Roger Daltrey’s life is extraordinary from start to finish: he was expelled from school and written off as a violent thug – before he made his first guitar out of a block of wood, and music and The Who became his salvation.
In Roger Daltrey: The biography, Tim Ewbank and Stafford Hildred draw on interviews with Daltrey himself, as well as his friends and fellow musicians, to create the most complete and revealing biography or one of rock’s most powerful and enigmatic personalities.
The long queue snaking around the side of the building in London’s Charing Cross Road tells its own story. The venue is the Mean Fiddler and the event is a London convention for fans of The Who. Two members of the band, Keith Moon and John Entwistle, are both dead, but the message for the assembled fans is that Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and The Who live on.
It’s exactly 40 years since Townshend delivered his short, sharp, three-chord shock as The Who’s opening salvo on disc. Four decades have passed since Roger Daltrey sang Townshend’s words of teenage angst and inarticulate frustration for that first record ‘I Can’t Explain’.
Once inside the Mean Fiddler, it’s like a flashback in time. On the walls are posters from decades ago advertising upcoming concerts by The Who, Townshend pictured with trademark arm upraised on high over his guitar. Specially erected monitors are screening vintage, possibly bootleg, footage of the band, filmed adoringly by some fan, showing Roger cockily strutting the stage swinging his microphone lead as though about to lasso a steer.
In one corner of the club bidding has started for a rare copy of Ready Steady Who!, an EP issued on 11 November 1966. Its cover picture shows four very young musicians, Roger looking almost angelic, piercing blue eyes gazing out under golden hair combed forward Beatles-style. Two of the tracks are ‘Bucket T’ and ‘Barbara Ann’, recorded as sops to the musical tastes of Keith Moon, The Who’s long-dead, lamented, demonic drummer, a fanatical devotee of California’s surf sounds of the 1960s.
At another table fans are jostling for prospective purchases of concert programmes and pictures of Pete Townshend in mid-air scissors kick, the late John Entwistle leaning deadpan up against his Marshall amp, Moon with drumsticks a blur, and Roger in his pomp, hair a mass of curls, frilled buckskin jacket open to reveal his taut, lean torso.
At the bar the talk, in hushed tones, is of sadness at the quite recent death of Entwistle, The Who’s bassist. ‘But doesn’t Roger look good,’ says one fan brightly, wearing a T-shirt with a colourful archery target design on the front, sixties Mod-style. ‘I mean, look at Rog. You’d never think there was just a few months in age between him and Keith Richards of the Stones, now would you?’
That same night, some nine miles across town, just over the River Thames and close to the point where the Oxford and Cambridge crews start their annual boat race, the popular Half Moon pub-cum-music venue in Putney is packed with punters listening to a tribute band called Who’s Who. Their set is as faithful a reproduction of Who numbers as they can muster over two frantic hours, and the singer has Roger Daltrey’s distinctive on-stage mannerisms off to a T, even if he inevitably, yet understandably, falls a decibel and a semitone short when it comes to matching his bloodcurdling scream in the middle of his band’s version of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. The audience, many of whom are teenagers, know all the words and sing along at appropriate moments.
Across the Atlantic, for millions of Americans Roger’s singing of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, with its obvious message, remains the abiding memory of the charity concert for New York that was held after the desperate events of 9/11.
That same day, in the London offices of Roger’s management, plans are under way for he and Pete Townshend to team up for yet another fund-raising concert for the Teenage Cancer Trust to which Roger, cruelly scarred by living with cancer within his own family, is so deeply committed. There’s also a remarkable offer to consider: an invitation to The Who to play at the 2004 Isle of Wight festival in front of 60,000 fans, 34 years after they first made a memorable appearance there.
On this very same day a 22-year-old disc jockey in Ohio is telling his listeners that there has never been a better group than The Who, and that there never will be. ‘They will never f-f-f-fade away,’ he says, echoing the way Roger stutteringly sang it all those years ago. To prove it, the DJ says, he’s going to play two hours of non-stop Who.
In Australia, rumours are spreading among devotees of The Who that Roger and Pete are set to play some concerts ‘down under’, more than three decades after they left the country in disgrace after a riotous tour. ‘You have behaved atrociously while you’ve been here and we hope you never come back,’ was the telegram Australia’s Prime Minister, Senator John Gorton, sent Roger and Co. after the mayhem and misbehaviour culminated in Keith Moon smashing his way into a hotel to park his rented car in the lobby. Now, Roger and Pete Townshend will return to a hero’s welcome 36 years later.
Back in London an invitation was being posted to Roger to attend the Capital FM Music Awards and accept the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award on behalf of The Who. Roger was to receive a standing ovation as he collected the trophy at the Royal Lancaster Hotel.
Meanwhile, in dozens of countries around the world, The History Channel is showing a programme in which Roger can be seen fashioning a canoe from a fallen tree using a primitive chisel of the kind employed by frontiersmen in North America 200 years ago. For Roger is the presenter of Extreme History, a series which examines survival techniques of years ago. Chipping away at the log reminds him, he tells viewers, of how he made his first guitar from a block of wood, hopelessly unable to afford the real thing. That was a memory trawled up from all of 48 years ago, when he was a 12-year-old and, like countless others, had excitedly caught the early strains of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly on the radio.
The man who famously sang the words ‘Hope I die before I get old’ turned 60 in March 2004. Pete Townshend, the man who wrote those lyrics for rock’s classic in-your-face anthem ‘My Generation’, will reach the same milestone in May 2005. The irony of those lyrics is not lost on either of them.
Roger is in every way a survivor. His very birth was something of a miracle, his mother having been advised she could never have children. As a child he came chillingly close to dying of a poisoned stomach, but pulled through. As a young man and in middle age he somehow came safely through the madness, the chaos and the excesses that went with being on the road as lead singer in what was arguably the greatest, and certainly the most riotous and destructive, rock ’n’ roll band in the world. He survived.
Recently, while looking back nostalgically over the past four decades, [Daltrey] still marvelled at how The Who managed to become quite so special. ‘How come four people who were different and didn’t socialise came together and made music with such passion?’ he wondered. ‘I really appreciate what we had between us. For four people to get together and create something like that is a magical thing. I mean, there’s billions of people on the planet. Why did us for come together and make that noise?’
That noise, as he tongue-in-cheek describes it, has brought him wealth beyond his wildest dreams, the pride in achievement of a man from such humble beginnings, satisfaction in ambitions realised and a place in Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Hall of Fame.
For all this and much besides, Roger touchingly admits he is profoundly grateful. ‘We have been incredibly lucky. I wake up every morning thinking, Gawd, what a life! When you think about the great bands of all time, there’s only a handful like the Stones and The Who who’ve gone on for as long as we have. And you think, why us? It’s an extraordinary life we’ve had. Why should we come together and make that noise and create that extraordinary thing? God knows. Life is weird.’
Roger Daltrey: The biography by Tim Ewbank and Stafford Hildred is available to buy now priced at £8.99. You can also download this title as an ebook from all the major ebook retailers, so you can read it on your Kindle, iPad, Kobo or Sony Reader.
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