My first introduction to Keith Moon and The Who came from the 45 rpm I had added to my drum practice records. I would put on a stack of 45s (and later, albums) and retreat to the basement. After playing through as many songs as would fit on the spindle, my mom would flip them over and I would play through the B sides (and if no one was home, I would run up stairs and flip them over myself). My first and only Who record at that time was I Can See for Miles backed by Mary Ann with the Shaky Hands. I had never seen The Who perform so what I knew of Keith Moon’s drumming came strictly from learning to copy his unconventional style. Moon seemed to play around the beat of the song as much as he set the time for the band. It wasn’t like anything I had ever played along with before but the lesson served me well by the time my high school band (The Twig) learned our version of Summertime Blues (our arrangement drew liberally from the way both The Who and Blue Cheer played the song). Once I was able to see Moon in action, the manner in which he attacked the drums left me wondering how a band could work with a drummer who seemed to be from a different planet. When The Twig began playing See Me, Feel Me from their rock opera Tommy (we played it as an instrumental because we couldn’t do the vocals justice), I had seen enough of Moon’s playing style that it gave me a better idea how the drum part carried the tune.
In Part 1 of Moon the Loon, we left the fifteen year old Keith Moon playing in a semi-pro band after replacing his pal and fellow drummer, Gerry Evans, in The Escorts. During this period, Moon was steadily improving. As he gained more confidence in his playing, Keith started plotting the next step forward in his drumming career. He answered an audition call with Shane Fenton and the Fentones (a band that had racked up six hit singles) but failed to get the gig. The band seemed to think he was much too young to be drumming in such a popular, professional band. It was 1962 and the blues were making their first significant inroads to the London music scene thanks to Alexis Korner. Korner opened the first R&B club in the city which featured his Blues Incorporated group as the house band. Moon wasn’t on board with the blues at this point. He was perfectly happy playing pop music with the Escorts, but he was keeping his options open.
When a next level semi-pro band called The Beachcombers advertised for open drummer auditions near the end of 1962, the now sixteen year old drummer was driven there by his father. As one drummer after another was dismissed, the band kept calling in the next aspiring time keeper. The band had already told Moon he was too young and that he should just go home, but he stayed until all the other candidates had been dismissed. His father pulled rank and suggested they had nothing to lose by giving him a shot so they relented. All the other drummers had set up in front of the band so they could watch what the band was doing. Moon was the only one who set up on the back line just like he would when playing a gig. When they counted off the first number, not only did Moon come in right on time, he surprised them with the powerful playing style he had picked up from Carlo Little. Just like that, he was in The Beachcombers and although they didn’t have an extra suit for him to wear (the last drummer had kept his rust-brown outfit), Moon started wearing his own outlandish gold lame suit – a fashion statement that spoke to the audience as loudly as his drumming.
His influence was immediately felt as he pushed the band to become more than just ‘shadows of The Shadows’ (Cliff Richard’s hit making band) and become better performers. All was well during his eighteen month stint with The Beachcombers. They played a regular circuit of London clubs, numerous American Army bases, and the coastal tourist spots (and why not, they were The Beachcombers after all). Moon tried to get the band to take the next step and become a recording band, but the other members all had jobs and families; they were content to remain a great semi-pro band. Keith was becoming more and more the center of attention in the band and it suited him. Moon had his eye on a higher prize. In later years, the former Beachcombers had some regrets for not being brave enough to go all in, but they all agreed on one thing: during his time in the band, Keith Moon was the best drummer they had ever worked with. Perhaps he was already one of the best rock and roll drummers in England. As his drumming skills improved, so did his capacity to pull pranks on friends and foes alike. When the band caught him stealing an amplifier from one of the clubs, they made him return it and explain the ‘mix up’, but it didn’t quell his penchant for nicking this, that, or the other thing whenever he got the chance.
Another popular band that was handled by the same management company as The Beachcombers was The Detours. Legend has it that Keith Moon had mentioned that he would really like to play with them, but there is no evidence that he would ever have made a move to displace an established drummer from their band. In truth, The Detour’s drummer was a fulltime bricklayer with a family who was moonlighting six nights a week with The Detours. Doug Sandom’s wife might not have approved of his second life as a drummer, but Sandom enjoyed playing rock music. A few years older than his fellow Detours, friction with teenage art student / guitarist Pete Townsend pushed Sandom to quit the band in anger after being chastised by Townsend. It appears that ousting Sandom had been Townsend’s plan all along, but he still insisted that Doug complete the next month of bookings before he left. Sandom was on better terms with singer Roger Daltry and bassist John Entwhislte but when Entwhistle offered to leave with Sandom, the drummer told him, “You carry on. I’m too old to be in the band really. You’d be stupid to throw away your contract because of me.” Not long after Moon had taken his drum seat, Sandom brought the hideous stage outfit that Townsend had designed for the band to the Oldfield with the intention of shoving it down Pete’s throat. He realized that Townsend had played him and was angry and embarrassed to see this ‘kid’ taking his place. During a break, Moon approached Sandom and told him that he had seen him play many times. Keith also surprised him by thanking him for the great opportunity he had given Moon by quitting The Detours. It was the first and last time Moon and Sandom spoke.
Through their shared management company, Sandom was asked if he might be interested in replacing Moon in The Beachcombers. After a little arm twisting, the two bands swapping drummers seemed like a good idea, but after having Moon push the band with his playing, they found Sandom’s playing ordinary. After one gig with The Beachcombers, Sandom hung up his sticks for good.
At the time that Keith Moon joined The Detours, they were in the process of becoming The Who. They had ditched their tailored suits in favor or a tougher look. They had also begun inserting some blues songs in their set of covers. When their door knob manufacturing manager (yes, you read that right) Helmut Gordon asked The Rolling Stones publicist Peter Meadon to look the band over, Meadon immediately hatched a plan to make the band the poster boys for the London mods. He pushed them to record two mod anthems he himself crafted by writing new lyrics to tunes he borrowed from Slim Harpo (Got Love if You Want It) and the Showman (Country Fool). The crassly commercial songs I’m The Face and Zoot Suit were so unlike the music of The Who’s new image, they were recorded under a handle that had deep meaning for the mod crowd, The High Numbers. Meadon reoutfitted the band with Daltry as ‘the face’ (or leader) of the band and the rest were ‘tickets’ (regular mods). In that this was the band’s first opportunity to record, they more or less went along with the new plan, at least until their mod pandering singles tanked.
They ended up with three management teams tugging them in three different directions when Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp decided they were the band that they had been looking for. The duo had a plan to feature The Who in a film about the rise of rock bands. By then Helmut Gordon had become a footnote in the band’s career. When Lambert and Stamp found out Meadon had put the underage teens on contract without the proper parental permission, they more or less won the tug of war and took over the band’s business end. Although Townsend and Moon didn’t mind the mod look Meadon had crafted for them, Daltry and Entwhistle were just as happy to return to their tougher look, sound, and name. There was a confusing period when The Detours were being booked as The Who and The High Numbers at different venues before finally settling in on their ‘The Who – Maximum R&B’ identity. The early recordings by the High Numbers took place just after Moon had joined the band and the drumming is uncharacteristically weak when compared to material they would record the next year as The Who.
When The Who finally released their debut single early in 1965, I Can’t Explain was instantly recognizable by the four chord guitar figure that introduced the song. Less familiar but certainly one of the things that made this song stand out among other releases that year was the crisp, powerful drumming that pushed the song. Moon’s tendency to lock in with Townsend’s guitar rather than Entwhistle’s bass turned the drums into more of a lead instrument. Although he admired Ringo Starr, Keith’s playing didn’t resemble any of the other well known drummers of that time. Most simply kept time while avoiding the tom toms for anyting other than an occasional fill or roll. Most rode their high hat cymbals – a lot. Keith tended to avoid the high hats (and in some periods, didn’t bother including them with his kit) while attacking the toms and ride cymbals to propel the songs. Entwhistle observed that, “Most drummers tend to play around their set. Keith is the only drummer I ever saw who played them forward.”
The rest of Moon’s history with The Who has been well documented. The legendary pranks like repacking the smoke cannons for their appearance on The Smothers Brothers TV show (and subsequently causing the band some permanent hearing loss) have also been told over and over. What rarely has been explained is how Moon ended up such a drug addled mess. When he began performing, he didn’t drink (for one, he was too young to drink in the pubs in which he played and secondly, he really didn’t like beer). He did find over the counter caffeine pills were helpful in keeping his edge early on (and they kept him up through long nights of pranking). Knowing now that he probably had ADHD before it even had a name, the purple and blue pep pills that the mods popped like candy were similar to stimulants later used to treat hyperactivity. Perhaps in the beginning, the pills helped the hyperactive Keith to keep his focus, but it became a case of, “One pill isn’t enough so why stop at twenty?” Money didn’t drive Keith Moon so spending a fortune on drugs or toys wasn’t a problem.
Being the center of attention was Moon’s one true addiction, one that was aided by popping pills that kept him going for inhumanly long stretches of time. It is both sad and ironic that when he was finally on the right track to sobering up, it may have been the very pills helping him clean up that inadvertently killed him. Moon was driven to be the center of attention and it is equally sad
that his enormous talent as a musician wasn’t enough to overcome his feelings of insecurity. These insecurities became more apparent in his personal relationships (particularly with his wives and girlfriends) as his drug and alcohol fueled lifestyle began to wear him down.
It is still too soon to say which Keith Moon will be remembered longer. My personal hope is that it will be the extraordinarily talented yet unconventional drummer that will endure. His band mates always praised his drumming, but no doubt the antics wore on them as much as they did on his friends and family. After a while, the excuse, “Well, that is just Keith,” couldn’t keep his over the top escapades from making bigger headlines than the band’s music. No matter how beautiful the locomotive is when it comes out of the factory, it is the train-wreck that everyone tends to remember. Such may be the case for Moon the Loon. Only time will tell.
Top Piece Video – The Who at Woodstock – I really wanted to use one of Moon’s last recordings Who Are You, but it is tough to find a clean one! This will do!!