The late Who drummer, Keith Moon, was a totally unique character in the chronicles of rock ‘n’ roll history. A brilliant rhythmic virtuoso who hated drum solos, his loose, loud and jazz-inspired style endeared him to fans worldwide, and he continues to be a source of inspiration even over 40 years since his passing. A remarkable feat that only John Bonham has genuinely surpassed.
Running concurrently to his unmatched skill as a drummer was his madcap antics off-stage. Labelled ‘Moon the Loon’ by bandmates and friends, his unhinged pranks would land him and The Who in hot water on numerous occasions over their career, giving us, the wet-lipped consumer, plenty of rock ‘n’ roll’s most notorious stories.
In a way, his life was one of symbiosis. You had the musical genius on the one hand, and then on the other, the unrelenting prankster who loved blowing things up and submerging cars in swimming pools. Who can be surprised that Moon’s life was as such? It was the 1960s and ’70s, after all. The excessive behaviour of rock stars was not so much as facilitated as it was encouraged.
Whilst we could discuss the point that Moon was perhaps on the autistic spectrum, as The Who frontman Roger Daltrey suspects, which would account for his manic behaviour, including the actions that led to his tragic death from a clomethiazole overdose in September 1978, it is his life we want to celebrate, as to do otherwise would not do him justice.
It is well documented that over his career, Moon struggled with substance abuse problems, and wickedly, it was after he had vowed to sober up for good that he ended up passing away from the drug he was prescribed to alleviate his sickness. Prior to that definitive decision, though, Moon had embodied rock ‘n’ roll excess. He was there during John Lennon’s infamous ‘Lost Weekend‘, and since the early days of his career, he was a proponent of mixing drugs and alcohol. He was a product of his time as much as he was his own demons.
Understandably, this started to impede his ability to play music, and by 1973’s Quadrophenia tour, the stark reality of this was brought more into focus. Before the debut US date, yes the debut date, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, Moon ingested a mixture of tranquillisers and brandy. Unsurprisingly, he passed out during ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
The band stopped playing, and Moon had to be carried off the stage by a group of roadies. He was given a shot of cortisone and was back on stage after 30 minutes. However, the band’s efforts proved to be in vain. He passed out again after ‘Magic Bus’ and was removed from the stage for a second time. The band played without him for several songs before guitarist Pete Townshend asked the audience: “Can anyone play the drums? – I mean somebody good?” Luckily, Scot Halpin answered, and he played the rest of the show.
This was indicative of things to come. The last tour date Moon played with The Who came on October 21, 1976, at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada. Not his final performance with the band, as he played a handful of times for the documentary The Kids Are Alright in May 1978. Instead, this Canadian show was his last official outing with the band. If the two-year gap between shows is not reflective of the state of his health at this point, we don’t know what is.
The ironic thing about the 1976 tour is that by all accounts, it was more of a back-to-basics affair rather than the glamorous tours that had supported both Quadrophenia and Tommy. If the Quadrophenia tour was the first sign that something was wrong with Moon, the ’76 trip confirmed it. Playing in Europe before crossing over to the US, Moon became unwell, and the opening date was rescheduled. They had to dig deep to get to the finish line, but after the tour, even Townshend was done. He took a year out of the band to spend time with family.
Musically, the 1976 tour ended a success, but the fractures in the band had also reached boiling point over its duration. It is a shame no footage exists from Moon’s show in Toronto with them because it surely would have been an incredible sight, a real piece of history. Moon was an iconoclast, and without him, The Who were nothing; they knew this too. Another casualty of rock ‘n’ roll excess, even 45 years later, his life is one we could all learn from.
Watch a 1975 Keith Moon interview below.