There is a silver lining to the devaluation of recorded music that has accompanied the streaming revolution. Legacy acts and record labels that have grown accustomed to the passive income generated from their old master recordings are continuously returning to the vaults to pad out rereleases of classic albums with outtakes, demos, and other material that were usually only of interest to scholars and maniacal fans.
The release of a new deluxe edition of Pete Townshend’s Who Came First got us at Modern Drummer thinking about process: how do the beloved versions of these classic songs and drum performances come to be? Now that we have access to various consecutive versions of these tunes, can we get any closer to the je ne sais quoi that equals Keith Moon’s contribution to the timeless, tumultuous music of one of the greatest acts in history, the Who?
On a basic level—and possibly the main takeaway for drummers—is the fact that Keith Moon’s dramatic orchestral-style drum arrangements on the songs on Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, which are considered by many to be the band’s two greatest recordings, indisputably elevate the material. Moon’s drumming is at once singular and masterful on a level that transcends technique, and it is a major contributing factor to the continued fascination with this music by listeners and drummers. Decades after Moon’s tragic death at the hands of his nonmusical appetites, his legacy remains strong. Stray no further from the pages of Modern Drummer, and you’ll find his inspiration mentioned in just about every issue.
This examination uses as a starting point some mid-period (1970-73) Pete Townshend demos for Who songs in which he recorded all the instruments (including his simple yet adroit drumming), and compares them to various versions that include Keith Moon, studio and live. We wanted to see what happened between the demos and the final recordings, and if we could discover anything about the process that Moon took to get the songs to their beloved state.
Townshend wrote in the introduction to A Tribute to Keith Moon (There Is No Substitute), “Of course [Moon’s] drumming style was important to the way I wrote songs. I produced demos of most of my songs, and as soon as I had the space I started to play the drums myself on those demos on a small kit Keith gave me, [which] I still own.” Townshend’s Premier five-piece kit included two rack toms, a floor tom, a kick, and a snare, and it appears in photos from the time period.
Weighing the relative merits of some of rock ’n’ roll’s most famous drummers, the perennial argument that has migrated from drum schools to message boards to Twitter and beyond draws a comparison between technique and soul, chops and feel. Keith Moon is perhaps the most revered character from the classic-rock era (along with John Bonham), celebrated by drummers for his creativity and spirit and known to more casual fans of the music for his outsized appetite. For a student of the drums, he’s a confounding paradox.
In beginning astronomy, students are told that faint stars can be seen more clearly in your peripheral vision than from dead on. When you stare at certain sky phenomena directly, they disappear, but glance away and they clarify around the edges of your vision. There’s a similar phenomenon when you try to analyze Moon’s drumming, particularly in a live setting. At times it’s sloppy, rangy—watching him on film, you could say that he wastes a lot of energy. Pete Townshend wrote recently, “Some of his fills were incredibly complex, but undisciplined, and they didn’t always come off.” But it was a tradeoff. Keith Moon was a supernova of energy—perhaps still the standard bearer for vitality behind the kit. For many readers of Modern Drummer, he remains high on our list of greatest rock drummers, despite the fact that according to him and his longtime assistant Dougal Butler, he never practiced!
Butler writes in his book Keith Moon: A Personal Portrait, “There was never any jamming going on [at Moon’s house Tara], as Keith never kept a drumkit in the house and never seemed interested in that kind of thing…. At times it was hard to believe that he was really a professional musician.” In Moon’s last interview in International Musician in 1978, he says, “As you know, I don’t practice on my own.”
It’s a phrase that detonates the advice and pedagogy of this magazine and could also be one source of Moon’s popularity: that he’s just natively brilliant. But Keith Moon is one in a million—the ability to improvise on cue is usually a highly studied pursuit. You could even call it an illusion. Brilliant drummers are showing the proverbial tip of the iceberg when they perform. Their years and years of practice lie beneath the surface. What makes Moon different? How did he create these incredible performances?
We spoke with the Who’s longtime sound man Bob Pridden to try to find keys to Keith Moon’s process. Despite the rumors that Moon never practiced, Pridden was not so sure. He assumed that Moon would work on demo arrangements on his own. But he knew when the band was in the studio, it was alchemical. “Keith would work those parts up in the studio,” says Pridden. “He was just a natural. It was amazing to watch.”
Let’s take a few of these Townshend demos and put them up against studio and live Who performances, and see if we can find the spirit of Keith Moon.
A fascinating version of this seminal Who track called “Baba O’Riley Instrumental” appears on the new Who Came First collection. Townshend was pioneering the use of synthesizers in pop music, and the title references his guru, Meher Baba, alongside minimalist composer Terry Riley, whose own “A Rainbow in Curved Air” is an acknowledged inspiration for Townshend. In the liner notes for the new edition of Who Came First Townshend writes of this demo instrumental, “I think this is a masterpiece.”
My first impression listening to this early version of “Baba O’Riley” is that Townshend’s drumming completely denatured the tune. Townshend even acknowledges that when he was listening to the track again to prepare the new liner notes: “I kind of missed…Moon’s drums.” But on further listening, Pete’s simple drum arrangement does allow the synthesizer’s mesmerizing pattern to take a center role. Once you understand these demos as personal messages to the rest of the Who, especially to Moon, some of Townshend’s sloppy fills take on a different intent. They point towards the performances that Moon will eventually give the song, and as such open up a fascinating window into the band’s communication. It also shows us exactly what kind of energy Keith Moon injects into this music.
“When Pete writes something, it sounds like the Who. The drum phrases are my phrases, even though it’s Pete playing. He’s playing the way I play. He’s playing my flourishes.”—Keith Moon from a 1972 Rolling Stone interview.
“When I was writing, I tried on my demos to indicate what Keith might like to play to suit the song.”—from Pete Townshend’s introduction to There Is No Substitute.
These early versions can be seen as true demonstrations, the drumming a framework that Keith Moon could build and expand upon—occasionally injecting the music with a transcendent life that brought the material into a rarefied realm.
There are a few live versions of the tune available for us to listen to and watch—and you need to see Keith Moon play to fully understand the magic.
In an NME interview from 1972, Keith explains something about his inspiration: “I love to see people laugh, and I love it more if I can make them laugh. I think this comes across in my drumming.
“I watch a lot of Marx Brothers movies,” he continued, “and they were doing the same sorts of things…. It’s a question of taking somebody else’s music, but not sending it up in a derogatory sense. Just injecting your own personality. Pete [Townshend’s] music allows me to do just this.”
A live version of “Baba O’Riley” from Houston in 1975 is readily available online, and the drum-less synthesizer intro is a perfect example of Moon’s epic clowning. He stands on his drum stool, strikes absurd poses, points faux-dramatically into the cheap seats, and twirls and spins his sticks constantly, sometimes in sympathetic rhythm with the synth burbles. It’s a brilliant showbiz performance, inserting comedy and farce into the pretension of Townshend’s brilliant composition. Is it a necessary piece of the whole? I’m voting for a resounding yes. As Townshend’s aspirations stray further from the blistering simplicity of their early singles, Moon reframes the tunes with his comedy and joy. As he says above, it’s not derogatory, and clearly Townshend does not take it as such.
Cut to a later version of the tune from 1978’s The Kids Are Alright film and album, and “Baba O’Riley” sounds somewhat plodding and restrained. This was a small concert filmed at the Who’s film production center, Shepperton, during the end of their initial run as a band, and accounts from the time describe it as a very tough performance for Moon. He struggled to perform the entire concert and took a number of breaks to catch his breath. Staying locked to those synth backing tracks seems to drag the band down a bit. Moon seems to be champing at the bit with each big chordal hit, but the push/pull tempos that we’ve grown used to in their other tunes are absent here.
We know that playing to a backing track does not necessarily equal a poor drum performance, and watching the live video, you can see some of the showmanship that Moon contributed. But this late performance a few months before his death is not very strong. Even Moon’s original performance had to be overdubbed later in the studio, and in Tony Fletcher’s great biography Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon, he describes the painful struggle those sessions were for Keith. Fletcher writes that after those overdubs, which did not really improve the performance markedly, “Keith never played the drums again.”
But the Who’s Next version of the tune is stunning, and as Townshend explains in There Is No Substitute, “Keith could play to a prerecorded tempo exceptionally well, something that every good drummer can do today, but was unheard of in 1971.”
Cue up the gorgeous studio performance on “Baba O’Riley” that ended up on the final album, and compare the ways that Townshend and Moon introduce in the drums. Keith gives Townshend’s suggestion a bit of additional mustard, adding some snare and tom syncopation to the phrase. Once we get a few measures into the tune, Moon’s drums are fairly close to Townshend’s save the orchestration and an additional kick hit on the “&” before 1 of the beat. Moon accents the descending chords of the main riff with emphatic crashes. Snare and tom flourishes occasionally burnish the static pulse of the synthesizer. What was more of a meditation on Townshend’s instrumental demo becomes enlivened.
There’s been a lot written about this era of the Who, and the implicit battle between man and machine as expressed by those amazing synthesizer experiments stacked up against the eros of Keith Moon’s drumming. Each section of Townshend’s composition is engaged head on by Moon’s playing, and when the tempo increases at the end of the tune and is paired with the violin solo, Moon’s snare matches and then raises the intensity perfectly. It’s a drumming tour de force.
I agree with Townshend’s assessment—both versions of the song are worthy of exploration, but this is a drum magazine, damn it—I’m coming down on Keith’s side!
“Pure and Easy”
Why isn’t “Pure and Easy” on the officially released Who’s Next? This was supposed to be, according to Townshend, “the fulcrum song” for the concept album project called Lifehouse that remained unrealized until a few years ago. In this song Townshend describes a kind of all-knowing note that transcends all, and connects all humans. It’s pretty heady stuff, and even though it’s an essential piece to his Lifehouse concept album and was recorded at the Olympic Studio in New York, then later for the final Who’s Next sessions, and performed live a number of times during that time period, it was left off Who’s Next.
If we examine the song and extrapolate from the lyrics, we find a conceptual piece of music that seeks unity; it is aspirational and programmatic about harmony—human and musical. A case could be made that it’s one of Townshend’s greatest songs. It’s certainly one of my favorites. However, the Who, while trafficking in a more rarified conceptual air since the rock opera Tommy, were not best known for this kind of inclusive, love-is-all kind of philosophizing.
True to form there is a dark edge to the lyrics, and the Who, with their voracious appetites and their nightly instrument destruction, exhibited a kind of counterpoint to the “love everyone” pablum that shared the stage with them at the Monterey Pop and Woodstock Festivals. The Who performed the dark side of love and were the yin to the Woodstock generation’s yang. Keith Moon’s drumming and Townshend’s guitar smashing made explicit the deeply unsettling fact that as the West was self-actualizing, a large cohort of their audience were killing and being killed on the other side of the world
“Pure and Easy” emerges out of this stew of anxieties, after the psychodrama of Tommy and the powerful and nascent early albums and singles. The version of this song released on Who Came First was recorded entirely by Pete at his home studio using that small five-piece Premier set given to him by Moon. While exhibiting some home-brew charm and a few stumbling moments on the drums, this is in my view the definitive version of the song, though it’s a serious toss-up.
Townshend’s drumming is solid, and occasionally confident, with a tricky intro drum fill that lands on the 1 with a sustained guitar chord supported by an organ drone programmatically suggesting the harmony note that will unite all of humanity. Pete’s drums support the song without elevating or superseding the lyrical content. There’s a steady kick pulse on the “&-1, &-3” between 4/4 backbeats. It’s at the service of the song, and there are a number of rolls that might point to Keith Moon’s signature four- and five-stroke flourishes.
There’s nothing to really indicate Moon’s presence until the final section of the tune, which starts around 4:40. During the outro Townshend really blasts, sending a few chaotic fills all over the tape (abetted by some bongo overdubs). Then some hand claps replace the drumset, and the final chorus repeats into a fade out.
The outtake version from NYC’s Record Plant of “Pure and Easy” from the deluxe version of Who’s Next starts very strong with Moon’s intro fill. Keith brings an immediacy and restlessness to what in demo form was more of a meditation. Initially I felt that perhaps Moon’s emphatic energy was too much of a counterpoint to the idea of the song and that the simple drive of Townshend’s original drumming was better suited to the lyrics. But of course the band performance revealed some nuances and darkness that the original demo elided, so I’m torn. Moon’s drumming is excellent on the “Pure and Easy” studio performance, restrained during the verses, and even completely absent during the suggested explosive part from Townshend’s demo. I’m wondering if they muted his drums during the 2003 mix of that material. Either way, it’s another great Moon performance, and I’m back on the fence.
The live version of “Pure and Easy” from the deluxe Who’s Next was recorded in 1971 at the Young Vic as the band was working up the concept of Lifehouse in front of a small audience a little more than a month after the initial studio sessions in New York. The energy is palpable in the performance, as Moon’s gleeful fills raise it to original heights. It’s not a perfect performance, but that’s rock ’n’ roll. I start to wonder about the complexity that Who’s Next sacrificed when the band left this song off the album.
There is one final version of the song to examine from the rarities album Odds & Sods. This was an outtake from the Glyn Johns-engineered Olympic Studios session, from which most of the final Who’s Next album emerged. The pace is slower than other band takes, but it’s a confident version—a little less grasping and unhinged. It’s the kind of performance that would pass a producer’s muster when “master takes” are being compiled. Every fill is executed clearly and cleanly, but it lacks some of the Dionysian craziness we associate with the best Keith Moon performances. I can see why they left it off Who’s Next, but I’m not sure that was the best decision. Of course now all the versions are here for us to explore, and the concept of a discreet album has been left pretty much moot. Keith Moon’s performances bring out the nascent clashing energies in the song, and his raucous fills counter the “pure and easy” note.
“Behind Blue Eyes”
This next track is kind of a given, but let’s take a look anyway. In Townshend’s great 1983 collection Scoop we’re presented with an acoustic demo of “Behind Blue Eyes” without drums. The penultimate dramatic moment from Who’s Next, it’s a song meant for a nemesis character in the original Lifehouse project. Townshend writes in the Scoop liner notes, “The demos I made to accompany the Lifehouse [project] I wrote in ’71 are among the best I have ever produced.” Producer and engineer Glyn Johns agrees in his Sound Man memoir: “I was permanently intimidated by Pete’s demos, as I was constantly challenged to make what we did sound as good [as] or better than the original.”
The simple presentation displays a more purely melancholic side of Townshend, but as he writes in the Scoop liner notes, “The band later added a passion and fire that really made it blossom from the sad song it appears to be to the proud self exposé it became on Who’s Next.”
For the New York Record Plant sessions, Moon finds that rock energy to accompany the middle plea section, “When my fist clenches, crack it open!” It’s a great version of the tune, but compared to the final session at Olympic Studios where there’s a comfort and tenacity to Moon’s performance, there’s no contest. The drums sound better as well! Hats off to Glyn Johns.
In the live version recorded at the Young Vic about a month before the New York session, Moon emphasizes the power chords that introduce the middle full-band section, instead of using those “&-1, &-3” bass hits as a jumping off point like he does in the final studio version and subsequent live performances, like the one found on Greatest Hits Live that was recorded in San Francisco in December of 1971.
There’s really no contest here; in each version of “Behind Blue Eyes” Moon dramatizes the narrator of the song, expressing his anger and power while plumbing the ineffable violence of the clenched fist. Keith finds the fluid spaces between those power chords, and in doing so gives the composition its longevity and life.
“Every piece of music we played…was different immediately after Keith joined.
The chemistry changed, and it was quite clear from day one.”—Roger Daltrey Rolling Stone interview, November 6, 2013, with Andy Greene.
A clear illustration of the feel and groove contribution that Keith Moon gave to Townshend’s compositions can be found perhaps most dramatically in “Bargain.” On the Scoop demo there is a 16th-note feel to the kick and snare pattern, giving the tune a decidedly funky feel.
The live version from the Young Vic concert recording (Who’s Next Deluxe Edition) is a glorious train wreck. It seems as if Keith Moon is still finding his way with the tune. Moon plays the first few lines of the song in double time before suddenly dropping to the demo’s groove for a measure or so—and then revving up to double time again. Okay, it’s actually a pretty terrible performance; by 1:30 the tempo has already fluctuated wildly a number of times. The band recovers throughout the final few minutes of explosive shredding, but it’s definitely a work in progress.
Something ineffable has happened once the band settles into the studio with Glyn Johns for the Olympia Studio sessions. This is probably one of the most obvious transformational moments for Keith Moon’s playing. The neat, funky groove of Townshend’s demo is completely upended by the surging fills and mere suggestion of the original feel. That pulse is left to bassist John Entwistle and Keith’s kick drum to outline, but it’s often just a touchstone that Keith will reference at the start of a line from the song—by the end of the line he’s jumped into a fill. It’s remarkable playing.
In one of Keith Moon’s final interviews, published posthumously in International Musician in September 1978, he talks impressionistically about his playing: “I believe very positively in color in drumming. You know, there’s so many drummers that can go through the routine but they don’t add color anywhere. They don’t paint with the kit. That’s what I like doing. I like painting, adding color and effects and shocking people. Constantly, while I’m playing, I’m thinking two bars ahead.”
This coloring and painterly effect can be found on another live version of “Bargain,” from the San Francisco Civic Auditorium in December of 1971, included in the Thirty Years of Maximum R&B box set. That performance is probably definitive. It’s striking how far Moon’s playing has advanced from February of the same year, when they were hacking around at the Young Vic. It’s a truly extraordinary performance without a precedent. Very few bars go by with an unadorned beat. This is drumming, this is Moon’s gift to Townshend’s song made real.
It brought out a question for Bob Pridden that I had to ask: did Keith Moon ever warm up before concerts? Did he have a routine? “He just jumped out on stage,” Pridden answered. “He was always one fire. He never needed to warm up—he was already there!”
“The Real Me”
“The high period of Keith’s drumming was, of course, Quadrophenia, and my drumming on the demos was probably at its best around this time. Later (with TheWho by Numbers and Who Are You) I became very conventional and actually started to play like a session player, and the link between my songwriting demos and Keith’s playing was broken.”—Pete Townshend from There Is No Substitute.
“It’s really difficult for me to talk objectively about a song that I’ve been very closely involved with on a creative level, drumming with and singing with and just going through the whole process.”—Keith Moon with Joe Collins on King Biscuit Flower Hour from 1974.
For the final tune in this piece we examine a track from the Who’s celebrated concept double album Quadrophenia—a moment when Townshend’s communication with Moon reached its apex.
The demo on the Quadrophenia Deluxe Edition is unusual in this examination because it starts with a drum machine that suggests some wild syncopated tom fills. Townshend’s acoustic drum track is, as we’ve come to expect, fairly straightforward—with some nice fills and a hi-hat breakdown that leads into a surprising Curtis Mayfield funk feel. There are great off-accent sections,
crisp tom fills, and a high level of energy to this demo.
“When we were recording Quadrophenia it was basically like a live show in the studio,” Bob Pridden told Modern Drummer. “We had a lot of influence from the Band’s album Music from Big Pink. We more or less set that up the same way [in one room together]. I was in the studio mixing their headphones. Basically they were playing a live performance.”
Moon’s drumming on “The Real Me” is another jaw-dropping tour de force. He took the suggested fills and funky feel of the demo and ran through it like a train.
Some live performances of the tune from 1973 show similar power and boisterous energy on display. It’s another powerful transformation of a promising demo.
Whether we’ve gotten any closer to how Keith Moon created his drum arrangements for the Who songs, I’m not sure. The availability of these recordings might help us pinpoint how Moon’s contributions brought out the best
elements of these songs. Even Townshend’s demos, as accomplished and powerful as they are, benefit immeasurably from
Keith’s longtime assistant, Dougal Butler, should get the last word: “The hairs on your neck still stood up even if you were seeing them every night,” he’s quoted as saying in the new edition of Full Moon: The Amazing Rock and Roll Life of Keith Moon. “The same with watching them in the studio. Their musicianship, and the transition from Pete’s demos to the final songs…the way it came together, with the producer’s input, and Pete’s input, and John Entwistle’s too. And then Keith just had a natural knack for what the song wanted, his fill-ins were always brilliant…it was magical.”
Listen to the tracks discussed in this story–plus several other Pete Townshend demos A/B’d with Who classics–at Modern Drummer’s Spotify page.