From the turbo-charged ‘My Generation’ to the gently hypnotic ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, Keith Moon worked well off Pete Townshend, as the two formed the fiery backbone that pushed The Who forward. Brimming with ideas and firing from the cylinders, their work rippled with excitement, burning with passion that was dipped in rebellion and romance. Inexplicably, Townshend decided to continue fronting The Who after the mercurial percussionist had left this world with Kenny Jones taking his place.
Let’s put it this way: Jones playing for The Who was akin to Eric Stoltz playing Marty McFly instead of Michael J. Fox. Moon was replaced by a consummate professional who played with reverence but didn’t emulate the personality and playfulness of the early recordings released by The Who. This wasn’t a reflection on Jones’ drumming abilities, but in the unfortunate position that was thrust upon him. He was simply the wrong person for the job, and like Stoltz, intellectualised the music rather than pander to the beats of mainstream music.
Like many musicians, Townshend and Moon enjoyed a fiery relationship, and the two seemed to get on just as much as they didn’t. But there’s no denying the impact Moon had on Townshend’s compositions, and he often kicked ballast into Townshend’s low-key, lo-fi numbers, bringing added danger and ballast to the proceedings. Where Townshend played with beauty, Moon demonstrated danger, and it was the combination of the two raw talents that made for riveting listening.
Recently, Roger Daltrey has expressed an interest in producing a feature film that will highlight the talent of the percussionist in a series of striking colours and lights. And although the singer is the one who is overseeing the project, Townshend has given his opinion on the feature, and how it will turn out.
“When you talk about it as a Keith Moon biopic,” he said, “It’s going to be the first semi-fictionalised, dramatised Who story. It will be a Who biopic. Somebody is going to have to play Pete Townshend. I’ve read some very, very varied opinions about what my relationship was like with Keith. I view it one way, and other people view it another way. I certainly was never at war with Keith, but neither was I his puppy.”
This will be interesting, as it should showcase the musicians for their performances, pioneering skills and personal philosophies. The film is no doubt inspired by Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic that nabbed Rami Malek an Academy Award, as well as Rocketman, which exhibited the crazy lifestyle of being a rockstar in the 1970s. As it happens, The Who were as feisty as Queen, and like Elton John, were renowned for their hedonistic posturings. Out of everyone in The Who, Roger Daltrey was the only one who didn’t drink, which likely explains why he declined the opportunity to sing ‘However Much I Booze’, preferring to sing ‘How Many Friends’, which was an essay of defiance in a changing world.
But it would be better if the film shows the band for their tempestuous interactions with one another. In the aforementioned interview, Townshend described the percussionist as both a showman and a manipulator but bowed down to his almost supernatural abilities as a drummer par excellence. And in his own way, he admired Moon as a person, feeling that his personality added to the mosaic of sound that made the band’s explosive trajectory. The two men regularly tried to outdo one another, as Moon would throttle his cymbals to the beat of Townshend bashing his six-stringed instrument to the ground.
Townshend said he wouldn’t countenance a script that didn’t show some of the uglier sides of the band. He was unhappy with a treatment that was pencilled in the 1990s. “I was in New York in 1993 working on the Tommy Broadway production,” the guitarist remembered. “I was sent a script by my friend John Lahr, the writer. It was just OK.”
He felt Daltrey had painted the drummer as an emblem of rock that shouldn’t be contested or questioned, feeling that the mythos was more powerful than the history in question. Townshend didn’t admire the premise, nor the unvarnished, unwavering praise that was levelled at the musician in question. But the band were never the choirboys that many mothers had hoped them to be, but the angry, angsty rockers young teenage boys needed them to be.
To be truthful, the film will need to demonstrate the fire, fury, fervency and futility of the band, showing them as equal parts musician and maniac, putting as much focus on the backstage antics as it does the towering, trembling live gigs that cemented their reputation. And that’s what Moon deserves, not some fanciful feature that shows him to be a formidable percussionist and drummer. We have Live at Leeds to support that particular theory.