April 26, 2020

FTV: Moon the Loon

   It was on one of those TV shows that tried to be ‘really hip’ back in the 1970s, yet some how still seemed like a typical TV musical variety show, just aimed at a younger audience.  This show would do little vignettes of comedy between popular music acts of the day.  The guest host was always drawn from the ‘who’s hot right now’ list of celebrities who the network hoped would draw in the younger demographic.  The guest host of this particular installment was Keith Moon, drummer for one of the biggest bands around, The Who.  I can’t remember anybody else who appeared on this particular show, but I remember two things very clearly about Moon’s appearance.  My first thought was, “How often does a drummer become famous enough to host a nationally broadcast TV show without the rest of his band taking part?”  Moon’s propensity for zany antics was well known so my second thought was, “I wonder if he will be able to be funny enough for a network TV show?”  Such was Moon’s fame at the time.  Yes, he was able to spin his time with The Who into off shoot appearances like this but sadly, no, he wasn’t able to be particularly funny on TV.  Doing ‘zany things’ that might be funny in some contexts was Moon’s fortay.  Putting him in front of a TV camera hoping he would (do something zany) did not guarantee that he would actually be ‘funny’.  As my father reminded me from time to time, “Being a smart aleck isn’t the same as being funny.”  

     On this occasion, I felt embarrassed for Keith Moon as the concept of ‘zany equals funny’ dissolved before our very eyes.  Atypically (for most flashy drummers), Moon always said he hated drum solos, yet on this show, he sat behind his clear acrylic drum kit (it had been made exclusively for TV appearances) and played a solo.  Luckily he avoided hitting the floor tom that had live goldfish swimming about inside it (which enraged pet lovers everywhere – imagine how they would have reacted had he actually hit the fish tank drum!  Knowing Moon, if they had told him not to, he probably would have).  Ironically, it didn’t matter to Keith Moon because looking back at his tragically short life now, we can see that Keith Moon was completely immune to embarrassment and loved nothing more than to be the center of attention.  We can’t ignore that Moon’s frenetic lifestyle would do him in much too young, but in this case, we will focus on how he became a famous drummer in the first place.

     Keith Moon’s parents were as sane and normal as one could expect people who survived the deprivations of World War II England to be.  His father was a farmer, and as such could have sat out the war at home as farming was considered an ‘essential occupation’.  Alf Moon would have none of this (“the coward’s way out,” he called it).  He did not particularly like farming anyway and wanted to experience city life.  When little Keith graced Alf and Kit with his presence after the war, he was an energetic boy who loved nothing more than to sit by the wind up Victorola spinning 78s.  Knowing what a live-wire he could be, his parents were always surprised when his school teachers deemed him a ‘wonderful boy’.  When he was involved in school performances, it was obvious to all that he loved the attention, but there were limits to what school could do for Keith.  A school chum of his recalled Keith’s attitude toward school was, “I go to school and if I don’t learn anything, who gives a toss anyway?”  Perhaps it was his ability to charm everyone around him, even when he was making mischief at school, that would later give him carte blanche to behave in such an outrageous manner with no apologies offered.  

     When it came time for Keith to sit for his 11+ exams, fate seemed to stack up against him on all fronts.  The 11+ was an educational fork in the road that in the English school system of the 1950s would determine if one would ascend to Grammar School (which might lead to a white collar career in his future) or to the Secondary Modern School (seen by most as a dumping ground for those destined to occupy the lower rungs of the workforce ladder).  Sidney Poirtier’s film, To Sir With Love, was a cinematic peek at life in an urban Secondary Modern School.  Because his birth date fell nine days short of the cut off point, Keith took the 11+ exam when he was on the young side by nearly a full year.  His apathetic approach to school coupled with his young age all but guaranteed he would fail the 11+ and be shunted to Secondary school.  Though he was grouped with the ‘A class’ (those students deemed to be of keen mind and likely able to succeed in school), he struggled to keep up.  Moon had always had a short attention span and to compensate he became the quip spouting class clown.  He continued listening to music on the wind up record player and to the Goons comedy acts on the radio (an activity the whole family shared).  He further cemented his reputation as a cut up around school by replicating the Goons material word for word.  Being young and somewhat small in stature, Keith found a way to avoid being bullied by making the tough kids in school laugh, but he could also punch his way out of trouble if he had to.  

     His first instrument was actually the bugle he attempted to play when he joined the Sea Cadet Corps, which led him to the trumpet (which he never learned to play very well).  When he switched over to drums, it was the big bass drum the diminutive Moon would bang away on as the Cadets practiced their marching.  Hearing Billy Kidd and the Pirates was a watershed moment in Keith’s rock and roll education.  While early British rock drummers were more scarce than hen’s teeth (most recording drummers had jazz and big band music backgrounds and no particular love of rock music), Elvis Presley’s drummer, D.J. Fontana, made a big impression on young Keith.  Seeing Sal Mineo portray Gene Krupa’s frenetic, gesticulating style in the biopic Drum Crazy also played a major part in how Moon would attack the drums as much as he played them.  Before he could embark on a career as a drummer, he, of course, would have to own a drum kit.

     Moon’s road to owning his first kit began when he walked off the street into the Paramount Music store and met Gerry Evans.  The two school washouts who loved the drums bonded and  became fast friends.  Evans invited the fourteen year old Keith to his home to let him have a go at playing his kit.  Evans recalled, “This bloke, he got on a drum set and he was Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson immediately, he was like a madman let loose on a drum kit with no idea of what he was doing.  He was just hitting everything in sight, and making a load of noise.  To me it was, a) the thing that you don’t do, and b) it sounded like rubbish.  It was like dealing with a madman.  There was no way that this guy was going to be a professional drummer, it was impossible, because he didn’t have a clue, he was like the worst drummer you’d ever seen in your life.”  Moon couldn’t follow Evans’ advice to get a kit and start practicing because he didn’t have a job.  While Evans was at work, Moon would wander the streets of Soho pilfering things here and there.  He would then hook up with Evans after work for more of the same.  Gerry was somewhat mortified at the number of pranks that Moon played but never saw them as malicious;  just the manifestations of a bored, hyperactive boy with no powers of concentration.  Evans also spent a lot of time apologizing to his friends and neighbors for Moon’s latest antics.

     Life for Moon and Evans revolved around music and how they would become famous playing the drums in a band.  When Evans hooked up with some musicians looking for a drummer, Moon came along for the ride.  When The Escorts would rehearse, Moon would help Evans set up his kit and occasionally the band would let him bang out a few tunes.  He was still a wildman and Evans was definitely a better time keeper, but because Keith made the band laugh, he became kind of an honorary member.  When Moon finally landed a job at Ultra Electronics (he wasn’t school material, but he wasn’t dumb either – he found he had what it took to work with electronics, even if the 9 to 5 job thing drove him nuts).  With at least some income assured, Evans put him on to a used blue Premier drum kit that Moon could pay for on time.  Buying on HP (Hire Purchase it was called) required a signature from his parents.  Alf and Kit saw something in Keith’s passion for the drums and thought perhaps it would give him something to focus on.  When they got the drums home and set up, Keith again, as Evans stated, ‘Attacked them like a complete madman.  All out of time, like a maniac.”  Moon wasn’t a drummer yet, but at least he now had a proper drum kit to practice on.  Eventually the drums migrated to his bedroom and thus began his drum education.

     When later asked how he came to be a drummer, Moon usually deflected the question until one  interview he gave in 1975.  What Moon told Circus magazine was, “I found out that I really could not do anything else.  I tried several things and this was the only one I enjoyed doing.”  He always professed that his drumming skills were innate and that he never took a lesson, but that only holds true if one discounts Carlo Little, the drummer with Screaming Lord Such and the Savages.  Little had played proper drums in an Army band and after his national service, he  quickly became one of the first true English rock drummers of note.  Getting Little to give him lessons was another typical Keith Moon adventure.

     Keith was practicing at home but knew he had to watch other drummers to pick up some tips.  Moon was too young to gain entry to the local pubs to see live music, but he still managed to talk his way into the Oldfield.  Charmed by the fifteen year old, manager Louie Hunt invited the polite young man (who called him ‘Sir’) to visit anytime, as long as he didn’t stray too far from the edge of the stage.  As 1961 turned to 1962, Moon continued his routine until he and Evans attended a Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages show at Wembley Town Hall in June.  The show marked a turning point in Moon’s education on how to be a proper rock and roll drummer.

     After their set was done, Evans was surprised when Moon introduced himself to Carlo Little backstage and asked if he would be willing to give him drum lessons.  Little told him, “I’m not a teacher, mate.  I’m self-taught, I probably could do with some lessons meself.”  Moon persisted: “No.  You’re fantastic.  You really are.  Me and my friends come and see you all the time,  The way you hit the bass drum . . .”  Little thought it over and finally told Moon, “I can only teach you what I know.  Ten bob for thirty minutes.  Wednesday at seven.  Here’s the address.”  Moon managed to cut the cost down a little by telling Evans that if he paid part of the fee, Keith would be glad to show him everything Little taught him.  The biggest revelation Little imparted was the importance of the bass drum patterns that drove everything else.  The lessons went on for a while and Little felt that his pupil was learning, but still had a long way to go.

     As fate would have it, later that summer the Evans family went on holiday and The Escorts had several gigs to fill.  The excited Keith Moon had improved to the point where he was asked to fill in for Evans.  Moon was loud and wild to the point that some of the teen club owners canceled future engagements until Evans returned.  The band was relieved when their steady drummer came back, but they were interested enough in Moon’s ‘Carlo Little’ style of playing.  The Escorts continued to play some jobs with Keith on drums without bothering to tell Evans.  At seventeen years of age, Evans found himself managing the first all drum music store in the city, called (naturally) Drum City.  He was able to juggle playing with the Escorts for a while but was eventually replaced by his pal.  By all accounts, Evans never knew that he was being phased out by Keith Moon before the nature of his Drum City job made the transition permanent.

     The two drummer’s friendship declined as Evans got tired of Moon’s constant destructive pranking.  When Moon visited Drum City with an empty snare drum case and left with a full one (without taking the time to actually buy something), it proved to be the last straw.  Moon never had many close friends and when he did manage to form a closer relationship with someone, the friendship wore thin over time.  It didn’t matter to Keith because he had Carlo Little’s drum style to perfect, The Escorts to play the drums with, and a whole world to tear up with his pranks.  In part two of Moon the Loon, we will look at the next act in Keith Moon’s professional life as the drummer in a band he helped become one of the biggest in the world:  The Who.             

Top Piece Video – Once The Who got rolling, I Can’t Explain was their first single.