October 4, 2021

From the Vaults: Roger Daltrey

     On his fifteenth birthday, March 1, 1959, Roger Daltrey was sent home from school and told to never return.  The headmaster, Mr. Kibblewhite, gave him a parting shot he would never forget:  “You’ll never make anything of your life, Daltrey.”  Roger could only think to himself, “Thanks a lot, Mr. Kibblewhite,” as he headed home to break the news to his parents.  The phrase stuck with him for fifty years, long enough for him to subtitle and end his 2018 biography (Roger Daltrey:  My Story) Thanks A Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite.   That Roger and school were not a perfect match is just as obvious as how wrong Mr. Kibblewhite turned out to be.  As a youngster, Roger did very well in school and enjoyed it, at least until the system, as he says, “Beat it out of me.”

     That World War II was the backdrop for the young Roger Harry Daltrey isn’t a big surprise.  Many talented musicians, actors, and artists were products of post-war London.  His first memories are being sent off to a farm during the worst part of London’s wartime woes, sharing a room with another family, and returning to the rubble-strewn city to share a flat with an uncle and aunt’s family.  His early schooling was a joyful time as the young Roger had the benefit of a special forms teacher named Mr. Blake who taught his charges meaningful lessons and took them on excursions.  In his end-of-the-year report filed in 1955, Mr. Blake noted Roger’s potential:  “A boy of wide interests – practical, intellectual, musical, and athletic.  Daltrey passed his eleven-plus test and was slated to enroll in the Acton County Grammar school.  When his father got a new job and the family moved two miles away to Bedford Park, things changed, particularly in school.  It may have only been two miles, but it felt like a transfer to Mars.  Being the new kid in school is tough enough but it was a life changing proposition for Roger on many fronts.

     First there was the issue of his unusual look.  He was short and his face was a little misformed from an untreated jaw infection.  Roger fell and broke his jaw in three places playing around a construction site.  When it was misdiagnosed and he was sent home, the infection worsened until it burst, affecting both the shape of and nerves in his face.  Then there was the combination of his distaste for math and the lack of a Mr. Blake to guide his studies.  Roger to this day does not understand why students, like himself, who can do basic math are still subjected to trigonometry, calculus, and other higher forms that do not click for them.  Being bullied was the last straw for Daltrey;  it led to truancy (to avoid it), which put a target on his back (remember Mr. Kibblewhite?).  Roger plainly did not like to be told what to do and his constant tweaking of the rules would expedite his departure from the educational system.  The end of his formal education came when he brought his air gun to school, pretty much because it wasn’t allowed.  Even though it was someone else who picked it up and fired a careening shot that took out the eye of a classmate, it was Roger’s gun.  Daltrey was expelled by Mr. Kibblewhite.  Yes, the parent’s lament is, “You’ll shoot yourself in the eye!” and Roger would eventually have his own eye patch moment (we will get to later).  The expulsion did not sit well with his parents and within a week, his father had him signed on at the labor office.  Daltrey found work on a building site at fifteen years old;  a life of hard labor seemed to be his destiny.

     Pete Townshend wrote in his own biography that Daltrey had a penchant for starting a lot of fights, but Roger disputes this.  Yes, he did get tired of the bullying and put a stop to most of it by smashing one of his tormentors with a chair:  “After that, they all backed off.  The chair had turned the tables.  I don’t think I ever became a bully myself.  I learned to defend myself and I learned not to put up with any [crap], but I never actively looked for trouble.  Pete seems to think I did.  Now I’m an incredibly peaceful bloke really, and I think I’m fair as well.  But in those days I was quite volatile.”  Roger says these moments of violence were like a red mist coming over him, but over time he worked hard to control things that triggered his temper.

     Elvis got popular, but the twelve year old Daltrey found he was more taken by Lonnie Donegan after he saw him on the telly.  As the skiffle movement gained steam, Daltrey took a job in a laundry to raise the funds needed to build his own guitar.  It was a true DIY project as he described it:   “It certainly looked like a guitar and worked like one.  On a good day, it even sounded like one and that was enough.  Within a couple of weeks I’d mastered the three chords you needed to play pretty much anything you heard on the radio.  A couple of weeks after that, I had played my first gig, channeling Lonnie with Elvis hair.  The gig was a youth club dance and I didn’t feel nervous.  I just climbed up onstage and went for it.  Heartbreak Hotel full belt.”  A week later, the homemade guitar folded in half.   Roger’s Uncle John, a carpenter by trade, helped him make ‘Guitar Two’ and correct the mistakes he had made on ‘Guitar One’.  

     Roger and his guitar were now inseparable.  Daltrey was introduced to rock and roll via an older cousin’s record collection:  “His name was Graham Hughes.  I moved on from Lonnie to Little Richard and, by the time I was fifteen, I was ready to make my first electric guitar.  I was going to be a rock star, although there would be a few bumps in the road ahead.”  Roger spent a lot of time with Hughes (who was in art school and would become a successful photographer and produce many album covers for The Who and Daltrey’s solo work), hung out with his old Shepherds Bush chums, and practiced with his band.  Life outside of school was okay and he was a busy fellow, but Mr. Kibblewhite’s words would not soon be forgotten.

     Guitar Three would be another homemade job, this one resembling the Fender Stratocaster that Roger had ogled in a music store window.  His skiffle band slowly morphed into a dance band that played everywhere they could get booked.  When the bass player called it a day, Daltrey ran into a face he remembered from school.  He recognized John Entwistle by his angly build and gait, but what caught his attention was the homemade bass guitar he was toting.  Roger lured him away from his bass and trumpet duties in a traditional jazz band by telling him they were getting plenty of gigs and getting paid (only half of which may have been true).  The Detours, as they had branded themselves, became the in demand band around Shepherds Bush.  In January of 1962, the lead singer quit, leaving it up to Daltrey to step forward and front the band.  John finally convinced Roger that founding band member Reg was not cutting it as the main guitar player, so he suggested an old school chum of his;  another tall, angular art student named Pete Townshend.  Along with this latest ‘gear added to the band’s machinery’, Pete’s mom Betty joined the entourage as their biggest fan and sometime van driver.  Betty was the one person who was not afraid to arm-twist a local promoter named Bob Druce to come out and see them play…twice.

     After Betty ‘frog-marched’ Druce to see them, he got the Detours regular gigs on the West London pub circuit.  Roger recalled, “You turned up.  You played.  If you were rubbish, you got packed off in a hail of bottles.  If you weren’t rubbish, you were asked back.  That suited us because by now we were pretty good.  We started building our own audience.”  Two of these now regular gigs stand out as highwater marks in the progression of the band.  The Douglas House in Bayswater catered to American officers and they requested, as Daltrey remembers, “A whole cornucopia of American music – everything from Johnny Cash to the Coasters and Roy Orbison.”  They even tossed in some Dixieland classics.  The Douglas House was where they met ‘America’ – the American dream flavored by American whiskey, beer, and pizza.  The other regular gig was at a club called the Oldfield.  There they met Keith Moon.

     The Detours’ drummer, Doug Sanson, was a bricklayer by day and his wife was getting tired of the thirty something family man never being with his family, so he quit.  The band was performing with a hired gun drummer when someone approached the Oldfield bandstand to inform The Detours that his mate could play better than the guy on stage.  Moon came up and made an immediate impression;  he had tried to dye his hair Beach Boy blond and it came out ginger colored.  For added effect, he was sporting clothing of the same color.  Moonie kicked off Bo Diddley’s Road Runner and before the song ended, Daltrey knew the drum throne was filled:  “Halfway through, he started to do his syncopations.  It’s all mathematics, isn’t it, drumming, but his mathematics were from another planet.  And it gave springboards for John’s little bass guitar flicks and Pete’s power rhythm.  It just took things up to the next level.  The final gear.”  Moon had been taking tips from the first true powerhouse rock drummer of the period, Carlo Little from Screaming Lord Sutch’s band.  He learned his lessons well.  Keith’s power and unconventional style were indeed the final pieces of The Who puzzle.  The band’s rep and Moon’s antics were over the top for the next fourteen years.

     Looking back at those days, Roger is still amused that people thought he was a millionaire as soon as they had a few hit records and toured in America.  Touring was expensive enough.  Having to pay for the damage Keith Moon inflicted cherry bombing toilets and tossing hotel items out of upper story windows kept them cash poor.  Wrecking perfectly good guitars and drums was also a shock for Roger who came up appreciating the art of not wasting one’s time or money.  Townshend’s first destruction of an instrument was accidental;  he misjudged the height of the ceiling above the stage and poked his guitar neck though the tiles above.  When a few girls snickered about it, he did not want to look like clutz, so he smashed his guitar to make it look like part of the act.  Never one to be upstaged, Moonie followed suit with his drum kit at the next gig and, much to Roger’s chagrin, The Who had a new calling card.

     Moon wasn’t concerned.  He had no conception of how much things cost.   Keith constdantly  spent money he did not have (misguided loans from managers and the record label helped fuel his insanity).  Pete had revenue coming in as the primary songwriter so he could afford his fits of ‘artistic destruction’.  Roger could not afford to waste cash and as cheaply as he tried to live on the road (“one hamburger per day,” he says now).  It was always disheartening to find out they returned from tours in debt.  Their management team of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp financed their own lifestyle and drug use with band money, so it only made things worse for Daltrey, Moon, and Entwistle (not so much for Pete).

     One can see the nature of Daltrey’s finances by noting some of his wardrobe choices back then.  Some of his outfits came right out of his wife’s closet.  The rustic looking chamois shirt was created from two car wash cloths his wife hole punched and stitched together.  The DIY shirt looked fancy enough for Miles Davis to have his assistant call and ask about it.  Davis asked for some pictures so he could have one made.  Roger doubts Davis had his made up from supplies purchased at the car shop.  The sarape he wore during their groundbreaking performance at the Monterey International Pop Fest?  Daltrey says it was a bedspread he purchased at an antique shop.  Before they took their longest hiatus in 1983, Roger was doing okay, but was certainly no millionaire.  He scrimped and saved from one U.S. tour so he and his wife Heather would have a down payment for a house.  She was not pleased when Roger discovered his mates back home had wrecked his Astin Martin while he was away and used the money to buy a Jaguar at an auction to replace it.  To keep the peace and avoid divorce proceedings, the Jag was returned and the house fund was restored (and rightly so Roger says now).  

     The Who would redefine themselves several times over their career.  Never afraid to push musical boundaries, their The Who Sell Out album was an experiment, a record album with a theme.  In this case, TWSO was an ode to the pirate radio stations that operated off the British coast before being legislated out of existence and replaced by the BBC’s own Channel 1.  Fake ads interconnected the songs on the album, making it sound like vintage pirate radio fare.  The album’s best known song I Can See For Miles made the first major radio inroads for The Who in the States.  Some of their most over the top work can be found in the rock operas Tommy (1969), and Quadrophenia (1973)Even  the one concept album that failed to come together as an album (Lifehouse) still managed to produce songs capable of attracting new fans even today when it was cut down to one LP, Who’s Next (1971).  Live At Leeds (1970) is still touted as the greatest live album ever, but Daltrey says his singing is subpar because Entwistle and Townshend were engaged in a ‘I have a bigger amp so I can play louder than you’ war.  Moon followed suit, adding more volume to the din, which in turn forced Roger to over sing.  Slowly but surely, they were becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, but there would be consequences.

     Moon’s tragic tale was covered in a two-part FTV (Moon the Loon – 5-6-20 & 5-13-20). Suffice to say he succumbed to his own excesses of…everything he indulged in (he died in 1978).  John Entwistle stood like a statue on the stage while he pounded out thunderous bass lines.  He was quiet but had a bit of a dark streak and a tendency to hold grudges.  He and Moon spent money like they thought rock stars should, even when they didn’t have it.  He died in his sleep in 2002 on the eve of a tour that had been mounted in part to help him stave off the poorhouse.  Townshend is still alive, but the pressure to constantly write the next hit (or the next Tommy) saw him cycle between bouts of depression and substance abuse (FTV:  Who Are You?  12-18-19 ).  Oddly enough, the one band member who has retained some level of stability is Roger Daltrey.

     Daltrey certainly has been no angel and his wife has stayed for the long haul even when he has strayed on tour from time to time.  The Who were a band of brothers and the two still standing have finally learned that, like two real brothers, they can disagree and yet get along at the same time.  Daltrey has had his share of health scares along the way, the latest a bout of meningitis in 2015, but he has always bounced back to perform again.  At some point we will have to dig into the complicated history of The Who’s many retirements and resurrections, but that is a story for another day.  

     The other eye-patch incident?  It happened on stage during a run through before an all star charity performance of Quadrophenia.  Gary Glitter invaded Roger’s space twirling a fifteen pound mic that nearly took out Daltrey’s eye.  Roger was out twenty minutes but they patched him up and he sported a hastily assembled eye patch to cover the wound.  That he managed to perform after such a blow seems to be in Roger’s genes, but the crowd just thought the eye patch was part of the act.

     As I like to do after reading an autobiography, I will let Roger have the last word about his life:  “It could have gone a million other ways but it went the way it did.  In the end, when you come to think of it, when we’re all gone and dust, the music will live on,  And I hope people will say about us tht we held to it to the end.  And that will do for me.  I’ve been lucky.  I’ve had a lucky life. Thank you very much, Mr. Kibblewhite.”

Top Piece Video:  One of The Who’s most iconic performances finds Roger Daltrey and the Who in fine form – this version of Baba O’Reilly was included in the film The Kids are Alright