Keith Moon's Love/Hate Relationship With His Drum Set

Keith Moon

The floor tom was often the first to go, looping skyward over the back of the stage. Smoke already would have been billowing out from behind the band. As the music quickly disintegrated into sounds, the bass drums would lurch forward together, the result of a two-footed kick, bringing down the remaining components of the set like a house of cards in a stiff wind. After the dust settled, the band members would be seen disappearing backstage like ghosts, while the announcement came over the P.A. system. “The Who show is over. There will be no encore.” The audience hardly ever needed any further explanation.

To talk about Keith Moon’s relationship with his drums, you have to accept his definition of what a drum set was. And it wasn’t just something he kept the beat with. Keith used his drums to express his complex personality by creating music, comedy, tragedy, and performance art.

Keith’s obsession with drums started when his father bought him his first drum set of $17, and the young boy immediately took to them. Keith’s mother, Kitty Moon, said, “That’s what he really wanted. As soon as Keith came in contact with the drums, that was all he seemed keen on. Of course we all thought it was a passing fad, like everything else, but he stuck with it and got better and better. All of his energy went into it.”

Although the manufacturer of Moon’s first drum set is unknown, it was surely a basic four-piece European kit of dubious durability. But regardless of its construction, the set served to introduce the fledgling drummer to the percussive arts, and was quite possibly the drum set that Keith used on his original Who gigs. Bob Henrit, current drummer for the Kinks, was a close friend of Moon’s during the early ’70s: “ I don’t think Keith Moon would have been at his best behind a small kit. His approach was more global. He was something of an octopus.” Who bassist John Entwistle remembers that Moon’s drums were so lightweight that he brought a yard of rope to their early gigs in order to secure them onstage.

Even though Moon came to be closely associated with Premier drums for the lion’s share of his career, he actually used a mix of drums during his early years with the Who, including Premier, Ludwig, and Fibes. However, two years after joining the Who in 1964 Moon began feeling the limitations of a small set. According to former Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, it was he who first gave Moon the idea of using two bass drums. Moon obviously liked the idea, and immediately commissioned Premier to assemble a double-bass set.

Keith Moon

Moon’s 1965 Set

Drums: Ludwig Super Classic
1. 22" Bass Drum
2. 16" Floor Tom
3. 13" Mounted Tom
4. 14" Metal Snare Drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
A. 20" Ride
B. 18" Crash
C. 14" Hi-Hats

This signaled the beginning of Moon’s long affiliation with Premier drums, and his obsession with unusually large sets. He now wanted to use any available means to bring his talents into the spotlight. In an early interview Moon said, “The drummer was always at the back and very rarely noticed. He was the least photographed, the least interviewed. When I started twirling my sticks around and standing up and those kinds of things, nobody else did that kind of thing in rock.”

The impact of Moon’s double-bass kit was immediate. Al Kooper, former keyboardist for the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat, and Tears, remembered his first sight of Moon’s drums when he appeared on the bill with the Who at a Murray The K show in New York City. “Keith Moon flailed away on those clear plastic drums and it seemed like he had 20 of them. It was the first time any of us had seen the typical English drum kit. There are usually six to eight tom-toms of various sizes, as compared to two or three in most American drum sets. And huge bass drums, one of which said ’The’ and the other, of course, ’WHO.’”

Moon’s exhibitionism only increased as word spread of the Who’s outrageous equipment and its subsequent ritualistic destruction. Keith once said, “When Pete smashed his guitar, it was because he was pissed off. When I smashed my drums, it was because I was pissed off. We were frustrated.”

{pagebreak} Keith Moon

Despite Moon’s justification, however, much of his drum destruction was an obvious result of mischievousness rather than pure frustration. For example, he exhibited nothing short of premeditated anarchy on the Smothers Brothers television shown of the late ’60s when he secretly attached a number of exploding charges to his drum shells. At a given moment during the Who’s set, Keith signaled a co-conspirator who detonated the caps. A million things then seemed to happen at once: Television viewers’ screens momentarily flashed bright white, Moon flew backward, falling behind the drum stand, the drums lifted themselves off the stage and disintegrated into tiny fragments, while everyone – including the other members of the Who – clutched their ears in unbridled horror. As the smoke cleared, a dazed Keith Moon could be seen grimacing with pain, a result of the shrapnel that had pierced his arms and legs. All throughout America teenage drummers were thrilled!

Keith Moon

1967: “Monterey Pop” Set

Drums: Ludwig
1. 22" Bass Drum
2. 16" Floor Tom
3. 13" Mounted Tom
4. 14" Snare Drum

Cymbals: (sizes and brand unknown)
A. Ride/Crashes
B. Hi-Hats

This sort of behavior would certainly lead one to believe that Moon had little regard for the welfare of his drum set, let alone his own well being. But it has been said that the apparent destruction was generally superficial, mostly resulting in broken heads and sticks, and that he was actually quite picky about the tuning of his drums. When he threw a tom over his head with charming nonchalance, you could be sure that there was an anxious roadie carefully positioning himself at the drum’s point of impact.

Eddie Haynes was a marketing promotion manager for Premier drums in Leicester, England from 1973 to 1978. During this time, he saw that Moon’s equipment requirements were taken care of and often consulted directly with Moon about his specific needs. Eddie insists that Moon took better care of his drums than his reputation suggests: “People have said that he was a lunatic, and was smashing everything up. And, admittedly, he did kick his drums over – we know that. But I always suspected that it was done knowingly, not spontaneously. He always assessed the situation before he did things like that. Premier very rarely had drums come back from Keith to be repaired. The only things that he needed regularly were stands and foot pedals – he’d go through them like a knife through butter.

“Keith always knew exactly what he wanted,” Haynes continues. “He never demanded any ridiculous sizes. He was very happy to play standard size drums. But what he did always want were drums that looked cosmetically different from what anybody else had. We did a number of kits for Keith over the years, with different types of finishes.

“Once he asked that we make him a white kit with all gold-plated fittings – the lugs, the brackets, the stands, the spurs, everything. I spoke to him about it and said, ’Look Keith, I’d really like to make this kit, but with the gold plated fittings it would be ridiculously expensive.’ And he was great about it, saying, ’Dear boy, do exactly as you feel it should be, but that’s the way I want it.’ We finished the kit, actually, with copper-plated fittings – no chrome or silver showing. That was rather a nice kit.”

Regardless of the cosmetics, all of Moon’s drum sets shared special design characteristics that were exclusive to his setup. Haynes says, “We always had to make sure that the tom-toms had double fittings, the bass drums and hi-hat could be clamped to the floor, and that the bass drums were clamped to each other. We linked the whole kit together.”

The best testimony for the longevity of Moon’s drums had to be the Premier “Pictures Of Lily” drum set, which he played between 1967 and 1969. This intricately designed, one-of-a-kind set featured hand-painted panels depicting nudes and Who logos covering the outer shells. The curious phrase, “Keith Moon. Patent British Exploding Drummer,” also was interspersed throughout the pop at murals. Supposedly, all of the designs lit up under black lights, even though the Who never used black lights in performances. According to Moon, the “Pictures Of Lily” kit took six months to complete, and was assembled by five people. Haynes says that the kit “absolutely blew everybody’s minds. That was Keith’s own idea. He came to us and told us exactly what he wanted – those particular types of designs. It certainly stunned the drum world.”

{pagebreak}
Keith Moon

1967-1969: “Pictures Of Lily” Set

Drums: Premier
1. 22" Bass Drum
2. 16" Floor Tom
3. Mounted Toms (sizes unknown)
4. 14" Snare Drum

Cymbals: Various Brands
A. 20" Ride
B. 18" Crash
C. 14" Hi-Hats

Even though Keith loyally endorsed Premier, his taste in cymbals was decidedly random for many years. He showed little preference, playing whatever was available, although most often he tended to use Zildjian and Paiste cymbals. Late in his career, however, Keith did sign an endorsement deal with Zildjian. Eddie Haynes, worked with Zildjian at the time, and remembers Moon saying that the only reason he hadn’t previously endorsed a cymbal manufacturer was because no one had ever bothered to ask him. A curiosity of Keith’s cymbal setup was his practice of riding on a half-open hi-had which he rarely touched with his left foot.

Keith Moon

1970-1978: The Final Setup

Drums: Premier
1. 22" Bass Drum
2. Timbales
3. 16" Single-Headed Tom
4. 15" Single-Headed Tom
5. 18" Floor Tom
6. 16" Floor Tom
7. 14" Single-Headed Tom
8. 13" Single-Headed Tom
9. 12" Single-Headed Tom
10. 10: Single-Headed Tom
11. 14" Single-Headed Tom
12. 13" Mounted Tom
13. 12" Mounted Tom
14. 14" Snare Drum
15. Timpani

Cymbals: Various Brands
A. 22" Ride
B. 20" Crash
C. 14" Splash
D. 18" Crash
E. 14" Hi-Hat
F. Gong

Stands: Premier Lock Fast

Bass Pedals: Premier 250

The expansion of Moon’s setup continued until around 1970. By then he had surrounded himself with layers of drums, which included timbales, gongs, and timpani [see diagram]. It seemed that he finally had reached his goal, because he continued to play this sort of configuration, with only slight variations, until the day he died.

Bob Henrit was one of the few drummers who had a chance to play one of Keith Moon’s drum sets: “It was when I was making Roger Daltrey’s solo album in the spring of 1973. The recording was done in a barn next to Roger’s house in Sussex and it just happened to be equipped with one of Keith’s Premier kits. It was red with a pair of those odd looking double-headed toms mounted on the bass drum. Up until then I’d only had a single mounted tom, although I had two different sized bass drums and a couple of floor toms. Having two top toms was a real turn-on for me – I couldn’t leave them alone. Since then I wouldn’t be seen dead without a pair of rack toms.”

Henrit continues, “Interestingly, just before he died, Moonie had signed a contract to play a different set of British drums and move away from Premier. Staccato drums were the brainchild of Chris Slade, a drummer who worked with Tom Jones, Manfred Mann, and eventually Jimmy Page’s The Firm. The drums were made from fiberglass and were horn-loaded with a sort of trumpet end coming from their bottoms and at right angles to their heads; rather like the North drums built during the ’70s in America. The difference was they had a unique ’manta ray’ shape at their open ends. The bass drum had twin horns and was often referred to as ’elephant’s trousers’ since that is exactly what they looked like.”

Unfortunately, the Staccato deal was suddenly nullified by the news of Moon’s tragic death. And the sense of loss has only deepened since then, in large part due to the ongoing inability of rock drummers to match his passionate playing. But his influence has survived the many years. Drummers are continuing to adopt Moon’s ideas, though none have been able to top his ingenuity. You have to be able to accept his definition of what a drum set was in order to do that, and that can be very hard to do.