Keith Moon gave us laughs, he gave us music, and he gave us himself. There was no Moon without us, the audience. Here was a man who pitched drumsticks happily from the stage and made beautiful, bug-eyed faces, who looned his way around the globe, and who virtually revolutionized the basic tenets of drumset playing and design. His last act was a quiet one. He went to sleep and didn’t get up. His death was no suicide: he had just proposed marriage, he was taking on new responsibilities, and he was toning down his drinking. Let us look further.
Keith Moon was horn on August 23, 1947. Perhaps under a full moon, into the London neighborhood of Wembley, an emphatically working-class district. His father. Alfred Moon, was a motor mechanic and lived with his wife Kathleen. “Kitty,” in the sort of row housing which is common in the industrialized cities in Great Britain. After Keith were born two daughters. As a youth. Keith displayed very little of the flamboyance which would later endear him to the world press. He attended normal schools. Barham Primary and Alperton Secondary, and by all intents was a quiet student—not withdrawn, but by no means a conspicuous problem for teachers. He was friendly with local children but rarely engaged in team sports, preferring a little boxing.
As a pre-teen Keith joined the Boy Scouts, actually the Sea Cadets, which was a more demanding organization than any counterpart in America. Many of its members would stay several years and take up careers in the Navy or Army. Keith opted for a less rigorous routine and joined the band as a bugler, doubling on trumpet. The first time Keith was bitten by any genuine musical ambition was when he was fourteen or fifteen years of age. He got jobs, many of them as a salesman selling such commodities as sticking plaster, but found that he could at least equal such wages with a job in music. During a time in which he claimed to have had at least twenty-three day-jobs, he was playing weddings and parties and making four pounds a week.
The first drum kit he played was a friend’s. They would practice to records, played loudly from a small mono player. Shortly after—this would be around 1960—his father bought him a drum set of undetermined brand name for about $50.00, and Keith first experienced the shakey lugs and hardware common on British-made drums of that era. Later in life. Keith Moon would be instrumental in changing all that.
Like all parents, Alfred and Kitty assumed that Keith’s new-found interest in the drums was a passing thing, hut welcomed the change from bugle and trumpet. Keith, however, seized the sticks with conviction and abandon and proceeded to the usual succession of basement bands. These were groups without names, or with polite names as Keith later remembered them: “things like the Escort, the Pavement Oysters,” which played town halls and factory dances. The material consisted of standards of the time as well as forays into rock and roll. While still a schoolboy. Moon joined the Beachcombers. The group was the ideal forum for his emerging talents as a frontman. In fact, he often came out from behind the drums to manage a few vocals. But the material was not contemporary and Keith was restless. He had heard talk about a group called the Detours which was allegedly innovative and daring, unlike his own band. One night he dropped around to a hotel to check out the competition: “I met the rest of the group when they were playing at the local boozer. Of course. I don’t go to pubs, but as I was going past I heard this deafening call of the sirens from within so I went in to complain about the noise.” Moon was both impressed and intimidated by the group. Its members, Messrs. Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and John Entwhistle, a l l his seniors, had a certain confidence that follows after years of playing together. They had, in fact, been together for five years and if they were streetwise, it was due to engagements in Hamburg which, it will be noted, whipped the Beatles into shape. Neither bright-eyed nor nattily dressed, “sullen” as Moon remembered, they were a challenge for Keith. And what a challenge Keith Moon must have appeared! He arrived in a ginger corduroy suit with hair dyed to match. A couple of drinks later he asked if he might sit-in for a number or two. The tune that made history was apparently a number called “The Roadrunner” which was often used to separate the men from the boys, much as “Wipeout” was in early ’60s America. Moon had no trouble with the song, but his borrowed drum kit didn’t quite survive the test. He snapped a foot pedal and put the shaft through a bass drum head. There is no evidence to substantiate claims that he destroyed this particular drumset; there would be a lifetime left for this.
Keith Moon never joined the Detours, as such. He more or less drifted in and was accepted. Before any gigs were played the name became the Who. The original drummer with the lightweight hardware was bounced, as was one donated by Phillips Records who appeared at a record session rehearsal at the same time as Keith. It was embarassing for Moon, who continued to set up his equipment in the presence of another drummer, and several awkward moments passed before the group dismissed the Phillips chap. Things were clinched. Keith Moon became a member of the Who, although not for long. An enterprising manager, Peter Meaden, changed the name to the High Numbers and modified the dress code to attract the Mods. This was an adaptation not heartily endorsed by Moon and the others. Large segments of Britain’s youth population at the time were engaged in a struggle of fashion and ideology typified by two groups, the trendy Mods and the unkempt and aggressive Rockers. Moon fancied himself among the latter but, at any rate, went along with management for the time being. Meaden wrote their first single. “I’m the Face/Zoot Suit.” which was a minor flop. Chris Stamp (son of Terrence Stamp) and Kit Lambert, two young film makers who seemed well-to-do, took over the group’s affairs. One of their first moves was to dump the name High Numbers and recall the Who. Gone were the cutsy clothes and smiling-faced posters: they would present this lot of noisy, raucous youth as they really were. In a triumph of marketing, Tuesday night at the Marquee club was chosen as “Who Night” and they succeeded in turning what is generally an off night into a packed house. Lambert and Stamp organized a nucleus of Who fans from Wembley and Shepherds Bush and issued ID cards and tickets to what was called the “Hundred Faces.” Word got around that the Marquee was happening, and the original hundred or so in attendance multiplied. The gig lasted six months and helped to consolidate the band’s approach and sound.
It was around this time that the Who stumbled onto a bit of pagan theatrics which would permanently endear them to a generation of rebellious youth looking to let off steam. Townshend swung his guitar widely once too often and severed the neck. One thing led to another. The drums were childs play in this sort of brawl: most of the English drums of the time, of which Premier was no exception, had fittings designed for light and discreet usage. One wack, and Moon could pop a lug right from the shell. And of course, if one were to actually seize and throw a tom-tom, havoc could result. Yes, the Who did destroy all that equipment. There were no means available to suddenly seize cheap guitars and drums and reduce them to individual piles of wood. And no, the equipment was not supplied free to the group. What this meant was that years later the world re-known Who would be paying off hefty equipment bills. The famous Who, immortalized in the Monterey Festival film, was just beginning to make a few dollars. Respectful of the fact that his group was finally coming into the clear after a debt of at least $80,000, Moon was updating his hardware in America to minimize permanent damage to any of his drums during the free-for-alls. However costly, though, the drums would topple as a climax to all the early concerts. It is no surprise that the group refused to do encores.
During the course of his career with the Who, the only group to which he was ever to express undying allegiance, Keith Moon penned only a handful of tunes: “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” “I Need You” and “Cobwebs and Strange,” plus some cooperative efforts such as “Wasp Man.” Despite the absence of writer’s royalties, money was issuing fast enough to support several hobbies, most notable of which was classy automobiles. Often without a driver’s license, Moon would take to the road behind the wheel of, or would be chauferred in, some of the most magnificent cars ever designed.
The difference between Keith Moon and others fortunate enough to be able to support such a hobby as collecting fine cars, is that the vehicles were treated as disposable items. They were driven recklessly, often over terrain best suited to jeeps or half-tracks. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Moon acquired the hovercraft; it skirted little bumps and hills with ease, except for the time Moon took it onstage at an outdoor concert in 1972. It left the stage, accompanied by Moon, and dumped itself in a pond from which police extracted the pair in front of thousands of spectators.
Moon’s cars were treated with something of the respect with which he approached his drums: they were fine instruments to behold but were intended for use.
This attitude was pervasive in Keith’s view of the material world. When I began work on this article I resolved from the outset to downplay, even to dismiss, the alleged antics of Keith Moon as so much surmise and wishful thinking. The English public seemed to thrive on tales of Moon’s damaging exploits as serialized in the dailies and musical papers, while the European and American press were certainly no slouches. Everywhere, people thrilled to “Moon’s latest” and it often becomes difficult to separate illusion from reality. Of course, Moon himself, for whom the world was the stage, did nothing to make it easier, knowing full well that this gratuitous promotion served to keep the Who in the public eye and maintain their image as disturbers.
So I resolved to present Moon as the musician, not the circus master. And yet, there is something in the miles of newspaper clippings, conversations with acquaintances, and morning-after accounts, which suggests that to ignore this part of Moon is to escape some of the essence of the man. After all, it is generally acknowledged that one’s personality is reflected in one’s playing and musical contributions. In this case it would be blasphemous, I’m sure in Moon’s eyes, to skip some of his better deviant acts for the sake of making some artificial extraction of his musical self. Here, after all, was a man whose grave was decorated by Roger Daltrey with a wreath depicting a champagne bottle at point of entry into a television set.
Let us not forget that Keith’s fun was gained, with few exceptions, at the expense of a few inanimate objects, impersonal chains of hotels which promise no surprises, and at a select few human beings who probably had it coming to them anyway. Note that where damage was inflicted, especially in instances involving lodgings, payment was quickly forthcoming in cash from the Who. Were this not the case, it is probable that Keith would have spent much of his life behind bars or in sound-proof rooms: he once remarked that we tolerate eccentricity from the rich while the poor are labeled criminal or insane.
The Who’s appearance on the Smothers Brothers Show lent new meaning to the word “comedy.” On the same show as the Who, Bette Davis and Mickey Rooney were billed. During their respective performances, Keith was busy ensuring that various key members of the stage crew were approaching intoxication. Their blurred state enabled him to affix a number of exploding charges to his drum shells; normally, one or two of these caps don’t result in much damage, although in this instance Moon was looking for something beyond the realm of special effects. He blew the works, literally. The Who were well into their set when Keith directed that the charges be detonated. The ensuing explosion blew him off his drum seat and set Pete Townshend’s hair aflame. Parts of the drum kit lay in splinters about the stage.
Another incident involves a human derelict, a man of limited means and no fixed-address. This is the incident of the Hobo and The Inn on the Park. Keith Moon had a genuine interest in mankind, especially when warmed with spirits. On other occasions he had invited skid row inhabitants for some merriment at English pubs to the surprise of the regular patrons and had bought rounds for all and sundry. This time, Moon got involved in conversation with a down andout fellow in a Soho bar. The chap was invited to the Playboy Club and was treated to a fine meal, dessert, and drinks. A pleasant evening was had by all until Keith discovered that his newfound friend had no place to stay, nor any money for accommodations. No problem. The chauffeur proceeded to the Inn on the Park, not by anyone’s standards a place offering bed-and-breakfast rates. Not content to secure just any old room for this weary gentleman. Moon booked the Wellington Suite. The hotel was glad to oblige as cash was paid in advance.
There is a post-script to this quiet event. The Who office received a letter from the same hobo who, it seems, tried to publish a letter of thanks in the London Daily Express but was refused and his tale dismissed as nonsense.
Many of Keith Moon’s pranks were directed at American property and institutions, although no country in which the Who performed was spared, especially Canada, which Moon found all too quiet on several occasions.
It was in America that Moon settled in the year before his death. This was a country which offered enormous potentialities for the sort of partying and frivolity which he enjoyed. Here were some of his friends—Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. Here were movie offers. Here he put together a solo album, Two Sides of the Moon, which reflected diverse influences from country to surf music. America also wore on Keith after a while. He claimed he was a tax exile but wasn’t really. He still paid taxes to the Crown. And he never really stayed as long as he bragged. The longest haul in the United States was about nine months. The truth is that Moon missed England and especially the Who.
But for all his love of England, it was America from which came most of the musicians which Keith really admired. And the music which influenced Keith in the early days, and the drummers which played it, were primarily from America.
Keith Moon was a self-taught musician, entirely. He never took lessons and he could not read music. He simply seized the sticks and began to play. But this is over-simplifying, for Keith was influenced by some of the truly great drummers.
The big band drummers held Keith’s attention. For one thing, they could hold their own against platoons of other musi cians. He liked the way they tuned, the power with which they played, and some of the spark and theatrics which they gave to the role of drummer. The Who was the foru for Keith’s development as a “big-band rock drummer.” Before joining the Who. though, his drumming was more simple.
His first influences were drummers such as D. J. Fontana (Elvis’ original drummer), Eric Delaney, the “twistbeat” drummers of the time (the Ventures), and the surf drummers of the American West Coast. He was a fanatical fan of the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Ripchords and, of course, Elvis. These were the artists whose records he played along to in the early years and to whom he paid tribute on his solo album. Upon joining the Who, though, other influences became apparent: “people like Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, the big band drummers—they were the best. I’d see a big band with a double bass drum set-up, twirling the sticks, all the theatrics. They’re the people I really dug growing up.” He told Melody Maker‘s Chris Charlesworth in 1972: “My whole style of drumming changed when I joined (the Who). Before, I had just been copying straight from the records, but with the Who I had to develop a style of my own… I took from Gene Krupa with all the stick twiddling and thought it was great. The sticks used to fly out of my hands because I was sweating like a pig. All these things had an effect on the audience.”
A major preoccupation of Keith’s was just that—to create an effect. Years later he would cite Liberace and Lawrence Welk as masters of showmanship, and included Englishmen David Bowie and Elton John on the list. And there were English drummers who Keith admired: Ringo, certainly, as well as, in later years, John Bonham and Bob Henrit, of Argent. He also cited a female who may be destined for obscurity. “Penny Blenkinsop—she’s the stand-in for the Ivy Benson All Girls Band”!
But in the early years it was chiefly the American way which provided the major source of Moon’s approach. He felt that many English drummers of the time, especially those reared in traditional jazz, were lacking a certain spontaneity.
Keith often mentioned Elvin Jones as chief among his influences. And to watch clips of each drummer doing his respective thing, a certain affinity is evident. Both drummers bounced ideas off strong front men, and both attacked the drums without mercy. Both Elvin and Keith would just as soon hammer away with the butt end of the stick, and both had a way with cymbals that would make the Zildjian family cringe. For one thing, the strength of Elvin’s attack turned ride cymbals into crashes and this is manifested in Keith’s playing. There are not too many Who tunes recorded in which you hear the delicate ping of a Joe Morrello. Rather, it is something like the roar of Elvin’s K. Zildjians and the crash of the American surf. But to sustain the sort of energy which Moon put out, control and technique were absolute prerequisites. Moon had strong wrists and good hands, and developed these early in his career; most of the waving of arms and legs was show. He had good, clean chops, much as he would often deny it, and more than once made reference to skillful players: “Technically, Joe Morello is perfect.”
Unfortunately, “Moon-the-basher” is often remembered and it is worthwhile to consider what Tony Williams once told English writer Chris Welch of Moon: “He’s beautiful, he’s totally free” and went on to remark that he ranked Moon among his favorite drummers.
Often it is found, especially in this current age of the “session drummer,” that players like Keith Moon are like fish out of water without the groups in which they developed their particular talents. Keith took a few tries at playing outside of the Who. One example, related in the book Full Moon, is Harry Nilsson’s album Pussycats. Keith was called to per form on “Rock Around the Clock.” Three drummers were booked for the session: Ringo Starr, Jim Keltner, and Keith Moon. At the time, Keith was not yet in residence in America and did not have the use of his usual drumkits. He requested that he be rented the very largest drumset possible, in this case, eighteen drums. Ringo used his usual five, and Keltner about as many. The three blasted away at a fair clip, and the resulting take is available on record. For Keith, though, doing freelance work ran very much against the grain: “I’m not used to being told to play a certain way. I’m a lousy session musician. I wouldn’t play with anybody who asked me to play like that.” He simply needed the freedom to interpret the music of his fellow musicians in as many ways as possible. And it was not that he necessarily wanted the spot-light; he abhored drum solos: “I hate drum solos,” he told Melody Maker in 1975. “Drum solos are the most boring time-consuming things. I don’t think of the drums as a solo instrument. Drums are there to set the beat for the music.”
Over the years Keith Moon set the beat with some of the most innovative drum setups yet seen. To this day, few drummers attempt to tackle such a varied set as Keith used. There is no doubt about it; Keith was one of the very first in rock music to employ vast drum kits and, more important, to actually use each drum.
To set Moon in context we must take ourselves back to the early ’60s when the West Coast music of the United States was enjoying international popularity. Most of the records featured drums mixed far into the background, and the actual tuning was strictly out of the bebop school. Of course, there were exceptions, but recording techniques of the day and drummer preferences sustained that approach. With all the talk of the rhythmic intensity of rock music, one would think that the drums would take more prominence.
Perhaps rock music needed the critical nudge ahead by the British and the likes of Keith Moon. From the first record ings. Keith refused to sit on the beat, tapping out two and four. Rather, he was all over his drums like a rash. And what drums they were!
Premier was the drum of choice for Moon. To this day the Premier Drum Company admits an enormous volume of inquiries regarding Keith Moon and his massive setups. Moon was first and foremost a Brit’ and proud of it. Notwith standing the fact that in the early days Premier drums were more readily available and cheaper than American brands. Moon was proud to play a British drum and, in particular, one whose very name was elitist. It is in very large part due to Keith Moon that Premier drums and hardware have undergone such a radical change over the last fifteen years. There are only a handful of photographs in existence showing Moon playing other than Premier drums.
In 1965 Keith owned an oyster-pearl Ludwig Super Classic kit consisting of a 22″ bass drum, 13″ mounted tom, 16″ floor tom, and metal 400 snare drum. His cymbals with this kit were Avedis Zildjian—14″ hi-hats, 20″ ride mounted on the bass drum, and an 18″ crash.
Also, Ludwigs are seen in the Monterey Pops movie, done in 1967. Moon used two 22″ bass drums, two 13″ toms, two 16″ floor toms—one positioned on either side—and three top cymbals. There are some other older photos as well showing Ludwig drum sets taking a toppling. But for Keith it was mainly Premier.
When looking at Keith’s various drum setups we must remember that he had little help from drum companies for the longest time. If a drum were smashed it would be replaced by the nearest available similar item at the cheapest price. Thus, his setups were somewhat variable: it is not uncommon to see him using three small toms of identical dimensions, tuned differently, of course. Over the years, it became increasingly apparent to Keith that a premium was to be placed on equipment that could take a dive and survive for the next show.
Arguably one of the most famous drum kits in rock is Keith Moon’s Premier “Pictures of Lily” custom set. This notorious drum set appeared after 1967 on promotional material and was seen in concert through at least 1969. The survival of this kit is attributable to the fact that Moon rarely intentionally trashed equipment: sure, he would often knock the shells around and heave tom-toms, but generally into the waiting hands (or heads) of roadies. The “Pictures Kit” consisted of three mounted toms of the old Premier style—a little more shallow than American drums. These were mounted on two 22″ bass drums with Rogers fittings. The bass drums were secured to each other with double metal bracings and had Premier spurs. On Keith’s right were two 16″ floor toms and, beside a hi-hat locked in the halfclosed position, he placed an additional floor tom. This way, as he often remarked, he could get all the bottom end he wanted and still have a floor tom for use as a drinks tray and towel rest. His cymbals were Zildjian, consisting of a 20″ or 22″ ride (a mighty crash cymbal, the way he played it), another 20″ cymbal, and an 18″ crash on his right. Each shell was decorated with a series of rectangular panes sporting alternating reclining nudes aside logos of the Who. Interspersed with these pictures were panes exclaiming: “Keith Moon. Patent British Exploding Drummer.”
It is probably fair to say that Moon most often used Zildjian cymbals. From time to time, though, he used Paiste, first the 602 series and later, probably out of necessity, the more durable 2002 line, including a 20″ Heavy Ride, a cymbal designed for the heaviest of rock players. Barriemore Barlow remarked to Modern Drummer (Dec/Jan ’79) that “Keith Moon and I shared the record at the Paiste factory for breaking the most cymbals,” mainly due to their common love of Paiste 602 16″ crash cymbals, which were never intended for rock drumming. Moon also enjoyed the use of a Paiste gong which ranged up to 30″ in size and was suspended in a metal ring behind him.
Long before Premier entered the race to produce bigger and better hardware for their drums, they saw the need to do a certain amount of customizing on kits intended for Moon’s use. Since Keith most often played his bass drums minus front heads, the shells were weaker with a full complement of tom-toms mounted. Premier fit the shells with solid-steel plates to absorb the impact of toms in constant movement. Since Keith would often stand-up on his bass drums, such precautions were a necessity.
During the early 1970s, Moon first experimented with single-headed tomtoms, and continued using them through 1978. Although his single-headed toms duplicated sizes he was using of the double-headed variety, one would never know it. He positioned four single-headed toms in front of three double-headed mounted toms, tuning the front toms higher. At first his single-headed set would start with a 12″ tom, followed by a 13″, 14″, and 15″. Behind these, on the bass drum, would be a double-headed 12″, 13″, and 14″. Numerous experimentations with drum and cymbal setups would occur. But his final setup, from the little he talked about it, was something like this: There were two 22 x 14 bass drums, single headed, although with the front lugs left on. Two floor stands were positioned immediately in front of the bass drums, supporting 10″, 12″, 13″, and 14″ melodic toms. On the bass drums he mounted three regular toms: On his left bass drum he had a 12″ tom, while on his other he had a 13″ and 14″ tom. These were followed by a 16″ floor tom and an 18″ floor tom, both double headed. Above his floor toms, a Premier Trilok stand held two single-headed toms—a 15″ and a 16″, while immediately above these were the final stroke, a pair of timbales. The snare drum was invariably a 5 1/2″ or 6 1/2″ Premier metal, although he was seen with a Ludwig or Gretsch metal drum from time to time. All this was augmented by a tympani or two. He would often use a 22″ ride cymbal, although mounted high up and in the vertical position it was hard to strike like a normal ride, a 20″ crash, and another 20″, 22″, and an 18″. One fixture through the years has been a smallish cymbal mounted dead-center on a boom stand; it was often a 14″ splash, but could be as large as 16″.
Although Moon used the Syndrum on the Who Are You album, he never became accustomed to the thought of using them in live settings. After all, with his mighty kit he knew he could cover from a whisper to a roar.
In the ’70s, Moon used standard Premier Everplay heads, or Remo Ambassadors. Gradually he switched to Remo black dot heads, due to the fact that they cut down overtones a little and extended the life of his heads. Be that as it may, when on tour, he would rarely keep a drum head longer than a week. He appreciated the fact that he was a loud drummer, who frequently played with the butt-end of the stick, and liked the sound of a head with life in it. And for all his alleged disinterest in drums and paraphernalia, he was quite meticulous about tuning and had his roadie well-versed in the procedure if he were unable to get out and tension heads himself.
Keith’s preferences in drumsticks were in the medium to medium-heavy zone, and he often used English sticks made either by Premier or Dallas Arbiter. In the United States he would pick up batches of whatever was available. As far as muffling and padding of drums is concerned, one has only to listen to live and studio takes to know that Moon went for a ringy, open-sounding drum. As his kit expanded and became more difficult to mike, he would often leave the internal mufflers on his double-headed toms just touching the heads to give a cleaner signal. In fact, this was a problem due to the strength with which Keith played. His sound man often had to use windscreens on the mic’s to prevent them from popping and crackling: Moon displaced a lot of air and this can be a problem with microphones with unshielded diaphrams. His single-headed toms were miked from the bottom, while his double headed toms were taken from the top. For the bass drums, two mic’s each were sometimes used.
Finally, we must remark again that Keith kept his hi-hat locked in the closed position, with about a quarter of an inch gap, to get a sizzling sound while he played both bass drums. The use of two of them was something of an obsession. It was not simply the fact that they looked good, although this was certainly a consideration. In the early days of minimal amplification of drums, Keith saw them as a necessity. Faced with a choice between the thunder of a double bass drum setup and the chick of a hi-hat on two and four when volume was a prime consideration. Moon made the logical choice. Moon’s rationale appeared in the French press; permit a rough translation: “The double kit has been long used in jazz. Louis Bellson certainly was one of the first to use it. It’s down to the fact that Pete and John have little by little been using more powerful amplification systems which, for me, provides a reason for choosing the double set.”
Ordinarily when we discuss worldclass drummers we take certain things for granted. They make few glaring mistakes, they play on top of, or behind, the beat, or whatever, and they keep good time. Well, Moon didn’t always keep good time, especially under a heavy load of booze and pills. He made mistakes— big mistakes which would shake the band and cause them to look back with murderous eyes. Townshend would implore Moon to “play faster,” meaning to wake up and keep up. Towards the end, this occasional lapse was becoming increasingly reflected in his style. The live version of “Baba O’Riley” on The Kids Are Alright soundtrack, taped live, is a disappointing display of his enervation. He wasn’t trying things—his grandiose tom-tom rolls are less frequent, his bass drum and snare drum work uneven, and the time is all over the place. There is a stop after the line “teenage wasteland,” followed by a drum intro which is messy and too slow. It almost seems as if, for once, Keith is thinking too hard. At any rate, there is none of the spontaneity which is evident on the mass of recorded Who material.
It is easy to slag someone when they are down. And Moon was down in 1978 or, at very least, in a period of transition. Both his playing and his pattern of living were showing the effects of changes which he was consciously imposing.
For examples of the typical Moon approach we can take almost any tune. I’ve chosen a couple from the early and later parts of his career.
Let us consider “I Can See For Miles.” When Pete Townshend wrote a tune, and this applies pretty well throughout the history of the Who. He did a demo tape at home and brought it into the studio. I’ve listened to Townshend’s demo for this tune. He played guitar, bass, maintained rhythm on something or other, and did vocal tracks. Most of the stops we know are there, as is the heavy eighth feel. Keith’s work on the resultant single is magical; he manages so well to mirror Townshend’s energy and intent on the demo. There is lots of splashy cymbal work and rimshot snare drum, both of which were sure to cut through the limitations of record players of the day.
On other such demos, such as “Run, Run, Run,” Moon and Entwhistle would dive-in and jam on the chords, eventually agreeing on a bottom line and always leaving room for spontaneous improvisation.
To hear those early demos and the final takes is to appreciate the extent to which Moon’s interpretation approaches composition. It is impossible to conceive of many Who tunes, such as “I Can See For Miles,” without Moon’s drum parts. They are as integral to the tunes as are the triplets in Ravel’s Bolero.
It has been remarked that Moon’s part in the Who’s sound was that of a lead guitar. Townshend, for the most part, played block chords which formed a dense wall of sound, which were a backdrop for Moon’s inventiveness. Not only did he establish irreplaceable rhythmic lines, but he used his array of toms— more than an octave worth—to set-up and undercut Townshend’s ambitious orchestrations with beautiful melodic glissandos.
Listen to “Love Rain Over Me,” from the Quadroplienia LP. A piano intro and tapes of rain and thunder are backed by Moon’s dark lines played on tympani, lower toms and gong. It is a very much orchestral percussion approach with ever-present crescendos on the suspended cymbals, which plunges into a rocky, six feel. Moon really carries the tune along to the cacaphonous climax that Townshend was looking for. The bass drum work is especially nice since they are not played as one, as Moon so often liked to do: there are ruffs between bass drums and snare, and other subtleties. This is Moon at his best.
He is also in fine form on many of the live takes available from your local record dealer or bootlegger (don’t worry, Townshend checks them out too). Long versions of “My Generation” pause for tasty sixteenth-note breaks on both bass drums. While most drummers descend down their toms, from high to low pitches. Moon always was comfortable going either way depending on Townshend’s and Entwhistle’s orientation. Towards the middle and later ’70s Moon often wore headphones so that he could precisely lock-in to the pre-taped synthesizer work. In all his flailing and spontaneity, Moon was a model of concentration and rapid reflex action. In an interview published by International Musician and Recording World, which hit the stands the month of Keith’s death. Moon remarked that many drummers go through the routine but fail to add color: “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. That gives me a chance, if I’m in the middle of a roll, to do something I’ve already thought out so I can get out of the roll…”
Keith Moon has left quite a legacy. In rock music the drums are no longer relegated to the background, either on stage or on record. Now, the drums are frequently mixed just below the vocals.
And Keith was one of the first to show us that a rock drummer could be every bit as free in interpretation as his jazz counterpart. Furthermore, he showed us how to make full use of the rhythmical and tonal capabilities of the drumset. Perhaps he was a little ahead of his time. Most of the rock music produced today features very basic drum parts. But then, it takes a little time and perspective before lessons are learned; and it would be unwise to suggest that all music demands the sort of expansive playing that Moon injected into Townshend’s songs.
Moon has been replaced in the Who, in spite of the instruction on the cover of Who Are You which shows Keith sitting backwards in a chair stenciled “Not To Be Taken Away.” But Keith took himself away; his passing was the natural culmination of a life bent on material pleasures, all this when Townshend and the rest of the Who were displaying a change in spiritual direction. Moon, the least mature member of the Who, was trying to change; he was involved in the working of Shepperton Studios, in movie work, and of course in his greatest love, the Who. But his usual pattern of self-medication caught up with him: he died of an accidental overdose of a drug prescribed to alleviate the effects of alcohol withdrawal. It is ironic that he would have to fulfill Townshend’s cry to the younger generation, “hope I die before I get old.”