An iconic figure in the history of rock-n-roll, as well as a cautionary tale about the excesses of fame, Keith Moon was the drummer for the British rock band Who from their rise to fame in the 1960s through their initial decline in the mid-1970s. Though known more for his destructive, alcohol-fueled behavior, Moon was one of rock's most potent and innovative percussionists, driving classic songs like "My Generation," "Substitute" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" with an astonishing barrage of fills, cymbal crashes and hammering double bass work that exemplified the Who's unwavering belief in rock as a force of nature and salvation for its listeners. Sadly, his musical gift could not rescue him from a downward spiral into alcohol and drug addiction that would eventually claim his own life in 1978. Though often dismissed as a madman during and after his lifetime, Moon would remain one of rock's most influential drummers decades after his own passing, with such noted figures as Dave Grohl, Rush's Neil Peart and Motley Crue's Tommy Lee sharing his penchant for sonic versatility and bravado. He would also serve as a potent symbol for the youthful energy, mischief and glee that came hand in hand with a life lived to its fullest.
Keith John Moon was born Aug. 23, 1946 in Wellesden, England. The elder child of two by mechanic Alfred Moon and his wife, Kathleen, he struggled in school due to hyperactivity. But he was captivated by music, spending hours listening to American and U.K. pop stars on his family's gramophone. Moon was also a diehard fan of the anarchic comedy troupe the Goons, which featured Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, and whose humor would inform his own madcap behavior. He began playing music as a member of his local chapter of the Sea Cadets Corps., a U.K. youth organization. Initially, he played trumpet, but switched to the drums after seeing "The Gene Krupa Story" (1959), a loosely based biopic of the famed jazz percussionist. Moon received his first drum kit in 1961 and began taking lessons from Carlo Little, a one-time drummer for an early incarnation of the Rolling Stones who had a reputation for being one of the loudest, most frantic players on the rock scene. Moon would soon employ Little's jackhammer technique in his first band, the Escorts, in 1962. So ferocious was his attack that while drumming with another group, the Beachcombers, his kit had to be secured to the stage with six-inch nails and rope.
In 1964, the 17-year-old Moon asked to audition for the drumming seat in the Detours, a blues-driven rock quartet. After accidentally demolishing the drum kit during his audition, Moon was hired by the band, which soon changed its name to the Who. The group soon built a devoted following on the London club scene for their intense performances, many of which culminated with guitarist Pete Townshend smashing his guitar in an explosion of pent-up aggression. Moon needed little impetus to follow suit, and the Who's live show frequently culminated in an orgy of broken instruments. But Moon also had the talent to back up the spectacle; the Who's early singles, like "Can't Explain," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and "The Kids are Alright," were powered by Moon's relentless drive, which focused its energy on persistent fills, rolls across the toms, nimble double bass drum work and near-constant cymbal crashes and washes. Moon's intensity meshed perfectly with the crushing sonic force of Townshend's guitar and John Entwhistle's bass, as well as singer Roger Daltrey's gruff vocal heroics. As a unit, they embodied the Who's early credo - "Maximum R&B" - by pushing groove, swagger and volume to their limits.
In addition to drumming for the Who, Moon sang on a number of their tracks, including "Bucket T" and the band's cover of "Barbara Ann" in 1966, though his most significant vocal contribution was handling the falsetto part in harmony, most notably on "Pictures of Lily" (1966). More often than not, Moon was not present during vocal sessions due to his propensity for making his bandmates laugh as they recorded their parts, though he would frequently try to sneak back into the control booth, as evidenced by Townshend's shout of "I saw you!" at the end of their U.S. Top 40 single "Happy Jack" (1966). Moon also penned or co-wrote a handful of lesser-known songs, including the surf-inspired instrumental "The Ox," and provided the inspiration for the setting of the grotesque "Tommy's Holiday Camp" from the Who's acclaimed rock opera, Tommy (1969), for which he also voiced the monstrous Uncle Ernie in both concert and in the 1975 Ken Russell film version. Moon also occasionally participated in projects outside the band, most notably "Beck's Bolero" (1967), which featured ex-Yardbirds guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, legendary session pianist Nicky Hopkins, and future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Two years later, he backed another formidable supergroup, a version of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band featuring Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Billy Preston and Klaus Voorman at a 1969 charity concert for UNICEF.
Though widely admired by fans and musicians alike for his musical talents, it was Moon's impish behavior, both on and off stage, which earned him his lasting legacy. Having seen the impact of destroying his drum kit, he upped the ante by adding explosive charges, most famously at the Monterey International Pop Festival and later in a 1967 appearance on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-69), when a kick drum loaded with gun power set off an explosion so powerful that it lit Townshend's hair on fire. Moon had been destroying toilets with firecrackers in hotel rooms that housed the band on various tours, but soon graduated to dynamite for greater destructive power. His 21st birthday, held at a Holiday Inn in Michigan, was reportedly the site of one of rock's most excessive moments; having destroyed the toilet in his room, Moon reportedly drove a car into the hotel pool, knocking out a front tooth in the process. The story, which was equally confirmed and denied by various sources, passed into the annals of rock music legend.
Eventually the antics overtook not only Moon's reputation, but his talents as well. He was a binge drinker and drug user whose appetites overwhelmed some of rock's most notorious dipsomaniacs, including frequent pub-crawling partners like Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper and Harry Nilsson. As a result, he became an unreliable presence on stage, as evidenced by an infamous 1973 concert at San Francisco's Cow Palace, where a combination of horse tranquilizers and brandy rendered him unconscious, forcing the band to recruit a member of the audience to complete the show. He grew violent towards his wife, former model Kim Kerrigan, who eventually left him to live with Small Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan. He was also involved in an automotive fatality in 1970 when he accidentally ran over his friend and bodyguard, Neil Boland, while trying to escape a hostile crowd at a pub in Hertfordshire. He drank even more heavily as a result, and began to implode.
Despite these issues, Moon played on the Who's most acclaimed records of the 1970s, from the overpowering concert LP Live at Leeds (1970) to Who's Next (1971) and Quadrophenia (1973). He also maintained a side career as an actor, giving typically offbeat turns in Frank Zappa's "200 Motels" (1971) as a terrified nun, and later as a musician during the early years of British rock-n-roll in "That'll Be The Day" (1973) and its sequel, "Stardust" (1974). The following year, he released his only solo album, Two Sides of the Moon (1975), a cover album featuring many of his favorite songs, including the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" and the Who's "The Kids are Alright." The record, recorded with an all-star lineup including Starr, Nilsson, Joe Walsh, Spencer Davis and countless other high-profile performers, generated more attention for its massive alcohol tab than for its songs, which were largely pilloried by the press.
After a lengthy hiatus, the Who reconvened for 1978's Who Are You. Moon had gained a significant amount of weight during his years away from the band, and found it difficult to provide his signature levels of power and finesse on the recording. His final studio performance with the band came on May 9, 1978, and was captured on film as part of the documentary "The Kids Are Alright" (1979), which detailed the Who's history, as well as some of Moon's most uproarious television appearances. Less than a month after the album's release in 1978, Moon ingested a substantial amount of clomthiazole, a sedative he had been prescribed as part of a self-imposed detoxification program. He died in his sleep as a result of an overdose on Sept. 8, 1978.
The Who would soldier on for another four years with ex-Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones in his stead, but the new lineup never generated the same level of electricity and unpredictability as their work with Moon. He was posthumously honored with the band as part of the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, as well as their receiving a Lifetime Achievement Awards from the British Phonographic Industry in 1988, the Grammy Foundation in 2001 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. Daltrey announced a biopic based on Moon's life that was to star comic Mike Myers, but the project stalled in 2012. That same year, longtime Who manager Bill Curbishley announced that the London 2012 Olympic committee had contacted him about the possibility that Moon would perform during the games, unaware that he had died three decades before. The incident, rich with absurdity, would most likely have been greatly appreciated by Moon himself.
By Paul Gaita