Meeting Roger Daltrey is a bit like being summoned by a cockney crime lord. He’s friendly yet terrifying; a hard man inclined to slip into wells of compassion. When he’s really tickled by something, he clings to the arms of his chair and cackles with an intense engagement, looking right into you as his body rattles up and down with mirth. He pauses for a moment before it happens, and you sense that the laugh is coming, then he goes very quiet once it’s all over.
When I enter the room of a plush Georgian hotel in northwest London, the Who singer sits in a corner in a chair-cum-throne with his eyes down, legs splayed, gazing at a laptop as he plays some Mongolian throat singers called The Hu. The observant among you will note The Hu sounds phonetically the same as his own legendary rock band. The name amuses Daltrey, who lets out a first shuddering, ebullient and slightly terrifying laugh. He'll drop many others into our conversation like carpet bombs.
Daltrey is about to release a live 50th-anniversary edition of Tommy, called The Who’s Tommy Orchestral(released June 14), the seminal rock opera written mostly by his bandmate Pete Townshend that has surfaced in a number of guises over the years: the much-loved 1969 album that sold 20 million copies; the London Symphony Orchestra version that sold over a million copies on its release in 1972; and perhaps the most famous of all, the colourful and shocking 1975 movie with the all-star cast (Tina Turner, Oliver Reed, Elton John, Jack Nicholson etc) directed by the late enfant terrible of British cinema, Ken Russell.
This new version is, according to the man himself, “majestic.” “This is how for me Tommy should have always been, because it's a real rock opera,” he says, grinning. “We maintained the rock and brought the classical, and kind of invented a new kind of classical music, you know?”
He then backs this up by saying things like: “It's really rock. It's very much rock,” several times, and “there are no overdubs, what you hear is what you get” several times more. Finally, he adds triumphantly: “When you hear it in real life (as those have on a recent American tour) it takes your face off.”
VICE: Alright, so how is Tommy relevant 50 years on?
Roger Daltrey: To me it's every bit as relevant. The more I've lived with it, the more I've come to realise it’s about the human condition. And worshipping false heroes. And today with social media and that, it seems to be more prevalent than ever with the worshipping of false heroes. Tommy would be one of the Kardashians now. Tammy! [Laughs] Why I'm pleased with this is because the audience went absolutely bananas when they heard it and I thought this is still touching people. Fourteen thousand people turned up to see me on my own! I thought it was crazy, but there's something within that piece that resonates with people and moves them.
You mentioned social media, and I wonder if there’d be an outcry if Tommy came out today? Your most vociferous detractor at the time the film came out was [radio DJ] Tony Blackburn–
Ooh! Wow! I'm frightened to death. He frightened the fucking life out of us [Laughs]. It's because it’s about a deaf, dumb and blind person, someone who's been traumatised and who's basically shut down and been forced to experience life through vibrations, which is what music is ultimately. When we were putting it together we had no idea what significance it would ever achieve, but the more we got to grips with it on stage, the more I’ve come to realise that this is a serious opera. It's perhaps one of the best operas ever written.
When I watched the film again the other night–
You watched the film? I haven't seen the film for years. It was Ken Russell inventing MTV wasn't it? He was the only man who could have directed it. What a maverick he was. I loved him to bits. He was a genius.
If the film was released now, it would work as a satire of shows like The X Factor, where there’s a journey from trauma to triumph, and then ultimately indifference.
Those characters in Tommy are just metaphors for different parts of our society that we live in. And I don't care who you are, you can be the hardest bastard on the planet, but one day in your life you will sit there saying, 'see me, feel me, touch me, heal me' feeling sorry for yourself. There's a vulnerability that that music and those words create.
What do you remember from filming with hellraisers like Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson, Keith Moon, Eric Clapton and Elton John, if anything?
It was wonderful everyday on the set with Ken Russell and all these people coming in, but I was so far into character that an awful lot of it I don't remember. I was so methoded into character that I didn't see a fucking thing. How weird is it that? It was tough going. It was hard to ignore things being poked in your eyes without blinking. You had to be blind. It's amazing what the mind can do when you psych yourself into it. It was in July when we filmed "The Acid Queen” and I must have spent at least half of that day laying on the floor looking up Tina Turner's skirt. For the life of me I cannot remember one single bit of it.
Rock biopics are very in vogue at the moment, and I know you’ve been trying for many years to get a film about Keith Moon into production...
Well I'm in pre-production now. We're just waiting for the first draft of the script from Jeff Pope for Moon. I've had so many scripts written but they all end up as a Who film. I don't want a Who film. Fuck off! I want to make a film about Keith Moon and obviously The Who can be on the periphery, but it's not ultimately what I want. Even the Queen film ended up being a film about Queen. Rami Malek deserved the Oscar and his performance elevated it to more than just a Queen movie. He did incredibly well with some very thin material.
Keith Moon has become this caricature from history for those who weren’t around at the time. Presumably you want to go deeper?
Much deeper. He was very complicated, extremely artistic, extraordinarily talented in so many areas. He was incredibly disciplined, but also a complete and utter addict of everything he ever put in his mouth.
The Tommy songs John Entwhistle wrote about abuse are disturbing to watch or listen to now. You suffered from bullying at school yourself, didn’t you?
I was bullied but I wasn't abused like Pete was. Pete suffered some serious abuse. I've been very lucky in my life. Bullying you can deal with – you can just pick up a chair and hit them [laughs]. But yeah, that’s what's so disturbing about it, and that was the genius of Ken Russell – and Keith Moon was really the only one who could get away with playing that part for laughs. It's quite ambiguous the way I played it in the film, because that’s probably the first sexual experience the character’s ever had, and there was no indication it had been done violently. When you think about that as an actor you have to think that that could have been a pleasurable occasion, because you've got no agenda, there's no morality in you, that's passed you by. You’re just what you feel and if somebody gave you your first orgasm and it wasn't violent, you would go, 'wow, that was interesting'. It’s a very dodgy area but you can’t ignore it, it needs to be addressed. We can't keep sweeping that stuff under the carpet because you end up with all the crap we've had lately.