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Remembering the madcap, tragic genius of Keith Moon

Today marks what would have been the 75th birthday of rock ‘n’ roll’s resident mad hatter, the late Keith Moon. Though not a man of the greatest stature, the size of his character was by all accounts, tremendous. As the rhythmic mastermind of British rock ‘n’ roll icons, The Who, Keith Moon carved a mythos out for himself that has never truly been matched. His laid-back yet visceral drumming style was totally unique and endeared him to fans worldwide. Along with the equally as batshit but just as brilliant Ginger Baker, Moon helped to popularise the double bass drum style that we now see ubiquitous in the heavier genres of alternative music. 

Whilst we may concentrate on his technique, and his concentration on certain parts of the drum kit, no discussion of Moon would be complete without paying attention to the man behind the drum kit. His off-stage persona created a dense and chaotic profile of one of rock’s best ever drummers. 

Moon was born in London and grew up in the north-western suburb of Wembley. Always hyperactive, right from being a young child, Moon had a vivid and active imagination. He was particularly fond of music and the ludicrous plotlines of Spike Milligan’s radio comedy, The Goon Show

In fact, Moon was so hyperactive that in a 2013 interview on the Howard Stern Show, The Who frontman Roger Daltrey opined that he thought Moon was slightly autistic but was actually never diagnosed, as back in those days, it wasn’t a subject that was ever spoken or even widely known about.  Additionally, Moon was always a keen admirer of practical jokes and home science kits, with a special fondness for explosions. Together these two elements would add to his notoriety as an adult.

Moon failed his eleven plus exam, which stopped him from attending his local grammar school. Showing just how times have changed, and for the better, his art teacher described his constitution as: “Retarded artistically. Idiotic in other respects”. However, in a more perceptive and much less ignorant take on the young Moon’s raw materials, his music wrote that he  “has great ability, but must guard against a tendency to show off.”

Remarkably, this sentiment would define many moments in his career. In relation of this idea to the recording studio, it wouldn’t be until 1971’s Who’s Next, the band’s fifth album, that “associate” producer Glyn Johns would truly harness Moon’s rhythmic ability. This would stem from Johns insisting that a regimented style was key to a solid performance, and that flamboyance should only be used lightly and when appropriate. 

Keith Moon of The Who

Initially, at twelve, Moon joined his local Sea Cadet Corps on the bugle but found it too difficult. This led to him deciding on the drums as his weapon of choice. On his way home from Secondary School, Moon would frequent Macari’s Music Studio on Ealing Road to practice the drums, and it was here that he made his first incursions into the realm of drumming, honing the very basics of the instrument.

Dissatisfied with school and given the art teacher’s statement above, not getting the appropriate attention or teaching, Moon left education at the ripe old age of fourteen, circa Easter 1961. He then enrolled at the nearby Harrow Technical College and secured himself a job as a radio repairman shortly after. This new profession would unwittingly have a defining impact on Moon, as it enabled him to purchase his first drum kit. 

He then took lessons from one of the most in-demand and loudest contemporary drummers, Carlo Little. A Wembley local and a staple of the London nightclub scene of the 1960s, Little famously played in Screaming Lord Sutch’s band, the Savages. He influenced the Kinks and was even the first drummer of the Rolling Stones before they hired Charlie Watts. Furthermore, and most critically, Little is credited with hammering the bass drum, a technique that Moon would develop and make his own. 

Moon’s lessons with Little, which were 10 Shillings per lesson (£9.50), would carve out the earliest iteration of Keith Moon the drumming maestro. His early style was a patchwork of different influences. These included American surf music, blues and jazz. In fact, his favourite musicians were jazz artists such as American jazz legend Gene Krupa. It was later revealed that Moon also loved Hal Blaine, Viv Prince, Tony Meehan and Elvis Presley’s original drummer, DJ Fontana. 

Given his energetic temperament, Moon also loved singing. His two favourite vocal styles were the soul of iconic Detroit label Motown and the Californian surf harmonies of the Beach Boys. In 2009, Daltrey remarked that if Moon was given the opportunity, he would have left the Who to play for the Beach Boys at the drop of a hat, even at the peak of the Who’s own massive fame. 

In the early ’60s, Moon started playing in the band format. He first started his first “serious” band, the Escorts, with his best friend Gerry Evans. However, by 1962, he had joined the Beachcombers, a covers band playing the hits of the day, including by the Shadows, of who one of his hero’s, Tony Meehan was the drummer. It was during this brief stint with the Beachcombers that Moon would begin incorporating comic tricks into his act, including shooting the lead singer a starter pistol.  

Keith Moon

The Beachcombers turned out to be somewhat of a dead-end opportunity, as the members all had day jobs and didn’t have an interest in turning professional. Come April 1964, aged just 17; Moon would audition for The Who as a replacement for the original drummer, Doug Sandom. Meanwhile, the Beachcombers continued on their merry way as Wembley’s premier covers band. 

There abounds a commonly-known story about the way Moon joined the Who. Allegedly, he appeared at a Who show in the wake of Sandom’s departure, where the band were currently employing a session drummer. 

For some unknown reason, it is said that he was covered from head to toe in the colour orange. Guitarist Pete Townshend later described him as a “ginger vision”. Moon being Moon, he aptly told his would-be bandmates that he could play better than the current stand-in, and took to playing for the band in the second half of their set. He was right. He made his mark. This was not all. The drum kit was to be the first of many that would be destroyed at the hands of the man who would later become known as “Moon the Loon”.

Recalling that life-changing audition, Moon explained: “they said go ahead, and I got behind this other guy’s drums and did one song—’Road Runner.’ I’d several drinks to get me courage up, and when I got on stage, I went ‘arrgggGhhhh’ on the drums, broke the bass drum pedal and two skins, and got off. I figured that was it. I was scared to death. Afterwards, I was sitting at the bar, and Pete came over. He said: ‘You… come ‘ere.’ I said, mild as you please: ‘Yes, yes?’ And Roger, who was the spokesman then, said: ‘What are you doing next Monday?’ I said: ‘Nothing.’ I was working during the day, selling plaster. He said: ‘You’ll have to give up work… there’s this gig on Monday. If you want to come, we’ll pick you up in the van.’ I said: ‘Right.’ And that was it.”

That was to be it. The fate of The Who was sealed. They would go on to become one of the biggest and most influential groups of the ’60s and ’70s, and they would release eight albums with Moon in his lifetime. The four-piece would contribute so much to rock ‘n’ roll. This extensive list includes developing the iconic Marshall stack of amplifiers, large PA systems, the use of the synthesiser, power chords, and the rock opera. Moreover, bassist John Entwistle and Moon’s unusual rhythmic partnership and style would influence droves of future musicians. 

Overall, The Who are cited by many as the first hard rock and punk rock band, and along with the Small Faces, are hailed as the ultimate mod band. The Who were so influential, they boasted fans ranging from the Beatles to the Stooges to Queen. Ironically, Moon claimed that he had never been formally invited to join the Who on a permanent basis. He maintained that he had “just been filling in for the last fifteen years.”

Moon’s accession to the Who also upset the quartet’s dynamics, which had hitherto been more peaceful. Sandom’s side-job was the peacemaker between the ever-feuding Daltrey and Townshend. However, his departure left a tempestuous void. The four members would then be constantly bickering. Looking back, he recalled, “We used to fight regularly”. He continued, “John and I used to have fights – it wasn’t very serious, it was more of an emotional spur-of-the-moment thing.”

Moon’s larger than life character would also lead him into frequent conflict with Daltrey and Townshend, which lead to him stating:  “We really have absolutely nothing in common apart from music”. This wasn’t necessarily true, though. Moon and Townshend would at points become very close, particularly as the band’s stature grew, and in the early years, they bonded over improvised comedy and Moon’s favourite outlet, practical jokes. 

There is no doubt that Moon was an extrovert in every sense of the word. His teachers knew it. His bandmates knew it. His fans knew it. Accordingly, out of the four, he was the one who loved touring the most. A characteristically restless individual, he loved socialising with his bandmates and got bored when not playing live. This raucous mindset would then spill over into the rest of his life, “as if his life were one long tour”, according to biographer Dave Marsh. It was these off-stage antics that earned him the infamous nickname, “Moon the Loon”.

His off-stage antics are possibly as legendary as his contributions to music. The band’s live set would see them destroying their equipment, and they would subsequently label it “auto-destructive art”. This was not all though.

Moon also targeted the innocent toilet. Armitage Shanks et al. were not safe. Owing to his long-standing fascination with explosions, Moon ended up making many of the world’s bathrooms look like an impromptu greek wedding had just taken place. His armaments of choice were cherry bombs and even dynamite. Looking back, Townshend remembered, “we got thrown out of every hotel we ever stayed in.”

Keith Moon of The Who

In reality, nothing in Moon’s immediate vicinity was safe from destruction. Even his local vicar was affected by his wanton trail of madness. Whilst there is ample discourse on Moon’s unhinged behaviour, the most infamous came at his 21st birthday party in Flint, Michigan. What ensued was possibly the most iconic moment of rock ‘n’ roll’s decadence. 

It all started off with a food fight. Cake flew everywhere, Moon knocked his tooth out, a fight erupted, fire extinguishers were sprayed, objects (including guests) were thrown into the swimming pool, and reportedly, a piano was listed among the casualties. It got so out of hand that the police arrived with guns drawn, which promptly ended the hellish festivities. The Holiday Inn management were so furious that the bill totalled $24,000, and the band were slapped with a lifetime ban from all of the company’s properties. This was also the occasion that Moon is said to have driven the Lincoln Continental into the swimming pool, although the widely held claim is now said to be a fallacy. 

Over the course of the band’s career and his life, Moon was plagued by drug and alcohol dependence. His life was not all happy-go-lucky, and these dependencies were exacerbated by a number of setbacks. These included the breakdown of his marriage to Kim Kerrigan and the accidental death of his chauffeur Neil Boland in 1970. These two consequential events would leave a dark, indelible impact on Moon. Subsequently, his long-standing addiction to brandy and amphetamines would become equally as infamous as his other antics. Moon is also the only man credited with quite literally drinking Oliver Reed under the table.

Unfortunately, Moon passed away in 1978 owing to an overdose of clomethiazole tablets mixed with alcohol. He was only 32. However, what he left behind is an unmatched legacy. Not only was he one of the most pioneering drummers of all time, but he has influenced so many of our favourite drummers of more contemporary times. Furthermore, his madcap off-stage antics provide us with a deeply allegorical set of stories, showing how and how not to live. He will continue to remembered as long as music exists. Thus, in the words of his memorial plaque, “there is no substitute”. So on what would have been his birthday, why not raise a glass to this brilliant and complex individual?

Watch Keith Moon’s final TV appearance, below.