I was living in New York on September 7, 1978, the day Keith died. It was early in the evening when my good friend and fellow Who fanatic Lisa Seckler called me up and told me the awful news. I was never quite sure how she heard, maybe from the radio or from another Who freak in London who rang her and was as devastated as she was. She knew I would be too.
That night I was due to meet up with my old MM colleague Chris Welch who was in New York to interview some band or other, and Chris and I ended up drowning our sorrows over Keith together. (Strangely enough I was with Chris, in Amsterdam, when we heard John Bonham had died. For the sake of all British drummers we have vowed never to meet abroad ever again.)
Although I’d left MM by this time the then editor Richard Williams called to ask me to write an obituary of Keith, but Chris, as a drummer, felt he ought to write something too. We agreed between ourselves that I would write about Keith the man and he would write about Keith the drummer. The pieces ran together, side by side, and I think they blended into one another well. Here’s a slightly edited version of what I wrote, rather hurriedly as I didn’t have much time to write it, nor the ease with which computers enable us writers to do our work today. With a monumental hangover that I figured Keith would have appreciated as he climbed the stairway to that great Premier kit in the sky, I dictated it over the phone the next day. It reads a bit cheesy now, in 2014, but I meant every word. A bit longer than most of my posts but here it is.
"What does it all mean, Keith?" I once asked him, not really knowing what to expect for an answer.
He waited a moment or two before answering. The loopy grin with the missing front tooth disappeared and the wild eyes became reflective instead of challenging. He spoke more slowly, choosing words carefully, as if the pressure of seriousness was, indeed, a difficult chore.
"On stage," he replied, his mind travelling to some gigantic stadium where The Who had triumphed at some concert or other. "That's what it's all about. Being up there in front of all those people and watching them enjoy something that I've helped to create. Nothing, nothing at all, can replace that feeling. Everything else is bullshit, really.
"I love playing the drums for The Who. Just to be up there and hear that roar. That's the biggest, most exciting feeling that a man can have. Thanks to The Who, I've known that feeling and I am eternally grateful to them for giving me that. I never want it to stop."
I can’t pretend to have known Keith Moon very well. Keith was extraordinarily gregarious, the kind of man who knew thousands of people, and thousands more knew him back. Our paths crossed many times whilst I wrote for Melody Maker, especially since my admiration for The Who slipped into print on more than one occasion. Also, I lived for a while in Englefield Green, not far from Chertsey and Tara House where the demon drummer came home to roost from time to time. He always welcomed a stray journalist as a drinking companion.
It is my contention that very few people knew Keith Moon very well. Keith revelled in an enormous variety of disguises and costumes: the upper-class twit, the East-End upstart, the drunken oaf, the filthy pervert, the romantic dreamer and, most of all, the practical joker. To his audience, and that means off-stage as well as on, he was an irresistible fool, an irrepressible comic and a very lovable idiot. In one way or another he was always performing, always being the Keith Moon of the newspaper headlines, always living the role he had chosen for himself and never revealing his true identity.
From the very beginnings of The Who, from their earliest days in Shepherds Bush, Moon determined to become the most outlandish character in pop. Legend has it that the night he joined The Who, standing in for Doug Sandon at the Oldfield in Greenford, he destroyed a drum kit that had served its previous owner for 20 years. He was dressed in orange with orange dyed hair and he was hired on the spot. The absence of money in those days did not deter Keith's resolution; while Pete was running up the bills by poleaxing Rickenbackers, Keith was matching him pound for pound in the Soho nightspots. The pattern remained the same for fifteen years.
Keith Moon stories are legend, and everyone has their favourite. Many have been told and retold until the truth is embellished with fiction to the extent that the yarn becomes a classic of rock folklore. Simply to have inspired such a legend is no mean feat, but the fact that the majority of famous tales have their roots in actuality put Keith Moon in a class by himself. No performer in rock ever came close to enjoying the reputation for outrageousness that Keith earned for himself.
Keith had the knack of being utterly charming one moment and devastatingly delinquent the next. Some of the worst excesses occurred on The Who's early American tours when the discomforts suffered doubtless warranted a protest of some kind. The infamous front tooth was lost, I believe, in Flint, Michigan, during a party to celebrate Peter "Herman" Noone's birthday. Keith, fleeing from a catastrophe that involved a cake fight and a car in a hotel pool, tripped at the feet of the law, lost his tooth and spent a night in jail.
He never changed. More recently, at a Los Angeles hotel, Keith was reprimanded by the manager for playing a tape of The Who By Numbers too loud. "It's a noise," exclaimed the irate official. One hour later the door of Moon's suite shattered in an explosion that sent vibrations echoing throughout the entire hotel. "That was a noise," explained Moon, to the astonished manager. "What you heard before was The Who."
As a practical joker, Keith Moon had few peers. No one who was around at the time will ever forget the Nazi uniform incident with Vivian Stanshall at the Speakeasy nor, I suppose will the customers at the Trafalgar Square Beerkeller where they ended up later that night. Then there was the time when he wrapped himself from head to toe in bandages and stepped out into the streets of London, first to gain sympathy and then to astonish the sympathisers by sprinting off to his waiting Rolls-Royce. That might have been the time he was dressed as a priest, or maybe not.
Clerical garb was always a favourite. Another time, in Windsor during the filming of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, he dressed as a nun and climbed from an upstairs window of the hotel where he was staying to the balcony of another guest, nuns breaking into windows in the middle of the night being the sort of thing that appealed to Keith. The last time I saw his name in print was due to some lunacy on a trans-Atlantic flight. There were so many times, so many outrages, recalled over double brandies before captivated listeners, when the booming laugh would ring out like a foghorn, madly infectious and totally captivating. Fact? Fiction? Who knows? Or Cares.
"Come in dear boy," Keith, the host, would say, welcoming visitors to the chaos that was Tara House, his home in Chertsey. And, once inside, the visitor was sucked into the dizzy whirlpool of Moonmania. Music from record players, tape machines, radios and juke boxes blared from every room, television sets and video machines were switched on and off. Friends shouted above the din, and cars and motorcycles and hovercrafts were revved up outside or inside to compete with the din.
On the bathroom wall, believe it or not, was John Lennon's gold record for 'She Loves You' and in the garden the genteel host, dressed in a gold smoking jacket, would be taking pot shots at birds with a high-powered rifle and telling some mystified acquaintance the sad saga of Billy Fury's pet owls that were left at Tara for safekeeping. The poor owls would have been safer in the Sinai desert.
He was the most generous of men. The distinction between genuine friends, admirers and bloodsuckers became blurred when Keith was in a partying mood. He liked to be surrounded at all times, to be the leader of the pack. He even bought a pub near Oxford where he could play host to both friends and strangers. The manufacturers of Remy Martin brandy will be amongst those who mourn him most deeply, even if the same cannot be said for the Hotel Proprietors Association of America.
It must be said that Keith paid dearly for his excesses; extravagances were always paid for in the end, and in hard cash too. I had a passing acquaintance with an accountant brought in by Keith to examine his financial affairs, a task of horrific proportions that she was reluctant to discuss, as befits a professional with private information. She did mention, however, that Keith had one day driven past a garage near Egham that dealt exclusively with selling Ferrari cars. Our hero ordered three, one red, one white and one blue. They were never delivered, a conversation between the accountant and garage owner having established the imprudence of this transaction. Keith never mentioned the matter again; apparently he forgot the purchase completely.
Although he never held a driving licence, his stable of cars was impressive. There were two Rollers, one a white open-topped Corniche and the other the lilac Silver Cloud II. The latter was his special favourite, apart from the AC Cobra, a terrifying machine acquired from John Bonham that ended up wrapped around a bollard somewhere between Egham and Staines. There was a magnificent white Mercedes-Benz, too, as well as the ancient Chrysler, an Al Capone-mobile that boasted bullet holes in the windows and always carried a spare machine gun.
If I have dwelt too long on the outrage, I apologise, for there were other sides to Keith Moon. He exhibited a terrifyingly fierce loyalty towards The Who. What was said behind locked doors was one thing, but woe betide any man who uttered a criticism of his three colleagues. More often than not John Entwistle was Keith's partner in crime, but he always spoke of Roger, and especially Pete, in glowing terms. Keith would – and did – spend time with any rock musician on the planet, but he never allowed his admiration for others to interfere with allegiance to The Who. Outwardly modest, he was enormously proud of The Who's achievements, convinced that he played drums for the finest rock band ever to take the stage.
Amidst all the craziness, Keith Moon's talents as a rock drummer were often overlooked. No other drummer in rock ever put quite as much energy into a performance as Moon; while his peers would be content to fix a solid back-beat, juggling between their snare and hi-hat, Moon would consistently extend himself over the entire kit.
And what a kit it was. Twin kick drums the size of timpani, four floor toms (one for use as a drinks tray), as many smaller toms as there was space and crash and ride cymbals galore. He was a comical sight, a tiny bundle of white energy, skating across so many drums, rolling sticks, pulling faces and always, but always, catching the end of the roll in perfect time. He was happiest, I suspect, when the music reached one of Townshend's crescendos, when he was called upon to pummel the floor toms for all he was worth, both arms striking the drums together and, of course, making as much bloody noise as he could.
His work in the studio could be as controlled as his live work-outs were flamboyant. The best example is on Who's Next, when producer Glyn Johns tightened the Who's sound to produce their most perfect record. It is interesting to compare this album with Live At Leeds when Moon's attack is at its most ferocious; yes, it is the same man on both records.
Keith Moon never took a drum solo. "They're boring," he'd say, and there are many who would agree. Neither did he talk drums much; he admired Ringo Starr, but I suspect that had more to do with Ringo's group than Ringo's drumming. He also spoke highly of Bob Henrit.
It is doubtful whether Keith could have played with any other group. His awesome technique suited The Who to a tee, but with any other musicians he would have overshadowed the lead instruments. The Who's sound was based on Townshend's rhythmic flair, carried along by the powerhouse drums and thunderous bass. Curiously, Keith's early musical influence seemed to be surf music; he was a fanatical admirer of The Beach Boys and other surfing bands. At home he would sing along to this music, invariably off-key, turning the volume up to a deafening level to camouflage his catastrophic pitching.
The first time I met Keith Moon was in 1970, a few weeks after joining the staff of Melody Maker, at La Chasse Club, a small drinking den above the Marquee in London's Wardour Street. I’d seen The Who perform at Dunstable Civic Hall a few weeks earlier and submitted a rave review. It was the first time I’d actually written about The Who in the pages of MM, although I had been a fan since I first saw them on Ready Steady Go! in 1965.
On the Friday of the following week, two days after that issue of Melody Maker became available, Keith Moon called me at the MM office to thank me for the good review. I was astonished that an artist of Moon's status would do such a thing; it hadn't happened before and, I might add, it rarely happened since.
It was the beginning of a friendship I shall always cherish. RIP Keith.
Wow, thanks Chris. That was really moving. Your feelings for Keith really come through. I really respect how your fondness for Keith doesn't cloud objectivity. That must be a tough distinction for a journalist. Of course, it's your praise of the music that moves you that , for me, brings out your best writing. Your place in ' Who history' is firm and well deserved. A question, I hope doesn't offend: Why do you have a producer credit for Who By Numbers?
I have a producer credit on most of the reissues that came out in the 90s, though not the de-luxe ones that came later. The reason was I helped select the bonus tracks, either wrote or commissioned the sleeve notes, and liaised with Richard Evans over the design.
Ah-ha. Makes sense. You did a great job on them. I guess since most of the bonus tracks were live versions, Pete Demos, and alt takes, there doesn't exist a vault of unheard, unreleased songs from the individual sessions? Who fans are pretty vocal about all the live shows that have never been released, but I always wondered why there wasn't more ' tracks that didn't make the cut'. Anyway, it's really a pleasure reading your insights. Thank you again, Chris!
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