From the start, he declared war on the notion that drummers were put on earth merely to keep time. Where others played anchoring half-note and quarter-note patterns on the bass drum, he stomped out a constant, if not always steady, torrent of eighths. He wouldn’t be caught dead near a hi-hat. His fills – witness the terse shots that announce the chorus of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” – jostle belligerently against the beat, rather than falling submissively into line.
Keith Moon took the bland anonymity out of rock drumming – brought it out from the backline shadows. I, like many American youths who reached puberty during the British Invasion, got my first exposure to The Who from the TV show, Shindig. The strongest recollection to lodge in my 12-years-old brain was not of the singer, or even the lead guitarist, but (unheard of in those days) of the lunatic behind the drums: clothed in a comic book-camp bull’s-eye T-shirt, gripping his sticks like the handles of an over large Harley-Davidson.
He specialized in leaving everyone dazzled and ever so slightly off balance. But few people, if any, ever got far beyond Moonie’s mad exterior. His closest associates, in and out of The Who, frequently confess that they never really knew him. Moon acknowledged as much himself. “I suppose, when I stop to analyze my lack of closeness to other people.” He once told a reporter, “I’d conclude I was basically lonely and unable to communicate other than at a superficial level. But I’m happy the way I am, living in a whirl of incident and excitement.”
What everyone does know are Keith Moon stories – that Homeric catalog of obliterated hotel rooms, immersed motor vehicles, terrorized airline passengers, and fluid tons of Courvoisier dispatched in record time. Facts with the glow of fiction, fictions with the realism of facts, they make it all the harder to pick the true events for the vivid narrative fabric woven around Moon’s life.
The earliest details are ordinary enough. Keith Moon was born on August 23, 1947 to Alfred and Kitty Moon, who lived in London’s Wembley district, just north of Shepherd’s Bush, where the rest of The Who grew up. Keith was the Moons’ firstborn. Two sisters, Linda and Lesley, followed. Alfred and Kitty’s son attended Barham Primary School and, starting in 1957, Alperton Secondary. He played bugle and trumpet in an organization called the Sea Cadets. There’s a famous picture of him doing so, wearing a sailor suit, complete with hat identifying him as a proud appendage of “Barham S.C.C.”
It isn’t certain when he switched to drums. But by 14, he had starting mucking about on friend’s kit, which his father later bought for him. At 15, he left school. He began dividing his time among various short-lived jobs and bands with names like the Mighty Avengers, the Adequates, and the Escorts: cover groups essaying the usual repertoire of Shadows, Shane Fenton, and Johnny Kidd & the Pirates material. In 1963 Moon joined a surf group, the Beachcombers. Surf music – something of a rebellious alternative to Britain’s Merseybeat/R&B orthodoxy – was a lifelong passion for Keith. Its influence is unmistakable in the early Who’s falsetto backing vocal style and predilection for cover tunes like “Barbara Ann” and Jan & Dean’s “Bucket T.”
Oh yeah, The Who. What about them? In 1964 they were in the process of becoming, well, The Who, having recently grown out of being The Detours. Their drummer, Doug Sandom, had quit and they were looking desperately for another. (Mitch Mitchell, who later went on to fame with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, is among those who auditioned.) Meanwhile, they were using an assortment of pickup drummers to maintain their regular schedule of club gigs.
And here’s where we arrive at one of the earliest Keith Moon stories. Travel with us now to the Oldfield Tavern on a Thursday evening in April, 1964. An extremely inebriated youth approaches the bandstand, announcing to the Messrs. Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle that his mate can play rings around the drummer they’ve got onstage. Said mate – Moon of course – appears, all in ginger: his hair dyed to match his matching, ginger-colored garments. He sits in on one song, “Roadrunner,” managing to mangle the kit’s bass pedal and hi-hat. He is immediately recognized to be the only possible drummer for The Who.
The band’s first single was released in July of ’64, during the peak of the trendy “mod” fashion movement, which The Who would later document in the film Quadrophenia. The single was a blues-derived effort called “Zoot Suit,” recorded during a brief tenure as The High Numbers, under the guidance of mod pacesetter Pete Meaden. This was followed, in rapid succession, by some of the most incredible rock singles ever recorded: “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “My Generation” “Substitute,” “The Kids Are Alright,” “I’m A Boy”…