Roger Daltrey took a very practical, hands-on approach to the business of becoming a rock star. Aged 12, he got a job sorting stinky clothes in a laundry in order to afford the bits to make his first plywood guitar, and later worked in a sheet metal factory (actually an asbestos-lined shed), so he could build his own ‘Fender’ when no-one was looking.
A working class kid from Acton, he was also street tough: Daltrey may only be 5’ 5”, but he’s always been able to handle himself. ‘Little guys are harder to hit,’ he smiles when Weekend meets him at a London hotel to discuss his entertaining new memoir, Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite. ‘I could move very quick. And I’d be unloading 10 tonnes of steel every day, so I had a pair of shoulders and hands like hammers.’
All this would serve him well in The Who, whose amped-up brand of ‘maximum R&B’ – showcased on hits like I Can’t Explain, Substitute and The Kids Are Alright – put them in the vanguard of the 60s British rock explosion. Guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend once described the group – completed by bassist John Entwistle and wildman drummer Keith Moon – as ‘four people who should never have been in a band together’, and Daltrey’s book is full of ‘war stories’ from the road. Like the time he knocked Townshend out cold with an uppercut to the jaw, just as the MD of their new American record company walked in.
But there’s a flipside to this narrative: ‘In some ways, we were four people that could only have been in a group,’ he says. ‘It was the chemistry between us when we started to play. Our paranoia, our angst, our anger, our aggression, it was all in there, and it all knitted together perfectly. If you’d thrown any one of us out in those days, it would have fallen apart.’
Besides, he says, audiences want a little danger and jeopardy. ‘That’s when rock’s at it’s best, you know? Rock should never be safe. I mean, these days, I’m sure half the crowds coming to see us are just wondering if we’ll make it to the end of the show.’
This leads us to the inevitable question about the most famous line Daltrey ever sang – My Generation’s defiant ‘Hope I die before I get old’. From the perspective of a 74-year-old, that idea can’t seem quite so appealing?
‘I’ve always said it’s about the mind more than the body,’ is his well-practised deflection. ‘It’s keeping your mind fresh and keeping yourself young, rather than being one of the sheep going “baaa”. Because there’s too many of them out there at the moment.’
Daltrey was born in London in the middle a four-month bombardment by German V1 rockets, and believes rock and roll was a reflex response by a generation raised amidst the rubble of war: 'When everything’s destroyed, you can only build,’ he says. ‘It’s extraordinary that in such a short space of time, all those bands – The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Zeppelin – just went voom, like an explosion of creativity. We were inventing the industry as we went along.’
They were also writing the rulebook for rock and roll bad behaviour, whether driving a Cadillac – or it may have been a Continental – into a swimming pool (Moon) or tipping live piranhas into a hotel bath (Entwistle).
The way he tells it, Daltrey suffered all this with a weary resignation. While the others succumbed to a life of drink and drug-fuelled hedonism, he was the one thinking of the poor maid who had to clean up the mess, and socking all his money away for a deposit on a house. Wasn’t it exhausting, having to be the appropriate adult all the time?
‘With three addicts in the band, someone needed to be sensible – it was as simple as that,’ he shrugs. ‘I made that decision very early on. I was always taking on responsibilities. I’d arrange all the gigs, collect all the money, pay the bills.
‘The worst time was the first tour of Europe. They were like animals let out of the zoo. It was probably only about 10 days, but for me it felt like a lifetime.’
Does he think the way Moon has been mythologised since his death is entirely healthy?
‘Well that’s you guys, that’s nothing to do with us – that’s the press,’ he says. ‘Keith was encouraged by the press, because he could give them a headline, he could give them a front page. Equally, a lot of the things he was doing were not funny at all.
‘Keith never felt like he had any sense of responsibility. He was fearless, absolutely fearless. He was a pure genius, when he wanted to do his thing. He was clever, and the funniest man I’ve ever met. But he was out of control.’
Daltrey had tried drugs in the early days, but found they dried his throat up. ‘I thought, I can either do drugs and work in a factory, or I can be a singer. There was nothing in between for me.’ (He even gave up drinking in his 30s, for the distinctly un-rock and roll reason of gout.)
He has always been driven. In the book, he writes candidly about walking out on his first wife and young son to follow his dream of rock stardom, citing Townshend’s lyrics from Anyway Anyhow Anywhere: ‘Nothing gets in my way.’
To say he achieved the dream would be an understatement. From playing to ‘half a million people, stretching to the horizon’ as the sun came up at Woodstock to helping invent the rock opera with Tommy, The Who’s place in the front rank of rock aristocracy is assured. And when he wasn’t swinging his mic and tossing his curls as the band’s messianic frontman, Daltrey took easily to the life of a country squire in his Jacobean Sussex pile, complete with trout fishery.
But it hasn’t come without a price. The shadow of death is never far away in the story of The Who, from Moon accidentally running over and killing his chauffeur to the drummer’s own early exit aged 32, and the tragic loss of 11 fans in a crush at a gig in Cincinnati.
Daltrey himself has had numerous brushes with mortality. As a kid, he broke his jaw playing on a building site, and suffered internal haemorrhaging after swallowing a nail. In The Who, he survived the band’s rustbucket of a four-prop plane making an emergency landing in Nashville, got pneumonia sitting in a bath of frozen baked beans (‘Ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,’ he says, shaking his head) for the cover of The Who Sell Out, and suffered a fractured eye socket when Gary Glitter accidentally whacked him in the face with a mic stand.
‘Half an inch further over and it would have killed me,’ he says. ‘It was scary because the eye kept wanting to leave the socket – it couldn’t hold it in. I’ll never forget that.’
In 2007, an x-ray taken after he collapsed on stage also revealed he’d once broken his back. It was news to him.
Even The Who’s autumnal years – when most bands are sliding into a comfortable late middle age – have been fraught with peril and tragedy: Entwistle’s death days before a major tour in 2002 was closely followed by Townshend’s arrest on child pornography charges [it was later found he had never accessed any indecent material], and in 2015 Daltrey narrowly escaped the reaper again after contracting viral meningitis.
Little wonder, then, that even this street hustler found himself succumbing to depression, eventually turning to hypnotist Paul McKenna for help (‘He saved my life,’ he states simply.)
Today, Daltrey and Townshend are still performing as The Who. ‘We’re closer than we’ve ever been,’ he says of a relationship that, over the decades, has been strained to breaking point many times over. He’s also dedicated a lot of his energies over recent years into raising money for The Teenage Cancer Trust, a personal passion project.
Writing the book, he says he’s tried to be as honest about his mistakes and his indiscretions as possible. ‘Would I have done things differently?’ he considers. ‘Yes, if I knew what I knew now. But you can’t regret any of it. It’s made me what I am today.
‘I can’t be objective about it, because it’s my life, and I think that’s what everybody’s life is like,’ he adds. ‘But equally, I recognise it’s been quite a journey. When I look back, it was such a rollercoaster, it’s a wonder any of us survived it.’
Playing the lead in Ken Russell’s film of Tommy launched Daltrey on a successful side career as an actor. Notable roles include armed robber John McVicar in a 1980 biopic, and a BBC production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. He also played himself in The Simpsons.
Daltrey has eight children: three with Heather, his wife since 1971, one from his first marriage, one from an affair with Swedish model Elisabeth Aronsson, and three ‘surprise’ children who turned up in later years – one of them on his 50th birthday. ‘Looking back, I could have behaved more responsibly,’ he says. ‘I was young, I was arrogant and I was ignorant.’
Daltrey hated watching Pete Townshend smash his guitars on stage. ‘It was heartbreaking. When I remembered how much I’d struggled to get my first guitars, it was like watching an animal being slaughtered.’
The title of his autobiography is a reference to his headmaster, Mr Kibblewhite, whose decision to expel him proved crucial to his rock and roll career. His music teacher had previously told him he’d never make a living from it.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, October 25, 2018
(c) Waitrose Weekend