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Roger Daltrey talks drugs, charity, touring, crooked managers and Pete Townshend in an ILMC Breakfast Meeting like no other
By Jon Chapple on 07 Mar 2019
Born during a V-1 raid in the Second World War, Roger Daltrey rose from the rubble-strewn seats of post-war London to become one of the world’s greatest rock frontmen – and host Ed Bicknell, and hundreds of delegates, were on hand to hear all about it, in this year’s later ILMC Breakfast Meeting.
Daltrey opened by talking about his new memoir, Thanks a Lot, Mr Kibblewhite, whose cover features the singer in his mid-70s pomp standing in front of what looks like a bombed-out house. “The world I grew up in was bombsites, of ruined houses being demolished to build jerry-built tower blocks in their place – and I wanted a cover that told that story,” he said. “It’s a composite of me in a glamorous period of my life against those houses being demolished.”
Daltrey said he, and others like him, became interested in American blues and R&B as a result of their working-class backgrounds. “Being working class in Britain was equivalent of being black in America, and that’s what drew us to that music,” he explained. “We identified with their struggle.”
His love of music, however, started earlier: “I was a choir boy when I was at school, so I had perfect pitch and I was a good singer. But it was [British skiffle singer] Lonnie Donegan who first made he want to throw my head back and wail. He influenced Robert Plant, all the singers of my generation… Lonnie Donegan, he was the one.”
Daltrey said the band that became the Who really developed their chops when they got into the blues, honing their craft by touring constantly across the UK’s then-booming grassroots venues circuit. “There were so many venues, then,” he commented. “Every other vehicle on the roads was a van taking a group up north somewhere to a gig. That’s what was so great – almost every street had a band in it, and almost every band was getting some kind of work, whether it was playing a pub, a bar mitzvah or wedding, a youth club…”
Fast-forward a few years, and the Who are riding high on their post-Tommy success, with Pete Townshend’s rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind boy (who sure plays a mean pinball) propelling the band to greater heights. Yet despite their growing profile and critical and commercial success, they’re broke: “In 1971, after touring for a whole year, we came back to the great news that our debt, instead of being £1.3 million, had gone down to £650,000,” Daltrey continued.
“Even Peter Sellers used to laugh at Keith Moon, and it wasn’t easy to make Peter Sellers laugh”
As it turned out, the Who’s managers, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, had their hands in the till, with Daltrey, Townshend, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon funding the pair’s lavish lifestyles and growing heroin habits.
“You can’t be managed by crooks – as the Small Faces found out [with Don Arden] – but Pete wouldn’t join up with us [to oust Stamp and Lambert],” Daltrey explained, “until he went to America, went to his publishing account and found a load of money missing. In the end they ended up with nothing, and we lost two creative people that could have been part of our team. They were the best creative managers any band could ask for, but they were crooked.”
Their replacement was Bill Curbishley, whom Daltrey first noticed working in the offices of Stamp and Lambert’s company, Track Records. “He used to disappear at the same time every night,” Daltrey recalls. “I only realised later he was on parole. Turns out he was inside for eight years for a bank robbery! One he didn’t do – but, equally, he could have got done for one that he did do…
“He did eight years for someone else, so I knew that if he did a deal with me, he’d be straight with me. And from that day on, we started making money. With Bill, you didn’t have to count your fingers after you shook hands, and that says a lot about a man.”
Reflecting on the Track team’s heroin use, Daltrey said he was also “in a band with three addicts. Pete and John were alcoholics, and Keith would have taken anything. He [Moon] had huge talent – he’d have you laughing until you had to walk out the room, because that’s all you could do; even Peter Sellers used to laugh at Keith Moon, and it wasn’t easy to make Peter Sellers laugh – but underneath that was this incredible frailty and vulnerability. He couldn’t channel his talent in a way he could use it creatively.”
Daltrey also recalled his own brief dalliance with narcotics – “I did speed back in ’64, in the mod days, when we’d play 8–11, and then again from 2–6am, and then I’d drive the van home as well” – but said all the ‘purple hearts’ did was “made me chew my lips up and make my mouth dry so I couldn’t sing.”
“For me it was really painful to hear this group of fantastic musicians play so badly”
The frontman’s distaste for drugs also led to his brief dismissal from the group: “For me it was really painful to hear this group of fantastic musicians, hear this band with so much talent, play so badly [because they were on speed] – I couldn’t take it. So I came off stage and flushed their stuff down the loo… they weren’t best pleased!”
Bicknell then shared an anecdote about his booking the Who in 1968 for a student night in Hull – and the young band’s approach to hecklers. “In May 1968, I booked the Who for 350 very large pounds, and halfway through the set, when you’re in a quiet passage, these very two large Hull dockers who’d made their way into the gig started heckling.
“Pete stopped the song and said, ‘If you can do any fucking better than this, come up here.’ To my horror the guy gets on stage, and Pete spins round and hits this him over the head with the machine heads of his guitar. To this day, it’s the hardest I’ve ever seen anyone hit with anything – blood spurts out this guy’s head and he collapses in a heap on the floor. Then the other guy gets on stage and you kick him in the head!”
“It never ceases to amaze me, the stupidity of these people,” said Daltrey. “It’s the first rule of warfare: you always need to have the high ground!”
Bicknell also recalled the overpowering volume of the band’s speaker stacks, even at that early stage in their career. “We wanted to create the noise of a battlefield,” replied Daltrey. “We were trying to create the sound of war.”
Although Daltrey and Townshend (75 and 73, respectively) are gearing up for a new album, their first since 2006’s Endless Wire, and a Live Nation-promoted stadium tour, Daltrey suggested the pair’s often-fractious relationship remains strained, revealing they are recording the new record separately.
“In the old days you’d just shout out the next number, responding to the vibe of the crowd… now you have to do that before the show”
Artistically, however, his sole remaining bandmate is a bona fide genius, he added: “People overuse the word ‘genius’ […] but when it comes to songwriting, Pete Townshend is – he’s one of the most important composers of the 20th century.”
“I can write songs, but they’re not great songs of significance like Townshend’s are,” he continued, adding he loves “being the guy who takes what Pete’s written” and interpreting it his own way.
Responding to a question from the floor about his opinion of modern big-production shows, Daltrey said: “In some ways I hate it, because we have to play to a setlist. In the old days you’d just shout out the next number, responding to the vibe of the crowd – now you have to do that before the show, because the whole thing has to work with the lighting man, the video man and everything else…
“So, in that sense it’s a little less exciting, but we manage it.”
Daltrey closed by talking about his work with Teenage Cancer Trust, as well as his vision for a worldwide network of hospitals designed specifically for teenagers – the people who, he acknowledged, were key to the success of the Who.
“In the ’70s, when it all went tits up and high earners were taxed at 98%, squeezed till the pips squeaked, we were one of the few bands who didn’t go abroad,” he recalled. “We thought, ‘We voted them [the Labour government] in’; we can’t just leave. So we carried on earning but turned ourselves into a charity, putting all the money we earnt into this charity and giving it out to other charities we thought were worthy.
“That’s how the Who were, and how I still feel. You get out of life what you put in.”
Previous ILMC Breakfast Meeting interviewees include Nick Mason, Bill Curbishley, Marc Geiger, Arthur Fogel, Claude Nobs, Doc McGhee and longtime U2 manager Paul McGuinness.