For the young man whose only other career choice would have been a forced, unwilling existence as a sheet-metal worker, The Who was a life-saver. Roger Daltrey’s ambition for his first real band, the Detours, became even stronger, more devouring, for The Who. He often referred to himself as a “shit singer,” with only adequate skill as a guitar player. He knew, without any doubt, that the failure of The Who would doom him to a working-class and unremarkable life. His success, so closely linked to that of The Who, mattered more to him than anything.
Although The Who had many breaks before 1969, including their incendiary performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, the single work that changed everything for them was Tommy. The release of this album and the live tour that followed also marked one of the major, watershed periods in Roger’s musical career and personal life. It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of Tommy to Roger. His total onstage identification with the character led to immense popularity among rock fans, many of whom considered Roger to be the personification of Tommy Walker as well as The Who. In addition, the demands of the role offered Roger an unprecedented opportunity for development as a singer and performer. The now-famous Daltrey charisma blossomed during this stage of his career.
Roger was involved with Tommy at four separate but vital times: The recording of the original LP and the live tours that followed, the London Symphony Orchestra LP and live performances, the Tommy movie, and the 20th-anniversary tour that was part of The Who’s own 25th anniversary celebration.
The Tommy album and live tour. “To me, it was as though I was just singing Who songs until the second time we played it [Tommy] on the stage, and then I realized that I was becoming something else.” (Roger Daltrey, quoted in Dave Marsh’s Before I Get Old, p.344).
On April 22, 1969, at the Institute of Technology in Bolton (from The Who: Concert File, Joe McMichael and “Irish” Jack Lyons, p. 85), something now considered an established part of rock-and-roll history happened for the very first time. Four musicians set up on stage and the lead singer–short, vigorous, with a mane of curly, blond hair–joined the others in singing about the birth of a baby boy. This was the public’s first chance to hear and, just as importantly, to see Tommy.
The event considered the official premiere was a subsequent performance at Ronnie Scott’s Club in Soho on May 2. This concert was intended for the press, as a way to promote the new double LP. The listeners were stunned. No one had ever heard a story quite as unusual (perverse, many said) as this, but the praise of the live, loud performance was nearly uniform. After this show, The Who started a live tour, playing most of their new rock opera intact. The members of the group were their usual selves: Pete Townshend windmilling and leaping, locked in musical, mortal combat with his guitar; Keith Moon flailing away at his ever-growing drum kit; John Entwistle anchoring the frenzy in his normal spot on stage, improvising on his bass guitar as he kept one eye on Moon. Roger Daltrey, however, was changing dramatically. His athleticism increasing with the longer and wilder swing of his microphone cord, he had left the mod look, the op-art look, the psychedelic look, and the short, straight hair behind to adopt what was to become his trademark appearance during the early 1970s. He allowed his thick, blond, naturally curly hair to grow to his shoulders, his toned chest was bare, decorated only with a large cross, and he started to wear the skin-tight, fringed leather outfits that became, for a time, his concert uniform.
On stage, Roger was electric. Tommy was helping him find his true rock-and-roll voice, that ranged from guttural and angry to pure, high, and piercing. His movements on stage were designed to focus the attention of the audience on him alone. When he wasn’t twirling the microphone, in apparent danger of braining one of the other musicians (or himself) with it as he whipped it further and further away from him, his dramatic gestures and movements-arms pumping, leather fringes flying, hair tossed forward and back–commanded attention. It never looked as though he was just singing the numbers in Tommy; he was Tommy, singing for the broken little boy and the visionary young man Tommy was to become during the course of an hour and a half on stage.
During the creation of the original LP in 1968-69 at IBC Studios in London, Pete Townshend depended upon the opinions of the other members of The Who during the six months that the group used to record, re-record, rehearse, alter, and adjust Tommy. Early titles for this “rock opera,” a term coined by Kit Lambert (one of The Who’s managers) to help stimulate Pete’s creativity, included Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy; Amazing Journey; Journey into Space; The Brain Opera; and Omnibus. (Before I Get Old, p. 317) Typically, Pete would play his home-recorded demos for the others, who would then discuss, rehearse, record, and revise based on group discussions conducted in a local pub. This was the first project where Pete leaned heavily upon the opinions of the other members of the band during an album’s conception and development. According to Roger, “Pete used to come in some days with just half a demo. We used to talk for hours, literally. We probably did as much talking as we did recording. Sorting out arrangements and things.” (From The Who: Maximum R&B, Richard Barnes, p. 50) Although six months in a recording studio seems an inordinate length of time, by the end of that period, with funds seriously depleted and themselves scheduled for a tour starting in April, 1969, The Who still felt that the final work on the album was rushed. Planned overdubs, in particular those by John Entwistle, could not be added. This lack may really be a mixed blessing, as Kit Lambert had also hoped to overdub a full orchestral accompaniment to The Who’s work, and this overdubbing (fortunately) did not occur.
Roger Daltrey, although very much involved in the day-to-day work on the album, probably had little idea about what Tommy would be like when played live before an audience, or how vitally important he would be in its presentation. On the album, Roger does not merely sing Tommy’s songs; his voice, growing in adaptability, strength, and dramatic range, becomes Tommy’s own voice. When The Who finished recording the album, they began full rehearsals in preparation for their live tour. After the first complete run-through, Pete and Keith went to a pub together to relax and discuss the day’s work. According to Pete, “Roger had become something else, and we debated what would happen and how it would change everything. We knew we had something that was magic and that magic wasn’t as clear on the album as it would be in a live performance.” (Before I Get Old, pp. 339-340)
Roger himself saw a change, but not so much in himself as in The Who: “The last six months–it’s been like the rebirth of the Who. We’ve calmed down a lot. Before that all our energy had gone in trying to keep the group from splitting up. We still have our differences but we’re much more harmonious.” (The Who: Maximum R&B, p. 96) After the initial launch of Tommy on April 22, 1969, the show continued for months, initially in the U.K. and then with a full-fledged tour in the States. Starting in Michigan (ever since, Detroit has been a Who stronghold), the show progressed through the East Coast, Canada, and the Midwest, with additional stops in Los Angeles and three incredible nights at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in June. After returning to the U.K., The Who did more shows there late in the summer, before bouncing back to the U.S. to do two shows: The Tanglewood Music Shed in Massachusetts and a gathering called the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair, held on Max Yasgur’s farm near Bethel, New York.
Woodstock has been thoroughly described by other authors, as well as being characterized by Roger as “the worst gig we ever played.” (Before I Get Old, p. 350) The Who were not pleased with their four a.m. appearance on August 17th. Their set had been delayed for hours, they were not paid until just before they went on stage, and, to top it off, some thoughtful person spiked their beverages with LSD. Even so, film footage and audience memories from that show mark it as something extraordinary. Ragged, raw, and rough, the group pushed itself through the set on adrenaline and will power. Amazingly enough, the sun began to come up as the end of the Tommy set approached, illuminating Roger as though he, himself, was the god of the morning. Bad circumstances and anger rarely interfered with Roger’s performance. His transformation into Tommy accompanied the development of his consummate showmanship. Whatever Roger did on stage, he did with his whole body and spirit. The Woodstock footage (both official and bootleg) shows this: His total concentration on singing, the way he literally threw his body into the role, was focused and, at times, nearly brutal. Roger was mesmerizing, and his full immersion into the role and the music was obvious. Audience shots show tired, doped-up, boozy young faces filled with awe at the musical spectacle they were witnessing. The taut body, the mass of curls, the storm of suede fringes were all just window-dressing for the musical miracle that was Roger Daltrey singing for Tommy Walker.
The tour continued into 1970, with more stops in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. Early in 1970, the tour developed a new, grander flavor, as Tommy was played in European and American opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. On February 14th, The Who played their now-famous concert at Leeds University, a portion of which show appeared subsequently on the officially released album, Live at Leeds. Magnificent bootleg recordings of the complete show are still in circulation, and are highly recommended as compelling evidence that The Who, at their best, were unsurpassed on stage. Many more legendary shows followed.
Tommy made the members of The Who famous as well as millionaires. By 1971, audiences who believed that the group itself was called “Tommy” demanded more of the same, while Pete Townshend and the rest of the band desperately wanted to do something different. While work began on the Lifehouse music/film project that ultimately collapsed into the Who’s Next album, audiences still demanded and got Tommy . The success of the work, while helping to refine Roger’s onstage image and presenting him as the personification of both The Who and Tommy, was also a burden. The dynamic persona, so vigorously presented, came to be something that was expected of him along with the bare chest, the leather fringes, and the mane of hair: “And of course I personified Tommy. I was the guy who used to play the part. I played the damn part for five years. I slogged my balls off around the world sweating it out. People thought I was Tommy. I used to get called Tommy in the street.” (Quoted in “Look Who’s Talking: A Conversation with Roger Daltrey” By Ken Sharp, from Goldmine magazine, July 8th, 1994.)
Tommy and the London Symphony Orchestra
In 1972, Roger had another chance to sing the role of Tommy, but from a different perspective. Lou Reizner approached Pete Townshend with an idea: He wanted to record the rock opera, using guest stars, a full orchestra, and a chamber choir rather than The Who’s pared-down, four-man approach. At first the group hesitated; after all, with the Who’s Next album, they had been trying to break away from their image as a one-work band. Tommy had become something they were expected to perform joyfully over and over, ad infinitum and ad nauseam. But, Pete had always been a revisionist at heart, never totally satisfied with any single version of a musical work, so it was not difficult for Reizner to captivate him with his vision of an elaborate production.
Rod Stewart was Reizner’s original casting suggestion for the role of Tommy, but Stewart turned the opportunity down, as he did not want to have to learn all the song lyrics. (He happily settled for singing “Pinball Wizard.”) Pete Townshend, so often Roger’s opponent, was the person who recommended that Daltrey be offered the role. Roger had not been considered initially, as Reizner thought that none of the members of the band would be eager to be associated with yet another Tommy , but Roger surprised him: “It’s part of me. I was only too glad to do it. I could never get tired of it.” (The Who: Maximum R&B, p. 102)
Roger’s voice on the recorded album is a revelation, with a rich quality and assurance that were only suggested in the original, 1969 recording. The months spent touring, improving both his voice and his confidence, are very apparent in the 1972 release.
Roger and Rod Stewart, excited by the way the album was turning out, convinced Reizner and Pete that this new version of Tommy deserved a life of its own onstage. On December 9th, 1972, at the Rainbow Theatre in London (after the Royal Albert Hall had turned Tommy down as being “unsavoury” (The Who: Concert File, p. 151)), a number of guest stars and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir put on a show for the six thousand people willing and able to pay 200 British pounds for each ticket. Guest artists included John Entwistle as Cousin Kevin, Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie, Pete Townshend as the narrator, as well as Rod Stewart, Peter Sellers, Steve Winwood, Maggie Bell, Merry Clayton, Richie Havens, and Ringo Starr (list from The Who: Concert File, p. 151). The show was so successful that it was repeated, with many of the same guests, on December 13, 1973.
The 1973 concert was released as a bootleg double-LP set. One amusing highlight was the addition of Jon Pertwee, the current Doctor Who, as the doctor. Although the guest artists and the orchestra put on a fine performance, Roger’s is the voice that shines, soaring out from an album that was probably produced in someone’s garage. The purity and strength of his singing demolish the competition. There is absolutely no question that he was the person to sing the role of Tommy, and the perfection of his performance that night proves it.
Tommy becomes a movie
“My idea of acting is never to act, just go and fucking do it. I really went in at the deep end on this one. I’d never been in a fucking school play. And there I was on the third day on the set, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson, and ME! And I thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing here–scumbug Daltrey?’ ” (Roger Daltrey, quoted in Crawdaddy in The Who: Maximum R&B, p. 106)
The Who had been considering a movie version of Tommy for years. Kit Lambert had written a script at the time the original album was issued in 1969, and sundry other deals had been planned, only to be set aside. Finally, the time seemed right; Robert Stigwood, who had produced the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, would produce, and Ken Russell, known for bizarre, surreal films such as The Devils and Women in Love, would direct. Pete Townshend, although he initially tried to distance himself from the project, was induced to be musical director (a daunting prospect, considering that only a single word of dialogue is spoken, rather than sung, throughout the entire movie).
Although David Essex (who had starred in Stardust and Godspell) was approached to take the role of Tommy, Roger Daltrey was again the obvious choice. This was an incredibly important opportunity for Roger to make the transition from rock star to movie star, a leap which so many musicians attempt without success. Opposing Pete’s wishes, Ken Russell cast a number of “names” in the film: Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson. Although Ann-Margret was the only true singer of the bunch, singing rock was obviously not her forte. Russell did round out the cast with more appropriate performers: Eric Clapton as the preacher, Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Elton John as the defeated pinball champion, as well as a number of other excellent rock musicians, including the three other members of The Who.
Roger’s role of Tommy was not supposed to be the main character; in fact, he was cast to support the “stars” (Ann-Margret, Reed, Nicholson). But, the filming of the movie in 1974 began to resemble the 1969 recording of the original Tommy album in one very important way: Roger’s talent, charisma, and voice all began to dominate the process. The finished film shows this very clearly. Roger stands out in every scene in which he appears, even competing successfully with Clapton, Turner, and John in pivotal scenes in which he never sings a note. Once he opens his mouth and that incredible voice emerges, the movie is his. Again, as in the 1972 London Symphony Orchestra recording, the unique quality and strength of his voice show even more development.
Not that the filming was easy for Roger. Russell was a demanding director, imperiously insisting on take after painful take that might span several hours. During the filming of Tommy, Roger was subjected to the following ordeals:
–During “Cousin Kevin,” Roger’s first day on the set, he was “dragged around by the hair, dumped in a bath of evil smelling liquid, drenched by a high-pressure fire hose and dried out with an electric iron” (The Story of Tommy, Richard Barnes and Pete Townshend, p. 100).
–During the multiple backward falls he had to take into a swimming pool at the conclusion of “Smash the Mirror” and the beginning of “I’m Free,” he had to have a towel taped to his back, as he was becoming so terribly bruised. In addition, he nearly drowned after emptying his lungs in order to sink properly.
–During “I’m Free,” one of the judo throws performed on him knocked him out for thirty minutes.
–Again during “I’m Free” (Roger probably felt anything but), Russell filmed more than 30 takes of Daltrey running full-tilt and barefoot through a mustard field. Roger’s feet were so badly blistered that spent the next three days unable to walk.
–During “Sensation,” Roger was filmed hang-gliding during a thunderstorm. He was forced down into a patch of thistles and spent the next day removing the thorns from his much-abused feet.
–During “Acid Queen,” he was covered with, in turn, walking sticks and then butterflies for the hallucination sequence. “Didn’t work did it? They just shit all over me and left. Same with the butterflies–I got covered with butterfly shit, and it don’t half pen-and-ink. All for nothing. You wouldn’t think little things like that could make a mess like that would you?” (The Story of Tommy, p. 100)
All the tribulations paid off. Although the movie was awarded only mixed reviews, Roger’s performance was universally acclaimed. In 1975, he was awarded the American ABC Interstate Theater’s “New Star of the Year” award for the role. Not only was he a genuine rock star, he shone on-screen as well. A new generation of fans, too young to have attended any Who concerts, were exposed to Roger’s dazzling presence and captivated by it. Many dedicated Who fans trace the beginning of their love affair with The Who to their first viewing of this film. On December 15th, 1975, Roger’s photograph appeared on the cover of People magazine with the caption, “For Roger Daltrey, The Who is no longer the question; it’s whether to be a star.”
Tommy’s 20th anniversary
“I knew immediately then [in 1989] that in certain ways I was being manipulated into going out with Pete’s band, but my ego’s not that important to me. I don’t give a toss whose band I’m playing with, as long as Townshend and Entwistle are in it and we’ve got a great drummer and we’re singing Who songs.” (Roger Daltrey, quoted in The Who: Maximum R&B, p. 164)
By 1989, following the death of Keith Moon (in 1978), several more studio albums, major break-ups, reunions, and a 1982 greatest-hits tour, The Who realized that, like any other child, Tommy was theirs for life. They had been discussing the possibility of a new album or a tour to celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary, but Pete Townshend was reluctant to commit to either. In a typical and abrupt change of mind, he decided that the group should record a new album in his home studio, but Roger countered with the suggestion that The Who do a benefit performance of Tommy.
After Pete’s studio could not be finished as planned, John Entwistle found himself in financial difficulties after his divorce, and a very unpleasant exchange among the group members over the status of Moon-replacement drummer Kenney Jones, the band decided to do one more tour, featuring Tommy in its entirety. Plans for the tour grew more and more elaborate as city after city was added to the schedule. Roger was very apprehensive that, with the addition of eleven guest musicians (including female backup singer Chyna and percussionist Jodie Linscott), drummer Simon Phillips, and a brass section, he would, in effect, be performing with Deep End (Pete’s band from earlier solo gigs). His suspicions were well founded as, indeed, the lineup was very much that of Deep End. Nonetheless, Roger was satisfied enough with the sound of the new Who to commit to the tour.
The heart of the tour was the partial performance of Tommy at every show. Near-complete versions were done only twice: Once at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the second at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. The second show was also broadcast live on pay-per-view television, where audiences could watch the augmented Who perform with guest musicians Steve Winwood, Phil Collins (whose Uncle Ernie was truly disgusting), Patti LaBelle, Billy Idol, and Elton John (reprising his role from the movie as “Pinball Wizard” Local Lad). The most expensive tickets for these two shows were $1500 each, with all proceeds donated to charity.
Roger was Tommy for the last time. His wild curls again grown long, his chest bare, with a combination of consummate professionalism, dedication, and passion, he roamed the stage as he had twenty years earlier. His voice was deeper, more mature, which seemed not at all to detract from his performance as the deaf, dumb, and blind boy. The Who had changed dramatically: Keith was long gone, Pete and John both had the assured musical presence that comes after twenty-five years of live performances, and the stage was densely populated by a host of additional musicians. The sound was different, too. That raw, violent, vintage Who sound seemed to be a thing of the past. In its place, Townshend, Entwistle, and Daltrey (or TED, as they are often referred to by fans) had substituted a fuller, rehearsed, more deliberate musical style. All the same, Roger’s Tommy seemed to be a constant. He stalked the stage as he always had, threatening the lives of the other musicians with the whirling, slicing arc of his microphone cord, putting his whole soul into every note he sang. He seemed just as driven and charismatic as he had always been, demanding that every face in the audience be turned to him. On stage, Roger and Tommy were one, just as they had always been.