When Pete Townshend’s management team came to him with a lucrative offer from Live Nation to spend much of 2019 on the road with the Who, he said he’d only agree to it under a single condition. “I said I was not going to sign any contracts unless we have new material,” says Townshend. “This has nothing to do with wanting a hit album. It has nothing to do with the fact that the Who need a new album. It’s purely personal. It’s about my pride, my sense of self-worth and self-dignity as a writer.”
The new album – which will be their first release since 2006’s Endless Wire – exists now only as 15 painstakingly constructed demos that Townshend crafted last year at five studios around England, but he hopes Roger Daltrey will record vocals later this year for a 2019 release. In the meantime, however, they are gearing up for a 31-date American tour where a local symphony orchestra will join the band nightly. Daltrey got the idea after spending the summer of 2018 playing Tommy with symphonies and loving the experience. “I’ll be 75 years old in March and this feels like a dignified way to go and do music,” he says. “That’s all we’re really left with. We’re old men now. We’ve lost the looks. We’ve lost the glamour. What we’re left with is the music and we’re going to present it in a way which is as fresh and powerful as ever.”
The group has yet to release tour dates, but Townshend says it will begin at New York’s Madison Square Garden in April and travel through the Northeast alongside Chicago and Detroit. That initial leg is just 14 shows, but they’ll return in September and October to hit Canada and the western United States. (Most of the shows are at arenas, though he mentioned the possibility of a stadium or two.) Townshend says that the European tour plans are less clear at the moment, but that they’ll play festivals in the UK over the summer and hopefully return at the end of the year to play arenas.
It’s about my pride, my sense of self-worth and self-dignity as a writer” – Pete Townshend on new Who album
The idea of pairing The Who’s music with an orchestra dates back to 1994 when Daltrey performed with local symphonies on his Daltrey Sings Townshend tour. “Rock bands being very loud and orchestras being quiet, there were very big technical problems to overcome taking a show like that on the road,” he says. “We achieved it in the end, but it was hard.” Things went far better last summer on Daltrey’s tour, which was overseen by arranger Keith Levenson, who is also heavily involved in The Who’s upcoming tour. “Everything is a whirlwind at the moment since we just decided to tour at the end of last year,” says Daltrey. “The most important thing that people realize about this tour is that the energy and the venom the Who play with will not be compromised at all.”
And even though the routing is still being worked out, both Daltrey and Townshend say they will not be making a return appearance to Woodstock for the 50th anniversary event at Watkins Glen in August. “What would be the point?” Says Daltrey. “I can’t work outside in the heat anymore like that in August. It’ll kill me. I got really big problems with heat now due to my meningitis. But I think they should do it with young bands. I don’t see why they should have us there.
“And they couldn’t afford us anyway!” he adds, laughing.
The tour isn’t billed as a “farewell,” but Daltrey says it may indeed wind up becoming just that. “I think it is always a mistake to ever say ‘farewell,’” he says. “But this will possibly be my last tour. I’m just being realistic about going through the 75th year of my life. I have to be realistic that this is the age I am and voices start to go after a while. I don’t want to be not as good as I was two years ago.”
The big problem is figuring out what songs they’re going to play. Both Townshend and Daltrey agree that a decent portion of the night will be devoted to material from Tommy and Quadrophenia, though Daltrey wants to fill out the rest of the set with their greatest hits and Townshend is hoping they could break out a handful of obscurities like ‘Time is Passing’ and ‘Too Much of Anything’ that he feels would work well with symphonies. But Daltrey traditionally makes the setlist himself and is unsure about challenging the audience like that. “You can’t please everybody,” he says. “Some hardcore fans might bitch and moan, but 99.99 percent of the audience wants to hear the hits. I don’t want people scratching their balls and going, ‘I want to hear ‘Baba O’Riley.’”
“It is always a mistake to ever say ‘farewell,’ but this will possibly be my last tour” – Roger Daltrey
The two longtime bandmates also hit a bit of a snag over the new material, which Townshend describes as a mixture of “dark ballads, heavy rock stuff, experimental electronica, sampled stuff and cliched Who-ish tunes that began with a guitar that goes yanga-dang.” When he finished them late last year, he sent them off to everyone in his orbit and received an amazing response from everyone besides the man tasked with singing them. “Just silence from Roger,” says Townshend. “I had to bully him to respond and then it wasn’t the response I wanted. He just blathered for a while and in the end I really stamped my foot and said, ‘Roger, I don’t care if you really like this stuff. You have to sing it. You’ll like it in 10 years time.’”
Daltrey doesn’t deny taking a while to give his feedback about the new songs, but he explains that the book tour behind his new memoir Thanks a lot Mr Kibblewhite: My Story occupied all his time during that period. He also perforated an eardrum in December that caused him enormous pain and made listening to music of any sort very difficult. “They’re all great songs,” he says. “ But sometimes I hear them and I think, ‘I can’t add anything to this to make my job as singer worthy of doing anything better than what Pete has already done.’ There’s at least five or six I can lay into and I’m sure they’ll come out incredible. Now that I’m healed up, I’m going to spend time getting into them. Okay, so I didn’t get back to him quickly at first. It doesn’t mean anything! I was deaf for about three weeks. It wasn’t even possible for me to bloody hear what was in them!”
“Is the chemistry between us still there? I hope there is” – Roger Daltrey on Pete Townshend
“One of the great difficulties here isn’t that Roger and I don’t get on,” says Townshend. “It’s that we don’t communicate. Over the years we haven’t really developed a dialogue. I don’t think that the fault is on my side. He feels a bit intimidated, perhaps, because I overcomplicate things, but we think very, very differently. We do talk on the phone. That’s the most significant way we communicate, though we don’t decide much on the phone. He doesn’t text and he’s just now starting to use e-mail, but he isn’t very good at it.”
Daltrey lets out a deep sigh when this topic comes up. “No, we don’t communicate well,” he says. “But I’ve gotten quite insular, I suppose. I don’t know why that is, but I accept it. Is the chemistry between us still there? I hope there is. It’s been a year since we worked. We’ll see soon enough.”
The one thing they do agree on is that their label’s request that they capitalize on their status as the ultimate “dad rock” band by finishing the album in time for Father’s Day in June is simply asinine. And with tour rehearsals beginning in just two months, it would be nearly impossible. “If they can’t get it by Father’s Day, they don’t care when they’re getting it,” says Townshend with a laugh. “And so it might wind up being September or October.” Daltrey sees less humor in all this. “If it takes us until next fuckin’ Father’s Day, so be it,” he says. “I loathe that part of the business. I just hate it. That’s why they’re working in an office and we’re on the stage.”