Talented, tortured, tragic – an icon. Keith Moon is idolised in Mod culture, a testament to his place in rock history as the greatest drummer who ever lived. Forty years after his untimely death at the age of 32, his deft accomplishments still hold court with more than the faithful. He was the 17-year-old wannabe who rose to international stardom with The Who and paid the ultimate price.
Keith Moon was catapulted to fame on a wave of self-affirmation and a beat that was entirely his own. He set the bar with a style that no other drummer has been able to replicate, let alone surpass. He has been described as over-confident, brash and yet a genius. But it wasn’t always that way. As a boy, Keith Moon was considered a shy loner. Perhaps because of this, demons would haunt his adult life. They would eat away at his psyche, leading to labels such as ‘Moon the Loon’.
From the Escorts and beyond
Born in London in 1946, Keith Moon was a ‘natural’ when he took up drumming at a young age. He had shown no academic ability yet succumbed to music like a duck to water. The son of a mechanic and cleaner, he had been destined for an undistinguished, humdrum life. His skill, highly personalised style and determination to succeed changed the course of his destiny – and music history.
Before he made his name on the international stage, Keith Moon carved out an early career in his own backyard. He played with three outfits in his native London, none of which would slingshot him to fame. His first taste of playing in a band came with the unremarkable Escorts. He went on to join Mark Twain and The Strangers before completing the line up of cover band The Beachcombers. Throughout this period, his talents were either overlooked or dismissed. The genius was yet to be discovered.
Keith Moon and The Who
The Who were on the precipice of leading a cultural revolution when they were fortuitously introduced to Keith Moon. He successfully auditioned to be the band’s drummer in a pub – just before new management would set The Who on the path to greatness. It was 1964, a year before the band released its critically acclaimed single ‘I Can’t Explain’.
Keith Moon’s input was hard to ignore. His drumming leapt out, prompting the lead-in to a memorable chorus that captured the imaginations of a generation. Commentators have made much over the years about Moon’s musical accord with Pete Townsend. It was this synching of chiming, powerful styles that would become the signature sound of the band. Keith Moon’s status as a drumming legend took flight with the release of The Who’s first album, ‘My Generation’. He went on to leave an indelible mark on the music industry with drumming that pushed every boundary on ‘Happy Jack’, a single released in 1966, and many more after.
The biggest beat in rock
The Who marketed themselves as ‘the most exciting band in the world’. And Keith Moon’s kit lived up to the hype. It matched his colourful, energetic performances on stage. Combined, they were drivers of The Who’s journey to global stardom. At one point, Moon’s kit boasted up to 10 tom-toms, six symbols, twin bass drums, snare, gong and twin timpani.
Moon’s swashbuckling presence on stage was matched by showmanship never before demonstrated by a drummer. Previously confined to the background, Keith Moon put drumming firmly in the spotlight. He juggled his drumsticks like a skilled circus performer, developing his own unique grip, while never missing a beat. His on-stage persona was magnified by his ability to engage the audience. He enthralled crowds with his humour and his legendary attacks on the tools of his trade. No Who performance was ever complete without Keith Moon trashing his kit at the end of the night.
The beginning of the end
The Who were shaping the music scene at a time when rock stars embraced the hedonistic leftovers of the hippy culture. But there was no peace for the wild man of rock. He ignored protocols to embody celebrity at a time when anything seemed to go. He was the joker who busted taboos, seemingly relishing in his role as the wild clown. In spite of his genius and how far he had come, he was to slip into the abyss of alcoholism.
When The Who took time out in the early 1970’s, Moon crossed The Pond to California. He enjoyed limited success on the big screen, appearing in small acting roles. His film credits include ‘That’ll Be The Day’. He performed alongside David Essex in the sequel, ‘Stardust’, in 1974 before returning to the recording studio. He released ‘Two Sides of the Moon’’, a solo endeavour, a year later.
A legend never dies
Punk rock had risen to mainstream when Keith Moon moved back to England in 1977. He re-joined The Who to perform on his last album, ‘Who Are You’. A party animal who drank with the likes of Oliver Reed, he’d seen the inside of a police cell and racked up hotel bills for damage totalling tens of thousands. His personal life was on a downward spiral and, realising his potential fate, attempted to free himself from the bottle. He was undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction when he accidentally overdosed on a prescription drug and died in 1978.
The complexity of his skills, the sublime nature of his performances and his ability to command the stage to this day sets Keith Moon apart. There will never be another like him. He was an innovator and utterly unique. And that is why his legend will always live on!!