Rock 'N Roll Case Study: Keith Moon
By Andy Secher
[Originally published in January of 1979 in "Hard Rock" magazine]
The big 747 jetliner drifted smoothly through the night sky, seemingly at ease with the gentle breezes that separated Muritania from London. Suddenly the flight's peaceful atmosphere was shattered as the airliner's cockpit door flew open, and a deranged individual with malice etched in his eyes, burst into the crowded compartment. Thoughts of third world revolutionaries and skyjackings surely crossed Captain Barry Newman's mind, but the intruder, instead of pulling out a gun and demanding passage to Cuba, slowly withdrew a pair of drum sticks from his coat pocket and set deliberately about playing an impromptu "solo" on the flight engineer's calculation table. The surprised and somewhat alarmed crew quickly regained their composure and summoned airline security, and advised them to remove the mysterious "visitor" immediately upon landing. As the eventful flight finally touched down at London's Heathrow Airport, and the passenger was forcibly dragged to a waiting ambulance, Captain Newman was heard to mutter, "That man is not very well." Keith Moon had struck again.
For well over a decade, Keith Moon, legendary drummer and notorious crazy man, has been the rock world's most consistently outrageous figure. Perhaps even more famous than his machine-gun-like drum outbursts have been the often unbelievable tales of his off-stage excesses, destroying enough hotel rooms to have his name permanently enshrined on Holiday Inn's "ten most wanted" list. Moon is quite simply rock's most lovable loon, one-fourth of popular music's most explosive and talented band- The Who. With guitarist Peter Townsend and bassist John Entwistle busying themselves in numerous musical projects, and lead singer Roger Daltrey still trying to be a famous Hollywood movie star, it has been left up to Moon to retain the same unpredictable and somewhat unstable personality that has helped to establish The Who as one of the rowdiest, ass-kicking street bands to this very day.
It was in fact, on of his "antics" that first won Keith a spot in the Who's lineup. When the band first formed they went through a seemingly endless succession of drummers, each of whom failed to match up to the band's manic intensities. Daltry in particular was looking for a volatile, powerhouse drummer, one who would be willing to battle him for the spotlight. One night, in a tiny, crowed, steamy London pub called Oldfield, the Who's destiny was fulfilled. Rather quietly sitting in the audience that evening was an 18-year-old drummer named Moon who watched with bemused indifference as the band went through their set, utilizing a rather poor "session" drummer that they had hired for the gig. Near performance end, Moon, under the influence of an overabundance of his favorite "beverage", confidently walked up to the bandstand and sternly told the drummer to take a hike. The band, interested in someone so bold, invited Keith to sit in, and almost instantaneously all hell seemed to break loose. As the band launched into a simple R & B staple called "Roadrunner", Keith began to systematically destroy the "borrowed" drum set in front of him. First the bass pedal went flying into the crowd, then a couple of savage licks tore two other drum skins from their supports. The song ended with Moon finally kicking the dismantled set into a state of total disarray, and as he stood defiantly amid the rubble, Townsend excitedly turned to Daltrey and proclaimed, "I think we've found a drummer."
While such destructive outbursts were soon to become the Who's trademark, many of Moon's most outrageous antics have occurred away from the public eye. Possibly the most famous of these occurred during the band's first American tour in 1967. They had been traveling around the country, opening shows for, believe it or not, Herman's Hermits, and it just so happened that their entourage arrived in the unsuspecting town of Flint, Michigan on the day of Keith's 21st birthday. [editor: actually his 20th birthday-so that he would be able to drink for the rest of the tour he reasoned!]. Such an auspicious occasion of course, could not be overlooked by the touring party, and an impromptu party was planned at the band's hotel. By ten o'clock in the morning, both bands and their road crews had gathered around the Holiday Inn swimming pool and were heartily consuming the various bottles of booze that had been given to Keith as presents. As morning turned to afternoon more guests arrived bearing gifts, mostly of the alcoholic variety, and as the sun began to set, the party became a true celebration of insanity. Fully dressed individuals began to jump into the nearby pool, and as seemingly dozens of bottles of various beverages were dumped into the pool's cool waters, Flint, Michigan found itself the home of the world's largest martini.
As the day's festivities reached their culmination, a huge cake, a gift from Premier drum company, was wheeled out for Keith's inspection. Even though he was barely able to walk following his day-long carousing, he summoned up all of his remaining strength and picked up the entire cake and dumped its five layers on a unsuspecting ensemble who were sitting together in a drunken stupor. The incident seemed to give everyone a "second wind," and suddenly huge gobs of cake were being hurled from every imaginable corner of the besieged hotel. The main dining room became a war zone, and the lobby soon resembled a confectioner's nightmare. Somehow during these festivities Moon had managed to lose all of his clothes, and as he pranced around bare-assed, the police finally arrived to break up the party. Instead of waiting to be arrested for being the catalyst of this even, Moon, ever the quick thinker, dashed out into the night and jumped into a Lincoln Continental limousine parked in the hotel driveway. As he released the handbrake, he suddenly realized that the car was rolling backwards, and that he didn't have the keys to start the engine. In his drunken state he failed to realize that he could step on the footbrake and halt the car's backward progression, so he patiently sat and waited as the car crashed through the swimming pool's protective fence, and rolled into the water.
As the car rapidly began to sink in the pool's deep and, it looked like the short, glorious career or Keith Moon was about to reach an untimely conclusion. Somehow, even in his state of insensible stupor, his instincts for survival prevailed, and as the car was about to totally submerge, he took a gulp of air, pushed the car door open and swam valiantly to the pool's edge. As he emerged from his "swim" he was greeted by a police sergeant brandishing his gun. Deciding that valor was still the better part of discretion, Keith again attempted to run from justice, but this time he was felled by a well placed piece of cake frosting on which he slipped, falling forward and knocking out his front tooth. After finally being apprehended, he was forced to spend the remainder of the evening in the police jail. Upon being released the following morning, the sergeant presented him with a bill from the hotel for damages totaling $24,000, as well as offering a stern warning never to return to Flint. Keith could only offer a gap-toothed smile and think about his next birthday party.
While this tale remains dear to the hearts of all "Moon-men", his renowned ability to destroy hotel rooms has perhaps won him even greater acclaim. Many a time a startled hotel patron has been confronted by the sight of a 25-inch color TV hurtling down towards them, compliments of one Keith Moon. Nothing is safe from the destructive tendencies of the mad Moon; bathroom fixtures suddenly become unfixed, and wooden bed frames are soon relegated into the unrecognizable piles of wood. Keith shows no favoritism in his hotel "victims", and rooms from New York's elegant Plaza to huts in he wilds of Asia have felt the wrath of the demented drummer. One particularly memorable "wrecking" took place in the unlikely locale of Saskatoon, Canada. It seems that during the midst of one of the Who's frequent North American tours, Mr. Moon found himself without a suitable activity to occupy his hyperactive personality. After a few half-hearted attempts to find an entertaining diversion, Keith wandered into town where he discovered a hardware store that carried exactly what he was looking for. He gleefully returned to his room with a new hatchet that he had purchased, and he contently set about dismantling his room. Within minutes it looked like a German Panzer division had used his quarters for target practice, as everything from his dressing table to the television lay in a heap of total disrepair. a while later when a "roadie" came to get Keith from that evening's performance, he was aghast to open the door and find Moon sitting atop a huge pile of dismantled hotel furniture. As he wondered aloud what had gotten into Keith to make him do such a thing, the madman calmly replied, "just tryin' to keep meself out of trouble, mate."
An equally infamous hotel-room escapade found Keith providing a well-intentioned "inn-keeper" with the ultimate definition of "noise" versus "music". Legend tells that Moon was quietly standing in the lobby of a mid-western American hotel, with his portable cassette player blasting out some of the Who's latest work. After a few minutes of this sound onslaught, the normally crowded lobby had become practically deserted. It was at this point that the hotel manager emphatically asked Keith to turn the "noise" down to a respectable level. In disdain for one not attuned to his musical tastes, Moon kept right on playing his tape at ear-splitting levels. This prompted another plea from the manger, again begging that the "noise" be turned off. This dialogue continued unabated for the next few minutes until the hotel representative warned that if Keith did not turn the machine off at once he would be forced to summon the police. At these ominous words Moon mad an agreement with the manager. He said that he would go back to his room if the official would accompany him. While this request seemed somewhat strange, it was quickly agreed upon, and the two journeyed up to Keith's ninth floor abode. Upon reaching his room, Moon signaled that the man should wait a moment outside the door while Keith went inside. After about two minutes Moon reemerged, followed closely by a loud dynamite explosion emanating from his bathroom. As smoke began to fill the hallway, Moon turned to the horrified manager and calmly explained, "That my friend is noise. This on the other hand," as he again turned on his cassette player, "is the Who."
Understandably, Moon has been unable to get through all of his escapades totally unscathed. His injury list, including two broken ankles, split teeth, a cracked collarbone, and countless bumps and bruises. would do justice to the Dallas Cowboys, yet the "demented one" continues on his merry way, undaunted by the possibilities of cuts, scrapes or breaks. Of all his injuries however, the events surrounding his broken collarbone in particular, bear repeating. It seems that one cold Christmas a few years back, Keith invited a number of friends over for a real holiday "bash". After hours of using his kidneys to refine some of England’s finest liquor, Moon (ever the congenial host) passed out in the middle of his living room floor. This proved to be a great inconvenience to his guests, who were forced to step over his prone body for the remainder of the evening. As the night wore on, two of the visitors finally decided to get Keith out of the way by carrying him up to his room. In their wasted brain condition, they reasoned that the easiest method for accomp0lishing their goal would be to each grad a leg and drag him up the stairs feet-first. After repeatedly dropping their already unconscious "victim" down the staircase, they finally managed to get Keith up into bed, not realizing that, in the process, they had broken his collarbone.
Now this would have been just another "routine" evening in the Moon household had it not been for the fact that the Who were scheduled to tape an important TV appearance on "Top of The Pops" the next day. Obviously the rest of the band would not be thrilled with the idea of their drummer showing up for this prestigious show with his arm in a cast. Moon, wanting to avoid the wrath of his compatriots at all costs, cooked up an elaborate scheme. For assistance he called up one of his main partners in insanity Viv Stanshall, leader of the then-popular Bonzo Dog Band. Upon arriving at the TV studio the next day Keith was greeted by outburst of anger from Townshend and Daltrey, who upon spying Moon's arm saw a great publicity opportunity going up in smoke. The unruffled Keith however, quickly quieted the seething "mob", and mapped out his plan. He called over the producer who was in the midst of a nervous breakdown over the possibility of the band not being able to play, and explained that Stanshall would be standing off camera, working a rope "pully" connected to his injured arm. Every time the director wanted a show of Keith playing the drums he was to signal Viv who would pull on the rope, lifting Keith's arm, and neatly crashing it against a cymbal. The idea worked to perfection, and millions or rock fans throughout the British Isles were unaware that their drumming hero performed that night only through the assistance of an off-stage "extra".
Having discovered that injuries could be "fun", another incident found Moon feigning a "broken body" simply to avoid being scolded for arriving late to a magazine interview. The story is told that a few years back the band's press agent gave Keith a call advising him to be available at three o'clock the following day in order to do an important interview with journalists from a European rock magazine. Now, over in England the infamous "pubs" tend to close down temporarily at three o'clock in the afternoon, and Moon, like any rock star worth his weight, spent many of his waking hours patronizing his favorite tavern. Keith, being one of the pub's best customers, was never kicked out exactly at three, and in his normally drunken state he failed to realize that his interviewers had already arrived, and were patiently waiting for him at his record company's office. It wasn't until after four o'clock that it suddenly dawned on him that he was late, and his unique set of warped spinning wheels swung into action once again.
He called for his chauffeur (who was in the pub with him) to go to the nearest drug store and buy all the tape and gauze bandages he could carry. When his driver returned with the necessary goods, Keith suddenly disappeared into the nearest empty room. He emerged as the second coming of "The Mummy" wrapped head-to-toe in bandages. After a hurried drive to the company office, where his interviewers were still waiting, he hobbled into the conference room with the aid of a crutch, and casually apologized for "the hospital" delaying him for so long. As his audience sat aghast, Keith told a horrifying tale of how a careless bus driver had run him down at top speed, breaking his body to bits. Now of course the reporters quickly volunteered to cancel their interview and rush Keith back to the hospital, but the "valiant" Moon insisted on carrying on. The interview progressed somewhat normally for the next few minutes, with the journalists not wanting to say anything that might upset Keith in his "delicate" condition. Eventually though the questions began to probe how his "injury" might affect the Who's touring schedule, and with that, Keith suddenly jumped up, ripped off all the bandages, and did an impromptu tap-dance on the table in front of the startled writers. As they quickly picked up their gear and flew from the office Keith's booming laugh seemed to follow them all the way to the street below. As the journalists reflected back on the events that had just transpired, they realized that they had been the unwitting victims of a first rate "Mooning".
The stories go on forever; tales of disrupted press conferences, drag-queen parties, and high speed auto crashed, but space grows short, and perhaps these "adventures" should best be put aside for yet another look at the dark side of the Moon.
The stories go on forever, but now they are not simply a string of entertaining tales of lunacy. Rather, they have suddenly become the legacy for one of the rock world's most talented musicians. On September 7, 1978 Keith Moon pulled his last great "escapade," and his untimely death left the entire popular music scene in a state of shock and disbelief. Apparently, in the small hours of that fateful day, he had driven home form a party held at Paul McCartney's house celebrating Buddy Holly's birthday. Throughout the evening Moon had complained to friends that he was having difficulty breathing, but he didn't allow this problem to hinder his gregarious spirit. Upon arriving home, he allegedly took a number of prescribed Valium pills, and immediately went to bed. Sometime during the night, his breathing difficulties returned, causing him to gag in his sleep. In his drug-induced state, he was unable to awaken, and evidently he died of suffocation during the night. When his girl friend arrived the next morning she found Keith lying motionless in bed. She immediately summoned an ambulance, but it was already too late - Keith Moon was dead.
Keith was a special talent as well as a unique individual. His passing leaves a gaping hole not only in the lineup of The Who, but also in the musical lives of us all. In his own somewhat demented way, he seemed to exemplify the buoyant, youthful enthusiasm that is rock and roll, and his death in many ways signals the death knell for an era- the Era Of The Who. It is not known whether they will choose to continue without Keith, but it is certain that a large part of the band's heart and soul passed on with Keith on that dreary September morning. Keith Moon may now be dead, but his influence and spirit will never be forgotten, for as long as there are young people taking out their joys and frustrations through the power of rock and roll, he will live again through the sound of their vibrant notes. He is gone, but he will never be forgotten.
Books about Keith Moon:
"Moon: the life and death of a rock legend", by Tony Fletcher 1999
"Moon the Loon", by Dougal Butler 1981
Sites about Keith Moon: