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Epitome of His Generation

In 1839, the topographer Thomas Faulkner found the little Middlesex village of Shepherd’s Bush a “pleasant” rustic retreat, centred on quiet Gagglegoose Green—an outlier of the once highwayman-haunted but finally tamed Hounslow Heath. Today, that pleasant settlement is a dubious London suburb, and Gagglegoose Green is Shepherd’s Bush Common, blasted by nearby Heathrow and traffic plying between central London and the West. It was dubious too in March 1944—and furthermore was being bombarded with V1s—when Roger Harry Daltrey bawled into aspirant working-class life.

Food shortages and financial hardship governed the future rock star’s early years, perhaps stunting his growth and certainly shaping his outlook—giving him an innate practicality and purpose that were often at odds with the three other west Londoners who twenty years later would become his band mates in the Who. Art student Peter Townshend, tax clerk John Entwistle and the manically self-destructive Keith Moon were all held precariously together by Daltrey’s grit, which he would back up with fists when he thought that necessary.

This review appears in March’s Quadrant.
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Daltrey got easily into Acton County Grammar, the traditional ladder to opportunity for bright working-class children, and the same year the family moved to much smarter Bedford Park, London’s first garden suburb. So far, all very “New Elizabethan”—the optimistic description of the post-war generation who would all be uplifted by education, egalitarianism, meritocracy, the National Health Service, and technological advances, all under the benign gaze of the beautiful young Queen. Daltrey acknowledges that many did thrive—but he and Acton County Grammar did not agree on essentials. He was bullied by the “posh boys”, and soon began playing truant—walking up and down the Thames for whole unhappy days, once taking sleeping pills in an attempt to kill himself. The teaching did not suit him, not even the music teaching, which consisted of “dots on pages … how to do a Bach chorale”.

He was caught playing truant and smoking, was disruptive in class, and was the focus for small rebellions—earning shillings by altering other boys’ uniforms to make them more fashionable. He was confessedly “quite volatile”, and responded violently when attacked, these fights sometimes spilling out of school into street feuds with knife-wielding Teddy Boys. Then he took an airgun to school, someone fired it, and a boy lost an eye. On his fifteenth birthday, he was expelled by the headmaster, Mr Kibblewhite, whose name makes him sound like a character from an Ealing comedy. As Daltrey left the headmaster’s office for the last time, the exasperated pedagogue (ironically himself a moderniser) told him, “You’ll never make anything of your life, Daltrey.” Thanks a lot, Mr Kibblewhite, Daltrey thought.

But there was music to make something of. At the age of twelve, Daltrey had seen Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan—and made himself a guitar out of plywood and purloined scrap. It was the era of skiffle, when everyone was supposed to have musical ability, and even if they didn’t they formed a band anyway. So when he wasn’t in school or, later, on the building site or at the sheet metal works, he was taking tentative steps into stardom, singing “Heartbreak Hotel” at youth clubs, twanging on his jerry-built guitars, worrying about names for bands and how to look good. He intuited early that rock-and-roll was largely about sex and “front”.

Being in a rock band (his was the Detours) was “alpha-male volatile”, an environment of pushing and shoving, and that suited the sparky Daltrey. The clubs, playgrounds and streets he knew were full of fighting, although guns and knives were rare, and murder rates much lower than today. The obverse of this barely-sublimated violence was barely-sublimated joie de vivre. When people weren’t fighting, they seemed always to be singing—or so it seemed to the attuned Daltrey, strutting but also sensitive, always listening while always looking for openings for himself and the Detours. He remembered John Entwistle from school, but had never thought of him as a bass player until he met him in 1961 walking along carrying his instrument, just after the Detours’ bassist had gone back to his day job. Entwistle persuaded him to give Pete Townshend a go as guitarist in 1962, and when Keith Moon joined in 1964, the Who became a what. To add to the potent blend, the flamboyant and well-connected wastrels Kit Lambert (son of Constant Lambert, and godson of William Walton) and Chris Stamp (Terence’s brother) became the band’s managers—marketing geniuses, but over-fond of converting the band’s income into amphetamines.

Their timing was impeccable—at the outset of that explosion of youthful energy, when rebelliousness was in the air, and the future seemed to offer more hope than a past which had caused two devastating wars in living memory. The revolutionary intellectual climate was made yet headier by economic prosperity, improved nutrition, technological advances, social liberalisation, American cultural influences, drugs and the Pill. Even being working-class was suddenly hip. Teenagers were for the first time acknowledged to exist, as a discrete life-form between childhood and adulthood—and vast amounts of money could be made from them. The smartly dressed, smooth-skinned mods seen dancing in evocative early Who footage were proudly autonomous—but they were also gullible consumers targeted by the cold-eyed men who ran the media, record shops, fashion labels, venues, dance halls and drugs rings.

In an England over-full of bands, the Who stood out for sheer ability, Townshend, Entwistle and Moon immediately acknowledged as masters of their instruments (Townshend also wrote all their hits). For all his energy and will, Daltrey found it hard, literally, to find a voice, and long laboured under a kind of inferiority complex. He still does—recalling bitterly, more than half a century on, how Townshend once described the group as “three geniuses and a singer”. It was not until 1969’s rock opera Tommy that he finally found this voice and persona—and the toothy sheet-metal worker from Shepherd’s Bush had finally transmuted into a blond rock god, avatar for an England increasingly indifferent to Christianity.

The band also exuded danger. All four squared up against each other; Daltrey was expelled in 1965 for beating up Moon, and was only readmitted after promising not to do it again (this did not stop him some years afterwards knocking Townshend unconscious, after Townshend had tried to poleaxe him with a guitar). Moon especially was spikily aggravating, his alcohol- and drug-fuelled antics usually annoying or distressing other people, even if they were marketing gold-dust—biting Steve McQueen’s dog, dressing as an SS officer, supposedly driving a car into a swimming pool, throwing champagne bottles at his wife (another time breaking her nose), smashing up his own house in rage in front of his screaming young daughter, and even accidentally killing his own bodyguard.

On a thousand stages, during what were then the loudest concerts of all time, refulgently laser-lit in Speer-like “Cathedrals of Light”, Moon beat brilliantly on his two bass-drummed kit, Entwistle looked angry or contemptuous as his “Thunderfingers” raced masterfully over the frets, Townshend windmilled his arms in feedback-full solos, and ended gigs by smashing his amps and guitars, and Daltrey hid private misgivings while he sang fiery songs like “My Generation” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and swung his heavy microphone in huge and dangerous arcs. Their 1968 tour of Australia started with Townshend punching a reporter, which understandably turned the press against them—and continued with major technical problems and being thrown off a plane for drinking beer. When they finally quit the country, John Gorton fired a telegram after them: “Dear Who’s [sic], We never wanted you to come to Australia. You have behaved atrociously while you’ve been here, and we hope you never come back.”

Daltrey was always the anchor—the only one who did not do hard drugs, even avoiding cannabis because it affected his voice. He was always haunted by a sense of his luck, and how easily all this experience could come crashing down—especially as they were earning almost nothing, actually owing money after some draining tours. “I thought if I lost the band I was dead. If I didn’t stick with the Who, I would be a sheet metal worker for the rest of my life.” He berated them constantly for impracticality, laziness, sloppiness and unpunctuality, and flushed Moon’s drugs away. This caused high-octane friction, but it also meant that when there were real crises, there was always a focal point, someone on whom the others could rely. It was Daltrey who dumped Lambert and Stamp, in favour of Bill Corbishley. During Moon’s last depression, he would often ring Daltrey at 4 a.m. and talk for hours. When Moon died in 1978, and Entwistle in 2002—and after Townshend’s 2003 arrest on a charge of accessing child pornography—Daltrey was the only one who was always there, a Tommy as stolidly reliable as the proverbial Tommy Atkins.

He has retained a working-class capacity for fierce friendships—a code of looking out for “mates”, never grassing on them or judging them when they go wrong. In the band’s earliest days he opposed Townshend’s wish to become more arty, because he knew how important Saturday nights meant to people like him, who worked hard all week and just wanted to dance and be entertained. He even tried to understand the Krays and sought to make an sympathetic biopic of their lives, visiting Ronnie Kray in Broadmoor, although in the end the scheme foundered on Kray’s paranoid schizophrenia. Even now, he has Shepherd’s Bush cousins and friends over for fishing on his four lakes, and hosts Christmas sing­alongs of “all the filthy Cockney songs”. He was pleased to discover that his family derives from horny-handed Huguenot lacemakers in Nantes, whose creativity and rebelliousness he admires.

His politics do not feature in this book. Maybe any stray reflections were excised by editors worried about their palatability. But he feels strongly about the adverse effects mass immigration has had on workers—in 2013, telling the Daily Telegraph he would:

never, ever forgive the Labour party for allowing this mass immigration with no demands put on what people should be paid when they come to this country. I will never forgive them for destroying the jobs of my mates, because they allowed their jobs to be undercut with stupid thinking on Europe, letting them all in, so they can live ten to a room, working for Polish wages … it made me very angry.

Did he think, when he was saying this, of the Who’s 1967 song “Rael”—about Israel, but logically extendable to England? 

The country of my fathers

A proud land overloaded

Like a goldfish being swallowed by a whale …

My heritage is threatened

My roots are torn and cornered

And so to do my best I’ll homeward sail.

He has also supported Brexit, keenly aware that family members died fighting for Britain, and telling the Daily Mirror in 2016:

Whatever happens our country should never fear the consequences of leaving … Do you know what was going on before we went in? It was the Sixties. The most exciting time ever—Britain was Swinging. Films, theatre, fashion, art and music. We were the world leaders. You had Harold Pinter, the Beatles, John Osborne, Mary Quant, the Stones, Queen … and the Who. This was all before we joined the EU. We were just kids but we were filling stadiums all round the world. Britain was the centre of the world. You got that because Britain was doing its own thing.

In 2017, he told the New Musical Express:

We are getting out, and when the dust settles I think that it’ll be seen that it’s the right thing for this country to have done, that’s for sure … The majority of this country felt that their voices weren’t being heard. It would have been nice to do a deal with Europe but they didn’t want to do a deal … This country will always be alright.

Daltrey walked out on his first wife and young son in favour of music—something he is not proud of, although they later became reconciled. His chief post-gig relaxation was sex, with a seemingly endless succession of volunteers, some of whom he impregnated. He has eight children by several women, and fifteen grandchildren. He only found out about one daughter on his fiftieth birthday, when she sent him a picture of herself with his grandchild. He is aware this could be seen as exploitation, but pointed out in 2018 that the women had gravitated towards him, and denounced the #MeToo movement as “obnoxious … salacious crap”.

By his mid-thirties, the epitome of his generation had given up alcohol and even wheat, and settled into a lasting second marriage, in a manor house in Sussex that could not have been less like Percy Road, Shepherd’s Bush. Here he has slowly metamorphosed into a small-c conservative, acting, directing, emerging as part of the Who mostly for special occasions like Band Aid, 2001’s Concert for New York City, and the 2010 Superbowl—tending his estate, enjoying small dinner parties, contemptuous of satnavs, i-phones, celebrity culture, Jeremy Corbyn and Hillary Clinton, interested in history and vintage fairground rides, and trying (not wholly successfully) to be philosophical about ancient insecurities.

“I’ve never held grudges,” he insists. “I’ve always moved on.” But two pages later, he is angry Lambert and Stamp were let off lightly in a 2014 documentary. And throughout there is anxiety—about his singing ability and his song-writing. A 1984 album, Parting Should be Painless, consisting of more-or-less autobiographical self-penned songs, was poorly received, and this may have deterred earlier publication of this book, whose very title demonstrates he frets about his intellectual heft. When in 1983 he landed acting roles in The Beggar’s Opera and Comedy of Errors, he started to feel he’d proved himself to his old teachers—but even now he is unsure, almost gushingly grateful to classicist Mary Beard for saying the 2012 Quadrophenia revival had “encapsulated the late 20th century period perfectly”. He exults, “An A+ from a proper academic. That really made me happy.” When he says at the end, “Thanks very much Mr Kibblewhite. And I really mean it,” he seems really to be saying, “So there!” Yet he has good reason to be proud of his achievements. 

Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite will not win literary awards, and Townshend’s memoir Who I Am cuts deeper. It would have been better had Daltrey allowed himself (or been allowed) to reflect on what all this meant, what all that energy amounted to. But readers do get abundant entertaining anecdotes about the underbelly of the Sixties, by one who was not only there but remembers it, and retained his sense of proportion. His story of social upheaval and the making of striking music parallels the wider Western trajectory—painfully accumulated capital and ancestral vigour deployed in a great attempt to remake the world, and have a good time doing it. That attempt, we now know, was vain, the collateral damage vast—but while the Sixties lasted Daltrey helped make them burn brightly. He cannot be blamed for rising in that fire, or held responsible for its ashen aftermath.

The most evocative section is on Woodstock, which the local authorities had labelled a “state of emergency” and to which Nelson Rockefeller wanted to send the National Guard—the last great happening of the Sixties before hope died, where the Who played a starving, sleep-deprived, LSD-laced sixty-five-minute set (someone had spiked Daltrey’s tea) in the disconsolate pre-dawn. “Let’s drive, we used to say before a gig,” remembers Daltrey—the group always aiming at driving their sound right through the audience and smashing through the back wall. But this gig had no back wall. It stretched instead into infinity, 500,000 soaking, drugged-up, mud-caked, feculent freeloaders and idealists vanishing over the horizon. “I had to drive the curvature of the earth,” he says in the book’s finest phrase. Even down-to-earth Daltrey found it tough to comprehend that arena, and pull himself and the Who together:

Everything was breaking down. Everything and everyone was soaking wet. There were constant power cuts, people were climbing up on the stage, climbing up the lighting rigs. Pete said he saw a kid falling from the rigs and possibly breaking his neck. It was billed as an Aquarian Exposition—three days of peace and music. But it was chaos.

The organisers were threatening not to pay, then Abbie Hoffman jumped on stage, grabbed Townshend’s microphone and shouted, “I think this is a pile of s**t while John Sinclair rots in prison” (Sinclair, a poet, had been handed a ten-year sentence for marijuana possession). Townshend kicked him off the stage and threatened to kill the next person who tried to take his mike. Music and peace …

Then, in a lambent instant, the sea of squalor, with its rock-god presiding genius, was transfigured. As Daltrey sang the anthemic “See Me, Feel Me” from Tommy, a forgiving sun came over the horizon to bathe the Dantesque scene in beauty:

See me
Feel me
Touch me
Heal me
Listening to you, I get the music
Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountain
I get excitement at your feet
Right behind you, I see the millions
On you, I see the glory …

It was the end of the Sixties, and the dawning of a more doubtful day.

Derek Turner is the author of the novels A Modern Journey, Displacement and Sea Changes. His website is www.derek-turner.com

Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite
by Roger Daltrey

Blink, 2018, 345 pages, £20

 

1 comment
  • pgang

    They were the only generation to gain the slightest benefit from ‘enlightened’ secular humanism. The rest of us are paying the price.

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