Keith Moon is one of music’s most iconic figures. His eccentricity, frenetic energy, and tragically short life all helped solidify him as one of rock’s greatest drummers, alongside John Bonham and Ginger Baker.
Moon is so wrapped up in the mythology of his era that it’s almost impossible to disentangle him. For many, Moon is the embodiment of the anti-establishment sensibility of the 1960s. With his penchant for destroying hotel rooms and his own equipment, he has become emblematic of a way of life. But ‘Moon the Loon’ was always much more than his on-tour antics. He was an incredibly technically proficient musician and one who pushed his instrument to the very limits of its capabilities. He re-shaped public perceptions of what a drummer could be and, on multiple occasions, shook the rock establishment to its core.
After taking up the drums in the early 1960s, Moon performed with a local covers band, The Beachcombers, in his hometown of Middlesex. In 1964 he left the group to join The Who when they were little more than a fledgling act. The story goes that Moon turned up at a show shortly after The Who’s previous drummer had left the band. Pete Townsend would later describe him as “a ginger vision” owing to his orange clothes and ginger-dyed hair. Moon sidled over to his would-be bandmate and told him that he could play miles better than the session drummer they’d hired. Hesitantly, Townsend agreed to let Moon play the second half of their set. However, with a few drinks inside him, Moon only managed to make it through one song, having broken the bass drum pedal, torn through two skins and hurried off the stage: “I figured that was it. I was scared to death. Afterwards I was sitting at the bar and Pete came over. He said: ‘You … come ‘ere.’ I said, mild as you please: ‘Yes, yes?’ And Roger, who was the spokesman then, said: ‘What are you doing next Monday?’ I said: ‘Nothing.’ I was working during the day, selling plaster. He said: ‘You’ll have to give up work … there’s this gig on Monday. If you want to come, we’ll pick you up in the van.’ I said: ‘Right.’ And that was it.”
Below, we look at five of Moon’s performances with The Who, which shook the industry to its foundations.
Keith Moon’s five greatest performances:
It’s very telling that, in this televised performance of ‘Substitute’, Kieth Moon is the only member of the band who doesn’t look as though they’re about to have their portrait taken by the school photographer. Townsend has his back to the audience, Entwistle can’t keep his eyes off his shoes, and Daltry looks plain terrified.
In contrast, Moon’s spider-like pose above his kit marks him out as the beating heart of The Who’s live act. At a time when filmed performances such as this were rather straight-laced affairs, Keith Moon stunned the world with his peculiar and charismatic stage presence.
4. ‘Pinball Wizard’ – Live at The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970
In the early hours of August 30th 1970, The Who gave a performance that would go down in musical history.
In this footage of the band performing ‘Pinball Wizard’, Moon takes on an almost shamanistic power. At the rear of the stage, you can see him absorbing the energy of his bandmates, at times mimicking them and then using that energy to push himself on.
Over 40 years later, Moon’s performance is still ringing in our ears.
3. ‘Young Man’s Blues’ – Live at Leeds
Next up, a legendary track from The Who’s definitive live album. This cover of the Mose Allison song sees Moon going from zero to a hundred countless times over. Like Ginger Baker, Moon was able to convey the almost hallucinatory properties of complex drum rhythms. In this performance, he holds nothing back – hitting us again and again with a barrage of jazz-infused fills.
Moon’s innovative performance in this recording can, in part, be credited to his hatred of drum solos. Unlike his contemporaries John Bonham and Ginger Baker, he refused to play them. He even stopped in the middle of The Who’s performance at Madison Square Gardens after his bandmates paused to listen to his playing. In response, he shouted: “Drum solos are boring!”. Daltry later said that Moon: “just instinctively put drum fills in places that other people would never have thought of putting them.”
2. ‘The Rock’
This intoxicating instrumental from Quadrophenia shows Moon at the very peak of his game. The thundery tom-hits which introduce the track are instantly recognisable and provide the perfect centre point for Townend and Entwistle.
This performance is also a good example of how Moon could take his drums and transform them into a solo instrument. In this way, Moon shattered all pre-conceived notions of what a rock drummer could be.
1. ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – Live At Shepperton Studios
This last performance was, fittingly, Moon’s final ever.
It shows the entire band at the peak of their live performance, and Moon seems to be thrashing through the song with the aggression of someone battling an insatiable hunger. This performance would immortalise Moon, capturing him, just before his deterioration, in a state of euphoric concentration.
In 2013 Daltry said: “There’s something in the back of my head that tells me Keith never would have made an old man. 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.”