When The Who’s Roger Daltrey looks back at his nigh on 60 years as one of the roaring engines of rock’n’roll and declares “It’s a wonder we survived,” he could be talking about any number of near-death moments. The Hell’s Angels riots at early Who gigs. The helicopter that conked out as it came in to land at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. The time he was hit directly in the eye by a mike stand wielded by Gary Glitter during boisterous rehearsals for a Quadrophenia live tour in 1996. The thankfully brief few weeks in 1965 that he spent on the Krays’ loan book when he needed £400 for a new car.
In fact, he’s most amazed not by The Who’s legendary tales of carnage and debauchery, but by their sheer velocity. “You look at our tour schedule in ’65, ’66, ’67, it’s just crazy,” says the gruff, amiable singer, beaming into the camera from a well-appointed music room in his Jacobean manor house in East Sussex. “We used to go everywhere at 120 miles an hour, there were no speed limits, lighting was very poor. We used to have very fast cars, and everywhere was foot on the floor. How we ever survived it I don’t know. But we worked bloody hard for it.”
And still, after six decades and north of 100 million album sales as the iconic mod wolfman fronting one of the biggest and best rock bands in the world, he works. He’s fresh from playing a ramshackle acoustic Who set for the latest of the Teenage Cancer Trust stints he’s been organising at the Royal Albert Hall since 2000. “We didn’t really spend any money on rehearsals, we were all about just making more dosh for the charity,” he says. The shows raised £1.6m this year thanks to performances by the likes of The Who, Ed Sheeran, Paul Weller, Yungblud, and fellow rock’n’roll pussycat Liam Gallagher.
“He’s just a bloke,” Daltrey chuckles. “I just think he’s so entertaining, he’s so funny, and he’s got a heart of gold. I see quite a lot of Keith Moon in him and maybe that’s what I’m attracted to. When people talk about the spat between him and Noel, I just think, ‘Don’t people understand? That’s what it’s all about.’ It’s rock wrestling, as I call it. Someone’s got to be a Jackie Pallo or a Mick McManus; someone’s got to be booed and another one has to be cheered. It creates interest.”
In June, he sets out on a solo tour, rescheduled from 2021, playing songs from eight disparate solo albums that ranged from hard rock to electropop, blues and country. “I wanted to give a feast for the ears, so it’s not just one noise coming at you for two hours.” He’ll also be taking questions from the audience, probably pre-written. How’s the hearing? “Pardon?” He fumbles his hearing aids from his ears. “Terrible, terrible. Without these things everything’s a mumble. It’s a penalty for what we did in our lives. We were too f***ing loud.”
Far from an ego fest, Daltrey sees the tour as an extension of his philanthropic work. He initially organised it in order to give work to a band and crew after two lean pandemic years. “Musicians have had a real rough two years, really rough,” he explains. “Most of them are self-employed, they got no furlough, no anything. It’s been brutal on them. So if I can go out there and employ 10 musicians [and] 10 road crew for a month, I’m gonna do it.”
The tour is titled Who Was I? – not an existential conundrum, but a tongue-in-cheek post-pandemic gag. “Two years on, you do start to wonder ‘Didn’t I used to be a singer?’” he grins. “But you do change over the years; I’ve changed a great deal. I was a terror when I was younger. I was a real handful, but you grow. I’m a totally different bloke now than I was all those years ago.”
Today, Daltrey is “stuck in Moon brain”. For 30 years he’s been trying to get a biopic made about The Who’s exuberantly destructive drummer Keith Moon, but only now, with the help of author Nigel Hinton, is the project – on paper, at least – starting to feel as wild and multifaceted as its subject.
“It’s been quite a journey,” he says. “I’ve had so many scripts written, by very eminent scriptwriters, but they just did not get it. They did not get him, they did not get the music business. It’s been very difficult, but I’m quietly confident that we’ve got something special.”
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Daltrey’s 2018 autobiography, Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite: My Story, forefronted his own scraps and scrapes en route from grammar school expulsion at 15 to the pinnacle of rock’n’roll by 24. His Quadrophonic teenage fights with west London Ted gangs. The guitars he built from the detritus he collected while working in a sheet metal factory. His narrow avoidance of the bank robber life. The night during the 1968 Tommy tour when he found himself grappling onstage with an undercover NYPD officer who was trying to commandeer the microphone to evacuate the venue because of a nearby fire.
But Moon loomed high and bright over the story. When the drummer, who would later die from an overdose of alcohol withdrawal medication in 1978, wasn’t staging mock Nazi assaults on fake priests on Oxford Street, doing naked handstands in band meetings, and almost killing his bandmates by blowing up his drum kit on American TV, he was decimating early Who tour budgets with Cadillac flotation experiments, or “restructuring” hotel rooms with cherry bombs and Super Glue.
Throughout the 1960s, numerous hotel chains ejected and banned The Who for such hijinks. Others took the opportunity to book Moon into any room they wanted to update, and charge the band for a full refurb.
The Who in 1968 (Dezo Hoffman/Shutterstock)
Tales of Moon’s lunacy are legion. Brandy-drinking contests with Oliver Reed on the set of Ken Russell’s 1975 Tommy: The Movie. Passing out midway through arena shows from his various overindulgences. Losing his pet bullsnake, Adolf, in a San Diego motel. Swanning into a holding cell in Canada – where he’d landed the entire band by smashing a marble table through a hotel wall in 1973 – and insisting he’d ordered a suite. The film, if and when it finally reaches the screen, will be edge-of-your-exploding-hotel-toilet stuff.
Are there any Moon legends that particularly sum up his character? “What bit of his character would you like?” Daltrey chuckles. “He was so many characters. Everything he was was magnified a thousand times. He was the kindest; he could be the most hurtful, spiteful, the most gentle, most loving. What a bunch of fellers! I’m sure he was autistic. And just because of his personality, no matter how bad it got, everybody loved him.”
Rog, too. From his years as the prototype rebel rock-messiah figure in the Sixties and Seventies – forged in the stuttered flick-off of “My Generation” and encapsulated in the pinball godhead of 1968’s blueprint rock opera Tommy – he’s grown gracefully into his current role, at 78, as benevolent classic rock modgrandfather. Albeit one who, in recent years, has made headlines for his outspoken takes on #MeToo (“It’s always allegations and it’s just salacious c**p”, 2018), woke culture (“It’s terrifying, the miserable world [younger generations] are going to create for themselves… it’s a route to nowhere”, 2021) and, most notoriously, Brexit.
In 2019, he angrily fled a Sky News interview when questioned about the effect of Brexit on international touring. The same topic will prompt something akin to a more civilised digital walkout in around half an hour’s time.
Roger Daltrey at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1969 (Shutterstock)
Yet he’s a man who couldn’t inspire malice if he tried. For much of our 40 minutes, Daltrey is charming company: a salt-of-the-earth, head-screwed-on sort of rock star with a ready laugh and an unpretentious tone. “I mix with ordinary people,” he attests. “I don’t have bodyguards, I go on public transport. That ‘stardom’ thing, that ‘celebrity’ thing – I didn’t like it. I had it for five or six years there and I was uncomfortable with it. I’d much rather be down home with ordinary people; I’m much happier with that.”
Daltrey’s relationship with the traditional accoutrements of rock’n’roll would be tagged on Facebook as “It’s complicated”. Happy just to swing his microphone in gigantic circles and howl like a tassel-sleeved banshee of maximum R&B at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, for instance, he never revelled in the band’s notorious appetite for destruction.
“When [Pete Townshend] broke that first guitar it actually broke my heart,” Daltrey grins, remembering the famous night at the Harrow Railway Tavern in 1964 when his guitarist discovered the crowd-rousing effect of smashing up instruments after he accidentally broke a headstock against the ceiling. “What I would have given for that guitar when I was three years younger than we were then. [But] people wanted to come and see it. We became more famous for the breaking of the guitars than anything else. It became a monkey on our back, and extremely expensive.”
Between the band’s onstage and offstage demolition projects and their manager Kit Lambert’s exorbitant lifestyle and drug habits, major tours would become loss-makers. “We didn’t make any money at all until 1972,” Daltrey recalls.
We became more famous for the breaking of the guitars than anything else Roger Daltrey
An open agreement with Heather, his wife since 1971, allowed Daltrey to continue his more promiscuous tendencies on the road; in his fifties, in true middle-aged rock star fashion, he discovered three “surprise children” from early Who tours that he never knew he had. But key to his survival is that, bar a dependency on the prescription Quaaludes that helped him sleep on tour in the Seventies and an LSD-laced cup of tea at Woodstock, he never seriously succumbed to the narcotic temptations that did for Moon – and for bassist John “The Ox” Entwhistle, who died in a Vegas hotel room in 2002 from a cocaine-induced heart attack.
In 1965, Daltrey was briefly sacked from the band when he flushed Moon’s hefty bag of amphetamine pills down the toilet after a particularly drug-wrecked gig in Denmark, and then won the subsequent fist fight. And in the past decade he’s even found himself developing an allergy to cannabis, stemming from a pre-cancerous throat condition that was successfully treated with laser surgery in 2010.
“Since I’ve had that, I’m totally allergic to it,” he says. “Immediately my voice goes all wobbly. It’s really weird. I hate it. And I hate having to say to people, ‘Please eat it!’ It’s only since the addition of skunk and all those things, because we didn’t have all that stuff in the Seventies. I did occasionally smoke in the Seventies – not a lot. Very rarely. Janis Joplin – my nickname for her was Roach, because if you wanted a puff of pot in the Sixties and Janis was there, you bet your life she had a little roach about [pinches fingers] this big, something so small that you wouldn’t go to jail for.”
Daltrey with his wife Heather and their daughter, Rosie Lea, at their home in Sussex, England, 1972 (Getty)
Daltrey’s drug of choice these days is Gatorade, to combat the effect of sweating so much onstage. “I didn’t realise that you had to put salt back into your body and I nearly ended up killing myself from it,” he says, recalling a 2015 gig in Paris that almost saw him rock himself clean out of the game. “It was 45 degrees on stage, centigrade. We did a two-hour show. I sweated so much, buckets and buckets and buckets, and within seven days of that I was in hospital with meningitis. All the salts in my body had drained. We weren’t trained as athletes; we weren’t trained to drink hydrolytes afterwards.”
He claims to have “slowed down a lot” in recent years, but with two US tours on The Who’s 2022 schedule, Daltrey doesn’t plan on hanging up his microphone lasso any time soon. “I’ve always said about this business, ‘You don’t give it up, it gives you up,’” he says. “I’m going to do it as long as I can, but then one day it will give me up and I won’t be able to do it. Simple as that; I make no apologies.”
The band’s acclaimed 2019 album WHO, however, was their first in 13 years and only their second since 1982. Daltrey recently argued that there’s little point in releasing new music, and The Who sold the publishing rights to their catalogue for a rumoured $100m back in 2012 to avoid any posthumous legal wrangles. “Who wants to leave a family with those kind of headaches?” Daltrey argues. “Bugger that, sell it all! … We’ve had the money and spent it.”
Have we, then, heard the last new Who material? His main sticking point is that making WHO left him 10 grand out of pocket. “Musicians cannot earn a living in the record industry any more,” he says. “That is ridiculous, and they’re being robbed blind by streaming and the record companies, because the old deals with record companies that existed in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, they’re still working on the same percentage breaks. And of course, they don’t do any work. They just press a button and it goes out on digital, whereas before they had to manufacture, they had to distribute, they had to do all that stuff. They’re doing bugger all and taking all the money, and the musicians are getting nothing.”
Musicians cannot earn a living in the record industry any more Roger Daltrey
His chest characteristically swells. “Our music industry, I think, has been stolen. I think we really do have to be concerned when young musicians can’t earn a living writing music. The streaming companies pay so little in the beginning and then the record companies take 85, 90 per cent of that. You need a billion streams to earn 200 quid. That’s the reality. We’ve given our music industry to a lot of foreign-owned companies, and the money’s not coming here any more. We used to lead the world in that, pay an awful lot of tax. It’s terrible.”
In 2016, Daltrey told The Times: “The sadness for me is that rock has reached a dead end.” “It just seemed to hit a wall,” he says today, but, six years on, he’s glimpsed light on the other side in the shape of Sam Fender and Yungblud. “You suddenly think, ‘No, it’s not dead. It’s just been lying dormant for a while before it resurges.’ But it desperately needs people like [Yungblud]. The kind of rock we made, it’s kind of gone, hasn’t it? [But] Yungblud is a resurgence of that kind of rock.”
The man who sang the line “I don’t mind other guys ripping off my song” on WHO is also heartened by the result of Ed Sheeran’s plagiarism case. “When you listen to music, there are patterns of music that are always going to be there. So you write a few different lyrics on top of it, don’t mean to say you’ve stolen it… It’s ridiculous. It’s just people trying to make money out of success and I’m glad Ed won.”
Still got it: Daltrey during a live show (William Snyder)
However, as a 10-minute countdown appears in the corner of our Zoom window, and talk turns political, the dismissive and combative side Daltrey showed to Sky News rears up. We find ourselves drawn inevitably to the topic of Partygate. “I think the one thing it’s shown us is how stupid the f***ing laws were in the first place. Ridiculous. Did you never think, ‘This is the smartest virus ever to hit the planet’? It can count, it knows when you’re standing up or sitting down, it knows when you’re indoors or outdoors. I mean, for f***’s sake, have a day off.
“There’s so much serious s*** going on in the world and you f***ing idiot journalists are writing about a bloody party. They’re all working together all day in a building, stuffed together – f*** off. I understand the message it sends to the public, but if they weren’t in the same building all day and they’d all gathered together for it, I think it’d be a different issue.”
I disagree, pointing out that the anger around Partygate isn’t about the effectiveness of the regulations but the huge sacrifices people made because the government told us we couldn’t do things – see dying loved ones, gather with friends and workmates, have parties – while they lived by no such rules. Daltrey starts making “meh-meh-meh” noises. “But the regulations were stupid. I thought the rules were f***ing ridiculous in the first place, as Sweden has proved. They’ve done best out of everybody, and they didn’t lock down at all.”
The timer ticks from nine minutes to six as we dutifully discuss Sweden’s Covid disaster compared with Norway’s successful first-wave deployment of a short, early, preventative lockdown, and the two countries’ relative population densities. Daltrey questions the veracity of NHS death figures – “A lot of people that were put down as dying of Covid didn’t die of Covid whatsoever, they just had Covid when they died … For some reason or other you lot were sitting on your f***ing hands when it comes to that” – and we reach the Brexit battleground with five minutes on the clock and goodwill wearing thin.
Daltrey’s reasons for voting Leave are unchanged, oft-stated, and undeniably legitimate – he was taking a stand for democracy. “The power in the EU is too divorced from everyday people,” he says. “If you get the feeling that your vote would count more, that the European parliament were accountable to you, I would probably vote for it. But they are not accountable to us; it’s so far down the line of ministers of this and that, and they can only vote on what’s handed to them by God knows how many people down the line. It’s a ridiculous system.”
Roger Daltrey: ‘Would I vote to go back in the EU? No. Am I sorry we came out of it? No.’ (William Snyder)
He rails against the EU’s “structural faults” and rule-bending. “You worry about Partygate – look at the euro. The rules for joining the euro were very strict when it started. The economies were supposed to converge so they’re all on parity, everybody’s standard of living was equal, they’re all in one currency. Fine, fine. So then they decide to say that Germany’s got the same value economy as Greece. We’re supposed to believe that? It’s political ego and overreach. It’s a f***ing joke. Would I vote to go back in it? No. Am I sorry we came out of it? No. If it was constructed in an American system, I’d probably vote for it, but it’s not. It’s a cartel, mate… it’s like being governed by Fifa.”
He is, however, unhappy that there hasn’t yet been a bonfire of the legislative inanities. “I’m disappointed we haven’t made the most of it,” he says. “I’m really disappointed that we haven’t burned an awful lot of useless regulation. We’re swamped in regulation… we are really swamped. I just put in planning permission for a building on the farm, and just to get the planning in it’s cost me something like 40 thousand quid! It’s f***ing ridiculous. Who the bloody hell’s got that?”
Rather than reducing red tape, of course, Brexit has vastly increased it. UK bands have seen the new costs of visas and carnets, along with cabotage issues, make touring Europe financially unviable virtually overnight. Daltrey sees no self-harm here – just an EU protection racket kicking in.
I’m disappointed we haven’t made the most of Brexit
“They’re making life hard for us, I don’t disagree,” he says. “It doesn’t need to be. One truck goes into Europe full of equipment with a carnet – it’s not hard to get visas, is it? It shouldn’t be. We used to do it regularly in the Sixties and Seventies, before we were in this. So that shouldn’t be difficult. One truck goes in with a certain amount of equipment, gets ticked off, that’s in, and one truck leaves with the same amount of equipment still in there, ticked off. How f***ing hard is that? There’s no cooperation. They were always going to punish us, they’re determined to make it not work because they’re fearful of other countries leaving. Let’s see. The euro is so badly constructed that if that crashes there’ll be an awful lot of countries leaving.”
Thirty seconds. “The trouble is, because there’s no structure within to change it, the only way to change it is to break it and build a new one.”
He’s written that the Sixties were a vibrant time for British culture because the country had an independent vibe. How can we expect that sort of national enthusiasm to return if we’re restricting opportunities for young British acts?
Three, two, one. “We haven’t restricte – ” Zoom times out; Daltrey doesn’t reconnect. Supplementary email questions, quoting reports of acts running up £40,000 in additional touring costs, of European promoters being reluctant to book British acts because of the regulatory hassles involved, and of bands having to cancel continental shows because their equipment can’t get there, go unanswered.
However, last year Daltrey did respond to allegations of hypocrisy after signing an open letter calling on the government to resolve these issues. “I have not changed my opinion on the EU,” he said in a statement. “I’m glad to be free of Brussels, not Europe. I would have preferred reform, which was asked for by us before the referendum and was turned down by the then president of the EU.
“I do think our government should have made the easing of restrictions for musicians and actors a higher priority. Every tour, individual actors and musicians should be treated as any other ‘goods’ at the point of entry to the EU, with one set of paperwork.”
Daltrey’s is undoubtedly an outlook of contradictions. Accountability is paramount when it comes to EU politicians, but petty when applied to British ones. Young musicians deserve impassioned support when harmed by the pandemic and robbed blind by streaming, but not so much when hobbled by Brexit’s bear traps. Yet if anyone can make such incongruities seem relatable – heroic, even – it’s this unstoppable everyman survivor. What a bunch of fellers.
Roger Daltrey tours the UK from 20 June