The Who's Roger Daltrey talks Tommy, Teenage Cancer Trust and Wilko Johnson ahead of solo show at Portsmouth Guildhall | Big Interview

The Who’s ties to Portsmouth run deep – they played here often in the early days of their career in the 1960s at the likes of The Savoy and The Birdcage.

Thursday, 23rd June 2022, 10:30 am

But for most people here, the rock band are remembered best for a chaotic period in 1974 when Ken Russell was shooting Tommy, ‘a rock opera’ based on the band’s album of the same name about ‘a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball.’

Shot at various locations around the city including Hilsea Lido, The Kings Theatre, and of course South Parade Pier. The latter infamously caught fire on June 11 during filming and was badly damaged.

The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey was playing the titular lead – his first of many acting roles – and as he prepares to return to the city for a date on his solo tour, he recalls those days.

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Roger Daltrey onstage with The Who in 2018. Picture: William Snyder.

‘It was the most wonderful summer anyone could have had,’ he tells The Guide.

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‘Working with Ken Russell and the whole new experience for us of making a film – not that I knew anything about filming or acting – but the whole experience, it was all being flung together as we went along, really.

‘Elton John wasn't signed up to be The Pinball Wizard until about a week before he was in Portsmouth doing it! And it was the same with all of the other people in it – like Jack Nicholson. The only people that were definitely booked to do it, were Olly Reed and Anne-Margret.

Roger Daltrey performs one of his signature microphone swings The Who and an orchestra at CMAC in Canandaigua, NY, 2018. Picture by William Snyder

‘Portsmouth was great in those days and we stayed in this little motel out on Hayling Island – I don't know if it's still there. We just had some fun times...

‘Filming is really tough work, we were up at 5am, you start driving out to work at 6am and you're working to perhaps 8pm. You come back and the first thing you do, you're in the bar with all of the crew, so you can't fail to have fun.’

The band returned to The Kings to put on a special concert for the film’s extras.

‘We did that free show at The Kings for the students who were the crowd in The Pinball Wizard scene. We did a day or two of filming there and they were our audience, and of course they didn't get paid. They all got fed, but filming is an awful lot of hanging around doing nothing, then two-three minutes worth of action. It's tedious work, to say the least.

Picture from album of Norman and June Jones, extras in Tommy, showing South Parade Pier on fire, June 1974.

‘We thought the only way we could pay them was to put on a show for them!’

While The Who created such enduring hits such as My Generation, Substitute, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Daltrey has also released 10 solo albums. And as The Who have become one of the biggest bands on the planet, they are more often to be found in the world’s enormodomes – although they did play at Portsmouth Guildhall in 2002, the venue Roger will be playing.

For these shows he will be backed by an extensive nine-piece band, including two generations of Townshends, including The Who guitarist Pete’s brother Simon on guitar and vocals, and Simon’s son Ben on drums. It is rounded out by Doug Boyle (guitar), Geraint Watkins (keys), John Hogg (bass), Jody Linscott (percussion) Billy Nicholls (backing vocals), Steve ‘West’ Weston (harmonica) and Katie Jacoby (violin).

What can fans expect to see on this tour, dubbed Who Was I?

Roger Daltrey is at Portsmouth Guildhall on June 27, 2022

‘I'm going to do a really varied list of sounds and songs – the one thing this show will not be is boring.

‘I've got a huge list of songs that we can potentially do, but what we do on the night, that will be chosen on the day – we’ll see what worked the night before and see what we fancy changing to keep it fresh.

‘Hopefully, because they're smaller places we can do some jamming, which I am really, really missing. Not that I want 80 minute guitar solos,’ he laughs, ‘or even worse, a 40 minute drum solo,’ he laughs even harder, ‘but jamming used to be a really big part of the musical scene. Bands used to pull stuff out of the air, and it's great to hear that.

‘I hope we get to do a bit of that. I'm not promising we will, but I would like to.’

As he explains, it’s easier to be spontaneous at these show than when touring with The Who.

‘The Who is a whole different kettle of fish – the bar when you're with The Who is so high, and of course at the moment we're touring with a full orchestra, so it's full-blown Who – but because I say we've got an orchestra, it doesn't mean the power of the music is watered down in any way whatsoever, if anything it's even more powerful.’

But Roger is looking forward to what are – by The Who’s standards – playing more intimate venues.

‘That's what so great about this – for the last 50 years we've been playing to enormous audiences in enormous arenas, stadiums, outdoor festivals with half a million people there.

‘It's going to be great with smaller audiences. It's something I used to do in the old days, we all did, and it's great to be reminded of the journey you've been on, and that's what the title of the show is all about, because "Who Was I?”

‘There's so much when I listen back to the solo albums I did – it was basically a hobby, something to do while The Who weren't touring. I never had any intention of doing a Rod Stewart and The Faces, having this huge solo career, I was trying to keep it down if anything! I only ever wanted to be the singer of The Who...’

He says the career-spanning set will include his 1973 debut solo hit single Giving It All Away, as well as reworked Who numbers.

‘I'm going to try and do that to turn your head around a bit with different sounds so that you hear the songs again for the first time. They will be THE songs. Like I did a version of Baba O'Riley at the Festival of Speed [at Goodwood], and it was done with just a squeezebox, fiddle and mandolin, acoustic guitar and piano and a boom-box – and it sounded amazing!

‘We were 30ft up on the balcony of Goodwood House – we barely had room to stand let alone put a band up there.

‘The sounds are so different, but the song is so familiar it just gives it a lift. There's something about it. I don't want to go up on this solo show and pretend I'm The Who without Pete Townshend – there's no point in that at all, so let's try and and do something a bit different.

‘If it's no good we'll scotch it…!

‘The most important thing is for everyone to have a good night out and have a lot of fun.’

Roger is also planning to include songs in the set from his 2014 album with Wilko Johnson, Going Back Home. Recorded with the former Dr Feelgood guitarist when he was believed to have terminal cancer, Wilko has mercifully and rather brilliantly gone on to make a full recovery.

‘Yes, Wilko’s still going and that album has a lot to do with that,’ says Roger. ‘It was fantastic to do - we did it for fun, nothing else. I did it to get his mind off of dying, basically, and it was a huge success that album.’ It reached number three in the charts. ‘I'm carrying the harmonica player, who's on that record, Steve Weston, because I'm going to do a few of those songs in the show.’

When the pandemic hit, The Who were forced to cancel a UK tour and two American tours, but for Roger the bigger hit came from having to shelve a run of Teenage Cancer Trust (TCT) shows – a charity he is a patron for.

He recalls when we went into lockdown: ‘We were one week away from a whole week of sold-out shows for the Teenage Cancer Trust at The Royal Albert Hall that I'd put together with my wonderful team – and one of those nights was going to be The Who with the full orchestra.

‘We lost that whole week of income for the charity. All of our fundraising is events-based and it was all cancelled. Over the year it added up.’ Roger reckons the charity lost out on about £6m.

‘That made The Who tours being cancelled feel insignificant.

‘So I got my head got down to work and said, how can we wave the flag, keep people aware of the importance of this charity and the NHS, and indeed all the other main charities in the NHS without which I think it would crumble within a month – your Marie Curie, Macmillan nurses – they're incredibly important to the care the NHS gives to patients.

‘It's tragic isn't it, that we haven't got a health service which can give us the best standard without having to depend on charity? but that's where we are, and we're doing the best to keep the ship afloat.’

The Who’s TCT show was rescheduled and took place in April this year, but as an acoustic set, and the full band has since been back in America.

When we spoke The Rolling Stones had just resumed playing live after the death of drummer Charlie Watts. The Who have also lost half of their original line-up – drummer Keith Moon to drugs in 1978, and bassist John Entwhistle died of a heart attack in 2002.

‘I'm so pleased that The Stones are carrying on doing what they do,’ says Roger, ‘I know once they get on that stage and play their music, to them it will feel like Charlie hasn't died.

‘Charlie's rhythm's will live in that music forever. As long as they play their music, it brings him back, and it's the same with us. When we go on stage, I only look at the audience, I very rarely see the band and it's as if Keith Moon and John Entwhistle are behind me because it's there in the music. The noise they made in their lifetime will echo through the universe forever.

‘They made enough noise to do it!’

And how is his at-times fractious relationship with The Who’s guitarist and main songwriter, Pete Townshend? ‘We spoke once [during the pandemic] – he's out on his boat in the south of France, and I'm on a farm in East Sussex – that's the difference in our lifestyles,’ he chuckles.

But as long as they can still create The Who’s magic together, he adds: ‘That's all I care about – our relationship is very unusual. it's full of love and full of admiration. I admire his work and I know from what I get back from him, that he admires mine. As long as it works, don't try and fix it.’

Who Was I – An Evening with Roger Daltrey is at Portsmouth Guildhall on Monday, June 27, doors 7pm. Supported by Leslie Mendelson. Tickets £48.25 - £105.75. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.