The Who: Together Again, For A Good Cause
Almost 40 years after its members declared they hoped they died before they got old, the Who -- vocalist Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, and bassist John Entwistle -- is about to hit the stagAlmost 40 years after its members declared they hoped they died before they got old, the Who -- vocalist Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, and bassist John Entwistle -- is about to hit the stage again. The band -- widely considered to be only behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the stakes of rock history's most important -- is, refreshingly, planning a series of live events not as a money-printing exercise, but in support of its favorite charity.
The gigs -- London's Royal Albert Hall on Feb. 7-8, and preceded by three late January warm-up shows in London suburb Watford and U.K. coastal town Portsmouth -- will benefit the Teenage Cancer Trust. "We've been involved in them for years because the charity was started by Pete [Townshend's] and my own doctor and his wife," explains Daltrey. "When we started getting back to work two years ago, I said to Pete, 'Rather than do loads of diverse charities, why don't we focus on one?' We picked on this one because it's got a target that is attainable."
For Daltrey, the suffering of teenagers with cancer, leukemia, Hodgkin's, and related diseases is in many ways worse than that of young children and adults. "Teenagers [are] very visible in themselves, the way they dress," he says. "People tend to notice them a lot in that respect. But they tend to suffer in silence because they bottle things up so much and the problems get overlooked. [It's] very easy to get people to feel sorry for young children but teenagers seem to be the ones stuck in the middle. They're neither here nor there."
Continuing, he notes, "If they get cancer they're either put in a ward with young children with bunnies on the wall or stuck in with old people dying of the disease. Now that is completely unsatisfactory. They're dealing with enough problems in their life without having the disease. Going through adolescence is incredibly traumatic, as we all remember."
The figures tell the story of an almost unnoticed epidemic. "It was one in 360 boys and one in 420 girls but those figures have gotten worse," Daltrey says. "So you could say that in every secondary school in this country, in any given year, there'll be one of each gender with cancer."
To provide appropriate treatment, the Teenage Cancer Trust is aiming to ultimately provide 20 hospital bed units in the U.K., with the salaries of the staff also provided by the Trust. Daltrey points out a frightening statistic that illustrates why specific treatment units for teenager cancer victims are vital. "The evidence is that if teenagers go into a unit there is on average an up to 15 percent improvement rate on the success of the same treatment [in an ordinary ward], which is quite astonishing," he says. "It's because of the environment and the support they give each other. So for a very small input it's an incredible outcome."
Regarding the pre-Albert Hall warm-up gigs, Daltrey insists they are necessary even for a band of the Who's experience. "No matter what you do -- you can sing around the house, you can rehearse -- it's not like being on a stage," he explains. "The Who's a weird band. It's to do with energy and things that happen in the spur of the moment. A lot of what we play is actually made up on the spot. The song's the framework for a lot of other things that happen."
As he has for the past few year's worth of Who reunion performances, Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr) will be behind the drum kit. But can the group ever truly replace original drummer Keith Moon, whose hyperactive sticksmanship -- and life itself -- was brought to a tragically premature end by a sleeping pill overdose in 1978? "No, of course you can't," says Daltrey simply. "He was totally unique. Moon was much, much more than just one of the best rock drummers ever. He was an enormous personality. He's always missed."
Recalling the very beginnings of the Who, Daltrey says he had difficulties finding the proper narrative voice for Townshend's burgeoning songs. "I'd been a soul singer," he says. "James Brown, Howlin' Wolf -- I sang all this black music. When I was presented with these first Townshend songs, I just didn't know what voice to give them. It was a complete mystery to me, that whole period; 'where do I find the voice to these songs?' I found them very difficult to sing, even though they're very, very simple songs. 'Tommy' was the making of that. 'Tommy' was the thing that did it."
Presented in that rock opera with a storyline that gave rise to multiple nuances of expression and character, Daltrey found his vocal footing and never looked back. Neither did the Who, as "Tommy" turned the group from mildly successful pop stars to superstars almost overnight. The production itself virtually has a life of its own, with multitudinous variations on the original template created by soundtracks to stage shows, a movie, and the Who's own live versions such as on the infamous "Live At Leeds" album.
Asked whether he has a preference for any one version, Daltrey declares, "I never listen to 'em!" However, he adds, "I'd like to get a DVD done of it one day. I'd like the Who to actually play it all the way through and film it."
The Who's back catalog has been the recipient of possibly the most thoughtful and value-for-money-oriented reissue program of all its contemporaries, with some albums now double their original length thanks to bonus tracks. "Well, we try," says Daltrey. "You are dealing in an area really that is controlled by the industry, not really by us, but we try and keep as much value in there as we can."
However, he has misgivings about the way that bonus tracks spoil the drama of the original, carefully considered sequencing. "The climax of 'Won't Get Fooled Again' [on the 'Who's Next' album] went out with the CD. Running order used to be important. It's not anymore, unfortunately. Another artform lost."
The upcoming U.K. performances will not be the Who's only shows of the year. "Basically what we're trying to do this year is to stay in shape," Daltrey explains, "because every time we have 18 months off and then have to come back and do gigs, it's like climbing Mount Everest. So the idea is just to try and do enough shows so that we maintain a peak so that if ever anybody asks us to do a benefit we feel we want to do, we haven't got this great big ladder to climb. We space our work out now; every time we do something for ourselves, we do something for charity."
Daltrey asserts that a '70s-style lengthy Who trek is unlikely. "I wouldn't want to go on the road," he says. "I couldn't do it. The ideal thing for me is to do 30, 40, 50 shows a year so that we're always in peak condition. Voices aren't like guitars -- you can't change the vocal chords like a set of guitar strings."
He admits that his renowned voice is indeed changing as he approaches the age of 60. "Some of those high notes that I used to be able to just soar up to, it's not quite as easy," he says. "But I think in some ways I'm a better singer today. I think one of the problems I've got is I'm singing songs that we became famous for 20, 30 years ago. I think if we did do stuff, people would suddenly think, 'f***in' hell -- Daltrey is a good singer'."
By "do stuff," of course, Daltrey is referring to making new recordings with his bandmates. The last Who studio album was 1982's "It's Hard," and since that widely ridiculed effort (including by some members of the Who), there has been silence. The others are willing, but as the main songwriter, Townshend has been reluctant to accompany his colleagues into a studio. "I think there's a lot of fear there," says Daltrey of Townshend's concerns. "I think there's a fear of failure and 'can I do that anymore?'"
Daltrey feels Townshend is too self-conscious about what he imagines a Who song to be. "I don't think Pete ever wrote Who songs," he says. "He wrote Pete Townshend songs that the Who then recorded and made them Who songs. But obviously two people are going to see it from two points of view. If he could only see it that he writes Pete Townshend songs and sometimes the Who records them, then I think he wouldn't have the same hang-ups about it."
Daltrey -- whose writing credits on the Who's releases are nearly non-existent -- now composes fairly frequently. "I've written a load of songs for the Who," he says. "I still don't find it easy. The musical side of it is not as easy for me as it is for Pete, but lyrically I'm okay." He admits that if there is a new Who album, he may struggle to get said songs on it. "It's down to whether Pete will ever record anybody else's material," he says.
Daltrey does dismiss the observation made by some that as Townshend's songs became more autobiographical, the sound of them sung by a different vocalist created an uncomfortable consciousness of artifice in the listener. "It's irrelevant," he says. "It's like someone writing a book, a work of fiction. A lot of writers write themselves into a book for another person. The same thing goes on. I think it's whether we ever sold his songs well and I think we did. I just don't have the same hang-ups and I won't have because I haven't been through the same thing. I do appreciate how painful some of the areas that he wrote those songs from must have been for him but I'll always stand up [for] the fact that I feel the Who did Pete Townshend songs a lot of justice."
Daltrey expresses admiration for the Rolling Stones as contemporaries who carry on without agonizing about their craft as much. "They've got a good attitude to it: it's only rock'n'roll but they like it," he offers. "And I love that about them."
He does accept that doing justice to Townshend's songs now is a different matter from having done so in the past. Stating that the odds of a new Who studio album are, "50/50," he says, "we're gonna try. We are trying. We haven't given up. But who knows? We'll be the judge of whether it's good enough. We're going to go in the studio and we will do something. It's whether we enjoy ourselves and we feel that what we've actually recorded is worth releasing. I think we'll have to have an adjudicator on that! We will know in our bones whether it's any good or not."
Failing a new Who album, Daltrey has solo and acting careers to keep him occupied. "If the Who don't do anything, I might do something," he says. "I don't know. I just like to sing. I'm a jobbing actor. I go out and sing in all kinds of stuff and I have fun. I'm extremely lucky. But I've written a load of songs. I might put them into an album."
Even if the sessions yield nothing, it won't be the end of the road for the Who by any means. For Daltrey, the band's true metier has always been stage performance, their many classic records notwithstanding. "I think so much of what the Who is just doesn't come across on a record [and] never has," he says. "There's an enormity of the Who that is very difficult to capture on record. If you watch the DVD of the  Teenage Cancer Trust concert with Surround Sound, you get some idea of it."
"Maybe it's getting better because I must admit when I saw the New York concert that we did, albeit a very short stab, the Who kind of blasted out of the screen to me," he continues. "It's big -- and there's only four of us." For Daltrey, the Who will always sound best with a back-to-basics approach. "It seems to me that we went through a period where we were adding more and more and more and now we're stripping down and taking things away," he says. "We're getting back to more of what the Who really are and that in some ways gives it more strength. Less is more."