Q&A with Roger Daltrey

Just because Roger Daltrey is 65-years old doesn't mean he'd like to spend his golden years sitting on his sofa listening to all the Who albums he helped make so memorable. He's currently in the midst of his first solo tour since 1994 [see comments, below], and by the time he's done, he hopes his voice will be ready for its next big challenge: Floss, the in-progress rock opera being penned by his only surviving Who compatriot, Pete Townshend.

When it comes to conversation, he's already in fighting form, as he proves in the following Q&A, which serves as the backbone for a Westword profile advancing his October 20 headlining gig at the Paramount Theatre.

Daltrey begins by talking about voice training, his peculiar lack of singing-related injuries, the approach he takes when covering other artists and rearranging Who classics, and that scream at the end of "Won't Get Fooled Again," which fans expect him to bellow out any time he's in the vicinity. (They should expect to be disappointed this time around.) From there, the subject turns to Floss, which Townshend hasn't previewed for him to date, as per usual; their working methods; Pete's dissatisfaction with some of his artistic decisions, which doesn't bother Daltrey in the slightest; his lack of self-consciousness when it comes to the "My Generation" line "I hope I die before I get old" or the use of the Who name even though drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle are now in the grave; a proposed Moon biopic that he's having trouble getting off the ground; his difficulty of late in finding good roles as an actor; the successful battle to extend performance royalty copyright protection from fifty to seventy years in the U.K.; and his dislike of the digital revolution, highlighted by his salute to what he sees as the perfect medium for presenting music, the vinyl long-player.

Yes, he's set in his ways -- and if you don't like it, bet he'd happily punch you in the face. Who's next?

Westword (Michael Roberts): One of the reasons you've mentioned about doing a solo tour is to keep your voice in fighting trim. When you're not touring, do you do any kind of daily vocal exercises or other types of practice to keep it in shape.

Roger Daltrey: I do sing a bit, yeah, but it isn't like being out there, doing it every night. It's like being a boxer. You can train and you can do all those things, but to get ring-fit, you need to fight. And it's similar with singing.

WW: Your singing style can be so aggressive. It's the kind of approach that you can imagine causing physical problems. Have you suffered any serious injuries over the years?

RD: No, no, no. And I don't have to sing like that. I've got to loads of other styles that I hope to do within this show, that will show people there's a real depth to my voice, rather than just a heavy style.

WW: In some ways, then, this solo tour gives you an opportunity to show off your range that's more difficult when you're playing nothing but arenas?

RD: Yeah. And they're going to be more intimate shows as well, because they're smaller places. That in itself will be a very different experience that I've had for the past twenty years.

WW: The scream at the end of "Won't Be Fooled Again" doesn't seem designed for a small venue. Will we be hearing that on this tour anyway?

RD: (Laughs) No, you won't be hearing that one on this tour. Not unless they shout for it very loudly.

WW: I'd say there's a good chance of that.

RD: Yeah, but come on. There are other songs. We'll put the scream in another song, if that's all they want (laughs).

WW: Given that the Who has so many iconic tracks, does it get frustrating at times that there will always be songs that fans absolutely demand you do every night?

RD: Yeah, it can be frustrating. But I should hopefully be a bit freed up on this tour. And if I do any of the songs that we've been doing all the time, I'll try to present them in a different way. Do my own versions of them. I won't be tied to how the Who do them. Like, I do a version of "Who Are You" that plays all the parts, but it's still an acoustic guitar. And something we realized is, when broken down, it's almost a blues song. Just do it on vocals, backing vocals, hand claps and an acoustic guitar and it's very, very different.

WW: You've also talked about doing some cover songs. Can you share any of them at this point?

RD: I haven't made my mind up. I'm chewing over ideas at the moment. There are some contemporary bands I like, so I'm just looking at stuff. I don't like to talk about the show yet. I don't have anything set in my mind yet, and I'm not short of material. Who knows what we'll choose on the night in particular.

WW: Let's talk about it generically, then. When you decide to cover a tune by an artist, do you try to pay homage to that performer's original version?

RD: No, I try and see how I would do the song differently. I have just copying. That's not good enough for me. I like to see if I can take this song anywhere else. Can I move it on a bit. Or even move it backwards a bit. Can I re-present it, basically. I just don't just like straight copies. It goes from when I hear demos. If I feel I can't move a song along from the way someone else has done it, I won't sing it.

WW: When you hear Who songs covered that you sing, do you like it when they take the tune in a very different direction, too?

RD: Yes. Very much so.

WW: One of the big pieces of news in Who nation is that Pete is writing a new rock opera called Floss that may be previewed in an album this next year. Have you heard any of the material yet?

RD: No.

WW: Is that common?

RD: I'll hear it when he calls up and says, "Can you be in the studio next week?" (Laughs.) But it works. It's like Elton John and Bernie Taupin. They're in two rooms. Whatever relationship we've got, in that sense, it works. When he gives me a song he's written, he never knows what he's going to get back from my performance of it.

WW: Does he allow you that freedom?

RD: Yes, he allows me that freedom. And obviously, if he's venomous about something he doesn't like, we'll talk about it. But up until now, it's worked. He's been on record as saying, "I didn't like some of the things he did." But the public, by the way they've accepted the songs, seem to have shown that maybe I was right.

WW: When you're asked to sing a song where you're basically playing a character, do you try to approach it almost as an actor would? Or do you try to bring your own personality to it?

RD: I don't know what that process is. All I know is, I try to inhabit the song and make it live. I'm basically a troubador. I'm a storyteller. And every song has a story, especially the way Pete writes, and I try to inhabit the center of that song, from the center of myself. If that is me, then that's what it is. But I don't think about that side of it. I know when I'm nailing the truth of a song.

WW: Pete has talked in some of the brief comments he's made about Floss to date about how it'll be dealing with aging and mortality. It sounds like almost the flip side of "My Generation." Is that a subject you think about at this point in your career? Or do you try not to think about those subjects?

RD: I think about them, but I don't worry about them. It's something we've all got to do. It's always frustrated me that rock and roll has always been stuck in writing about youth things, and it shouldn't be. It's a musical vehicle for expression, and expression doesn't only sit with those teenage years. Old people have got more to say, I think, and it's frustrated me that rock's never been there. Pete Townshend is one of the few people who can write articulately about adult subjects, and middle age and old age subjects within a rock-and-roll framework, and, well, maybe that's where he's at now. I still believe that it's very necessary, and if anyone can do it, he can.

WW: Is there any part of you who wishes you never had to sing the line, "I hope I die before I get old"?

RD: No. No part of me.

WW: Is there any irony to singing it now?

RD: None whatsoever. When I look at that group... What were they called? The Zimmers? All those 85-year-olds who sang "My Generation"? When they sing it, the song's got a totally different meaning. That's not ironic. It's wonderful. It's truly wonderful seeing those old people sing that song. They're talking about their generation. I think that's fucking great (laughs). And long may they do so!

WW: A lot of people tend to take that line more literally than they should...

RD: That's their problem. I have no comment on that (laughs). They're the ones who truly are old.

WW: They have an old mindset? They're stuck in the past instead of moving forward?

RD: Yeah, they are.

WW: Those are the same kind of people who wonder about you and Pete continuing to use the Who name after Keith Moon and, years later, John Entwistle passed away.

RD: Yeah, it is.

WW: Do you have any kind of negative reaction to that?

RD: I don't care about things like that. I'm just very aware that in life, you're never going to please anyone all the time. And sometimes, you need to upset people. Some of the people, anyway. You're just never going to please anybody, and you have to just do your best. And we've done our best, through some very difficult times. And I still think we deliver some of the best rock and roll out there. It's not everybody's cup of tea, but there seem to be enough people to keep us on the road, anyway.

WW: Speaking of Keith, you're listed on some websites as a producer on the film about him that Mike Meyers has been wanting to make.

RD: I can't get a script that works. I've kind of reined it in right now, because I'm into other things. But one day, I'll get it done. It's probably a script I have to write, and I'm a bit insecure about that. But maybe someday.

WW: How many scripts have come through so far?

RD: We're probably on number ten or eleven (laughs). But it's such a difficult subject.

WW: You'd want a movie to deal with his exuberance, but you'd also want to deal with some of the more serious things that happened to him.

RD: Yeah. It can't be all carry-on Keith, can it? It's a tricky one.

WW: What other film projects are you working on these days, either producing or acting in?

RD: Nothing. Nothing.

WW: Are you just taking a break from that side of things?

RD: I think the business has taken a break from actors. There's so few films being made these days, especially for older actors. There's less and less work. TV is all reality now, so it's getting more and more difficult to find work. I've had a few things offered, but there's not been anything good for a long time.

WW: A few years ago, you did a children's DVD, The Wheels on the Bus. You played a dragon bus driver.

RD: That was an educational program, yeah.

WW: Was that fun for you?

RD: It was something I did to hopefully get some attention. It was made in conjunction with a program from UCLA, trying to teach young children through the TV. It was just something I was asked to do, and I thought, That could be fun. It took a couple of afternoons of my life, and I'm very glad I did it.

WW: You've been involved lately with trying to extend copyright protection to musicians who play on recordings as well as writers. I understand you've had success at extending that from fifty to seventy years in the U.K. Is that correct?

RD: That's right, yeah. I think we've had success, but you never know about governments these days. They can crawl under a snake's belly with a top hat on. But this is a very serious issue, intellectual copyright. We are artists, and our performances were works of art. I don't see why my performances over the years on all those songs aren't as important as a writer's performance. And writers are protected for seventy years after their death. And there we were, going to lose our intellectual rights after fifty years on the record. It's ridiculous.

The record company people said it would make records cheaper to the public, and of course, it wouldn't. Our little bit, which is the tiniest bit of the cost in the first place, isn't going to make records any cheaper for the record-buying public. All it would do is go into the coffers of the record companies. For people like me, who've done very well out of the business, it wouldn't mean that much. But the average musician is someone who perhaps earns a few thousand dollars a year, and it's the difference between him having a reasonable lifestyle and being on the policy line. To take that away from them, I think it's criminal.

I am a pensioner! (Laughs.) I'm not just a few years from it. Technically, I am. That's the age we are.

WW: You're only a few years away from it being fifty years since your earliest Who recordings were made, right?

RD: That's what I mean, yeah.

WW: From your perspective, though, the fight wasn't so much about people in your privileged position. It was more for the average Joe out there.

RD: That's right. And like I say, that's the difference between them having a reasonable retirement and one that's on the bread line. I don't see how that helps the record-buying public. I really don't.

WW: Obviously, the record industry has changed so much, with the transition from physical products to the virtual kind. Do you miss the days when people went to stores and bought your albums?

RD: Yeah. I think music has gained nothing from the digital age at all. For me, you can't beat the old album format, on vinyl. It was the perfect package. It was much, much more than just the music. The music was one part of it, but I think music was only 65 or 70 percent of the package. The rest was the artwork. There was something about the size of the product that was pleasing to the eye to look at. There were some incredibly artistic things done with album covers. And they lived with you. You scratched them and they were your scratches. You stained the cover and they were your stains. It lived with you. And now all you have is nothing at all. Just something on the computer or a scratched plastic box that gets more scratched (laughs). And no artwork that you can see. No lyrics you can read. Or of a size you can read, anyway. It's a joke.

WW: Is that one of the reasons why it's important to go out and perform in front of people at this stage of your career?

RD: I think that's one of the reasons why live music is so popular.

WW: Because people are missing this other aspect, and going to a concert is one way left to get a real, visceral taste of the music?

RD: That's right. That's what it's all about.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts