When it comes to reputations context is everything. Just ask Robert Falcon Scott the second leader to reach the South Pole. For decades after his death on the way back from the aforementioned pole Scott was a hero, an incredibly brave man willing to die in his quest to be the first. I was brought up to believe that Scott was truly one of the greatest Britons. In 1979 a new biography by Ronald Huntford cast the great man in a new light, rather than a hero Scot was in fact an arrogant bungler who refused to listen to people who knew more than him about polar expedition and forged ahead regardless resulting not only in his own death but those of his men who accompanied him.
Worst still as far as Scott’s reputation was concerned was that Ernest Shackleton was trouncing him as the nation’s favourite polar explorer by virtue of having survived his ordeal. Inevitably there was a revision of this revision, perhaps Scott is an ok guy after all.Or perhaps like all of us he’s just a bit complex.
But Scott was a symbol of Edwardian times, patriotic, a member of the officer class and the general confidence of the time that brave determined men would prevail (especially if they were British). By the 70’s that was an outdated attitude and one that deserved a good kicking.
But what about Roger Daltrey ?
My mother in law was kind enough to buy me his autobiography ‘Thanks a lot Mr Kibblewhite’ for Christmas. I love biographies buy anyone older than 30. Somehow I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece, I had assumed that one day in the future Daltrey’s book would appear in my local library and then I would read it, I wasn’t exactly in a state of anticipation.
As anyone who thrilled to my Who Month last year will know, my relationship with the band is complex veering from amazement to disgust. In the 70’s it’s fair to say Daltrey wasn’t exactly the people’s favourite . Townsend captured the self doubt of the rock star, he wrote columns in papers and appeared on the radio agonising about his role as voice of the people. Keith Moon was just a crazy bundle of fun, Townsend was deep, Moon was fun. Daltrey was a bit boring, he wasn’t very funny or clever, on stage he looked like he was doing his job but would never to anything as entertaining as paralysing himself with horse tranquilisers (moon) or beating up the soundman (Townsend). In fact, at one point he did an advert (I cant remember what for) where he was stood by his trout farm. That was his credibility gone for a couple of decades.
Presumably, one purpose of an autobiography is to set the record straight and make a bit for popularity, in which case Scott should have written one. It doesn’t always work, Claptons book makes him look emotionally distant and generally unlikable, Rod Stewart on the other hand comes across as a likable guy albeit a bit of a nob.
Apparently Daltrey wrote this book and took it to the publisher complete, it’s not always the way things happen but hopefully it means that this is this is his definitive story and the one he wants us to hear.
So what do you need to know about Daltrey according to the man himself?
Significantly his choices were severely limited as a working class boy growing up in post war London. The 1940’s might as well have been the 1840’s as far as Daltrey was concerned , the legitimate option was a basic schooling followed by a lifetime of manual labour.
And that’s what’s coloured Daltrey’s whole outlook on life. He wasn’t very good at school but he was ok at work but he didn’t really want that as his whole future ( the book’s title comes from his headmaster telling him he will never make anything of his life) When rock and roll came along he saw an alternative to fifty years hard labour. Daltrey made his first guitar, he’s good with his hands, when he got into a band he customised the bands van which at one point would be his home. You could say he’s not afraid of hard work, if there’s a job to be done give Roger a call.
Moving on he builds a better guitar and forms a band, as the original bend members move on John Entwistle is recruited to play bass and then Townsend on guitar paving the way for Daltrey to take over as singer. Townsend is an art student who can spend the day in bed smoking dope, Daltrey works as a panel beater then fixes the van, drives to a gig, performs a set and does the same thing the next day.
This sets the theme for the rest of the band’s life, Daltrey is the willing worker, his only alternative choice is the factory or crime, there’s not many royalties and Townsend and Moon are smashing up the touring profits on a nightly basis.Daltrey’s frustration at the lifestyles of the other three spill over when he flushes Moon’s pills down the toilet after a poor performance in Denmark. When Moon turns on him Daltrey knock him out easily and as a consequence is fired from the band, the band he started.
Obviously he’s allowed back in but a point has been reached, he resolves to become a ‘zen duck’ and when the other try to rile him he imagines their comments falling off him like drops of water. Daltrey wants to be in the Who so much there is almost no shit he won’t go through. And so there follows years of touring with three people who he doesn’t even really like that much. Because if Townsend and Entwistle’s refusals to turn their amps down he oversings and eventually they all go deaf. There is the reliance on Townsend who plays hot and cold with the band for decades safe in the knowledge that his royalty checks will keep coming in. Then in the 70’s there’s Moon unreliability. Moon never practices and gets off his face all the time, Daltrey with the ever-vulnerable voice has to play it safe and stay sober.
Moon becomes more unreliable by dying and the horror of the 80’s begins. Eventually Daltrey decides that replacement drummer Kenney Jones isn’t cutting the mustard and issues the ‘it’s him or me’ ultimatum. And guess what, Townsend sides with Jones !!!. Again Daltrey has to draw on his ‘zen duck’ eat a ton of shit and get back on the road.
At no point does Daltrey seem to moan about this and to be honest I find myself getting angry for him but again Daltrey assumes that this is the life he’s chosen which is better than panel beating or prison and he’s the one who will make it work. When Entwistle was snorted the profits of his lifetimes work it’s back on the road again, once the Who tour is in full swing it cant stop even for the bass player’s death. At the beginning of the book Daltrey describes a collapse on stage. Tests show it’s a shortage of salt caused by exertion, he reflects that every time he has toured he feels really really ill after 2-3 weeks, that was his body running out of salt, but it was a price he paid every tour
Also the tests showed that at some point he had broken his back without realising it !
Post paedophile scare Townsend is a chastened man. His relationship with Daltrey improves and he even dedicates some shit lyrics to a shit song to him.
Later Townsend claimed he’d written it for his girlfriend/wife, you couldn’t make it up!
As I’ve said before, being a successful artist /band is about so much more than talent, it takes commitment and hard decisions. In Daltrey’s case it meant spending lots of time with people he didn’t like much, people off their faces who didn’t care if they ruined his voice and made him deaf. It meant being ill a lot and still having to work through that illness. And it meant spending a lot of time away from the things that rock stars always claim are really important namely home and family.
So perhaps it’s time to reappraise Daltrey as the man who made the band happen and kept it happening . Practical ,sensible,hard working and stoic.
Theres a moment in Live Aid where Townsend, probably off his face but still alive and dangerous tries a kick and falls flat on his arse. Quick as a flash Daltrey deliberately joins him laughing as he does so. Townsend could have looked a fool, now he looks a bit better, now it’s a joke.
And that’s probably all you need to know about Daltrey’s role in the Who