A track-by-track commentary on 20 of the band's most explosive tracks
A miserable October day in London, 2002. Roger Daltrey is staring out of the window at the colourless metropolitan sky, looking smart but sombre in a dark pin-stripe suit. Ominously, Uncut’s interview with The Who’s vocal powerhouse comes the afternoon following a memorial service for bassist John Entwistle, who died on June 27 this year; on the eve of a scheduled tour of America which they valiantly honoured (roping in Pino Paladino as an emergency replacement for ‘the Ox’).
Twenty-four years after the death of drummer Keith Moon in September 1978, Entwistle’s passing now means that Daltrey and guitarist/songwriting genius Pete Townshend are the last men standing in England’s other great surviving rock band.
Lest we forget, back in the ’60s The Who were the only British combo who proved themselves worthy of ranking alongside The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, turning the hierarchy of UK pop from a dynamic duo into a holy trinity. Beginning as a pop-art explosion of R’n’B feedback and mod frustration, by the end of the decade, along with Jimi Hendrix (who was already indebted to the unorthodox musicianship of early Townshend), on a purely sonic level The Who had permanently transformed the molecular structure of rock’n’roll. Be it patenting the modern ‘rock opera’ with 1969’s behemoth Tommy, setting the sound levels for the next decade of headbanging metal-heads with 1970’s Live At Leeds or the technological ambition inherent in the synthesized sheen of 1971’s Who’s Next, The Who broke barriers, moulds and eardrums at virtually every turn. The secret of their success?
“Two things,” considers Daltrey. “One, Pete wrote fucking great songs. And two, he had such incredible individual people to play them. I mean, talk about icing on the cake! Pete had a good cake, but he also had the same thickness of icing on top.”
The new Who CD, The Ultimate Collection, is partly in memoriam for Entwistle and partly for those who need reminding of The Who’s matchless contribution to the rock acropolis. Though at the height of their powers The Who prided (and possibly over-indulged) themselves on their albums, it was always the 45rpm pop single that provided the greatest thrills, from the brusqueness of 1965’s “I Can’t Explain” through to 1981’s Moon-less curtain call “You Better, You Bet”. Where their ’60s counterparts either split (The Beatles), struggled (The Kinks) or, in the case of The Stones, stopped caring about singles, the “’Orrible ’Oo” continued to churn out provocatively original A-sides well into the ’70s, regardless of whatever ambitious (and often abortive) rock opera Townshend may have had up his sleeve at the time.
As Townshend wrote himself in a 1971 review of their own Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy singles collection for Rolling Stone magazine, The Who’s earliest mandate was a religious belief in the 45 format and little else: “We, I repeat, believed only in singles.”
Thirty years on, Roger Daltrey, too, has plenty to say about the purity of the singles aesthetic in the age of Pop Idol. “I made some rude remarks recently about Simon Cowell in an interview,” he guffaws, “but I’ve changed my opinion of him because you need to have a bland period so that all these young groups will get pissed off and start coming through. You can see it happening now with a lot of the new groups, The Coral and all that lot: they’re saying, ‘We’ve had enough of this shit, let’s get out and make some noise!’ So thank you very much, Simon Cowell, you did it, mate! Make no bones about it, shit like Pop Idol and American Idol will lead to the creation of the next punk. The seeds are already out there. It’s great!”
Young men going out and making noise was exactly how one might describe The Who’s raison d’être when they first formed as The Detours in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, in 1962. Youth, in all its arrogance, was a vital ingredient in those early days, an attitude crystallised three years later on “My Generation” in which they unwittingly provided their future critics with a well-worn taunt in the infamous decree of “hope I die before I get old”. For a man now fast approaching 60, Daltrey’s healthy pallor is a terrific advertisement for the merits of four decades of the rock’n’roll lifestyle; a shockingly well-preserved yin to the dilapidated yang of his peers (there’s only four months between them, but he looks a decade or two younger than, say, Keith Richards). All the same, even today, one broaches the “My Generation” conundrum with Daltrey at one’s peril.
“I find it incredibly tedious when people bring that against us now,” he glares. “For me, age has nothing to do with it. It’s a state of mind.”
Of his own mortality, and the question mark that hangs over the future of The Who – wherever he and Townshend decide to step on from here – Daltrey is quite confident.
“It can’t be the same because John Entwistle was a genius at his style, there’ll never be another like him,” he says, unruffled. “But that’s not to say we can’t go on. As soon as you start playing that music, John is alive again, just the same as Keith’s always been alive whenever we play. That’s the great thing about music, it transcends this life. We never know when we’re gonna pop our clogs, we’re all in the drop-zone at our age, but life goes on and music will certainly go on. The Who’s music will go on long after I’m gone and Pete’s gone, and that’s everything I believe in. Right now, I’m very optimistic about our future.
“I mean we have been incredibly lucky,” Daltrey concludes. “I wake up every morning thinking, ‘Gawd – what a life!’ When you think about the great bands of all time, there’s only a handful like the Stones or The Who who’ve gone on for as long as we have. And you think – why us? It’s an extraordinary life we’ve had. Why we should come together and make that noise and create that extraordinary thing? God knows. Life is weird.”
A case of “I Can’t Explain”?
“Ha!” laughs Daltrey, rolling forward in his seat, “Exactly! I can’t explain!”