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Why Keith Moon was so essential for The Who

Guitarist Pete Townshend addressed some of the misgivings about his life in the excellent book Who Am I, published in 2012. For the first time, readers were invited to sympathise with the man who carried The Who through five decades of work, culminating in the excellent Endless Wire in 2006. By that time, The Who were effectively reduced to a duo as Townshend carried the band with co-frontman Roger Daltrey. Bassist John Entwistle died in 2002, drummer Keith Moon died in 1978 and Kenney Jones – who replaced Moon in 1979 – has disassociated himself from the orbit since the late 1980s.

For many, Moon’s death spelt the end of the band, because his pummelling drum patterns wrapped themselves so neatly over Townshend’s iconoclastic lyrics. There was merit to this argument, as the percussion on It’s Late lacked the thunder of the early albums, and Jones was forced to carry the brunt of the blame that should probably have been aimed at Townshend, who was not writing to the calibre he was capable of. But the band were still blinding live, and although they were ramshackle, they were one of the highlights of Live Aid in 1985.

Clearly, Moon made an impression on Townshend, because when he found a more permanent replacement in the 1990s, it was through a drummer who revered Moon’s work. Drummer Zak Starkey was the son of a Beatle, but he learned to play drums to the sound of Moon’s beat. Starkey brought new life to the band who had finally discarded the shackles of creativity to become the drummer fans of the band had hoped The Who would hire.

For the legacy of the band is as much Moon’s as it is Townshend’s, and the percussionist captured the songwriter’s creative muse in a way that surprised even him. He remembered the percussionist in one of the book’s more memorable passages. “As soon as he began to play,” Townshend wrote, “We knew we’d found our missing link. Roger tried to befriend Keith, but Keith kept his distance. He also seemed to see Roger’s success pulling girls at our gigs as a challenge. They sometimes chased the same girls in these early days, and it was never clear to me who was winning . . . Keith’s main pal in the band became John [Entwistle]. They were hysterically funny together and shared an apartment for a while. Roger and I got the impression they did almost everything together, including having sex with girls. It must have been mayhem.”

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To borrow a phrase from Yeats, a terrible beauty was born at that moment in time. Rock drumming stepped up a gear, and anything recorded before seemed tame in comparison. Ringo Starr‘s drum presence seemed impressive in 1964 – listen to those walloping backpedals on ‘She Loves You’ – but Moon made it seem like child’s play, particularly on the explosive ‘I Can See For Miles’, where the drummer kicked, thumped and hit from all angles of his kit.

A terrible beauty was born, and although the drumming performance became an albatross for the band when they elected to replace the percussion player after death. Whether or not Moon could have played in a more accomplished band like Led Zeppelin is up for debate, but he suited The Who’s anarchic energy, and what’s most apparent from the guitarists’ memoir is that he valued the work the drummer brought to him. It’s also clear that the guitarist made an impression on the percussionist, and together, the band created a stunning catalogue of work that still holds up to this very day.

Stream ‘I Can See For Miles’ below.