The Keith Moon Legend

Keith Moon

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”…

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The records made pop stars and mod icons of The Who. The drumming on them ranks among Keith Moon’s finest. The band’s spare instrumentation left space for the drums to become a lead voice. Moon rose to the occasion brilliantly, solidifying his unique style over the course of the first three Who albums: My Generation in ’65, A Quick One in ’66 (released as Happy Jack in the U.S.), and The Who Sell Out in ’67. His plangent, clattering tone was like nothing anyone ever had heard before. He put Premier drums on the map. The company showed their gratitude by building Keith the fabled “Pictures Of Lily Kit,” decorated with dayglo nudes and Union Jacks.

Keith Moon was the first drummer to expand the size of the rock kit, adding a second bass drum, a brace of mounted toms, and, depending on his changeable mood, two or three extra floor toms.

For the latter, he found novel uses. A highlight of Who shows circa ’67-’68 was Townshend’s “mini-opera,” “A Quick One While He’s Away.” During the piece’s “cowboy” section – a medley of tunes representing Townshend’s interpretation of early country and western – Moon would hoist one of his floor toms up across his snare and play a pattern on the shell. The section completed, what’s a body to do with the now-cumbersome floor tom? Moon’s solution was to hurl it high overhead. Wafted toward the rafters by a series of proto-power chords, the poor thing was – usually – caught by Moonie’s longtime aide, Dougal Butler.

With the success of the first singles, Keith Moon lost no time in setting up his own pop-star lifestyle. In March of 1966, he married 17-year-old model Kim Kerrigan, daughter of a retired Bournemouth tea-planter. The couple’s daughter, Mandy, was born in August of ’66. They set up housekeeping in a small flat in Highgate, North London, above a used-car showroom. The place is remembered for several things: among them is a resident and not-very-toilet-trained baby fox and its pop art installation piece. Ah, here comes our second Keith Moon story.

One evening Moonie hurled a champagne bottle against the wall, having, of course, drained its contents, along with the contents of Lord knows how many other receptacles. The bottle lodged itself halfway in the plaster, sticking up a jaunty angle. Rather than remove it and repair the wall, Moon hung an ornate gold picture frame around the bottle. Here was a man born to make art of wanton destruction.

Flying objects and domestic strife were, apparently, common to the Moon household. By all accounts, Keith never took marriage very seriously. His real home, it’s been suggested, was the rock-and-roll road. His fondness for trashing the living quarters thoughtfully provided by the world’s hotel chains vied with The Who’s onstage destructiveness to all but beggar the group by the late ’60s. When Moon played on Jeff Beck’s Truth album in 1968 (credited only as “You Know Who”), there was speculation that he was lining up a safe haven against The Who’s seemingly inevitable shipwreck.

But rescue came in 1969, in the form of Tommy, the rock opera that finally established The Who with American audiences, ushering in an era of relative financial stability. Moon bought Tara House, a pyramid-shaped residence in Chertsey. Keith, Kim, and Mandy moved into Tara with two other members of Kim’s family: her mother, Joan, and younger brother Dermot. While Joan proved a ready drinking partner for Keith, her presence at Tara may have aggravated the Moon’s already-troubled marriage.

Tommy also brought Pete Townshend new prestige as a serious rock auteur. This meant there was more need than ever for comic relief – someone to play Sancho Panza both inside and out of Pete’s increasingly elaborate narrative compositions. Keith Moon filled the bill admirably. And his demonstrative drumming took on new importance as The Who evolved toward arena rock with 1970’s Live At Leeds and ’71’s Who’s Next. Quadrophenia (1972) provided an outlet for Moon’s comedic talents and epic-scale drumming.

On a personal level, though, the ’70s were not kind to Keith Moon. The decade started badly with the accident death of his chauffeur and bodyguard, Neil Boland, on January 4, 1970. Apparently, Boland had stepped out of Moon’s Rolls Royce to deal with some skinheads who were blocking the car’s path in front of a Herefordshire nightclub. Moon slipped behind the wheel, the skins knocked Boland onto the pavement, the car went into gear and rolled forward, crushing the chauffer’s skull. The incident sent the drummer into a chronic, moths-long depression.

By October of 1973, Kim had left her husband for good, eventually divorcing him (and later marrying Faces keyboardist land McLaglan). In interviews, Roger Daltrey suggested that Keith never recovered from losing Kim. Townshend, for his part, has said that Boland’s death had a deep and lasting effect on Moon, precipitating the chain of self-destructive events that led to his own end.

What’s certain is that, as the ’70s wore on, Moon devoted himself more and more to activities outside of The Who. He made his screen debut in Frank Zappa’s 1971 film, 200 Motels, playing a nun. In ’73 he had a slightly more normal role as – what else? — a rock drummer, in the film That’ll Be The Day which also starred Ringo Starr, Billy Fury, and David Essex. He was also in the following year’s sequel, Stardust. Moon did some drumming on John Lennon’s Sometime In New York City in 1972, on a Screaming Lord Sutch album the same year, and on an increasingly forgettable string of records into the mid-’70s.

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In 1975, Keith met the second major love interest in his life: Annette Walter-Lax, a Swedish model whose resemblance to Kim was oft-noted. Moonie unceremoniously terminated a brief fling with the no-doubt-descriptively-named Joy Bang and set off for L.A. with Annette. It was the beginning of a two-year binge in the City Of Lost Inhibitions (not that Keith had any to lose). Apparently, most of Moon’s time was devoted to harassing his neighbor, Steve McQueen, and carousing with the crew of L.A. rock wastrels led by Ringo and Harry Nilsson. There were more forgettable film and album projects – including., alas, Keith’s own solo record, 1975’s Two Sides Of The Moon.

1975 was also he year when Ken Russell’s film of Tommy was released, with Moon at his leering best as the pederast Uncle Ernie. It’s also the year when The Who By Numbers came out. The album is the frequently painful document of a band in big trouble. Not all of its problems can be laid at Moon’s door – far from it. But his drumming had begun to degenerate into a halfhearted parody of itself.

Things only got worse. At the Boston opening of 1 1976 U.S. Who tour, Moon collapsed two songs into the set – the result of an overdose of the tranquilizer Mandrex. And by ’77, when The Who convened to record Who Are You, Moon was in sad shape, despite the fact that he’d moved back to England and checked himself into a health farm. That same year, the band placed him in charge of public relations for their new company, Who Group, Ltd., based at London’s Shepperton Film Studio. It was a thinly disguised first move toward phasing Keith Moon out of The Who.

He spared them the trouble. On September 6, 1978, Keith and Annette attended a midnight debut screening of The Buddy Holly Story, continuing on to a premiere party thrown by Paul McCartney at the London restaurant Peppermint Park. At the festivities, Keith and Annette announced their plans to marry. They returned to their Curzon Place flat around 4:30 on the morning of the 7th. By 4:30 p.m., Keith Moon was dead of an overdose of Heminevrin, a sedative he’d been taking to help curb his drinking.

As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, Keith Moon’s mercurial public excesses had gotten more famous than his drumming. He became – he was – Moon the Loon: a sort of unholy cross between Bacchus, Puck, and Charlie Chaplin, with the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, and Dadaists thrown in for good measure. But the most important thing he did wasn’t to stuff a waterbed into a hotel elevator, or blow up a few toilet bowls in the Waldorf Astoria. It was what he did behind a drum kit. That changed the nature of rock drumming forever, making it worthy of the music’s larger claims to rebelliousness, perpetual youth, and crazed energy.