Who #6: Raise your hand if you loved Roger’s voice pre-TOMMY

Or, an eras tour but it’s just one era

A narrative I encounter not infrequently in my Who reading says something to the effect that Roger Daltrey didn’t really work out how to sing until Tommy. I would like to contest this claim.

First off, I don’t know what ‘how to sing’ means. Secondly, I’m not sure I agree it was at that point that he became world-class. Something did change then, and he’s been essentially unstoppable since, as I heard for myself. But he’d kicked it up a notch by Who’s Next, and some of my favorite moments of his are on The Who By Numbers.

Anyway, this isn’t about any of those. I believe he was a great singer from the start. And if people are suggesting that Tommy was what helped him find his unique place, well, I’d argue he already had that too. Don’t forget it was this early voice that gave us “I Can See for Miles,” a thrilling performance if you ask me. I wouldn’t object if he dipped into that low register more. Also “Pictures of Lily,” half of whose power lies in how innocent he sounds—the Monterey Pop rendition leaves me in need of that same relief (*wink*). Also “Substitute,” the song that may have singlehandedly created the concept of Elvis Costello. I picture a young Declan McManus thinking, “I wanna write like THAT and sing like THAT.”

Basically, I’m into his Really Insecure Era.

It might as well have been called that. Not only did his bandmates not let him join in any reindeer games, he had no desire to join them. There was a hesitancy among all four to commit to being Officially A Thing in the mid-‘60s, but it manifested most visibly in Roger, who was first ejected and then left briefly of his own volition. The former because he threw out Keith’s amphetamines and fought with him over it (and was reinstated on the condition that he no longer express himself through violence), the latter because he was alienated by the others’ drinking and drugging and hotel-room-destroying and just got so fed up that he decided to chance it out on his own. But there was nothing else for him to do. The dysfunctional family unit always draws you back in. His only course of action was to keep calm and hope his bandmates’ indulgences didn’t interfere too badly with the work they were doing.

The fact is, even with his anger getting the better of him at times, he was usually the Adult In The Room. Big eldest-sibling energy, bordering on mum energy when the situation called for it.

All the tension and dissatisfaction were reflected in his performances. As he himself has observed, it’s particularly prominent on tracks like “Lily” and “I’m a Boy” (that one will have its own post, because it totally upended me at the beginning of this year). It didn’t help that the material he had to sing was getting weirder: he couldn’t play it defiant as on “My Generation” and its ilk when the songs were now about insecurity and questioning and a need for validation. Townshend, before becoming the bi-coded human emoji we know and love, was a tough nut to crack. What is the singer tasked with interpreting his writing supposed to do? Ask him about it?

(Side note, at the risk of belaboring: nobody else could have done “My Generation.” And when they would do it later, like at the Isle of Wight, he didn’t sound the way he sounded the first time.)

So Roger’s role in that period was a fairly impossible one, and I feel he was up to it even at his lowest personal points. He got the messages across in their ideal form. To be sure, some of his vocal choices have endured—one that I’ll never have enough of is his pronunciation of ‘again,’ rhyming, of course, with ‘explain.’ Aside from the James Brown thing he did very early on, he has never been an American imitator: he sounds English, sounds like a Londoner, which I really dig.

I’ve discussed the harmonies, and I like that he took the lowest line of three. Not necessarily what you’d expect of a lead singer. Obviously he developed his high range to fearsome effect, but even then he would often take low harmonies, like a vocal signifier of his status as the group’s grounding force.

Oh, you need more examples? “Tattoo” from The Who Sell Out, as I’ve mentioned. (Speaking of, let’s appreciate him on the cover sleeve. You can’t sit in a bathtub full of Heinz Baked Beans and be arrogant.) Heck, he’s great on “I Can’t Explain,” for more than the fact that he was the only one who could be bothered to sing.

And “Magic Bus.” I LOVE MAGIC BUS. The call-and-response bit is not unlike “My Generation,” which tracks given that Pete wrote it the same year, but the vibe is way different. I hope Roger had as good a time singing this one as it sounds like: you can hear him laugh in the middle of a phrase. And you can tell he’s trying to make it worth your while—they never intended to record the song after having given it to the Pudding, except that Tommy wasn’t even fully drafted and in case you’ve forgotten, Pete, you have a Working Band That Needs To Stay Relevant(TM). So it became a single for them, and we’re lucky it did.

On a non-musical note: his hair! It’s so cute how he thought a mod couldn’t have curly hair. He’s looked good to me in every hair phase.

Not that the succeeding eras aren’t a veritable cabinet of wonders. The way he goes all vulnerable on the bridge of “Squeeze Box”? Damn. I’d squeeze his box too.

Image: at the Monterey Pop Festival, 18 June 1967 (shortly before Hendrix obliterated them like his own guitar)

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti (she/her) lives in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She co-hosts and produces the music commentary podcast POD SOUNDS. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, taking city walks, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her heroes. Connect with her on Instagram (@c_m_giglio, @ceciliagphotography, @pod_sounds_podcast) and see what else she's up to (linktr.ee/ceciliagigliotti).

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