We are winding up our long-running theme of rock’s great — and not all that great — singers, and as we near the end, here’s a man who became one of hard rock’s finest singers. Eventually.
1965′s “My Generation” — aside from being an amazing record — features a decent vocal performance by 20-year-old Roger Daltrey, contrived stammer and all. (The story is that the stammer began with Daltrey’s having difficulty learning the words on the fly, then stayed in as being expressive of youthful frustration.) So they’re just starting out, and the singer’s already pretty good, right? Except he hardly ever sounded like that. This is more typical of how Roger Daltrey sounded in the ’60s.
His voice is thin and nasal, his attack is cautious and strained, and he’s clearly uncomfortable in this key. (The song itself is dreadful, but typical of the dopey novelty songs Townshend had such a weakness for in those days. Ray Davies is more known for silly songs, but Townshend was, for a few years there, much worse that way. Davies would never have written the words “Rooty-tooty-toot, tattooed too.”)
“I Can See for Miles,” from the same year, is a lot better song:
It’s a more comfortable range and therefore a more confident vocal, and it’s entirely persuasive, but there is still nothing really special or distinctive about it. Just a solid, competent rock performance.
But even on Tommy — of which I am not a fan — Daltrey frequently seemed to be holding back or ill at ease. Here’s “I’m Free” from Tommy, 1969.
Daltrey is being so very, very careful on this rangy song that he’s practically whispering — it’s accurate, he’s on key and his diction is good, but even when he amps up for a line or two at about 1:50, there is still no real guts or muscle there. It’s respectful, but that’s about all you can say for it.
But during the Tommy tour, Daltrey, who had reportedly never had much regard for his own singing ability, discovered something. That although he is a tenor, he is not a tenor in the Pete Townshend range, and trying to sing songs Townshend wrote for his own nearly male alto comfort zone wasn’t really working. And on that tour, he found he could do things like this:
Jumping ahead in time here, since that’s from the Tommy movie, in 1975. But compare that “I’m Free” to the 1969 version above. It isn’t Daltrey at his absolute best — the key on this is still a hair too high — but it’s just immeasurably better than the earlier attempt. Daltrey, not yet 30, was confident and at ease, the very picture of an English rock star. As the video attests, he never looked better than he did in this ridiculous movie.
But back to the Tommy tour. Daltrey discovered that, if everything was kicked down about a third from Townshend’s stratospheric range, he had an entirely different voice, the famous, absolutely distinctive Daltrey roar. And Townshend, to his credit, realized that this was not just different, but better. While still writing songs for his own muscular high tenor, he reserved those songs for himself and began writing work that showed off Daltrey’s newly uncovered strengths. Even before Who’s Next, the band recorded this odd record, not released until the Odds & Sods compilation:
This is “Naked Eye,” and they played it at Woodstock.
Take a little dope
And walk out in the air
The stars are all connected to the brain
It’s not a very polished song, and the instrumental outro is far too long. But it’s a great vocal showcase for Daltrey and Townshend both, and a hint of what was to come as the ’70s began.
As I’ve wondered here before, what must have Who fans thought, if they hadn’t seen the band live, when Who’s Next came out, and the singer last heard whining “See me, feel me…” came blasting back into their lives year and a half later shouting “Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals.” You almost wouldn’t think it’s the same man.
Daltrey gives several good performances on Who’s Next; indeed, “Bargain” is one of the best vocals he ever recorded. But in 1973, on Quadrophenia, The Who were as good as they would ever be. Finally, all the pieces fit. They had two strong singers, the best rock bassist who ever lived, and a drummer who, while quite mad, could still be reined in by a strong producer, and was. And they had subject matter worthy of them, as Townshend wrote about the mental breakdown of a bewildered Mod kid who finds that, young as he is, the times are passing him by and the things he loves have turned empty.
And Quadrophenia, though Townshend also contributes some fine vocals, is all about Roger Daltrey’s voice. If he hadn’t learned to sing like that, Townshend couldn’t have written this:
“The Real Me” may be the greatest heavy metal record ever made. It has everything, and it’s all built off that powerful vocal, with Daltrey sounding completely commanding while giving the impression of being about to lose control at any moment. It is an amazing rock performance. And it’s not even the best vocal on the album. That’s this one.
Pete covered the nuances of this glorious song very well a while back, so I won’t get into the details, but just marvel at it once again. There have been technically stronger singers in rock, certainly bigger and prettier voices, singers with more range and versatility. But nobody has ever been able to emulate the pure, emotional, completely masculine roar of Roger Daltrey in his prime.