Not To Be Taken Away: Keith Moon at 75

The Who drummer’s infamous escapades were the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll

Keith Moon would have been 75 today (Design: Ron Hart)

“It’s Keith Moon’s birthday today,” former Cars guitarist Elliot Easton posted on his Facebook page a year or two ago on August 23rd. “Go out and do something mischievous!”

Yes, that would be one way to celebrate, and in the safe suburban home of my youth, I would do spit-takes reading about one of The Who drummer’s infamous escapades, because that was rock ‘n’ roll. The freedom to anything you fucking wanted, consequences be damned. The anarchy he brought to the drum kit – remember he liked to play “lead drums” for The Who – he brought to his off-stage life, making life seem like one glorious mess of a party.

In my more mature years, I would not suggest chucking a TV out a hotel window or dressing up in Nazi regalia, pretending to be Rommel in jodhpurs, binoculars, knee boots, leather coat, and cap, marching up and down the beach.

You probably don’t own a Bentley, but I’d also suggest not doing this: Moon and his buddies would cruise neighborhoods in his fancy car and blare out a warning on a loud PA, “A lorry-load of snakes has overturned around the corner! Please return to your houses!”


AUDIO: The Who on The Smothers Brothers Show 1967

In that vein, Moonie, who, like Lemmy fancied favored Nazi regalia, would dress up as Rommel in jodhpurs, binoculars, knee boots, leather coat, and cap and march up and down the beach. using proper upper-class diction, speaking as a declared “Conservative candidate for Parliament”: “A boatload of refugees is about to move into the neighborhood.” 

Moon, who would have turned 75, died way before that, at 32, pictured on his last Who album squatted forlornly in a director’s chair with the words “Not to be taken away” on it. (An eerie precursor to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors album cover with the flames behind the band.)

Certainly, not what Moon did the night of Sept. 6, 1978. He went to a London party hosted by Paul McCartney, celebrating the movie The Buddy Holly Story. Moon snorted a bit of cocaine beforehand, but drank surprisingly little. Still, he was slurry — the result, it turned out, of a prescription drug called Heminevrin, used in the treatment of alcoholism. The drug mimicked alcohol’s effects; used with alcohol, as it shouldn’t be, it multiplied them.

Moon and his girlfriend Annette Walter-Lax left the party early, around midnight. After dining, she said, he had “his usual glass of water and bucket of pills.” Moon woke up one more time, early in the morning, and demanded she cook him a steak. He ate and went back to sleep. That was it. An autopsy revealed 32 Heminevrin pills in his system. Details from Fletcher book – js

And thus, a year after Elvis’ death, Keith Moon died before he got old, a decade younger than the King. On the cover of the final Who album with him, “Who Are You,” Moon is pictured sitting backwards in a director’s chair with the words NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY emblazoned on it.  The album was released less than a month before his death.

The Who Who Are You, MCA 1979

Moon never thought he was just the drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section. He wasn’t support. Moon thought what he played with The Who was “lead drums.”

“On one level, it’s just constant attack,” says Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott, “but always with a motive. Between he and John Entwistle, they were keeping the rhythm almost subliminally, while building this constantly moving avalanche to support Townshend’s song composition and Daltrey’s vocals.”

“I adored him and his playing,” adds former Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham. “I saw The Who with him a few times – but there is so little left to say that hasn’t been said 1000 times, y’know?! Other than this: I could never work out how the living fuck he played that way. [Current and longtime Who drummer] Zak Starkey does a very good job of sort-of-matching it….but nobody, nobody, can do it the same way.”

Jim Janota – a Boston-based drummer who’s an alumnus of the Bags and the Lyres and is still rocking in The Upper Crust – has long been an analytical Moon fan. 

“Moon’s style is unconventional,” says Janota. “Even on the earlier mod stuff, where he is largely confining himself to a more direct garage rock approach, he attacked the beat with a sort of wild energy. ‘I Can’t Explain’ is a good example. He’s playing a normal rock beat, with the snare on the 2 and 4, but there is a palpable aggressiveness to it, like he’s a chained animal trying to escape.

“A couple years later, on ‘I Can See for Miles,’ you can hear him coming into his own. By now his approach to the drums is more textural and emotionally driven and less concerned with a normal 2 and 4 beat. He plays a long snare roll instead of a rock beat on the chorus and he plays the verses with bursts of tom fills that drive the song forward, despite the lack of any metronomic timekeeping. I’ve only recently began to grasp his ‘parallel universe’ approach to rock songs.

“Perhaps the best example of what I’m trying to say can be heard on the song ‘My Wife.’ It’s a fairly straightforward melodic pop song, but Moon doesn’t give a shit. He’s like crashing waves and rolling thunder where any other drummer would be keeping the tried and true 2 and 4 beat. He’s all slashing cymbals and dynamic tom toms, more a force of nature than a keeper of the beat. It’s artistic and awesome.”

The Feelies (and former Luna) drummer Stan Demeski concurs. “In general, he would produce as much sound as possible,” he says. “And the energy he played with is hard to match, especially in the early days. 

“I saw ‘Monterey Pop’ and I noticed he did what I would call ‘double stops,’ although that’s probably not the correct term. Essentially it’s hitting two things at once, but not a flam where you’re hitting one hand slightly before the other. He would start a drum fill and hit a cymbal at the same time on the first note of the fill. ‘Happy Jack’ is a good example. And he would double the bass drum with tom hits.”


AUDIO: Keith Moon Two Sides of the Moon (full album)

In 1975,  Moon got to make a solo album. Hell, Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle had done so – why not Moonie? He couldn’t sing, really, his voice was more of a croak or a bark – one we heard on Quadrophenia when he sang “Bell Boy.” That barely mattered for Two Sides of the Moon.  A cast of his famous friends was assembled to back him as he took the mic. Recording costs went through the roof. He has drum credits on only three tracks. Drummer?! That was his job. Robert Christgau was not wrong when he called it an “alternately vulgar, silly, and tender travesty/tour de force.” 

It all happened in L.A. He went to California, the way many a pasty Brit did when they had the ways and means. He joined the (then merry) band of rock ‘n’ roll drinkers and druggies, John Lennon, Alice Cooper, Ringo Star, Harry Nilsson, Marc Bolan and others, the Hollywood Vampires, the name Cooper later took for his current side project.

The album is a lark. Moon loved the Beach Boys more than anything –The Who covered “Barbara Ann” – and sang a wonderfully wobbly “Don’t Worry Baby,” which purists heard as sacrilege. Lennon gave him the rip-snorting album kickoff, “Move Over Ms. L,” and Nilsson, Ringo and Moon collaborated on the joyously sad singalong song of bonding and breaking apart, “Together.” (There’s a fab Monty Python-esque joke exchange at the end.)


AUDIO: Keith Moon “Don’t Worry Baby”

The LP design featured a cut-out rectangle on the front and when you slid in the inner sleeve, you either saw a formal Moon in a top hat, peering out a limo window as a beautiful lady friend behind him gazes at him fondly. Or you saw Moon’s arse, as the clown that he could be mooning us through the limo window. (I think it’s Moon’s, but it’s suspiciously non-hairy.)

 “I suppose to most people I’m probably seen as an amiable idiot . . . a genial twit,” Moon told Rolling Stone in 1972,  talking with glee about the pleasure he derived from performing practical jokes on himself and others. “Of course,” he added in a rare moment of semi-reflection, “the biggest danger is becoming a parody.”

There are two great, differently slanted, biographies, the first, 1981’s Full Moon, by Dougal Butler, Moon’s personal assistant, where the tales told make life seem like a near constant spit-take. I have to admit to laughing out loud when I read about Moon encountering a bowl of pills at a party and just gobbling up a handful, whatever they might have been, because, well, that’s what crazy-ass rock ‘n’ roll drummers do come hell or high water.

But then, in 2000, came Tony Fletcher’s Dear Boy: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend, and, while drawing upon some of the same material, Fletcher painted a far darker picture, where those fun and games were not just fun and games, that Moon’s behavior was often pathological.

Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher (Image: eBay)

Fletcher suggests Moon likely suffered from bipolarity. (Multiple personality disorder is another speculative diagnosis.) The youngest member of The Who, Moon was certainly the most dysfunctional member of that highly dysfunctional musical family. He was not, on the surface, a complicated man (his core philosophy was hedonism), but he was a contradictory one.

It gets harrowing when Moon tries to chop down the door to the bathroom to get at his wife, Kim, a la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. There’s the story of Moon being quite likely at the wheel of a car that ran over and killed a member of his entourage, Neil Boland. (Moon was legally cleared, but guilty in his own mind, Fletcher writes.)

Moon’s life was one where the gleeful exuberance and miscreant nature of youth gradually hardened into something harsher and meaner, though still, not without charm. You can’t pinpoint the moment the trajectory started to head downhill. And the fact is, through thick and thin Moon’s humor often came poking through. He relished sending up the opulent rock-star lifestyle while he simultaneously indulged in it.

Moon saw life as performance art, every day a dress rehearsal. His humor could go over the edge. Or show up like that at a business meeting. He had an overwhelming desire to get messed up. He snorted heroin once, didn’t like it, got sick. But just about everything else was fair game. Moon was a megalomaniac; he was also the most humble and approachable of rock stars — everybody’s friend. 

He was generous, abusive and hypocritical. 

But the music, that remains. Says Jim Janota: “I like to say that Moon is to rock drumming what Jackson Pollack is to painting. It’s about energy, texture, dynamics and colors, not about literal interpretation. It’s wild expressionism.”

Former Del Fuegos drummer (and painter) Woody Giessmann picks another artist for comparison. “His drumming was a bit like the color blue to Picasso,” he says. “He had a limited pallet, but he used what worked for him. Occasionally, he would work in a little pink and green. Many drummers say that he did the same thing over and over. I say he did it very well and is sorely missed.”

Giessmann, a recovering alcoholic and addiction counselor who runs the Mass.-based recovery organization Right Turn, adds,  ”Damn those drugs and alcohol. I wish I had the chance to help him.”


VIDEO: Keith Moon on Good Morning America a month before his death


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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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