By MIKE CHAIKEN
In 1965, the list of artists who hit Billboard number one is like a graveyard of bands that once were.
The Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Supremes, Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman’s Hermits, Sonny and Cher, the McCoys, the Dave Clark 5… and the Beatles. They’re all gone. Most of them haven’t been around in decades.
Some bands who hit number 1 still kind of exist, like The Temptations. But they pretty much are a brand name rather than a creative entity. And the Beach Boys exist, but again, they’re more of a memory, with the surviving members all laying claim to their own version of the group that once was.
Only the Rolling Stones, who hit the charts in 1965, continue to make music and tour.
In 1965, a British band—formerly named The High Numbers—released their first single and their album under their new name.
With its stuttering lyrics, “People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation),” The Who’s sounded like nothing else on the radio. And despite some surf music-influences, the subsequent album, “My Generation” was unlike anything on the radio at the time.
And that pretty much was the story of the band—which at its heyday was singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townsend, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon. The Who broke more ground in its career than any band could ever hope for.
“My Generation” is often cited as the precursor to British punk rock. Albums like “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” perfected the art of the concept album and rock opera. With “Live at Leeds,” the band set the stage for the arena rock that dominated the 1970s. And Pete Townsend established himself as a timeless songwriter that bled into a successful solo care.
To imagine that a group— which one day spoke about dying before they get old— is still touring after 50 years, is mind-blowing.
The Who, which is now just Daltrey and Townsend after the early passings of Moon and Entwistle, is on the road celebrating five decades together with its The Who Hits 50 tour. The group performs at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Sunday.
Daltrey was in Connecticut back in October 2014—at Connecticut’s other casino, Foxwoods—as part of the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp Afterward, he spoke to the press about the anniversary, his younger days, and his love for the late country singer Johnny Cash.
The 50 years since “My Generation” feels like a blink of an eye, said Daltrey.
“It’s amazing how time does fly,” said Daltrey, “especially in rock and roll. Way back in the 60s we were losing friends by the week.”
“To make this age, to still be making records, and still being able to, and have people come see you at all, to actually still be standing, is pretty remarkable,” said Daltrey. “So we’re just enjoying it.”
Although the band by now is the very definition of commercial and artistic success, Daltrey explained it wasn’t always so.”
“We failed our first auditions. We got turned down by EMI. As did other groups of that period,” said Daltrey.
“When we started, we actually had to make our own guitars,” said Daltrey. “That’s the kind of world we came from. It’s almost impossible to imagine the world we have now.”
“With The Who, back in the ‘60s, we were fighting, rowing, taking all sorts of obscene substances, I mean we weren’t very good either,” said Daltrey.
At the Fantasy Camp, after Daltrey sat in and sang with the participants, he took time to sign autographs. He signed a few albums. But he also signed a myriad of guitars for the campers.
“All those guitars I’m signing, one after another. It’s almost like they’re worthless. In those days (when The Who started). You had to make it. You had to invent it.”
At the camp, Daltrey sang “Ring of Fire,” which was popularized by country legend, the late Johnny Cash.
Although it seems country music would be alien to a rock and roll belter like Daltrey, it’s not the case.
“I’ve got a big empathy for Johnny Cash because I used to work as a sheet metal worker in a factory,” said Daltrey.
“We didn’t have any entertainment. We were hammering all day on pieces of metal and there were presses going and guillotines,” said Daltrey. “It was one cacophony of rhythm. So we used to sing. And, of course, Johnny’s songs have that one (rhythmic pattern like machinery). So we would get that rhythm going and we’d all sing Johnny Cash songs.”
“I was 15 years old back then so it’s so deep inside of me,” said Daltrey of Cash’s music. “I didn’t know where Folsom Prison was (“Folsom Prison Blues” was one of Johnny Cash’s most famous songs). But those songs rang in my brain. A lot of my friends were in prison up the road.”
“I love playing (Johnny Cash’s) songs live because not so many people do. He was a huge influence on me,” said Daltrey. “I just admired him as a man. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but he stood by what he said.”
Looking back on the 50 year anniversary, Daltrey was willing to share responsibility for The Who’s longevity. “We haven’t made it alone. It’s a team effort. Without their support (the fans), we’re nothing. I’d still be working in a factory.”
The Who Hits 50 tour comes to the Mohegan Sun Arena on Sunday, May 24 at 7:30 p.m. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts opens. Tickets are $145 and $109. For more information, go to MoheganSun.com or TheWho.com