Happy Birthday to the greatest scream in rock and one of my two or three favorite rock & roll singers — The Who’s incomparably leather-lunged frontman Roger Daltrey, who proved that — like the Volkswagen Beetle and the Small Faces’ Steve Marriott– big things came in small packages (and in Roger’s case, he had a tad more horsepower than the Bug).
Roger lent dramatic power, grace, muscle, and a prototypically enduring image — that of the open-shirted, mesomorph-chested, flying fringe-and-blonde locked Rock God (prefiguring Robert Plant, Ian Hunter, Peter Frampton, and, uh, David Coverdale) — to the Rock style canon. Daltrey was the flipside to outsider-geek, boiler-suited ectomorph songwriter Pete Townshend’s self-probing obsessions and ongoing identity crises of self-loathing and self-seeking. Thus, the music, then and now, remains a dynamic and deliciously tense opposites-attract marriage of the cerebral and corporeal: a formidable art school intellect paired with a formidable working class physicality.
In an age of sensitive ’60s/’70s singer-songwriters and co-writing singer/guitar teams, the pre-“Tommy” Daltrey was often unfairly dismissed or lampooned as little more than an aggressively surly, empty headed mouthpiece for Townshend’s prodigious artistic inclinations (although most of the hard-belting, Tamla soul R&B singers that were Roger’s early models were hardly songwriters themselves). But the greatness of The Who, or a good part of it anyway, has always been about the combustible chemistry of these two vastly different yet creatively complementary men.
And when you think about Roger’s contributions as a frontman, the bottom line is this: The Who simply would never been The Who without him. Amid a crowded stage of extroverts exploding around him, Roger was a striking visual focal point: one of the few singers with the charisma and the pipes to roar or soar over and above all the HiWatt amps, blitzkrieg drums, thunder fingers, and windmills. And Daltrey lent Pete’s tales of doubt and vulnerability a clarion-call vitality, force, and dignity that would never have been heard, much less resonated, above the towering and ferocious wall of sound administered by Moon The Loon, Pete, and The Ox.
Roger could be bombastic, of course, and his rugged, thrust-fist of a voice didn’t always fit into Townshend’s finely gloved tales of woe or trembling wonder. But then we heard majestic songs like “Naked Eye” and “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Love Reign O’er Me” and “Sea and Sand,” and, of course, “See Me, Feel Me” and the tenderness and grace was utterly striking and disarming. It is during those moments that you realize how much of a feat it is to be able to sing those towering songs and sweeping melodies.
Of course, I would have loved to have been around when The Who were in their prime — any of their primes, for that matter. But that said, I have had the great good fortune to have seen, heard — and even covered and reviewed the band — more times than I ever thought I would over the years. When The Who disbanded (or so they said) for the first time in 1982 I thought it was all over. I even tacked their Rolling Stone magazine cover, with the headline “The Who: The End” to my dorm room wall as a kind of silent, somber farewell.
But miraculously, after being dormant — save for an uneven and under-rehearsed “Live Aid” appearance in ’85, — the group reconvened seven years later for the 20th anniversary of the “Tommy” opus. So that summer, as part swan song celebration of my close friend and college roommate’s getting married (by a happy coincidence, his name was — and is — Pete), I bought tickets for a few of us. Little did I know that more than 20 years later, I would still be seeing and hearing some iteration of the ‘Orrible ‘Oo. And writing about and dissecting their concerts for The Boston Globe, even.
Here’s my most recent review, this time of a Roger Daltrey solo concert in late 2011. It was one of the final concerts I reviewed for that paper before saying my own farewell of sorts (Long Live Rock), beginning a new life chapter, and becoming a father for the first time. Even at the age of 67, Roger’s endurance, and enduring appeal nearly matched that of his little group’s legacy (not to mention his ability to still hit the most important or iconic notes of a classic catalog). Today he turned 72, and not much has changed in the past few years. Last year he even hit the road again with what passes for The Who these days (only Keith Moon and John Entwistle fulfilled the Who’s early desire to never grow old), celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary of smash-ups, break-ups, and some pretty fair music.
We never thought we’d see it, but the improbable – if not impossible – was happening right before our eyes. Roger Daltrey, lead singer for the Who, one of the greatest, loudest, live-est rock bands of all-time, was standing as the eye – and voice – of a still-potent storm, singing the indelible lyrics of “Pinball Wizard” while his band mates strummed and summoned a familiar hurricane for the senses around him.
The occasion? A Who reunion tour celebrating both the band’s 25th anniversary, and the 20th anniversary of its landmark rock opera, “Tommy.” Given that the group had officially broken up seven years before, it was, we thought, a once-in-a-lifetime event.
That was 22 years ago: July 1989, at the old Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough.
Flash forward to Saturday night at Agganis Arena, more than two decades later. Daltrey – still fit, fair-haired, and fiery at 67 – was in the respectably filled house, still twirling his microphone cord as a lasso; still singing (and hitting) most of the high notes; and yes, still ably performing “Tommy,” his band’s most iconic work (plus a clutch of Who classics) with a pretty fair bunch of ringers. Those included songwriter-guitarist Pete Townshend’s capable younger brother, Simon, on guitar and, eerily, Pete’s vocals (“It’s A Boy”; “Going Mobile”).
Of course, this wasn’t the fearsome four-headed hydra and thrilling live spectacle that was the Who in its prime – or even the 1989, 2000, or 2008 versions. And, despite Daltrey’s stated intention to explore the legendary rock opera’s richer, deeper musical elements in ways his other band couldn’t due to the technical limitations of an earlier era, Saturday’s stamina-stretching 2 ½ hour show was, essentially, the kind of lovingly straightforward presentation of “Tommy” we’ve heard before. Nothing wrong with that approach – it’s worked wonders in the past. And it was heartening to hear Daltrey – who has recently struggled to maintain that canyon-clearing voice and sparred with a throat cancer scare – tackle bluesy fare like “Eyesight To The Blind” and, later in the set, the roaring “Young Man Blues” with stubborn authority and grizzled power.
Saturday’s most striking surprises, for better and worse, came during the second half of the show and the non-“Tommy” material. Aside from playing acoustic guitar and delivering Who chestnuts like the last-minute set-addition, “Pictures of Lily,” as well as requisite faves such as “Baba O’Riley” and “Behind Blue Eyes,” we got an affectionate Johnny Cash medley; and a sweetly understated reading of the Who’s overlooked lullaby, “Blue, Red, and Grey,” that found rock’s quintessential tough guy giving thanks for “every minute of the day” on ukelele.
Daltrey even plucked a few selections from his checkered solo career. Those included Leo Sayer’s wistful ballad, “Giving It All Away,” and, unfortunately, an eminently forgettable “Days of Light,” that paled in comparison to what had come before. Given the catalog of songs at the singer’s disposal, they were curious choices. All of which made you realize that this was indeed Roger Daltrey, and not the Who, after all.