowhere to go.
“Rock isn`t going to change,” Daltrey says, old passions returning. “All you can do is keep writing the same kind of songs. You can`t let it die. So much has been done but I can`t see something new coming along. That`s why being flexible is so important.
“And, at the moment, the Who isn`t very flexible,” – he says the word like it`s made out of plastic. “That`s where we`re finding the crunch at the moment.”
This being 1975, several founding rock bands seem to be feeling that same crunch. Traffic have broken up. Punters put bets on this being the Stones` last American tour. Time off the road becomes longer than time touring. The Who are the last salvation of a dying era. Do they feel that pressure to stay together?
“I don`t give a shit about that. I don`t care whether they expect us together or not. As long as the next thing we do is 1 per cent better than `Quadrophenia` then I`ll be well satisfied. The album will be a straight album, no concepts and it will get done this Summer. We`ve attempted to start it already,” he says delicately of the fragile situation called making records.
Several weeks ago there was a lovely Saturday afternoon when the sun shone all day and temperatures were pleasantly warm. A perfect day for a rock and roll concert but the schizoid bill at the Crystal Palace Garden Party hardly excited any followers.
Instead it was a very long day of pretty much unexceptional music and so it was with much pleasure that I watched the Who that same night, on a `Second House` re-run, going through their paces at last year`s Charlton concert.
“That`s the Who,” Roger says of the days the band played live. “Either we own up and say that`s what we do or we pack up. I just don`t know.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes, cups and saucers clanging away in the background. Movie people getting ready to go back to a world of illusions. Finally I asked the dreaded question. Is no more Who a reality now?
“Yeah”, he says hesitantly, “very much more. I can accept it now. I couldn`t two years ago. And the reason I think I can accept it now is because maybe we have done as much as we can do. It`s nothing to do with existing outside the Who. I could have done that years ago; we all could have, no doubt about that.
“It`s just you get to a point where maybe,” optimistic emphasis on the maybe, “maybe you`ve just done as much as you`re ever gonna do within that framework. That`s being really honest.”
But certainly you don`t want to believe that? “I keep telling myself it isn`t true,” Roger laughs returning to his more boisterous self, shedding the serious overtones. I`ll be in there fighting till the last bloody second but like I said, I could accept it now.”
Those are harsh words coming from, perhaps, the Who`s most dedicated fan, who through the years has continually spoken of the Who as some magical society, capable of possessing extraordinary powers. All of which is very true.
Several devout Who admirers expressed surprise over the band`s recent appearance at star-studded, Hollywood-type premieres held round the world to signal the opening of the film event of the year. Some disillusioned followers didn`t understand what Ann Margret, champagne and caviar had to do with rock.
“You`ve got to go in and say this is a film, it`s just bloody show biz. You`ve got to get into that head. It`s just a laugh, nothing more serious than that.
“Those premieres did Pete a lot of harm. He got all these paranoias about who the hell is going to like the Who now. I mean our fans still like us,” Roger says sincerely, almost trying to convince Townshend even though he`s not here. “The film ain`t important at all. It`s the Who that`s important.”
It is 1975 now and the Who have grown up. But so have the audience. `Quadrophenia` completed the circle. The Who must begin another circle or abandon the vehicle.
Lunchtime was over now. Roger Daltrey had to stop being a rock singer and become an actor again. The inflatable lady still wore red satin knickers and racy black lace. The space capsule was still plummeting towards earth. I thought about the Who survival. “Lola B flat” barked Ken Russell. It was really rather strange.