…when Oliver Reed tried to shoot the Moon out of the sky…
Not to glamorise excesses, but if boozing was a battlefield, then the meeting of Keith Moon and Oliver Reed is akin to a fabled allegory of some staggering, slurring, singing, Battle of Waterloo. According to Peter Butler, who was there at the scene, the fabled collision of disorderly forces defied the history books in a way that Waterloo never came close to. This is the story of the start of a very troubled friendship.
The gruff Oliver Reed – who Ozzy Osbourne, the Prince of Darkness himself, describes as a terrifying boozed-up behemoth the size of a bear with a gym membership – was reclining in a bath in his Surrey mansion, no doubt casually cogitating his next talk show antics. All of a sudden, the surface of his sudd glistened bathwater began to ripple. When the faint sound of a drowning motorbike followed, Reed wondered whether his bowels were somehow operating from a distance, like the delayed gusting effect of a curved wind tunnel.
Slowly, however, the disruption to his bathwater became more violent, and the sound rose in volume to something similar to the Ride of the Valkyries. The impending riotous commotion approaching the Surrey Mansion unannounced over the horizon caused Reed to spring into action. He leapt out of the bath, and as if slipping back into some method acting trance, he began behaving like a demented action hero refusing the white flag despite the odds being stacked against him.
In nothing more than a towel and robe, the Hollywood actor scrambled to the roof of his stately home, sucking on a woodbine… with a twelve-gauge shotgun under his arm. It was at this moment that Reed proceeded to try and figurately blast the moon out of the sky, sending the drummer of The Who and his unexpected helicopter tumbling from the heavens and explosively onto his pristine lawn.
Peter Butler, Moon’s trusty battle-hardened companion, remembers flying with the human-hurricane sticksmith and an unnamed Swedish blonde towards the gates of Reed’s dastardly domain. “All I can remember,” he vaguely recalls, “Is flying in by helicopter and Oliver Reed out on his rooftop with this 12-ball shotgun, just going blam, blam! We were scared, Keith was scared, and I was too.”
Most scared out of everyone, however, was no doubt the beleaguered pilot of the helicopter who had merely been chartered in the morning for what he thought was a routine trip above the picturesque realm of the old English countryside. Now, he was having to dip and weave the run-around chopper like some Hollywood Apache to avoid a half-dressed renowned British thespian from plucking them out of the sky with an unceasing onslaught of fire.
Butler continues: “The pilot shit himself! We had to go round and land on the backfield and as soon as we got out of the thing, he’s fucked off, the pilot, he’s gone, whoof.” He then adds: “We went there with some trepidation. Especially with me, I was thinking ‘I’ve got Mooney and I’ve got Oliver Reed’, these two could sort of go together and explode.”
Interestingly, however, he does not remark that this trepidation was exacerbated by being shot at repeatedly with a shotgun. I mean, not to put myself in this landmark tale of lunacy, but generally speaking, if I’m nervous about an encounter and suddenly a semi-naked man starts launching a deadly salvo of ammunition at me, then any reservations I had initially are heightened to the point that Sputnik is at risk of being pulled out of orbit from a concentrated blast of pure anxiety alone.
However, if the strongest steel is forged from the hottest flames, then Reed and Moon were fated to be friends all along. “It was like a match made in heaven,” Butler adds with evident relief even when merely recalling the incident. “He just put out his hand and said welcome the house here boys, and that was it, we stayed for three nights.” Seemingly, there wasn’t even a mention of ‘why the hell are you trying to land a helicopter on my property unannounced’. This is simply one of many loose ends in the epochal tale of their first fated handshake, such as, whether the pilot ever returned, or he lived out his days foraging the wilderness of Surrey like one of those Japanese fighter pilots found on South Pacific islands in the late eighties still thinking the war was on.
As it happens, Moon and Reed would remain friends for the rest of their tortuous days because the reason the drummer had shown up unannounced in the first place was that the upper-class actor was set to star in Tommy, Ken Russell’s film of The Who’s rock opera. Reed played Tommy’s stepfather in what can only be described as some of the most inspired yet ill-advised casting in the history of Hollywood. The experimental film might not have been an absolute classic, but at least it never went up in flames before it got going, like it very nearly could have.