There’s a case to be made for Keith Moon as England’s greatest drummer. He was wilder than Ringo Starr, more propulsive than John Bonham, and played with the might of a football hooligan battering the face of a member of the rival team. Indeed, there was a violence to his drumming that was excitingly masculine in its wake, making the more feathery Starr fills seem tame in their wake. Starr’s son Zak Starkey was blown away by his “uncle”‘s skill and invoked the drummer in his wake. To no one’s surprise, The Who decided to hire Zak Starkey in the 1990s, a role he has filled ever since.
Not everyone was a fan of Moon’s drumming, which Ginger Baker was more than happy to point out. “Keith Moon as a drummer?” Baker sneered. “Nah.” And then he stuck the knife in: “He was good with The Who, I suppose, when he tried to play like me.” It’s hard to imagine Moon channelling his inner Baker, as none of the drums fills on ‘Who Are You’ recall the bounce of ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, or the dense cymbal work that soaked ‘White Room’.
But Moon’s drum fills were laced with personality, which likely explains why he still resonates with a series of indie-rock drummers. Tony McCarroll’s drums on ‘Bring It On Down’ is his Moon moment, bringing gravitas to Oasis, and dynamism to the tracks that were crackling with electricity.
But listening to ‘Who Are You’ in 2022, it’s clear to see why The Who needed Moon, and why Kenney Jones – a craftsman who played with great precision – could never replicate his drums on the subsequent works. None of the albums released since Moon’s death have managed to live up to the attack of his tenure, so it’s fitting that Moon’s last album featured a monster of ‘Who Are You’s calibre.
And yet Moon was struggling to recapture the magic, having barely recorded a drum part in the intervening years. Producer Jon Astley noted the struggle: “I do know at the beginning he really wasn’t playing well,” he said, “and he was all over the place and they had to sit him down and tell him to get his shit together. I don’t think he was drinking at the time, he was on slimming aid and things like that. In fairness to him, he did get it together on the album and he really plays really well on parts”.
But by the time the band were ready to perform the film for The Kids Are Alright– the band’s musical documentary, released in 1979 – he was playing better, pirouetting from all corners of the kit, pummelling through the bass drum to release angular energy. Moon being Moon, he can’t resist pulling a series of comical faces, which likely explains the more sanguine Baker’s displeasure in the percussionist, but there’s nothing disingenuous about the drum exhibition. Indeed, he’s a tour de force, bringing muscle and romance into the mix, cleverly taking attention away from Roger Daltrey, the band’s gorgeous lead singer.
It’s hard to imagine another drummer taking focus away from their lead singer unless you were talking about Roger Taylor, whose angelic good looks and shrill falsetto vocals were a key part of Queen’s success, so it’s worth noting the impact Moon had on the world of rock.
Moon had no singing ability to speak of, although that didn’t stop him from recording the awful Two Sides of the Moon, and his songwriting contributions were few and far between. But that didn’t matter when he played with such ferocity and sheer will, starting a drum backdrop that was as important to the band’s sounds as John Entwistle’s shrill bass playing and was as theatrical as Pete Townshend’s form of guitar playing.
The three men clearly enjoyed each other’s company, as can be heard on ‘Who Are You’. Moon, Entwistle and Townshend joined together to sing on the track, embodying the choirboy harmonies that frequent a London chapel. For once, Moon’s goonish, garish backing vocals were useful for a track, creating a helium type of backing vocal that was spirited and sincere in its transformation.
But the band were always as tuned into their camaraderie as they were into the piercing musicianship that made up the backdrop of the band’s trajectory. Is ‘Who Are You’ the band’s finest hour? It’s not our place to conclusively say whether or not it’s the band’s best, but it’s certainly a terrific exhibition for Moon to show off his percussive abilities. There are not many drummers who can pull off an instrumental, but Moon could, and there are not many drummers who can draw attention to the back of the stage, but Moon did. And that must surely stand for something.
Stream Moon’s drumming on ‘Who Are You’ below.