"Sooner or later, I'm going to offend you": At 79, The Who's Roger Daltrey is still pulling no punches

Roger Daltrey
(Image credit: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

One of the greatest live rock bands the world will ever see, The Who are hitting the road again this week, with their acclaimed The Who Hits Back tour - at which Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and co. are joined onstage nightly by a full orchestra - kicking off in Barcelona, Spain on Wednesday, June 14.

And Roger Daltrey is raring to go.

"We deliver," he tells Classic Rock during an exclusive freewheeling interview. "We don't let people down."

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You brought your The Who Hits Back tour to America last year to rave reviews: having had such success with those shows, was there any temptation to think, 'Right, done that, nailed it, let's move on...' instead of bringing it to the UK and Europe?

"No, no. I mean, the truth is, we were planning on bringing this tour to England and Europe in early 2020 but, of course, everything was cancelled [due to the Covid-19 pandemic]. And when we tried to reschedule it, the earliest slots we could get with 'normal' venues, because everything was booked up, was 2025, or 2026. Which, obviously, was a long time to wait, so we started looking at going into some alternative, interesting places.

The show is brilliant, and when we wound up the US dates at the Hollywood Bowl and Las Vegas, we were ready to go again. This show goes down so well with audiences, because The Who don't make any compromises with the sound we make at all, and the orchestra is playing some really complicated arrangements, and it suits the way that Pete Townshend's music works. It's a really interesting show, and it really moves the audience when they hear that heavy sound of rock mixed with real instruments, it's just a different experience. It makes the hair on your body stand on end, it's pretty spectacular. Digital just doesn't cut it in the same way, it's crap." 

Presumably when you and Pete were kicking out the jams as teenagers in West London garages and church halls, you didn't envisage that this was music that could sit alongside a classical orchestra?

"No, you don't, but you go forward. And from Tommy onwards, I've always heard Pete's writing going more towards the classical form. So, in my head, it's always been like this. I'm really enjoying these shows. It's wonderful to hear these musicians who work so hard to get their positions in these orchestras, and they really get off on playing fresh music. I watch them in rehearsals, and they're quite quizzical about what these charts [arranged by David Campbell, father of Beck] are going to be, and by the end of the rehearsals they're all smiling, and by the middle of the show they're just beaming, they're absolutely having the time of their lives. And they can really rock, some of these orchestras, they can really rock."

Ian Gillan tells a great story about the legendary English composer and conductor Sir Malcolm Arnold in rehearsals for Deep Purple's first performance of their Concerto for Group and Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where a furious Arnold slams down his baton, stops the musicians, and says “Ladies and gentlemen of the Royal Philharmonic, we’re here to play some music. These young gentlemen are fine musicians, you’ve got to show them some respect. You on the other hand, who are acknowledged as fine musicians, are playing like a bunch of cunts.” No such moments for you or Pete then?

"Haha. No, nothing like that. I actually can't see the conductor when we're onstage, but what we do together works really, really well. There's also a section of the show which is just the basic five-piece, and that can go anywhere, and it still digs in like it used to all those years ago."

Are there any classical composers that particularly float your boat?

"I've always liked classical music. After our gigs, classical music used to be the only thing that would calm me down. Chopin is good. I very rarely listen to rock music at home at all: the last rock record I listened to properly at home was Music from Big Pink, by The Band, which I still think is one of the best albums ever made. It's got a real sense of freedom to it, it's incredibly loose and incredibly tight all at once."

Did your parents listen to classical music?

"No, it was Workers' Playtime mate [a BBC radio variety show transmitted from 1941to 1964], come on. [Mimics his parents] 'No, no, that's far too upmarket, we can't go there!' I'm quite proud of what we've achieved with this: our The Who With Orchestra Live at Wembley album, and indeed my classical Tommy record, from 2018, topped the classical charts in both the US and UK, and that's quite a claim to fame as far as I'm concerned, it's a feather in the cap. Let's just hope that, in the future, this will be classical music that moves forward in its complete form."

In the past, there would have been a certain amount of elitist snobbery about the idea of rock musicians daring to presume they could break into the classical music world.

"Yeah, and that's one of its problems. It's like the snobbery with opera... When we wrote Tommy and called it a rock opera, that statement came from a place of knowledge: our manager at the time, Kit Lambert, was the son of composer Constant Lambert, who founded Sadlers Wells Ballet Company, so we knew what we were doing. But of course the high brow people at the time were like, [dismissively] 'Oooh, we can't have this. This isn't opera!'

But I've come to the conclusion now, that, particularly when put with an orchestra which makes it triumphant and majestic, it's probably one of the best operas ever written. It most certainly has the most interesting plot, and it's also got the most lyrics. [Laughs] I've been to a lot of grand operas since, at Glyndebourne, and there's some really nice singers - even if they have soul trained out of them - and some really nice melodies, but they're a little light on the lyrics, aren't they? There's only so many times you can hear the same lyric sung over and over again."

The Who always had a reputation as something of a combative, confrontational band, who never backed away from a fight. Is there still a part of you that's the scrappy teenager who likes getting into situations where you're putting someone's back up just by being there?

"We are what we are. I don't worry about it. The only thing I can ever be, is true to myself. I don't put on any airs and graces on, I am what I am. Sooner or later, I am going to offend you."

I read an interview with you once where you said that The Who made music for barroom brawls: when was the last time you got into a fight?

"Ours is music to fight to, and I do like to have a growl, but I'm too old for that now. The last fight in The Who was probably 1973, when I punched Pete. I used to love a scrap. Little blokes do, don't they?"

I believe it's called The Napoleon Complex.

"A bit of rough and tumble is always fun, isn't it?"

You seem in great shape, and in great health. I know you've literally been answering this question for 30 or 40 years, but right now, does it seem like The End is still some way over the horizon?

"I don't think about it. Obviously I'm realistic, and there are things in my life that I have to make decisions on in the next few years, but we'll see. So, like, I've been doing these charity shows at the Royal Albert Hall for the Teenage Cancer Trust, and next year will be my 23rd year with that, and to carry on doing it, I'll have to sign another five year contract with the Albert Hall. And I don't know if I'm going to be around in five years!

So I have to make decisions to ensure that it's something manageable for me that I know I can deliver. I'm hoping that some of the popular people in this industry will want to take up the baton and curate nights. Twenty-two years ago when I took this on, I was younger, and up for the challenge, but I had to sign a lease for 22 years to guarantee me those week of shows every year. I'll still be a patron for the charity, and still going out speaking on the charity's behalf, but I haver to consider the timeframe, obviously. We've achieved something incredible, we wanted to build 25 hospital wards around the country for teenagers with cancer, and we delivered on that promise: in fact we've built 30. It's been an incredible ride."

You've certainly done better with that promise that Boris Johnson did: the Tories promised 40 new hospitals for England, and they've delivered fuck all...

[Agitated] "Now wait, let's not just be 'the Tory government':  we need to get away from blaming specific governments. [Literally points finger] You've got to get off of this... and we all have to get off of this... this idea of just blaming one government or one party. The whole NHS is so out-dated now, the whole idea of it... and the fact that you're saying this about the Tories... when they came in 11 years ago they were blaming Labour! If we, as the public keep allowing these politicians to use the NHS as a political football - and let's hope it's not the NHS for much longer, because there's no other country that's adopted it, as it's such a failure - we're never going to move forward. The NHS is a failed model, and politicians never deliver: I'm nearly 80 years old, and every party always blames the previous government for the state of the NHS. Let's take their football away!"

That's me told then...

"[Laughs] I told you I like to have a growl!"

Clearly! Back to the music then: for those yet to commit a day, week or month's wages to a ticket for a The Who Hits Back show, what's your pitch to sell a seat to them?

"It's a good show, that's all I'll say. Look at our reviews over all these years: the bad ones are far and between, if you can find one at all. We deliver. We don't let people down. And I think I'm singing better than I have done for many, many years."

Well, you would say that...

"No, listen, I'm very honest about it when I'm not singing well. I had a vocal problem about ten years ago which was a pre-cancerous thing, and I did have a few tough show. That was hard. But the brutality of being on the road is that you've got a show booked, and the audience is out there, and if you're not feeling up to the mark on the day, what do you do... send them home? It's a nightmare business in that sense, and the singer is always in the frontline. You're still expected to go on with a cold or the flu, but ultimately you're only going to damage yourself. But if I stop singing well, I'll stop singing, simple as that. It's not the singing I'm worried about though, it's the travelling, because that's no fun at all in this country! But we should be used to that by now, right? See you out there."

The UK dates for The Who Hits Back are:

Jul 06: Sewell Group Craven Park, Hull
Jul 08: Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh
Jul 09: Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh
Jul 12: The O2, London
Jul 14: The Incora County Ground, Derby
Jul 16: Badminton Estate, Bristol
Jul 19: Seat Unique Riverside, Durham
Jul 21: Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens
Jul 23: The 1st Central County Ground, Brighton

The Who UK Tour 2023 poster

(Image credit: RoboMagic)
Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.