The Who are undoubtedly one of the most legendary – and infamous – rock bands of all time. From their iconic mod style to the lyrics of ‘My Generation’, compounded by the individual brilliance of each member, they are a band who have instilled themselves in the collective consciousness of music fans. This affinity started in their swinging ’60s heyday and has survived until the present.
The band produced hit after hit, and the virtuosity of drummer Keith Moon, bass player John Entwistle, and guitarist Pete Townshend, spearheaded by charismatic frontman Roger Daltrey, endeared them to fans worldwide. However, The Who also cemented themselves in popular culture for another reason; their off-stage antics. Hard partying and relentless in their drug and alcohol abuse, these tales have transcended their era; need we mention that swimming pool or that Rolls-Royce?
In his autobiography, Who I Am, Pete Townshend recounts no end of bizarre, hilarious and often downright insane anecdotes that are as shocking as they are candid. Opening up on his bisexuality and struggles with alcoholism, the iconic guitarist peppers the book with vignettes involving some of the more mythical characters in rock’s history, including Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and, of course, old Slowhand himself. In the book, Townshend shares a prior unknown tale, one that demonstrates the severe extent of Keith Moon’s acerbic wit, whilst also painting the marvel percussionist as more human than the classic stories would have us believe. This is the story of how Pete Townshend nearly died after a flower eating contest.
The story recalls the celebrations for Keith Moon’s 20th “un-birthday”, set in a hotel room adorned with flowers. The curious thing about this particular celebration was that it was held in December, eight months before Moon’s actual birthday in August. Moon was in his element; a running party gag of his was to compliment a flower, then promptly eat it – befitting the nickname ‘Moon the Loon‘. Unsurprisingly, the guests at the party were treated to a performance of this act. Townshend notes that, on this occasion, the gesture was explicitly made to delight a 17-year-old called Kathy, whom Moon had personally escorted to the soiree.
After dinner and formalities, Moon stood up and proclaimed that come the present tour’s end, he would leave The Who. Naturally, Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle reacted with utter shock as Moon demanded everyone drink a toast to his decision. Townshend mentions how Kathy did so enthusiastically, believing her to have been unaware of the gravity of Moon’s decision. The temperature started to rise:
“”What next?” I demanded. “You eat another flower?” My cynical emphasis was on the word “flower,” but I gestured to Kathy.
“No!” Keith was quite calm. “You eat a flower.” He gestured at the display.
I wasn’t going to refuse this challenge. I took a bloom from the display, put it in my mouth and started to chew…
My throat suddenly began to burn, then swell up, and my breathing became constricted before turning into a kind of noisy death-wheeze. I was allergic to whatever I had put in my mouth, and starting to suffocate. No one seemed to have taken it in but Keith. Suddenly he leapt across the table and looked straight in my face.
“‘I’m fucking choking’, I gasped.“
Moon dropped all bravado and demanded an ambulance was called. Luckily, at this point, Townshend’s throat began to clear, and he gradually began to recover. Moon stayed at Townshend’s side for the duration of the ordeal, tears welling in his eyes, petrified his friend might die. In trademark style, Moon revealed that his announcement had been a joke. “I was winding you up, mate,” said Moon, “Trying to impress the lovely Kathy here.”
Not only does this story have the absurdity of a Hunter S. Thompson tale, but by rapidly dialling up the heat, it serves to instil humanity back into the larger than life characters of Moon and Townshend, two so-called ‘rock gods’ of that bygone era. Sadly, The Who and many of their contemporaries’ careers are mired in excess and tragedy, illustrated by Moon’s premature death in 1978, aged just 32, caused by a drug overdose.
Fundamentally, behind the chaotic lifestyles that led to these wild tales, intrinsic to The Who existed friendship, gung-ho camaraderie, and undoubted musical talent. This translated into the albums and live shows, endearing the band to fans worldwide and culminating in their legendary status.