The Who set to rock new generation on Aussie tour
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March 14, 2009 11:00pm
IT's been 41 years since The Who last did a national tour of Australia.
In that time, babies have been born, people have died, countries reshaped and governments toppled.
The Who have kept rockin', producing some of their most creative work – including classic albums Tommy, Who's Next and Quadrophenia – disbanded and reformed for reunion tours of Europe and America, and produced a new studio album, 2006's Endless Wire.
Now the legendary British band are back and will be smashing up stages around Australia – although not literally this time – including shows at Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Although they performed at Sydney and Melbourne in 2004, their last proper tour was in 1968. The story goes that they had such a rotten time they vowed never to return.
"That's not strictly true," says affable frontman Roger Daltrey, 65, the man who gave voice to songwriter Pete Townshend's creative genius. He's happy to set the record straight.
"Pete seems to say he had an awful time," Daltrey says on the phone from his home in Sussex. "I had a great time. I saw lots of old mates who had emigrated out there. It was Pete who seemed to have a miserable time. I don't know why.
"The gigs were pretty horrendous, I must admit. We were playing a lot of boxing rings and places with tin roofs, so that was kind of weird, and we were on borrowed equipment. Some of it really, really was not worthy of being played on. That's why we smashed it," he laughs.
"So that bit of it wasn't enjoyable but it wasn't Australia's fault. That's how it was in those days. We couldn't afford to get our own gear there."
Daltrey is at home in a house he has owned for almost 40 years. It's not a castle, as one might imagine would befit these English rock kings, but a 400-year-old house. "The rock stars seem to go for the old houses and keep them alive," he explains.
Wave of notoriety
But the early days of The Who weren't all wealth and riches. In the beginning, they were smashing up more than they could afford and living from week to week, riding a wave of notoriety and success.
"By the time we got to Australia we had hit records in England and we started to break America," Daltrey recalls. "But the world was so free then. Nothing that we were doing had ever been done before. So it was a blank canvas. It was so easy to paint on, which is what we were doing."
The Who continued to write the rule book, setting the standard for rock star misbehaviour and then breaking it down again, surprising people with concept albums such as Tommy and Quadrophenia.
Their most classic story belongs to drummer Keith Moon who, along with blowing up hotel toilets for fun, drove his car into a swimming pool in the US. Daltrey didn't see the incident, but he saw the bill.
"It was something like $US56,000 ($A86,000). It was the whole money from the tour. We all had to borrow the money to get home because of the swimming pool incident.
"It went on for years. It's one of the reasons we're still working," he says with a big laugh.
"We go round fixing things now. We go round with pots of glue and wallpaper and paint and clean up hotel rooms, making amends."
Moon, who died in 1978 (bassist John Entwistle died in 2002), always had aspirations to be a singer, and Daltrey says Moon was never happier then when he was singing Beach Boys songs.
"He was a mad Beach Boys fan. He would have left The Who at the drop of a hat to join the Beach Boys.
"Even at our height, when the Beach Boys were on their way down and The Who were at the top of the world, if the Beach Boys had asked him to drum for them, he would have gone. We used to do Barbara Ann for Keith to keep him happy."
Unlike the others, Daltrey didn't partake in the drug culture of the times, largely because of how it affected his voice, but he says he was happy to play the straight man to his eccentric friends.
"Some of it was very, very funny, but some of it was an absolute nightmare. I didn't used to mind the off-stage stuff, but when they got out of it on stage is what I didn't like. Whatever was going on in their heads I didn't care, but when it translated into the playing and the musical ability of the band, that's when it used to annoy me.
"You have to remember the singer stands right at the front and has got stereo of the band more than anyone else in the group. He never sees the band, he just hears them and you know immediately when one of them is off sorts.
"You have to play as a team otherwise there's no point being up there. And that's what the drugs used to do. It used to stop us being a team."
Daltrey had his bad habits, too, and was briefly kicked out of the band for settling too many arguments with his fists.
Looking back on that period, he finds it hard to relate to the singer that he was.
"I did feel deaf dumb and blind for a period before Tommy," he says. "Because I had been slung out of the band and I had to come back on the promise that I'd be a good boy and do as I'm told, which I did for, like, three years. That wasn't easy for me.
"And you can hear it in the songs. In that period after My Generation, when we did those silly songs like Happy Jack and I'm a Boy and Pictures of Lily, it's almost like I'm not there. There's a ghostly quality to the voice. It's very strange. And I call that my Tommy period."
Ironically, it was Tommy, the ground-breaking 1969 album, that brought him back.
Daltrey has a stage presence and a power to his voice which his good friend Townshend says has only improved.
In turn, Daltrey says Townshend is "one of the most important popular songwriters of the 20th century.
"We have a relationship where we don't have to live in each others' houses, we can see each other once a year and we can pick up the conversation from where we left off. That part of our relationship is much, much deeper. It's a really, really deep friendship."
Playing now is "brilliant" and every show he plays, he gives his all.
"I hope that if we ever do get to the point where it is going through the motions, I'm pretty sure I will know and I will stop," says Daltrey.
"I will just say I don't want to do it any more and that will be it. At the moment, I still go on stage determined to get more out of the songs than I've ever got before. And that's what it's all about. And sometimes you achieve it, sometimes you don't.
"But every night there's a journey into it, where you're searching and pushing and if you ever stop that pushing to discovery then I'll stop doing it."