The man who earned the description “the greatest Keith Moon-type drummer in the world” was Keith Moon. Who called him that? That was Keith Moon, too, and the best Keith Moon performances reveal exactly why The Who’s late drummer stands apart from all who came before or since.
The quote conveys the sheer individualism of the man, but far beyond the “Moon The Loon” caricature, Keith John Moon was a brilliant and irreplaceable musician. Remember, for example, that he was placed at No.2 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers Of All Time list, second only to John Bonham and ahead of such fellow giants, now sadly also gone, as Ginger Baker, Neil Peart and Hal Blaine.
Moon’s death, in 1978, at a desperately early 32, brought The Who close to permanent shutdown, until the thankless task of sitting at his drumkit fell to Kenney Jones and, in the more recent incarnation of the band, Zak Starkey. But The Who’s original drummer left a mighty cache of performances, captured in the studio and on the stage, from which we offer this list of the 20 best Keith moon performances.
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20: ‘Dreaming From The Waist’ (live in Swansea, 1976)
Moon in the studio was exciting; Moon on stage was exhilarating. So we begin with this live recording, captured at The Who’s Vetch Field Stadium show at Swansea City Football Club on the Who By Numbers tour: a simple example of the unique cohesion of the Townshend–Daltrey-Entwistle-Moon machine, underpinned as always by Keith’s unflagging beat.
19: ‘So Sad About Us’
Back to late 1966 for an example of the band’s youthful sound and a power-pop prototype from their second album, A Quick One. “So Sad About Us” gains much of its momentum from Moon’s powerhouse performance. Soon after the drummer’s death, the song was covered as a B-side of “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” by The Jam, whose own sticksman, Rick Buckler, said in the book Keith Moon: There Is No Substitute: “I admired Keith Moon as a drummer even though he wasn’t my sort of drummer; his drumming, like his life, seemed close to the edge.”
18: ‘Happy Jack’
Complete with a suitably wacky period video in which Moon ends up covered, naturally, in cake, here’s The Who’s UK No.3 and first US Top 40 hit. It’s an early example of his innate ability to handle tempo and mood changes, laying a depth charge under Townshend’s ambitious and episodic writing. Listen in particular to the dazzling dozen seconds or so from 0’57”, featuring what is very nearly a drum solo in a 1966 pop single.
17: ‘The Real Me’
The first of several inclusions from Quadrophenia demonstrates the way Moon played drums not as mere accompaniment, but as a lead instrument. The three-way fluidity in the verses between his vivid fills, Entwistle’s bass and Daltrey’s consummate rock vocals is electricity itself.
16: ‘I Can’t Explain’ (live in Texas, 1975)
The first single release by The Who under that name was already more than a decade old when they played it at the Summit in Houston, Texas, on November 20, 1975. The footage may be a little grainy, but the performance is spot-on, underpinned by Moon’s feverish zest.
15: ‘The Rock’
Perhaps not instantly recognizable by title, this is the mighty instrumental that preceded “Love, Reign O’er Me” on Quadrophenia. “I knew he was a one-off drummer, but in the same way as the rest of us were one-off,” said Entwistle of Moon. “We constructed our music to fit around each other. It was something very peculiar that none of us played the same way as other people, but somehow, our styles fitted together.”
The kit is smaller, the eyes a little wider, the antics more measured, but this is the essence of Moon aged, probably, 19. His fills at the end of each verse are, as so often, like vocals of their own.
13: ‘Behind Blue Eyes’
Moon’s drums don’t even appear on this classic from Who’s Next until well over halfway through. But then, from 2’18” onwards, he dances like the devil with Daltrey’s vocals and Townshend’s lead guitar, before helping to steer the song back into port, for its gentle and majestic conclusion. Daltrey has called “Behind Blue Eyes” his all-time favourite Who song.
12: ‘Pinball Wizard’
Not just an immortal Who song from Tommy, but a performance of it that’s carved into rock history, from their appearance at the Isle Of Wight Festival in the early hours of August 30, 1970. Just like the title character in Townshend’s vivid narrative, Moon plays by intuition and becomes part of the machine.
11: ‘Sea And Sand’
To the introductory sounds of the sea and seagulls, The Who launch into another great moment from Quadrophenia. Moon’s percussion is a brilliant combination of restraint and personality. As with all the great rock drummers, everything stems from his playing, and it’s thrillingly cohesive.
10: ‘Baba O’Riley’ (Shepperton Studios, 1978)
This performance of the opening track from Who’s Next was filmed on the B-stage at Shepperton just a few months before Keith Moon’s death. It was captured in front of an invited audience which included lucky members of Pretenders, Sex Pistols and others, with Moon as magnetic as ever.
9: ‘Love, Reign O’er Me‘
The last track on Quadrophenia is the album’s magnificent crescendo, described by Jim Beviglia in American Songwriter as a “majestic catharsis.” He continues: “The drama conjured up by the music is potent. Townshend’s tone-setting synths eventually give way to Keith Moon’s peppery drums and John Entwistle’s thudding bass…‘Love, Reign O’er Me’ exemplifies the band’s ability to combine tough and tender.”
8: ‘My Generation’
The concept of drums as a lead instrument is to the fore again on the song that defines The Who’s early rebellion. The back-and-forth between Moon and Daltrey in particular, as the vocalist pauses for dramatic effect and the drummer cues him back in, is one of the most brilliant call-and-response effects in rock. Steve White, the respected drummer and longtime collaborator of Paul Weller, remembered in Keith Moon: There Is No Substitute that this was his introduction to Moon’s drumming. “I was struck by the way the cymbal propelled the whole track along,” he said. “There was very little playing to the back beat. Keith was playing along more to the vocal, but as well as playing for the song, he was playing for himself, too, and I really liked that.”
“‘Bargain’ opens with a classic rock’n’roll drum fill,” wrote Brad Schlueter in Drum!, “in which Moon plays snare ghost notes between the accents; these are felt more than heard, yet they contribute lots of energy to the feel. For the timekeeping duties, Moon again makes frequent use of his bass drum, playing eighth-notes of varying volumes while hammering snare notes and brief tom fills on top of them.”
6: ‘Young Man Blues’ (from Live At Leeds)
A track from not just The Who’s definitive live album, but one of the greatest albums ever made, this is a must for our list of the best Keith Moon performances. The band covered the Mose Allison song in their early days, but it became a staple of their set in the late 60s. As one admirer put it, the extraordinary Live At Leeds performance has the drummer going “from total anarchy to a dead stop, over and over.”
5: ‘Bell Boy’
A Moon signature and a rare singing/speaking role, in a key moment of the Quadrophenia narrative. The album’s engineer, Ron Nevison, remembered: “The biggest problem with Keith on the drums was finding a place to put the microphones. He had so many drums – two hi-hats, two kick drums, six or eight tom-toms – it was challenging just to get in there to get the snare drum covered.”
4: ‘Who Are You’ (live at Ramport Studios in Battersea, 1978)
Filmed at The Who’s Ramport Studios in Battersea, south London, Moon’s performance, with his headphones gaffer-taped to his head, is as glorious as his part on the record.
3: ‘I Can See For Miles’
An early Who masterpiece, with Moon playing his full part in a classic of psychedelic pop that should, as Townshend himself avowed, have been a No.1 single. Moon’s drums are, in many ways, the lead instrument, a soloist among soloists. Rock critic Dave Marsh called it “The Who’s best: thunderous Keith Moon drums, a Townshend guitar line that starts out like an earthquake and finishes like a razor.”
2: ‘A Quick One (While He’s Away)’ (The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus, 1968)
Widely revered by Who fans as another of Moon’s most awesome performances, this version affords the extra visual treat of the band’s appearance on The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus. Filmed in Wembley in December 1968, it’s a marvellous timepiece and even, around 4.27, captures Keith hurling his side tom across the stage. But of course.
1: ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’
It seems only right that this scintillating rendition of The Who’s 1971 anthem should top our list of the best Keith Moon performances – partly because of his breathtaking work on both the original and this May 1978 version (again taped at Shepperton Studios), and partly because this was his last-ever performance. His solo that sets up Daltrey’s definitive rock scream near the end has almost impossible drama and tension.
“There’s something in the back of my head that tells me Keith never would have made an old man,” Daltrey told Dan Rather in a 2013 interview. “He wouldn’t have wanted to be an old man. He wanted to be the world’s greatest rock drummer, and he died being that.”