The legend is often well known for outselling the truth. There are other times when the legend is the truth, but obscures another story – and Keith Moon belongs in that category. Many, if not most, of the things you’ve heard about The Who drummer’s eccentricity (other descriptions are available) are probably accurate – but they sometimes get in the way of the overriding musical truth about the man: that he was a drummer like no other. And to think he was originally going to play the bugle.
Starting out with The Who
When Moon was recruited by the fledgling Who in 1964 after passing an audition in a pub, no one would pretend that they knew how the dangerous, essential chemistry would develop between four of the most cohesive forces rock music would ever see. He was never likely to make old bones, but if rock stars live dog years, then the 14 in which Keith Moon was in all of our lives are like another person’s lifetime. Maybe he’s living out a quiet retirement somewhere up there, or down there…as if. Staying dead disgracefully, more likely.
More seriously, it’s very rare to come across a record by The Who on which Moon is not a crucial part. He was there through eight albums and around 35 singles, unforgettable to the last beat. For all the abiding glory of Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey’s brilliant 12th album under the band’s name, WHO, even they would admit that the soul of the group was wounded beyond measure that sad night of September 7, 1978. It’s still impossible to think that Moony was just 32 years old.
Perfectly suited for The Who
Daltrey affectionately put the world to rights about Moon’s importance to The Who in a conversation with this writer in 2016. “The general perception of Keith Moon as a drummer is that he was chaotic, sloppy, but it was anything but,” said the frontman. “It’s just that his algorithms [he laughed as he said the word] were a little bit different, that’s all it was.
“He played with every instrument playing on stage, and he managed to make it work,” Daltrey continued. “I understand how it wasn’t four-to-the-floor rock’n’roll drumming, but for The Who, it was perfect. The entertainment from that man…the humor. I mean, looking at the audience is what the singer does, he never sees the band. But I can imagine he must have taken the piss out of me something terrible! The mind boggles.”
One of Moon’s final appearances on camera was in The Who’s video for the title hit from his last album with them, Who Are You. Filmed at their Ramport Studios in Battersea, London, for the movie The Kids Are Alright, it’s a wonderful last glimpse, capturing his playful spirit and some heart-warming horseplay with Pete, Rog, and John Entwistle, as Moon thunders through his magnificent drum parts with his wayward headphones clamped to his head with duct tape.
Versatility as a drummer
No other rock drummer has ever treated their kit as a lead instrument, and from 1965 the media were saying that The Who “slaughtered their amplifiers.” But that never meant that Moon bludgeoned or bashed his way to the front of the mix, either on stage or on record. Especially as the group matured, and as Townshend’s writing grew ever more nuanced and episodic (notably from the Tommy era onwards), that would soon have caught him out. Moony could do light and shade just as easily as he could be the most exhilarating powerhouse any band ever had.
Entwistle once remarked that Moon played not from side to side, but forwards. “Keith Moon – now there’s a drummer who doesn’t believe in my policy of taking a back seat!” joked his eventual successor Kenney Jones, during Small Faces’ heyday of 1966. You knew what he meant, but Moon could play with detailed restraint, as on so many Who tracks, such as “I’m Free”; with full theatricality, as on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; or, often, with a combination of the two on the same track – out of his brain, and back in it, on “5:15,” for example.
“Keith was innovative, always playing the unexpected,” wrote Blondie’s Clem Burke in the foreword to 2016’s authorized A Tribute To Keith Moon: There Is No Substitute. “There are so many great riffs and fills that are inspiring – just check out something like ‘Young Man Blues’ from Live At Leeds.
“I’ll never forget the scene in the film The Kids Are Alright – Keith’s headphones gaffered to his head playing along to the synthesizer sequence. Talk about being ahead of his time, that’s what most drummers are doing today in concert!”
Another huge admirer among his peers was Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, who would always watch Moon as closely and as often as he could. “Bonzo” sat in on the entire “Won’t Get Fooled Again” recording session. Townshend later revealed that A-list jazz drummers such as Buddy Rich and Tony Williams were also fans.
‘I’d like to play Hamlet, but he wasn’t a drummer’
Moon’s apprenticeship in his native north London, with the Escorts, Mark Twain and the Strangers and the Beachcombers, meant that he hit the ground running in his new employ. He was the so-called mod who loved surf music and daft humor. And has anyone ever owned their sound from the get-go the way that Moon does on The Who’s first single under that name, “I Can’t Explain,” or the debut album that followed late in that same year of 1965, My Generation?
“There are many sides to Keith Moon’s strange personality,” wrote Rave magazine in 1966. “One minute he’s insulting, exaggerating, joking – the next minute he’s a wide-eyed, innocent-looking drummer boy.” Three years later, writer Keith Altham attempted to interview him for the same publication. It was suitably chaotic. “I’d like to play Hamlet, but he wasn’t a drummer, was he?” said Moon.
“I suppose it could be written in that he was a drummer in his spare time – a bit of a dab hand with the sticks. Let’s face it, he must have been ’cos he had a sense of rhythm. It was a bit of a fluke that I can play drums really or that I can’t play ’em really. I’m not a great drummer. I don’t have any drumming idols – I know a few idle drummers.”
The Moon legacy
Moon did make one solo album, 1975’s Two Sides Of The Moon, but other ambitions remained unfulfilled. “I’ve no real aspirations to be a great drummer,” he said. “I don’t want to channel all my energy into drumming, or to be a Buddy Rich. I just want to play drums for The Who, and that’s it,” he told Chris Charlesworth in 1972. “I think a lot of my lunacy is because I want to do some film work. Pete has got his writing, John has got his writing and producing, and Roger has got his farm. My interest is into filming and videoing.”
For all of the TV sets out of windows, the blowing up of the Smothers Brothers’ set on television and riding the hovercraft on the lawn (as his daughter describes to us here), it’s reassuring to remember that, above all else, Keith Moon just wanted to play drums for The Who. For all of the sense of a life cut short, he did that as no one else ever could.
“I think the word I would use to describe Keith’s drumming is ‘free’ rather than ‘anarchic’,” wrote Townshend in the introduction to There Is No Substitute. “He knew no boundaries.”