Legendary wild man of rock, Keith Moon, departed the planet for good on this day 40 years ago. The Who’s drummer stunned the world with his natural genius, but also created notoriety due to his crazy drink and drug-fuelled behaviour. Despite his early departure aged only 32, his legacy is strong – he’s regularly voted as one of the greatest rock drummers in history.
His drumming style remains bizarre, unique, and pretty much unmatchable. The Who hasn’t landed a drummer to match its musical requirements since Moon quit, via death, in 1978. What on Earth made this bucket haircut sporting, skinny, short Londoner one of the planet’s best drummers, then? Let’s have a look back and remember.
Born on 23rd August, 1946, Moon grew up in Wembley of London. Hyperactive and troublesome, he exasperated his teachers to the extent he was described in a school report to his parents as: “Retarded artistically. Idiotic in other respects”. His music teacher, however, wrote: “Has great ability, but must guard against tendency to show off.” Great to see Moon paid attention to that one.
He left school aged 14 and enrolled into college, after which he became a radio repairer. But his interest in music remained – his mother bought him a cheap drum kit and by 1961 he had the basics down. He even had a few lessons from local club legend Carlo Little.
During this time Moon joined the Beachcombers (a surf music band, a form of music he adored), before hitching up with emerging London R&B act the Detours. This ragtag lot changed its name to The High Numbers soon after to match up with the burgeoning Mod movement. A further name change awaited, with The Who emerging as singer Roger Daltrey, bassist/singer John Entwistle, and guitarist/singer Pete Townshend. This lineup was defined in 1964.
Over the next highly chaotic five years, and despite relentless in-fighting and near bankruptcy, Townshend was able to steer the group towards success with the rock opera Tommy. This made the young Moon extremely wealthy, which triggered off a phase of remarkable self-destructiveness – he quickly earned the nickname Moon the Loon. Blowing up toilets, blowing up his drum kit, destroying hotel rooms, and drinking colossal amount of alcohol were his specialities.
Although Townshend remained unimpressed with their drummer during this period (becoming frustrated by Moon’s primary focus on wild abandon), analysing his drumming style reveals a ferocious assault merged with a genuine poise (almost elegance). It was as much an expression of his personality as a drumming style. Aware of pomp and grandiosity, as well as ridiculousness and showmanship, Moon played from the heart – this was matched by lightning fast reactions, a genuine feel for music, and a feel for the dramatic.
Whilst his behaviour was explosive and erratic, his drumming remained one of the central elements of The Who’s act – there was simply no one else who played like him on Earth. His natural intellect and ready wit also made him a PR dream for the band, even after mishaps such as a 1973 gig in America at the Cow Palace – Moon took several animal tranquillisers before the show and passed out midway through it.
Whilst all very amusing, he almost died that night. Over the following years, his health plunged off a cliff. Despite a move to America (where he lived next door to Steve McQueen and infuriated the actor by regularly dressing up as Hitler and parading outside his home), The Who’s inactivity during the mid-1970s led him, bored, to try a disastrous solo album. All the while he drank, overate, tried various destructive drugs, and burnt himself out.
Moon played with The Who for the last time on May 25th, 1978, alarming his band members by snorting an enormous line of cocaine before their final set piece. He’d gained an enormous amount of weight. And despite only being 32 he looked 50 (in comparison, the 1976 clip above to 1978 below) – he also seemed to be considering giving up drumming for good, based on anecdotes in Tony Fletcher’s extensive biography Dear Boy.
He likely had ADHD, amongst various other psychological conditions – potentially even schizophrenia. None of which were aided by his thunderous alcohol and drug consumption. So it’s sad he lived in an era where little could be done to help him psychologically, although many of his friends suggested he simply wasn’t intended for old bones.
As a drummer, however, his performances with The Who are the stuff of legend. Quite how he could hold the whole band together, essentially treating the drums as a lead instrument, and be as relentless as he was we don’t know. Although the jazz drumming community (a notoriously snotty arena) still snorts at his abilities, for us he’s one of the greatest drummers of all bloody time.