The Who’s rock opera Tommy is now more than 40 years old. But one won’t hear Who singer Roger Daltrey accepting the notion that this piece of music, or for that matter, Who music in general, is something that falls into the realm of nostalgia or oldies.
Asked by a writer from Seattle Weekly during a recent teleconference interview if he could “pinpoint the moment that you realized that your audience was more interested in hearing what you did in the past rather than what you are doing in the present and the future,” Daltrey instead points to the enduring viability he sees in The Who’s back catalog. And he didn’t accept the notion that the band’s audience is only a group of baby boomers interested in reliving their favorite old Who music.
“I don’t know that that’s necessarily true, that they’re not interested in what we’re doing in the future,” he says.
“There’s a whole new young audience for Who music. It doesn’t seem to have dated at all. There’s something about the way that music is structured, the voicing, the chord voicings, the lyrics, that seems to have not aged. There’s a lot of music from that period that you put on and it sounds very dated. There’s something about Who music that you put it on and it sounds as up to date as ever. I don’t know what that ingredient is, but that seems to be the way it is.”
The discussion of The Who’s place in the present is timely because Daltrey is currently finishing up an American leg of a tour in which he performs Tommy in its entirety.
In addition, there have been reports that Who guitarist Pete Townshend wants the current edition of the band to tour The Who’s other major rock opera, Quadrophenia, next year. Such a tour would follow this fall’s release of a super-deluxe edition of that 1973 rock-opera album.
Commenting on the rumored Who tour, Daltrey says he has no direct news about such an outing, and sees obstacles to the tour happening.
“We’ve got problems to solve, because Pete is having terrible trouble with his hearing,” Daltrey says. “There are no plans on any touring that I know of. I’ve heard it said that Pete has said he would like to tour Quadrophenia next year. Obviously, there are going to be things that are going to need to be solved before we can do that, one of them being, can I still sing it? And also, we have to solve the sound problems, because I don’t want to end up touring any kind of music with The Who and have it end up with Pete losing his hearing for good. So those are the issues we have to solve. They’re not impossible to solve.”
If the Quadrophenia tour materializes, Daltrey will have no problems bringing that show back to the concert stage, even though The Who, which has convened sporadically since a 1982 tour that was billed as a farewell outing, performed Quadrophenia in its entirety as the centerpiece of a previous tour, in 1997. Some might prefer to see The Who create new music and focus on that, but Daltrey says the band doesn’t need to justify revisiting its existing work.
“While we can do it, we have every right to do it,” Daltrey reasons. “It’s our music. We created it. We should be able to play it as long as we want to.”
As for the 1969 rock opera Tommy, Daltrey feels his current production puts a fresh spin on a piece of music that remains as relevant today as it was when it was created.
Daltrey came upon the idea to perform Tommy in desperation, he says, when he had to fill an open night in a series of charity shows he organizes for the Teenage Cancer Trust in England. In the space of two weeks, he assembled a band and presented the rock opera at London’s Royal Albert Hall on March 25.
“I couldn’t find anybody in the music business that was free and available to do Thursday night. So what the fuck do I do?” Daltrey says. “And I thought if there’s one piece of music that people associate me with that just might set peoples’ imaginations alight and put bums in the seats, it’s Tommy.”
Pleased with how the performance went and how the audience responded, Daltrey then made plans to tour the show, complete with video created by students that he feels adds a contemporary element to the presentation. The tour has received the full blessing from Townshend.
In preparing to perform the rock opera, Daltrey says he found a freshness in Tommy by returning to the original album as it was recorded, and realizing that it had never been presented start-to-finish when The Who had played its songs in concert over the preceding decades.
“I hadn’t really listened to the record for 30 years, and when I did this charity performance earlier in the year, I was astonished at how groundbreaking it was in its original form,” Daltrey says. “I was also kind of taken aback that it had been presented in so many ways, but it had never been done the same as the record.
“So we got to playing the music as written, as a classical piece, and I think it stands up amazingly well,” he says. “There’s nothing like it out there. Just the harmonies, when you see the effect that the layers of harmonies have on an audience, it’s quite extraordinary.”
To Daltrey, the Tommy rock opera has always existed as something deeper than a story of its characters — of Tommy, the deaf, dumb and blind boy who encounters shady characters like his Uncle Ernie and cousin Kevin before being hailed as a messiah after he regains his senses. The message, Daltrey says, helps give the rock opera its continuing resonance four decades after it was written.
“For me, as the singer of Tommy, the original singer, it was always the story of our spiritual journey and the human condition,” he says. “And the characters in it that are written about as people are just metaphors and devices to kind of explain parts of our human condition that we go through in life. You know, when we bump into bullying and spite, it’s cousin Kevin, which happens to us. I’m sure it happens to everybody. When we bump into malevolent people, that’s kind of Uncle Ernie. We continually go and explore different areas of our brains with different substances to take us out of the normal. That’s the Acid Queen. And I think there’s not anyone on this planet that sometime in their lives somewhere, maybe some more than others, who doesn’t sit there thinking, ‘See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.’ So I think it has that resonance within our spirits. To me, that’s what it’s always been about, is the journey of the human spirit.”
On the Bill:
Roger Daltrey plays Tommy in its entirety at the 1stBank Center on Sunday, Oct. 16. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $51.70. 11450 Broomfield Lane, Broomfield, 303-410-0700.