Interview: Roger Daltrey on Wembley and the special The Who sound

After 40 years, The Who returned to Wembley Stadium in 2019, accompanied by an orchestra of more than 50 musicians. The album of the concert, “The Who With Orchestra – Live At Wembley”, was released in Dolby Atmos on Blu-ray. We talked to singer Roger Daltrey about The Who’s special music, their influence on other artists and why Wembley provided another magical music moment. The interview was conducted by Christoph Diekmann.

Let’s start by talking about the occasion and the feeling when you returned to Wembley Stadium in 2019 after 40 years. How did the preparations for this go?

Well, it was kind of a big and very special day. I didn’t do any special preparation for it to be honest, I mean it was just another gig. Actually, we’d never played Wembley either, the last time The Who were there we played Live Aid in 1985. Later I played there at the Freddy Mercury tribute in 1992. But we have not made any special arrangements for this event.

We had just finished our American tour with the same show and we were planning to bring the show to Europe and the UK in 2020. But then Covid came along and everything was put on hold.

Yes, that was a problem for many artists.

Yes, but as it turned out the Wembley concert was one of those special days, there was a special atmosphere in the air. There was a tragedy just before the concert, which perhaps prompted Peter to play some really great guitar parts. His guitar technician Alan Rogan is a legend in the guitar tech industry. He was with us for what felt like an eternity and passed away about 3 days before the Wembley concert.

The Who - Live at Wembley

I am sorry to hear that.

And before we went on stage, Peter was not in a good shape and I said to him, “Come on Peter, let’s play in Alan’s memory” and somehow we did. That brought a special atmosphere into the arena and I can only say it was a very special moment. What I’m saying is, when I went into the first chorus of Love Reign O’er Me – it was towards the end of the show before the penultimate song – it started raining (laughs) and when we finished the song it stopped again. You can’t make up moments like that. That was weird and strange.

Is there a special magic about this stadium?

(laughing) No! I’m just telling you the facts. We all stood there with our mouths open. The audience looked up and thought it was some kind of effect. It was very extraordinary. But it actually happened. And what can you say, when I listened to the tapes of the orchestra, the first song I heard from the show, I knew. Of course I heard it live when I played it on stage, but to sit down and listen to the full glory of the show on vinyl (editor’s note and on Blu-ray), that just had to be released.

It has something to do with the way Peter writes his songs, with the perspective from which his songs come. It’s much more than just, you know, dance life away pop music, it’s thought-provoking music. Not to everyone’s taste and not the most popular music, but I think it has enormous musical significance long after we’ve gone.

I agree with that. There is very little footage of the show so far, but what you can see shows a band full of joy, life and energy playing their music. Peter talked about the tour name “Moving On!” being created by you and both of you looking forward with classic Who music in new and exciting versions, taking the risk of losing everything, was his statement. Are there any other plans you can share with us already?

Well, the only thing really left to do, and it would be great if I could sing it, with all the years we are old now, would be Quadrophenia. It may be the only thing we could perform live again with the full Who sound orchestrated. But yeah, it’s an incredibly difficult piece to sing three or four times a week. I’m not sure it would ever pay off, though, because it’s quite an expensive show to put on with an orchestra. I love it musically. I think musically it’s incredibly satisfying for me to hear our music go through all its phases.

From the angry young punk band to the philosophical 20-somethings of our years, we’ve kind of grown up now where we are. It has something of a game because Peter writes in a classical form, he doesn’t use normal codes. What most guitarists use are very few major keys. With him, everything ends in minus-sevens and the strangest codes, but it gives him a classic feeling that stands the test of time. His music doesn’t seem to age.

Yes, that leads me to the next question. When you sit down with Peter and reflect on the evolution of your creative output over the past decades, what would be the most important moments that created your sound?

I think what you can immediately attribute to us is the volume and our request to Jim Marshall to build a bigger amplifier. “It’s not loud enough, Jim!”

I say this because I recently played some shows with Deep Purple and Ian Paice, their drummer. I had a drink with him in the bar after the shows and he said, “You know, Roger, when we first saw The Who, none of that heavy metal stuff would have happened without you guys. Before we did what you did with the volume and the distortion, we were all sort of second-rate pub bands.” Well, I mean, I was absolutely gobsmacked when he said that. But when I think back and think of Jimi Hendrix, for example, everyone seems to think that the Marshall 100 Watt amplifier was designed for Jimi Hendrix. But it wasn’t, it was developed for Pete Townsend. Peter played the complete Jimi Hendrix style in 1964.

Thats a long time ago.

Yeah, I know. This was well before Jimi’s appearance on the scene. It’s just that these things get lost in history and obviously Jimi, with his legendary career, was a great guitarist. I don’t know if you’ve ever been lucky enough to see him live.

Not live. (laughs)

When you saw Jimi Hendrix play and he wasn’t stoned like he was towards the end, he was really determined to pursue a career with what he was doing. It was like no longer looking at a man at the guitar. You saw a mythical creature that made sounds that moved you in a way you had never experienced before. He was extraordinary.

Thank you for these insights. As for the Wembley concert, you were accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra. How was it possible to integrate a new sound body and still maintain the classic The Who sound?

It’s not easy, especially with the volume Peter still plays at on stage, same volume and everything. But I have great technicians who have been working with us for years. I’m lucky enough to have heard myself sing on a stage for the first time 10 years ago. Before that, The Who was so loud that I could hardly hear what I was singing. But now we have the headphones in our ears, everything becomes easier to handle and we manage, but the sound in the audience is extraordinary.

I sat in the audience during soundchecks and rehearsals. And when it all comes together, there’s something special about playing with an orchestra and real instruments, violins, the vibrations of real instruments that don’t do the same thing to the human body, unlike the similar sounds of a synthesiser.

It makes the hair on your body stand up. A synthesiser doesn’t do that. That’s the difference between good vinyl and digital.

You know, when they sold it to us all those years ago, they said it would be better than vinyl and that it couldn’t be destroyed, that was the biggest turkey. If you listen to the two versions one after the other, there is no comparison, although it is the same. We put this orchestra together with The Who and they play these orchestrations. It’s great. It really is.

Which sound is particularly important to you? Because many of your albums were released as multi-channel mixes on SACD a good 20 years ago and are unfortunately no longer available. What was your relationship to multi-channel mixes back then?

To be honest, I very rarely listen to anything we’ve done after we’ve left the studio. I listen to the final mix and say, “Well, that’s great.”

And that’s it?

You know, when I start worrying about things like that, I lose the way I perform. Because it gives it a certain urgency. I mean, it doesn’t always work, but I go out there and just go for it. There’s no “I’m doing this for the first time and I’m going to give it my all.” And from the looks of it, that seems to have served me well over the years.

Absolutely. I mean this release “The Who with Orchestra Live at Wembley” was released on a Blu-ray audio with an immersive mix. So immersive audio enables great new spatial aspects to the experience of music. How was your first encounter with this digital 3D sound dimension? Did you listen to the immersive mix of this concert in the studio?

Well, I’m afraid you have to understand, with the career I’ve had in music, my hearing is not at its best. I can understand that younger people love it and can get excited about it. But to my old years with my hearing aids, which I now have to have just to hear a voice. I don’t really notice that much difference. I listen to the notes more than anything else.

On 20 June you will come to Germany and play at the Waldbühne Berlin. How are your encounters with the German audience?

We always had a great time in Germany. I have to think back to the first time we played in Berlin, I think it was 1960? 65? 66? Well, I remember it was in November and it was cold, very cold. I’m not familiar with the Waldbühne, but we’ve been to Berlin many times.

I think you’ll like it. It’s a really beautiful place. The “Moving On!” tour also had a charitable purpose to support your and Peter’s activities for the Teenage Cancer Trust in England. Is there anything you would like to tell us about it?

Well, that’s just another thing we do on our days off. We have had a lot of time, and have tried to do something in one area of our lives where we can make a difference. Years ago, our doctors, both Peters and mine, noticed that teenagers who get cancer – unfortunately we have quite a few who get it – in hospitals, are isolated, both in the UK and in America. And when we talked about it and thought about The Who, of course we were on board.

If you think back to when you were young, you can imagine what it’s like to be 15 years old and find out that you’re going to lose all your hair, that you’re going to have this terrible disease that you could die from. You’re out with all your friends and suddenly you’re locked up alone in hospital. This is a disaster in many ways, both socially and psychologically. So we decided to get involved in this charity.

I started it in America: Teen Cancer of America. We have created spaces in the hospitals for teenagers with cancer where they can be with their peers and do all the things teenagers want to do during their treatment. We cannot treat them and we are not in a position to take care of the medicine, but what we can do is to offer them a good quality of life. And that is what we do.

I think music also has a lot of supportive power. Do you agree?

The way I saw it all those years ago was that without the support of teenagers, we wouldn’t have the life we have today. They were there for us all those years ago, it’s time we were there for them now.

I have another question: Will the concert be available on video with Dolby Atmos? Because cinema and home cinema are wonderful platforms for experiencing a concert. And the energy we see in the few clips we have of your energetic voice and Peter’s guitar makes me want to see more of this concert. Is there a plan to make a video of this on Blu-ray as well? There is a big audience for it.

I have the feeling that music has a very different status in the lives of young people today than it did when we were young. When we were young, music was the most important thing in life, now young people are more interested in TikTok.

That is true. But they get older. (laughs)

Yes, they do. Hopefully they will develop better taste at some point in their lives.

We do a roadshow where we present Dolby Atmos mixes that immerse the listener in the music, it’s a really nice project. Your concert has great quality and would be well suited to the format on Blu-ray. We would really like to see it published if the material is available.

If the material is there and the quality of the film is good, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be released, but these things are all in the hands of the record companies and the management.

Roger, thank you on behalf of all readers and viewers for these insights. We look forward to more great musical moments with you and The Who. Stay healthy and keep rocking.

Thanks Christoph, with a bit of luck, we’ll see you in Berlin.

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