Playing with legendary Who vocalist Roger Daltrey is badass enough. But what happens when an opportunity to play with the Who itself drops in your lap?
Last February 5, I was hanging out with a friend, and just as he was leaving for home my phone rang. It was the Who’s music director, Frank Simes. The band was in the midst of a tour playing their classic 1973 double album, Quadrophenia, and drummer Zak Starkey was suffering from tendonitis. “We might need you to come down to San Diego tonight and play,” Frank said. “Can you stay right by your phone?”
My heart jumped out of my chest. I hung up, ran outside, flagged down my friend as he was beginning to drive away, and told him what happened. Now, my buddy knew how difficult a piece of music Quadrophenia is, because the two of us had just seen the show. He also knew that I’d been out of commission for about two months due to the death of my father, and that I hadn’t been able to spend much time on anything but dealing with that.
“You’re not going to do it, are you?” he asked.
“Well, I’m considering it,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I?” He reminded me that I hadn’t been playing drums lately and that I’d never played all the way through Quadrophenia. If I went down in flames, he suggested, I could hurt my career, as well as possibly sacrifice my current gig with Roger.
But this was a call I’d waited my entire life for. Yes, I might fall flat on my face. But if I didn’t try it, I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what could have happened.
Soon Frank calls back: “Okay, we need you.” It’s definitely on.
Sitting there, I realize that to be able to pull this off, I’ll need a copy of a recent live Who show—immediately. Two hours later I receive an email with an attachment of an entire concert, saved on one long MP3 file. All the while I’ve been nervously grinding my teeth—soundcheck is supposed to be at 4 P.M., but I live in Long Beach, which can be two and a half hours from San Diego if there’s traffic. Even if I got in the car right then I’d probably be late.
I pick up the phone and call another drummer buddy, Chris. “Can you drive me down to San Diego?” “No problem.” I frantically burn the MP3 onto a CD and start scribbling notes. Two songs in, Chris shows up in his old pickup, I grab whatever I can think of and throw it inside, and we take off for San Diego—during rush hour. All during the drive, management keeps calling, asking where I am, as I madly try to take notes for the rest of the album.
Having the songs on one long audio file is making me pull my hair out—at one point, after song four, I go to hit rewind on the car CD player, and it starts the whole rock opera from the top. I’m losing time!
When we finally reach San Diego, it’s about six o’clock—and I still have two or three songs left to make notes for. Chris, who deserves all the credit in the world for keeping me calm and focused the whole way down, pulls into a parking lot across from the arena, gets out of the car, and says, “Finish up, then we’ll go.” I furiously take notes on the remaining songs and look up at Chris. “Ready?” he asks as he jumps back in the car. “Yeah,” I say, and he hauls ass toward the arena. I think he even runs a red light.
Chris and some techs help me unload my gear, and I notice that in the rush I’ve neglected to put my belt through all the loops in my pants; they’re falling down as I walk into the arena, where Roger and Who guitarist Pete Townshend are waiting for me on stage.
I anxiously jump behind Zak Starkey’s drums, which are massive in number—three rack toms, four floor toms, double kicks—and in dimension. Every one of his crash cymbals looks like it’s 24″, and there’s no hi-hat, which every drummer has—except for original Who drummer Keith Moon, of course, which is probably why Zak doesn’t have one.
As I sit behind the kit, Pete walks over and very respectfully says to me, “Let’s just take a second here and talk. If anybody realizes how difficult Quadrophenia is, it’s me, because I wrote it. I know that what is being asked of you is an incredibly difficult task. If you don’t feel up to it, there’s no pressure on you whatsoever. Zak and I have a special connection in the way we play together, and our chemistry is very advanced. If you don’t think that tonight’s going to be something that you can accomplish with the short notice that we’ve given you, then just say the word and I’ll cancel the show right now.”
I say to Pete, “I appreciate what you’re saying. I’m also a huge fan of Zak Starkey. But I’ll tell you this: I’ve made incredibly detailed notes, and if you guys are patient with me, I feel pretty confident that I’ll be able to get through it.”
Pete looks at me and says, “Okay, I think I know what to do.” Then he gets up and walks away. Something about the way he walks away makes me worry: Oh, no—did I just give away my dream? I turn around, look out at fifteen thousand empty seats, close my eyes, and imagine what it would feel like to be playing with the Who to all those fans. Then Pete returns, guitar in hand, and says, “Okay, let’s do it.” He’s decided that the show is going to go on, and that we’re going to do a run-through.
The run-through goes by so quickly—I’m running on adrenaline. At one point I notice someone sitting in the front row, just watching. After a while I realize that it’s Simon Phillips, one of the greatest drummers ever—and the Who’s drummer before Zak Starkey. We get through all of Quadrophenia, but before we get to do the encore songs, someone says, “All right, we gotta open doors!”
As I’m trying to relax backstage, in walks Simon. He couldn’t be more gracious, complimentary, and positively reinforcing.
Then it’s showtime. The last thing Pete says to me before we take the stage is, “If we have a train wreck, we have a train wreck; if we make mistakes, we make mistakes. No one’s going to know. Just have a blast.” Roger says what he always says to me: “Don’t worry, Scotty, have fun!” I take a long breath and walk on stage, and we play Quadrophenia from start to finish.
There are no giant train wrecks, no problems so big that we have to stop or restart a song. I get to play a jam along with the late, great Who bassist John Entwistle’s solo, which is projected onto the video screen, and I get to accompany Keith Moon during a synchronized video of him singing his Quadrophenia theme song, “Bell Boy.”
I make it all the way through the show.
At the end of the concert, Pete introduces the band, saving me for last. He recounts the famous story of Keith Moon passing out during a performance. That night in 1973, Pete decided to ask the audience, “Does anybody play the drums?” A drummer named Scot Halpin raised his hand, came up on stage, and finished the concert cold. I remember reading about that story when I was a kid and daydreaming, Oh, if that could have just happened to me….
When Pete tells that story, it’s a pivotal moment for me. Twelve hours earlier I was sitting at home, depressed about my father’s passing. Now Pete’s introducing me to fifteen thousand Who fans.
After the show, Simon Phillips comes backstage again, congratulates me, and asks to take a picture with me. My friend Chris comes back too and shakes my hand. Then I have to come back down to earth.
I pick up all my stuff and get ready to hop back in Chris’s pickup truck and go home. But right then the tour manager walks up to me and says, “All right, our flight leaves in about an hour.”
“Okay,” I say, “have a safe flight.”
“What do you mean?” he asks. “You’re coming with us.”
“Yeah, where’s your suitcase?”
“I thought I was just playing tonight.”
“No, Zak’s injury means he’s going to be out for more than one show. We have Phoenix tomorrow, and you’re playing.”
“But I don’t even have a suitcase.”
“Well, you better go home and pack!”
I throw my gear into Chris’s car, and he drives me all the way home. At 2 A.M. I throw open a suitcase and stuff a bunch of things inside, sleep for two hours, get up, hop on a plane, and the next thing I know I’m on tour with the Who.
I got to play six shows before Zak was well enough to come back, which was great. In line with Roger and Pete’s generosity, they asked if I wanted to just hang out until the end of the tour, even though I wasn’t playing.
At some point in May I got the call of a lifetime a second time and was asked by Pete and Rog if I would complete the summer Quadrophenia tour all throughout Europe. Apparently, Zak’s tendonitis was still giving him quite a bit of aggravation. So obviously I said I’d be honored.
But this time I had a month to prepare. I had time to design the perfect Moon/Starkey/Devours hybrid custom Ludwig Quad kit, which included 20″, 22″, 24″, and 28″ floor toms. And I spent about sixteen hours a day locked in my soundproof studio, not only trying to find my original take on Quadrophenia but also relearning how to play such a monster kit with some kind of fluidity.
Things started to grow organically, like you’d think they would with the Who. I’d been playing with Roger for years, which is an adventure like no other, but playing with Pete and Roger, not to mention Simon Townshend, Pino Palladino, John Corey, Loren Gold, Frank Simes, Reggie Grisham, and Dylan Hart, is like riding a bucking bronco atop a Ferrari at top speed. Pete in particular is a genius like no other. He never plays anything the same way twice. He loves to throw every tool he’s got at you whenever the mood strikes him, and he loves for you to do the same to him.
Even though this was the most physically demanding, mentally challenging, and emotionally overwhelming musical experience of my life, it shall remain the greatest experience I could ever have imagined. I had countless dreams growing up of what it must be like to play with rock legends, and the reality far exceeded the fantasy. The whole experience is proof that dreams really can come true. My lovely mother always said, “Be careful what you wish for, because it just might happen.” On that first show in San Diego when I was sitting behind Zak’s kit, I embodied her words. I only wish my dad could’ve seen it too.
Special thanks to RJ Johnson for his assistance with this article.