Often dismissed as “the weak link” of The Who, accused of “bluster” when sensitivity was required, of merely being “Pete’s mouthpiece,” Roger Daltrey did not revolutionize his instrument quite as radically as John Entwistle did the bass, Keith Moon did the drums, and Pete Townshend did the guitar. However, to dismiss his contributions to the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band would be unfair at best and bloody stupid at worst. His performances on the following ten songs are not only great in and of themselves—powerful, nuanced, sensitive, innovative, and all the other things he supposedly cannot do—but they show how his style and ability have evolved and adapted throughout the decades.
1. “My Generation”
Contrary to an often-expressed opinion, Roger Daltrey was a strong singer from the start, swooning his way through “I Can’t Explain” expressively and growling formidably on “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”. It was on The Who’s third single that he did something truly innovative. The origins of that stutter are hard to pin down. Is it meant to mimic the affliction suffered by many a pilled up mod? Is it an homage to John Lee Hooker’s “Stuttering Blues”? Pete stammers a bit on one of his demos, so it does seem to have been part of his plan for “My Generation”. As he often would, Roger exaggerated that detail, made it less bashful, infused it with a level of defiance missing from Pete’s home recording. It is the sound of a guy who doesn’t care that he can barely get the words out; he’s going to express himself no matter what and pity the punter who gives him guff about it. A speech impediment had never been so threatening before.
In the early days, Roger was most comfortable when he got to bellow like his idol “Howlin’ Wolf”. He wasn’t sure what to make of the peculiarly “sweet” songs Pete started bringing to him. Gruffness would not work on something like “The Kids Are Alright”. So Roger located a creamier tone he may not have realized he possessed. His handle on it is slightly dodgy on “The Kids Are Alright”, some of the notes not quite hitting their marks. He’d make better use of it when he started consciously embodying the characters in Pete’s songs. Pete gave him one of the best with Bill in “I’m a Boy”, a kid suffering gender confusion when his mom decides to raise him as a girl. Roger’s boyish delivery—best accomplished in the second version of the song recorded for The Who’s scrapped sophomore LP, Jigsaw Puzzle—is perfectly realized and just sinister enough to convey youthful defiance without sounding inappropriately mannish.
“Tattoo” develops on the role playing of tracks like “I’m a Boy” and “Pictures of Lily” by also challenging Roger with a tough melody that tests the limits of his range. This is the kind of song Pete could easily sing in his nasally tenor. It’s not as comfortably within Rog’s range, but he deals with it brilliantly. When sighing, “You’ll be here when I diiiiiiiiiie,” he not only reaches above his range but he holds that final note without a quaver or a gasp for breath. Anyone who charges that this guy can’t sing will have to shut up after hearing this spine-tingling performance of an exquisite song.
Throughout the sixties, The Who was a very different animal in the studio than it was on stage. Their recordings could be as gentle as “Tattoo” or as eccentric as “Happy Jack”. On stage, they played with as much bludgeoning power as they could muster, and that is quite a lot. They did not fully start exploiting that power on vinyl until 1971’s Who’s Next, but there is a taste of it on Tommy that might knock you back a few strides. “Christmas” is The Who at full might, and Roger does his part for the cause with a vocal that once again reaches to the ceiling of range and delivers all of the muscle he’d been finding in it on stage for the past couple of years. When he shrieks “Yeah!” in the second chorus, it is the unveiling of a new direction in his work and a taste of how he’d pump extra blood into the dead, dumb, and blind boy when playing him for concert crowds. Conversely, we can also hear Roger at his most ethereal as he sings the “see me, feel me” emotional climax that would recur throughout the rest of the rock opera.
5. “Naked Eye”
Roger’s evolution as an interpreter hits another plane with “Naked Eye”, a complex song about seeing through the fog between illusion and reality. Roger finds the meaning in each word, easing us in with an air of disconnect in the first verse before pushing out the revelatory refrain with greater angst. Then in an unusual role reversal, Pete sings the powerhouse second verse, which would normally be Roger’s domain (you can hear them play their usual roles on tracks such as “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain”, and “The Song Is Over”). At the end, Roger is back, singing with all the weariness embedded in Pete’s lyric before a final blast of the refrain.
6.”Pure and Easy”
One thing Roger Daltrey doesn’t get to express often enough is joy. “Pure and Easy” is the rare opportunity to hear that. It is a song of stately resolve, once again presenting the singer with the challenge of hitting notes dangling from the bottoms of stars. Roger comports himself beautifully. “Pure and Easy” is also a nice showcase for his ability to blend with his partners in harmony on the chorus. Then joy and harmonic bliss turn to thunderheads as Roger leads into Pete’s stormy guitar solo with a bit of the ol’ Howlin’ Wolf growl. A wonderfully multifaceted performance.
7. “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
Keith Richards once said that Pete Townshend’s demos are better than The Who’s recordings. Even those who share this opinion have to admit that his solo version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” doesn’t touch the one on Who’s Next. Yes, Entwistle and Moon are incomparable on The Who’s version of this key song, but it is Roger that makes it utterly definitive. A lovely singer to be sure, Pete Townshend cannot muster the brick house strength required to properly convey the song’s meaning and mood. Roger’s performance here is one of the all-time great rock vocals, and with that iconic primal scream (a weak yelp on Pete’s demo) he created what John Swenson described as “a moment of pure rock transcendence.” I’d alter that description slightly to be “the moment of pure rock transcendence.”
8. “Love Reign O’er Me”
Roger’s growing confidence with an instrument he always humbly admitted is imperfect is on crazed display in one of Pete Townshend’s most gob-smackingly beautiful songs. The singer loses himself completely. His vocal in the first verse floats like sea foam rolling over Brighton sands. On the chorus, he pulls crashing waves from his chest. By the end of the song, it’s like he has discovered the melodic possibilities of his “Won’t Get Fooled” “Yeeeeeah!, both singing and screaming, eliciting tears and terrified chills. “Love Reign O’er Me” is more solid evidence that there were things Pete Townshend simply could not accomplish in his home studio (Keith’s drumming is pretty much beyond copying too).
9. “Love Is Coming Down”
Despite all of his growth as a singer, Roger still wasn’t getting his due from a lot of critics. Some accused him of downright sabotage for singing without due sensitivity as Pete’s songwriting became more expressly personal on The Who by Numbers. In his review of the record on AllMusic.com, Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that Townshend’s “introspective musings are rendered ineffective by Roger Daltrey’s bluster.” This is a near clueless assessment in light of the singer’s thoughtful interpretations of songs such as “Imagine a Man”, “They Are All in Love”, and “How Many Friends”. Nevertheless, that criticism would persist for the rest of The Who’s career despite such magnificently measured performances as “Love Is Coming Down”. Roger does not make the listener miss Pete on this very personal song seemingly tailor-made for the songwriter’s emotive tenor. After hearing The Who’s version, I could not imagine Pete bringing the climactic final passages to as emotional a head as Roger does, singing in his full voice without resorting to animal screams. If you think you’re a better singer than Roger Daltrey, try this one on for size and get back to me. I won’t hold my breath.
10. “A Man in a Purple Dress”
Nearly three decades passed between this list’s previous song and its final one. A lot happened during those years too. Keith Moon died. Kenney Jones entered and exited. The Who broke up, got back together again, broke up, got back together again, etc. John Entwistle passed too. More significant to this article, Roger continued pushing his voice to its limits, continued screaming, continued aging. None of that is easy on the cords, and the wear and tear first apparent in the nineties became impossible to ignore in the twenty-first century. Roger just wasn’t singing the way he used to, and when word got out that he and Pete were working on a new Who album, I for one didn’t get my hopes up. Amazingly though, Roger rose to the occasion, doing work in the studio that transcended his issues on stage. Big rockers such as “Mike Post Theme” and “It’s Not Enough” show off his regained strength. For evidence of his thoughtfulness when coming down from the hysteria we associate with rock star Roger Daltrey, just listen to “A Man in a Purple Dress”, an indictment of showboating, judgmental religious elders. With just acoustic guitar and voice, it’s the kind of song one would have expected Pete to sing himself. After hearing how Roger conveys all the outrage, humor, and empathy in Pete’s lyric, I could not think of anyone else singing it.
Roger Daltrey turns 70 today.