The Who were never the chummiest of groups. Although drummer Keith Moon enjoyed a bond with bassist John Entwistle, he didn’t feel as close to Pete Townshend, The Who’s songwriter and musical director. And then there was Roger Daltrey, the band’s volatile singer, always that bit more handsome and debonair than the percussionist at the back. The two regularly argued, ultimately leading to a near broken nose for Moon. Daltrey was briefly fired from the outfit, but the two men were professional enough to put those differences aside for the sake of the music.
Moon enjoyed a healthy social life outside of The Who. Graham Chapman, one of the members of Monty Python, was a pal of his life, as was Ringo Starr, although that didn’t stop Moon from trying to take his place in The Beatles. In Pretend You’re in a War, author Mark Blake says Moon approached Paul McCartney and asked if he could “join them”. The bassist misunderstood and told Moon he was already sitting in the booth.
If McCartney had taken the drummer up on his offer, Moon would have been the third drummer to play with The Beatles. Starr had replaced Pete Best in 1962, and it took him years to get over his role as “the new guy”. Imagine how he might have felt if they chucked him out for the guy in The Who. Nonetheless, Starr and Moon enjoyed a tremendous friendship, and Moon acted as a mentor to Starr’s eldest child, Zak Starkey.
Daltrey didn’t mention The Beatle connection when he talked to Uncut, but he offered another tasty alternative. It all stemmed from his description of ‘Happy Jack’, the band’s jauntiest and most drum-heavy single: “I remember when I first heard ‘Happy Jack’, I thought, ‘What the fuck do I do with this? It’s like a German oompah song!’ I had a picture in my head that this was the kind of song that Burl Ives would sing, so ‘Happy Jack’ was my imitation of Burl Ives”.
And then he points to the percussion, adding: “But listen to Moon on that track – in those days he was so distinctive. Even from the very first night, he played with us. We got Keith, this kid we didn’t know out of the audience, on the drums and it was like this fucking jet engine starting. I was like, ‘What the fuck’s THIS?!’ It was such instant chemistry. Really, we couldn’t have had any other drummer. He was incredible”.
So far, so positive. Then, the punchline kicks in. “The funny thing about Keith, though, he was a total Beach Boys nut. Even in the ’70s, if The Beach Boys had asked Keith to join them and leave The Who, he’d have left us. He was an absolute fanatic. That first night he joined us his hair was bright ginger ’cos he’d gone out and bought a bottle of peroxide to become a Californian bleach blond – but with his jet black hair and the peroxide he’d gone like a bloody carrot.”
Like many rock bands from the 1960s, The Who were influenced by The Beach Boys. No, the harmonies were never as crisp as the notes the Wilson brothers sang together, but some of the yearning rubbed off on Pete Townshend. Like Moon, Townshend had a predilection for surf rock, as is evinced by the fiery instrumental, ‘The Ox’.
And then there’s the small matter of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, a charming Brian Wilson composition Moon covered in 1975. I’m guessing Moon was following Starr´’s lead when he decided to record a solo album, but unlike the Beatle, he could neither write nor sing, meaning that his first solo album, Two Sides of the Moon is a ramshackle affair, devoid of sense or melody.
But ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is an earnest attempt, and if I’m being honest, it sounds no worse than the myriad karaoke parties I’ve attended in my life. Moon gets marks for effort, more marks for enthusiasm — but we’ll draw a line at quality.
I’m not sure I want to imagine a Beach Boys fronted by Moon, but it’s an interesting speculation, nevertheless. He may have thought about quitting, but Moon was nearly fired from the band in 1978 as he struggled to record the drums to Who Are You. Eerily, Moon can be spotted sitting on a chair that reads “Not to Be Taken Away” on the cover of Who Are You. Weirder still, the drummer died three weeks after the album was released.
By their own admission, The Who never recovered from his death, but they did find a strong replacement in the form of Zak Starkey in the ’90s. For Starkey, he wasn’t sitting in for another drummer, but an extended member of family. “Keith was like an uncle, really, ” he said in 2006. “He was one of my dad’s best friends. When my brother, sister, and I used to stay with my dad there, we would occasionally spend a few days at Keith’s house. Keith was the babysitter. We would just hang out and talk about anything, really–girls, surfing, bands, drums. He was a really fantastic guy to hang out with.”