Keith Moon: Patent British Exploding Drummer
Mojo. September 1998
BOY, HOW WE CHERISH ROCK'S FOUNDATION MYTHS. The idea that merchant seamen brought back rare R&B records to Liverpool docks and fuelled the Merseybeat scene is so much more exotic than the possibility that in Liverpool in the early '60s, as in any other city, you could go into a specialist record shop and order them. Real life gets to be both mundane and exotic. With myth we only settle for the extraordinary.
Which brings us to Keith Moon, where myth has been multi-layered upon myth until it's hard to discern where the legend ends and the man begins. "Keith lived his entire life as a fantasy," Roger Daltrey, The Who's singer, told me. Moon The Loon, as we all know, is the guy who drove a Lincoln Continental into a Holiday Inn swimming pool; the exhibitionist drummer par excellence who turned up for his Who audition dressed from head to toe in ginger. Well, according to a forthcoming near-as-dammit definitive account of Moon's life by Tony Fletcher (Dear Boy: The Life Of Keith Moon, published by Omnibus Press) neither of these seminal events actually happened.
That's not to say that other equally extraordinary things didn't happen when Moon was around. It's just that the myth repertoire has been embellished so much down the years, not least by those closest to him, that it's sometimes hard to get a glimpse of the man behind the actor's mask. As Fletcher also points out, so determined was Moon about playing out the role of junior partner in The Who that he even knocked a year off his age, making him two-and-a-bit years younger than Pete Townshend, rather than the mere 15 months that he actually was. All this merely heaps further intrigue upon Keith Moon's already rich, spellbinding, tragicomic, myth-making maelstrom of a life. All that we know for certain is that amid the carnage of a thousand wild parties in a thousand trashed motel rooms there emerges, eventually, the wreckage of a man. He could drum a bit too.
In one sense this is a familiar tale retold from the perspective of the guy who sat at the back – except that in no other sense than the purely literal did the man sitting behind the kit ever take a back-seat role. Keith Moon was, indisputably, the greatest rock'n'roll drummer this country has ever produced. No-one even runs him close. Other drummers had their quirks, their charm, their competence. Moon in his pomp was possessed of some almost inhuman, turbine energy.
With his unorthodox mannerisms – sticks held high above his head, index fingers pointing down, a corruption of the military-band style he learned in the Sea Cadets – and his face permanently in frozen postures of speed rapture, he looked like some Vorticist apparition. The visual effect was akin to someone playing the drums as he plunged down a lift-shaft (a stunt that Moon would no doubt have been willing to attempt). He was also the obvious inspiration for Animal, The Muppets' demented house band drummer. And there you have the two sides of the Moon. Wyndham Lewis could have dreamed him up just so Jim Henson could clone him. Pete Townshend polished his auto-destructive leanings on Kit Lambert's conceptual brilliance and wielded his guitar like a metaphor. Moon cribbed Lambert's accent and his dear-boy mannerisms. He smashed his drum kit like a football hooligan let loose on the 5.15.
Moon the boy-child lived a typical North London 1950s life of Goon Shows and grocery rounds. Hyperactive even then, they'd probably put it down to a cheese allergy now. In Tony Fletcher's book everyone in Moon's first two bands, The Escorts and The Beachcombers, comments both on what a loveable cheeky little scamp he was and the explosive nature of his drumming. There was nothing to compare it with in pop. He was more like the flamboyant big beat jazz drummers: Louie Bellson, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich or Eric Delaney. In reality, apart from a few elementary lessons in skin-whacking from Carlo Little, drummer with Screaming Lord Sutch And The Savages, Moon took his instruction from Sandy Nelson and surf music: 'Let There Be Drums' and 'Teen Beat' were his template. "He made me a fan of The Rip Chords and Beach Boys and all that stuff," acknowledges John Entwistle, The Who's bassist. "He hated the blues," laughs Daltrey "He just used to take the piss out of it. I think he would have done anything to get us playing Jan And Dean and surf music."
Contrary to myth, Moon got the Who gig not because he was dressed from head to foot in ginger but because he could work his arse off. He was employed for his musicianship. "He didn't actually ask for the audition," says Entwistle. "His mate came up and said, 'My mate can play drums better than your drummer.' We were interested because we had a session drummer that we'd hired who worked for Marshall's music store in the drum department and he was working out extremely expensive, making half the total that we were making. Keith comes over, a lovely little gingerbread man, and we said, 'Do you know 'Roadrunner'?' He said, 'Yeah.' In playing it he smashed the hi-hat and put a hole in the skin. The other drummer wasn't very pleased. He got the gig basically 'cos he could play 'Roadrunner'." Roger Daltrey: "Although we loved 'Roadrunner' we did find it a bit repetitive to play. A lot of those old R&B covers were just different lyrics over the same eight bars, which led to all the elongated solos and feedback and free-form stuff we used to do, and it was just at the period where this was starting to develop into something. When Moon joined it went completely onto another planet. It just gelled. He just instinctively put drum rolls in places that other people would never have thought of putting them."
"The most amazing thing at first was that we could actually hear him," says Entwistle. "Most of the drummers we'd worked with weren't very loud. I actually developed my slapping style of playing because the snare drum was too weak – I hit my bass to make a fake snare drum sound. The first gig he ever played with us was a wedding, probably the only wedding we ever played. We had this gadget called a Swiss Echo. All of our sound depended on having this echo boosting the sound through the PA. If the Swiss Echo broke we had no PA. The tape bust and we called, 'Drum solo!'. Keith said, 'I'm not playing this ridiculous drum solo.' We'd wondered why he'd tied this rope around his whole kit, and tied it all to a pillar. Then he played this solo and the drums were heaving sideways. I guess that's when we realised how flamboyant he was.
"He had a very weird style of playing," Entwistle continues. "He started his drum breaks with his left hand: most drummers operate with their right. And he wouldn't play across his kit: he'd play zig-zag. That's why he had two sets of tom-toms. He'd move his arms forward like a skier. He fitted in with my bass style perfectly. I was overjoyed because I could get my rocks off with him. Keith's style really developed after he got more drums: once he got a really big kit with two bass drums, that's when he really started shining. And that's when he really helped develop my style as well. I had to find a way of playing twice as fast to fit in with his double bass-drum patterns. He played triplets so I had to devise a way of playing triplets with him rather than just stand there and plonk away." "Pete had developed this kind of rhythmic-lead style of playing and John was already playing completely different bass to anybody else," remembers Daltrey. "He was already playing 25 times as many bass notes as anybody else played in a bar. But Keith just moulded into it. He was just right."
Richard Barnes, author of The Who: Maximum R & B and close friend of Townshend, has seen all this at close hand over the years. "Bill Harrison, one of the Who roadies, once told me him and the other roadies used to watch Moon playing a gig, and he'd go on one of these huge rolls round the kit in between the sections of a song, and they'd bet 10 dollars on whether he'd complete it before he had to get back to the beat. Nineteen out of 20 times he did."
Moon was the original leaper. "No-one was really into downer drugs at the time. It was all uppers," says Bill Curbishley, who worked for The Who's record label, Track, from 1969, and took over the group's management in 1974. "We used to go out dancing all the time. We were Mods and the key to it was to stay up all weekend, go back to work, just like Jimmy in Quadrophenia – we all lived like that." Moon's drumming on those early Who records expressed the speed rush in the same way that Daltrey's stuttering "don't try to dig what we all s-s-s-s-say" interpreted the Mods' blocked inarticulacy. You want an illustration of how integrally explosive the Moon sound was? Try tapping out a regular 4/4 rhythm, like your school music teacher used to make you do. Now sing 'Pictures Of Lily' or 'I'm A Boy' over the top. Voila! 'Pictures Of Lily' or 'I'm A Boy' as performed by The Hollies or The Fourmost.
Shel Talmy, whose tenure as The Who's first producer was short-lived and fractious says, "I went to see them at a church hall for an audition and loved them the first time I heard them. I thought they were the first kick-ass ballsy rock'n'roll band I'd heard since I arrived in England. Everything else was polite rock. All the members had an intensity in their own way. But it was literally driven by Keith in conjunction with Pete who, unusually for that time, used to play his guitar listening to Keith rather than the bass player, and continued to do that throughout their career. Because of that there was an affinity that a lot of other rock bands probably didn't have: this solid rhythm base." When I ask critic and Who biographer Dave Marsh if this isn't putting too much onus on Moon he replies, "Oh no. On those Shel Talmy-produced records he is the leader. That's the reason Shel made those records sound that way."
FOR ALL HIS EXTROVERT EAGERNESS Moon was still the new boy, the only former secondary modern kid in a group of ex-grammar school boys for starters. "We had a reputation as being a nasty band on the circuit," says Entwistle, "and he'd come from a Beach Boys covers band. He'd obviously been the flamboyant member of that band because he was the one who would stand on the roof of the van in a silver lame suit, whereas they looked like they were dressed for the town dance. But it wasn't as if he joined and we went, God, this guy's a nut-case. He developed into a nutcase."
"I first saw them at The Marquee at one of the Maximum R & B nights," says Keith Altham, then an NME journalist. "I walked in and heard this absolute cacophony that sounded like somebody chainsawing a dustbin in half. I didn't really like them at first but I could see even then that the audience did. I was about to leave and Pete Meaden (The Who's early manager) came up, going, 'Great band yeah? Great buzz. Come and talk to them, baby.' I think he was on all the pills that Moon was on. The last thing I wanted to do was go and talk to them. Moon was obviously the friendliest. He was also the one with the girl appeal – this lovely little button face. His first words were, 'You haven't seen our singer, have you? Only he's going to kill me.' I said, Why? He said, 'Oh I've just told him his singing is shit.' I thought, Yeah, that ought to do it!"
"Reading, 1965, was the first time I realised they were big," says Richard Barnes as he swaps memories with Dougal Butler, Moon's long-serving driver, in his Twickenham local. "But Keith wasn't flash then. He was quite in awe of the band and realised he was the new boy and was a bit polite. He came up to me after the Reading gig and said, 'Have you got anything in the upward direction, dear boy?' I had about 24 purple hearts to last me the next three weeks. I expected him to take one or two, but in this one amazing movement he went... (mimes entire stash being scooped from hand and gulped instantaneously). I was pissed off but also incredibly impressed at the same time."
"Oh, he liked his uppers," agrees Dougal. "He used to get Dr Robert out in the middle of the night for anything," continues Barnes. "A broken nail, anything. Dr Robert had to drive out from Harley Street to Chertsey at three in the morning. Keith used to put on that Beatles record for him because he thought it was funny. Keith used to put on such an act that if he was really hurt we wouldn't have known." It was an ominous portent of what was to come.
Although he looked up most to Townshend, in those early days Moon was most pally with Entwistle. The bass player's deadpan on-stage demeanour masked an off-stage out-and-out raver. But Roger Daltrey, significantly, was the only band member not doing copious amounts of speed. Things came to a head in the summer of 1965 with a backstage fight after a pilled-up debacle of a gig in Denmark. Daltrey would have beaten Moon to a pulp if the road crew hadn't intervened. Daltrey was duly kicked out of the band and only welcomed back after a summit meeting where the group decided, wisely, not to blow a good thing, and Daltrey promised to curb the fisticuffs. All this before they recorded their first LP.
"We all loved the band so much," recalls Entwistle, "but we didn't particularly love each other. Somehow, after the arguments and punch-ups, we all ended up laughing about it. But it was a little bit more difficult with Roger in the beginning." Bill Curbishley: "Keith never really got on great with Roger, because Roger very much spoke his mind. He would tell Moon directly where it was at, so they clashed quite a bit. Roger is a bit of a perfectionist, so he would get upset when Moon used to turn up in a bad state. Underneath it all, Roger did care about Moon's well being." "Roger took a far less indulgent line with Keith," agrees Dave Marsh. "Everybody else just thought it was in Keith's nature to do what he was doing. Roger thought he could take better care of himself."
"You have to understand that Moon always thought the drums should be at the front of the stage," says Daltrey. "I was the poor sod that had to stand in front of him. That was a headache in itself. He'd always be doing things behind my back and I never knew what was going on. I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that he was taking the piss out of me all night. We were over-testosteroned young men barely out of our teens. Of course it created friction. But Keith had no fear of any authority. I used to hang around some right villains, even in those days, but Ronnie and Reggie Kray are the only other people I've met like that who had no fear of anything."
Entwistle and moon left the band several times during that early period. Moon, in particular, courted other bands all the time, never feeling his tenure in The Who was secure. At various times he tried to join The Animals and The Nashville Teens. There is also a story – probably apocryphal – that he went up to The Beatles when they were seated in the Scotch of St James and said, "Can I join you?" "Yeah, pull up a chair." "No, you misunderstand me. Can I join you?" implored Moon. "We both left the band every other week," says Entwistle, who himself nearly joined The Moody Blues at one point. "There was one particular bust-up when Pete hit Keith with a guitar. We went to find our manager and told him we were splitting and were going to form our own band. We sat in different nightclubs and planned our new career. I thought of the name Led Zeppelin and Keith came up with the cover of the Hindenburg going down in flames. The Who thing had become too much for us, and we were heading into the sunset. But we ended up being apologised to and going back to The Who. I often muse on what would have happened if we'd gone away and formed Led Zeppelin."
Life got marginally more complicated for the drummer when he got his girlfriend, Kim Kerrigan, pregnant when she was 16. After much prevarication, and time-honoured denials to the pop press, Moon did the decent working-class thing and got married. Serial unfaithfulness ensued. Around this time there were also, as Tony Fletcher reports, the first signs of pill-head paranoia. Moon misread The Beatles' in-joke humour, believing they were having coded conversations about him; then he translated jokey calls of "Kit, are we there yet?" on the way to gigs as, "Kit, have we found a new drummer yet?"
The foreground influence of the guy who sat at the back was crystallised in the moment Townshend shouts "I saw yer!" at the end of 'Happy Jack'. Moon's aura permeated everything from the band's internal antagonisms to their lyrical concerns (drinking, lunacy, etc). Moon's extra-curricular activities around this time included playing drums on the super-session (with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitars, John Paul Jones on bass, and Nicky Hopkins on piano) which yielded 'Beck's Bolero'. Pete Townshend was allegedly less than complimentary when he heard it, perhaps realising what his little dynamo was capable of in others' company. Beck scrapped the group when Moon wouldn't join full-time, reasoning that there was no-one else capable of filling the gap. Moon's most anarchic guest appearance can be heard on The Merseybeats' 1965 single 'I Stand Accused'. Halfway through this potentially chart-friendly rendering, Moon is let loose on a gong. He gives it the full J. Arthur Rank crescendo all the way to the outro.
Meanwhile, The Who toured the States for the first time in 1967. Monterey was taken by storm and Moon discovered cherry bombs; a whole new vista of hotel rearrangement opened up to him. The band made their American network TV debut on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, with Moon's legendary encounter with Tommy Smothers immortalised at the beginning of the film The Kids Are Alright. Visibly riled when his host introduces him as the guy who plays the "sloppy drums", Moon blows a raspberry at Smothers' over-earnest intro and then all but detonates the stage (and Townshend's future hearing) at the end of a mimed 'My Generation'. Keith celebrated his 21st birthday (officially his 20th) by getting banned from the entire Holiday Inn chain.
Moon's thematic contribution to that same year's pop-art montage album. The Who Sell Out, was to name-check his favourite clubs during the jingle interludes. ("Speakeasy, Drink Easy, Pull Easy", "Loon at The Bag O'Nails", etc.) His sole songwriting contribution, 'Little Billy' (finally released on the remastered reissue in 1995), reveals a witty incisive sense of pop which might have been more fulfilled if the band had bothered to finish the song.
In December 1968 The Who appeared on The Rolling Stones' Rock And Roll Circus. After it was pulled from public viewing, the film acquired mythical status. The rumour took hold that the reason the Circus reels lay mouldering in the vaults was that The Who had not merely upstaged their hosts but had blown them off the stage. The film's eventual release in 1995 confirmed this. The Who unleash the full nine-minute 'A Quick One' with an intensity which reveals that their time in the USA had turned them into the best live band in the world. "That was the period when Brian Jones took six hours to tune up and they were really having trouble getting kick-started," remembers John Entwistle. "We came on and had one run-through and one take of our mini-opera and blew them away."
With the Beatles splitting and the Stones busy fighting their demons, by the turn of the decade The Who were, by common consent, the band everybody else had to beat. "I can't articulate it but there's something about the chemistry of that period that indelibly stamped itself on our music," says Daltrey. "Cream and Hendrix were no small change either, so to be labelled with them is a high accolade, but I can understand why people felt it. I think it was more to do with our attitude than our musicianship." Entwistle: "We were in a hotel and playing our first copy of Live At Leeds , and me and Moon were just looking at each other, just blown away by our playing. I don't think we'd realised we were that good."
And then smack bang in the middle of this halcyon period it all goes terribly wrong. If there can be one defining moment that pinpoints the start of Moon's spiralling abuse and decline, it's the tragic accident of January 4, 1970 when, after an ill-tempered encounter with some local skins at the opening of a disco in Hatfield, it all got ugly and the Moon entourage had to beat a hasty retreat. In the ensuing panic Moon's driver at the time, Neil Boland, fell, or was pushed, under the wheels of the Bentley driven by the unlicensed and over-the-limit Moon, and died of terrible head injuries. Although partly exonerated at the inquest, Moon blamed himself– "because he actually did the fucking thing," says John Entwistle in Tony Fletcher's book. "He admitted to doing it." Tony Fletcher also points out that in darker moments in the years ahead Moon often poured out remorse to friends and strangers alike in lonely hotel rooms. But it didn't stop him driving. If anything Moon threw himself more headlong into irresponsibility. Cars from his fleet of pop star's playthings piled up (literally) in the driveway. "In 18 months we had £148,000 of insurance claims," remembers Dougal Butler, "and I always said I was driving."
Moon further confounded his friends by buying a share in a pub, The Crown And Cushion, in Chipping Norton. "He bought it because he enjoyed being the host," says Entwistle. "It gave him a chance to be on stage again, walking round with a tray, going up to guests having dinner and saving, 'Is everything OK?'"
When he went up to London, Moon took to cavorting around in fancy-dress Nazi uniforms with Viv Stanshall and 'Legs' Larry Smith of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. This was also the period of rock's landed gentry buying properties and pouring new money into the Green Belt. Fittingly, in spring 1971, Moon bought a mansion in Chertsey, Surrey and renamed it Tara. So began the golden age of Moon The Loon. Tara's French windows were routinely left unlocked at night so that the local plod could help themselves to refreshments. Said bobbies were alleged to turn a blind eye to all kinds of malarkey in return. Moon even got the occasional police escort when he went out clubbing. The odd photo session and the press launch for the Who's Next LP aside, the band never went down there at all. "From 1964, when we turned professional, through to about 1972 we were living in each other's suitcases," remembers Daltrey. "Apart from our wives we shared just about everything else. When we got home from those tours the last person we wanted to see was someone else from the band."
For two years Tara was the centre of Keith Moon's social world. "People would come to deliver a pizza or do a mural and be there four weeks, " says Barnes. "It happened to me. We were at a recording session at Olympic when they were doing 'Relay' and 'Join Together' and it was cancelled for some reason. Moonie said, 'Do you want to come clubbing?' But he didn't mean the Speak. He meant his locals, Sgt Pepper's in Staines and the 2000 in Egham. I used to have this running joke when I was there: Let's dig a tunnel."
"He invited David Puttnam and his wife down there just before they started shooting That'll Be The Day," says Dougal. "And he arrives at the house in his black Mini all suited and booted because he thinks he's gonna get his dinner, and Moonie took him down Sgt Pepper's for chicken in a basket."
"The one time I went there," says Maldwyn Thomas, a Mod friend of Moon's from The High Numbers days who went on to run Stargrove mobile recording, "we drove up that long drive and he was hiding in the undergrowth in his Nazi helmet and stormtrooper gear." Nice welcoming committee, I suggest. "To be quite honest," says Thomas, "I don't even know that he was expecting us. I think he was just there."
"I took a guy from Rolling Stone magazine down there," remembers Keith Altham, by now the band's publicist. "Keith mentions playing conkers in the playground at one point in the interview and the American journalist says. 'Wow, what are conkers?' Moon proceeded to fill him in on the rules of conkers by getting his shotgun and going out into the gardens, where his builders are working on a swimming pool. Suddenly there's a cry from one of these Irish builders: 'Look out, it's him and he's got a gun!' They all hit the deck of this unfilled swimming pool. Moon marches up to the horse-chestnut trees and blasts away – most people would have just thrown a stick up – and this American gets a warped idea of how the English game of conkers is played."
Tara attracted genuine friends, acolytes and parasites alike. "I don't think anyone wished him harm," says Bill Curbishley, "but a lot of people viewed him as being indestructible, I suppose. If they saw him on Wednesday night and they went out, for example, and had a crazy night until Thursday, that was fine; they went off and recuperated. But Keith did it every night. There'd be another bunch of guys on Thursday and another bunch on Friday."
During this period, Tony Fletcher reveals, legendry Coltrane and Miles drummer Philly Joe Jones witnessed Moon's untutored approach to percussion. His jaw hit the ground but he was diplomatically polite when solicited for an opinion. Another version of this story has Buddy Rich standing stage-side, saying, "And you make a living playing like that?" The comment has also been attributed to Gene Krupa. Once again Moon merges into myth.
So, did he have any albums by those jazz drummers he was supposedly inspired by? "No," says Richard Barnes, pouring scorn on the link. "Keith was just as inspired by Johnny Kidd And The Pirates. On the jukebox at Tara he had the obvious Sha Na Na and The Beach Boys but he also had The Partridge Family and a lot of middle-of-the-road sort of stuff." "And the Bonzos," notes Dougal. "In the later years he used to sit there listening to the Bonzos saying, 'I wrote that track.'" "And he used to play Townshend's Meher Baba album all the time," continues Barnes. "Townshend singing his heart out to his guru and there's Moon out of his box playing it over and over again. He worshipped Townshend."
The image starts to subtly shift from lovable boozer to alehouse bore during this period, a situation Moon was seemingly not unaware of. In his famous Rolling Stone magazine confessional with Jerry Hopkins in 1972 he elevates the limo in the swimming pool episode into an epic. (This version has Moon trapped underwater in the car working out the laws of displacement before he escapes.) More telling is his response to a question about his image. "I suppose to most people I'm probably seen as an amiable idiot... a genial twit," he says. "Of course, the biggest danger is becoming a parody."
"Moon was the perpetual disruptor of order," says Dave Marsh, "but it's very enigmatic where his limits lie and where he was egged on. One myth is that he was living out his exaggerated rock'n'roll dreams, another is that he was living out what was expected of him."
"The other side, of course, was that he terrified his daughter Mandy," says Keith Altham. "Children loved him because he was like a dangerous child. But the danger with Moon was that he was the kind of adult that would toss you into the air and then forget to catch you." "He was great with us," agrees Richard Barnes, "but he was turning into a grotesque monster. We'd be partying 'til four in the morning but in another room there was this little kid who had to get up for school in the morning." Turning to Dougal Butler, he says, "And I remember him on the phone to your parents in the middle of the night because you'd turned in and I thought, You can't do this. These are working-class people, they've got to be up in the morning for work. And he's on the phone at 3am going, 'This isn't good enough, Dougal. I demand loyalty.' I'm going, Keith, leave them alone." Moon sacked Dougal or Dougal walked out half-a-dozen times over the years but the drummer was always contrite the next day and would make up. "I bumped into Viv Stanshall – I hadn't seen him for about four years since the Bonzos split," remembers Dougal. "He was completely pissed, and said, 'Keith, are you still treating him like a piece of piss? Dougal, you need a fucking medal.'"
Dougal, like Richard Barnes, saw both the genial twit and the monster. He remembers with affection the great comedy double act Moon and Townshend made when they were on form. "When Pete and Keith had their Goons periods they were so funny, but then they'd stop. Keith, in some of his other scenarios, would never know when to stop."
Some of the hotel room stunts do undoubtedly have a touch of compulsive genius about them. Moon once summoned Bill Curbishley to his room where he had hired six hookers to stand on plinths in artistic poses, completely naked but for a covering of feathers he had emptied from his pillows and glued on. "He had a certain brilliance about him," says Curbishley. "He turned up outside our office once with his driver in an AC Cobra, which at one time was one of the fastest cars on Earth. He couldn't drive and I said to Dougal, If you let him drive that car I'll fucking kill you. So a week or two later he arrived outside the office in a milk float. The back of it he had wall-papered and there was an armchair there too: that was his mode of transport for a week or two."
Inevitably the pharmaceutical and alcoholic pounding began to take its toll. In the early '70s the first OD's started to creep, almost casually, into the story. Equally alarmingly, Moon began to suffer the occasional seizure. "He was in hospital and had had what amounted to his first heart attack," recalls Keith Altham. "I went to see him and tried to talk to him seriously – everybody did at some stage – and said, For God's sake, Keith, you've got to admit you're mortal now. Slow down. You're older now. You can't get away with it. He just turned to me and said, 'Keith, I never think about mortality. Immortality, I consider. Mortality never." It had a touch of the Oscar Wildes about it, undoubtedly. More disturbingly, perhaps, it revealed a man who had even begun to talk like a myth.
Part of the reason for Moon's excesses lay with The Who's periods of inactivity. They were never the most prolific of LP makers at the best of times (just three studio albums in five years before Tommy, for instance) but the prolonged sabbaticals that followed Who's Next and Quadrophenia suited Moon less than most. "The weird thing about Keith was that he didn't know how he played the drums," says Entwistle. "If we took a year or two off we'd get into a rehearsal situation and he'd have to learn how he played again. We'd have to play something he already knew so he could re-teach himself how to be Keith Moon."
Again, events in the real world conspired to cut in. Kim, having packed her bags many times before, reached the end of her tether and left for good. Equally devastatingly, Moon's Dad, Alf, died. So Moon threw himself into pharmaceutically-cushioned denial again, and early in 1974 he and new girlfriend Annette Walter-Lax moved to LA. Ugly, decadent mid-'70s LA where the groupies hunted, and were hunted, in packs. Where coke dealers were on record company payrolls, where there existed, in fact, a complete coke economy buoying up rock'n'roll's increasingly bloated infrastucture. This was where Lennon spent his lost weekend, where Bowie almost lost the plot before fleeing to Berlin, where Harry Nilsson bathed in Brandy Alexander. This was where Moony teamed up with Ringo and other ex-pat drinking buddies to have a ball.
LA didn't cause Moon's excesses. It merely compounded them. He went there looking for Beach Boy surfer-girl scenarios. He found Babylon-By-The-Sea. "Los Angeles was a symbol of licence and hedonism," says Dave Marsh, "and if you're some kid who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in London it's the libertine moment."
Having correctly assessed that Moon hadn't moved to LA to open a tea shop, the overriding issue for those who managed him was how to anchor the drummer's own spiralling demands. "I used to agonise over whether it was a good thing for me to go out and do deals that generated money for Moon, because if you generated the money, that was the fuel for the madness; and if you didn't generate the money, you're not doing your job," says Bill Curbishley. "The worst thing you could do with the drug addicts – and I'm not defining Moon as a drug addict, but as an example – was to give them the means to get their drugs. I suppose I felt to some degree that I was an enabler. There were many instances where he would ring me from Los Angeles for more money, and I used to lie and tell him he had none. But I remember one instance when he phoned me and said, I need money', so I sent him $30,000. Three or four days later he phones and says he needs a bit more, so I say, What have you done with the money? He was ready for that and he had a list, which he went through, and I said, That leaves $9,000, what did you do with that? So he said, 'Well, it was Ringo's birthday so I got a plane and I wrote Happy Birthday Ringo in the sky.' I told him if he wants more money to call Ringo and I put the phone down. I left my answer machine on and all day he left messages with assumed voices: 'I'm an attorney in Los Angeles. Contact me urgently and you will learn something to your advantage."'
As Curbishley relates, movie actor Steve McQueen found himself drawing the losing ticket in the 'Who gets Keith Moon as a Malibu neighbour' lottery. "I kept getting calls when I was in Canada from a lawyer who kept stressing that he had a woman client who used to run along the beach every morning, and she was interested in Moon's house. So I said to Moon, Keith, do you want to sell this house? As it is I think you'll make a very good profit... I don't think it was a woman client at all. Steve McQueen lived next door and he wanted to get rid of Moon. I told Moon this so he drove Steve absolutely fucking crazy. He built a ramp and bought a motorcycle, which was going to go over the wall like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. He got dressed up as Hitler and knocked on McQueen's door, and when McQueen opened it he got down on his hands and knees and bit McQueen's dog."
There was his best forgotten solo album, Two Sides Of The Moon – "a way of keeping him occupied", says Curbishley charitably – and an aborted film career which had begun promisingly with his largely ad-libbed role in Puttnam's That'll Be The Day, but ended with a brief cameo as a camp fashion designer called Roger in a Mae West stinker called Sextette. Everything else can be filed away under 'What Might Have Been': acting up with Ringo and Miss Pamela in 200 Motels; singing 'Bell Boy' on Quadrophenia, but losing out to Sting in the film.
On the original Tommy LP Moon's persona is all too evident. Entwistle wrote 'Cousin Kevin' for him. Townshend based the whole concept of Tommy's Holiday Camp around Moon's philosophy. Paradoxically, though, Tommy grew in inverse proportion to Moon's own role in it. Tommy, the excellent and understated English psychedelic music-hall album, became Tommy the orchestral production, and then Tommy the Ken Russell film, which Moon was largely written out of. "Keith did originally have a big part, but it was changed a day before shooting," says Richard Barnes." They made Uncle Ernie [Oliver Reed] a much bigger character, because I think they thought Keith wouldn't want to do it."
Unsurprisingly Moon and Reed's carousing while filming Russell's Tommy has become the stuff of further legend, not to mention legal recrimination if half the stories were repeated here. Tellingly, though, Reed could deal with the rigours of his craft in a way that Moon could not. Still blotto from an all-night binge? No problem, old chap. A quick splash of water to the face and Reed could deliver immaculate lines. Moon would cost a couple of hours filming. "He was so undisciplined," says Curbishley. "He got quite a few acting offers, but he wasn't disciplined enough to actually turn up or commit to doing the stuff.
"As a stand-up comic, as a mimic, he was a master. Probably the funniest man I've ever met in my life," Daltrey admits. "But film is an incredibly disciplined art. It's not just a matter of getting up there and being funny once. You have to get up there and be funny once, and then remember exactly what you did and do it another 20 times."
By this time The Who as a performing entity were less active than they had ever been. As soon as his filming commitments were over Moon returned to LA where he remained permanently domiciled until 1978. After a while Moon's LA story is one of revolving-door detox punctuated by brief periods of relative sobriety. "At Tara he'd take Drynamil, a handful of Mandrax... He had the constitution of an ox," says Dougal of his formerly indestructible employer. Entwistle confirms this: "I've seen him fall down 50 stairs, get up, dust himself off again, say, 'Oh that was exciting', and walk off. When he was sober he was capable of walking across the cobbled alleyway by his hotel, slipping on the ice and breaking his collarbone." But when Moon collapsed on-stage in Boston in March 1976, causing the abandonment of the show, words like 'liability' and 'casualty' started to be whispered. In October of that year Moon played his last gigs with The Who in front of a paying audience. "He had no idea what pills he was taking half the time," says Entwistle. "He has his chauffeur carry them in different boxes, and it was, 'Give me the pills for this, give me the pills for that.' But when he was in charge of himself I'm not so sure. One time he took some muscle relaxants before a gig and he couldn't even hold his sticks."
The accumulation of abuse also began to debilitate Moon's lugubrious wit. The droll drunk, the Pete & Dud drunk, was clearly turning into the more demonic Derek & Clive drunk. "Pete [Townshend] and Keith played those albums all the time," laughs Daltrey. "They were always fishing lobsters out of Jayne Mansfield's bum." Dougal: "You'd get a finishing line with a spark of wit, but it wouldn't stop there. It would carry on and become a pain in the arse. People would walk away, and to regain their attention Keith would probably have walked through a pane of glass." "He could walk through his French windows and leave a perfect silhouette of a man holding a brandy glass," says Keith Altham. "He would drain you," agrees Richard Barnes. "The number of times we'd be in a restaurant about to get into a nice Indian meal and he'd be on the table naked. That would be it – we'd all have to leave."
"Moon came into a room and he wanted to be the one who was the lightbulb," is Curbishley's assessment. "He wouldn't just walk into any room and just sit down and listen. He was an attention-seeker and he had to have it. I could never see Moon growing old gracefully." Inevitably he didn't.
Moon's behaviour during his last days in LA was as close to rock'n'roll lunacy as it gets. "Annette turned I round one day and said, 'Where's Keith? Keith's missing'," remembers Dougal. "So we went looking for him. It was 10 miles from his house to Malibu, two o'clock in the afternoon and there's Keith in his gold Sha Na Na suit and odd socks, wearing Annette's sunglasses and a buffalo coat, directing the traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway. Out of it. The last thing we needed was the police. I had to physically put him in the car. Got him home and, bmmff, he's passed out."
Such events were the last straw for Moon's long-serving driver. "In the end I had to leave because there was nothing else I could do for him," concedes Butler. "By then I was doing quite a bit of coke and I stopped, but he just didn't wanna know. By the time I left he was on a bender every other day. In the end I thought, who do I ask for help? But living out in LA you can't trust any bastard: all they're after is money and doing a deal."
In the last two years of his life Moon went into freefall, tiring out party acquaintances and close friends alike. "You tried to put chocks under the wheels and stop the racing car running downhill, and he would get out and kick the chocks away and carry on," says Keith Altham. "Towards the end of his life the darker side of Moon got out of control. In the last two years he was the kind of man I wanted to avoid, which is sad because he was incredibly lovable." Moon evoked such sentiments in everyone who met him. "Moon the man was capable of really grandiose acts of generosity, and also really spiteful acts," says Bill Curbishley. "I guess that the more the alcohol and the drugs took over, the more he was prone to swing in all kinds of different directions. He could mistreat or hurt you, and then you forgave him instantly when he turned on the charm. He had that ability."
Moon still sporadically checked himself into expensive clinics "with airline pilots and thespians", as Dougal puts it, but to little avail. On an earlier occasion, Dougal recalls with affection, Moon had checked into a clinic in Weybridge where Viv Stanshall used to sneak in cockles and a couple of bottles of Guinness for the patient, but by 1976, when the 911 calls were becoming more frequent, things had begun to take on a more desperate hue. "He checked into the psychiatric wing of the Cedars Sinai Hospital because he knew something was wrong," says Dougal. "They gave you little tasks to do and he had carpentry lessons. So he built a drinks tray! Next time I went to see him they said he's not too good. They'd caught him drinking aftershave." Inevitably, more seizures followed. Moon was not so much falling off the wagon now as blowing it up with cherry bombs.
In August 1976 he even checked into a sanatorium, the Hollywood Memorial Hospital. Keith Altham remembers him phoning up after he'd been sectioned, pleading, "Get me out of here. They've locked me up and the place is full of mad people." "Mind you," says Altham, "even then he did a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest number on them. I think he led a protest over the state of the food or something."
Meanwhile back in the UK, a stagnant music scene was fermenting again. Mick Farren's seminal NME pieces The Titanic Sails At Dawn and Is Rock And Roll Ready For 1976? captured a certain spirit abroad in the mid-'70s that rock stars were acting like overpaid tossers, and rock'n'roll itself was a bloated old corpse. "This was the classic era of Keith Moon driving limousines into swimming pools and the Rod Stewart album with the big fold-out poster of Polaroids of groupies," Mick reflected in 1995. "Your mega-stadium rock band was starting to live like something out of the fall of the Roman Empire." It doesn't make the premise for Farren's polemical articles or indeed for the emergence of punk any less vital, but it is pertinent in retrospect that an essential component of our collective outrage was built on a myth. It wasn't just a case of Keith Moon driving a car into a swimming pool but a symbol of all rock'n'roll excess.
The ironic thing was, of course, that, come the revolution, the punks loved him. "I took him down the Vortex to see a group called The Worst," says Keith Altham. "We'd just come from the Marquee which was only a distance of 200 yards but, being Keith, he had to have the Rolls. So we get out of the car and walk along the line and, of course, Keith takes them on, doesn't he? He goes, 'Call yourself punks? You're queuing. I never queued for anything in my life. Even before I was in The Who I never queued. I'll show you how to walk into a club.' I thought they'd all start gobbing at us. They applauded."
By late 1977 Moon and Annette were back in England to film sequences for The Who's biopic The Kids Are Alright. Moon was still ligging but visibly out of condition. The button-faced little imp of yore had started to look like Bob Hoskyns. On the Who Are You album cover his paunch is hidden behind a chair. On stage and on record he is puffing and panting (and snorting) his way through routine drum fills. Tony Fletcher's biography states that an exasperated Townshend issued a 'clean up your act' ultimatum that proved futile, a viewpoint that Roger Daltrey categorically denies. "It's been reported that we talked about having him kicked out of the band. That's not true. No-one ever suggested that Keith Moon should be kicked out of The Who. Even when he was at his worst it never crossed anyone's mind." What Daltrey does concede is that Moon was by now totally out of control.
Moon himself was not unaware of his drastic physical and artistic decline. "Nobody knew better than him that he was struggling," maintains Curbishley. "When he came off-stage after a show there was a mixture of exhilaration, adrenalin and the fact that he'd achieved it – I should imagine a bit like a very good boxer going into the ring with a very good puncher and the boxer boxed his way around the puncher for 15 rounds and won the title, and comes out thinking, 'Well, I'm absolutely drained, emotionally and physically, but I've done it.' And for Moon the big punch was that he would get through the show. That's how it became towards the end."
The causes are laid bare in the posthumously released The Kids Are Alright footage. His verbal sparring with Ringo Starr is particularly revealing. "We're getting on now and we need our medicine," Ringo says to him, brandy glass in hand. They are both coked to the gills. "Keith and Ringo were not that far apart," says Dave Marsh. "The Who had a very turbulent dynamic unlike The Beatles, who had a very synchronised dynamic, but The Beatles were four people who loved one another and The Who were the same but did their best to deny it."
"I was driving Keith into town one day," recalls Dougal, "and we were going along the Embankment. And he said, 'Dougie, I've had a great time. I don't give a fuck if I end up on that embankment with a blanket over my head. I don't care if I blow all me money, but boy have I had a good time.'"
Then he went and died.
In the early hours of September 7, 1978 Keith Moon and Annette returned to their Curzon Place flat after attending the premiere of the movie The Buddy Holly Story. Moon had left early. Everyone present had commented on how tired and subdued he had seemed. The simple facts, as related to the coroner, are that on returning home Annette cooked him lamb cutlets. They watched a movie in bed 'til about 4am. Moon took some Heminevrin and went to sleep. At 7.30am he awoke again, insisted that Annette cook him more steak. He watched some more movie and, unbeknown to Annette at the time, swallowed some more Heminevrin. They slept through the day – Annette on the sofa because of Moon's snoring – and when she went in check on him at 3.40pm he had stopped breathing.
"At one point he went to a health farm and lost lots of weight," says Entwistle. "He was getting more and more bloated but he fought his way out of that. Even in LA he seemed to fight back from the deluge. I really thought he was going to do that again. He seemed determined to make that transition again but died before it happened."
I remind Entwistle of an appearance Pete Townshend made on Michael Parkinson's TV show shortly after Moon's death. Searching for some rationale to it all, Townshend expressed sentiments to the effect that Moon had gone way beyond the limit many times but he hadn't died before. The words come out all wrong and the studio audience laugh insensitively. "Yeah, it was the first time he died. That's how we all felt," agrees Entwistle.
"He didn't die a victim," Daltrey insists. "He lost the struggle but he wasn't just lying back there like Jim Morrison was portrayed, y'know, 'just another junkie victim'. He was fighting his addictions right the way to the end. I think he fucked up because his life never had any structure to it. A day in the life of Keith Moon was however long he was awake. He didn't have a 24-hour clock like the rest of us. If he was awake for five days that would be his day."
"I think he thought that there would always be someone around to pick him up and put him back together again," says Bill Curbishley. "But the point is, we all have to go to sleep sometime, we're all off duty at some time," "At some stage you're vulnerable and I think Keith must have felt that. I don't think he had any real fear that he was going to die, as such – his fears were more grounded in his future and where he was going. I'm sure it was an accident. I also feel that maybe his immune system was shot to fuck."
The Who, collectively and individually, are, 20 years on, still very wary and protective about the Moon legacy. Pete Townshend's terse comments about Moon "still living and breathing in the memories of every pig-shit little rock journalist looking for someone to crap on who can't sue them" in the introduction to 1994's Thirty Years Of Maximum R & B box set illustrates the extent of his disdain. He is currently writing his autobiography which one hopes will shed further light on his complex relationship with Moon.
Bill Curbishley was also reluctant to share his thoughts for a long time, harbouring a suspicion that Moon had killed himself purposely. Why? "Because of the vacuum that was becoming apparent in his life, and I think that he still loved his ex-wife Kim. He'd lost his daughter, probably lost some of the best years of her growing up. Deep inside he was a sad person. I've actually got a picture of Moon in my office, of him dressed as a clown. And we all know that inside a clown there is just someone who's crying. So I did think it [suicide] was a possibility, but the contradiction to that was we were all told that the pills he was on, Heminevrin, had no side-effects, that they were to combat epilepsy or DTs. We now know that he did take a huge amount of them and they did kill him. In the past he had taken pills that left him absolutely useless, like he took this monkey tranquilliser or whatever it was in San Fransisco and couldn't play the drums. Another time he took another drug which left him helpless for 24 hours. He was just prone to taking stuff that he never knew the consequences of. The thing I was wrestling with was maybe not so much that he thought, 'I wanna kill myself', but 'I just wanna get some sleep. I just wanna get out of it for a while.' And I did sense that in the last few weeks he was trying to pull himself together."
Keith Altham confirms this. "During one of those cry-for-help periods where he was hospitalised again he said to me, 'I don't want to kill myself. I just want to kill the pain.'"
Daltrey, too, is generally unwilling to talk to journalists about Moon these days, although he did grant me a rare interview. His current misgivings are as much to do with how The Who drummer will be portrayed in the movies. A film based on Dougal Butler's involvement with Moon, scripted by Dick Clement and Ian LeFrenais, has been bought by Robert De Niro's Tribeca company. Daltrey also has plans to produce a Moon biopic of his own. "But I'm still incredibly protective about it. It's like the Kray film: it could have been magnificent, but they copped out on the story. And it's the same with Keith. The people with the money will want to do a Hollywood-type film and I won't let it go that way. It's the easy route. Because it's Keith people will say, 'Oh, it's all funny stories and slapstick comedy.' But Keith was much more than that." I mention the Clement and LeFrenais project and for a brief moment he bristles like the Daltrey of old. "I'd hoped to work with them," he says, "but it's just going to be comedy and I'd hope no-one in their right mind would see this as a film worth making. It's just a travesty of what Keith's life was. So I've had to distance myself from that. If they ever get that made, good luck, but it won't be a film about Keith Moon." Indeed, early indications – that Dougal is going to be played by an American for instance – seem to bear out Daltrey's misgivings. "They like their heroes to be squeaky clean and Moon wasn't like that. Moon was a very rounded human being with the warts and faults that we all have but magnified a thousand times."
When Moon died, the band, to all intents and purposes, died with him. "Townshend said to me once, 'We should have split after Moony died,"' says Richard Barnes. "Kenny Jones wasn't a power drummer. I think we all realised that after a while," says Bill Curbishley in reference to the two post-Moon Who LPs, Face Dances and It's Hard. "But I think the real problem was that Moon was irreplaceable."
In the fall-out period, Pete Townshend shacked up with King Heroin but he had Dr Meg Patterson to go to for his cure. There is an over-whelming feeling among everyone who contributed to this feature that in a later era Moon would have had a more established rehabilitation structure to fall back on. Arguably the last real casualty of the 1960s, his misfortune was to die just before the age of the Betty Ford celebrity detox. "Also, when Townshend had his problems with heroin he had Bill around to help him," notes Dougal. "I always thought Bill could have helped Keith more, but we all could have done more in retrospect." "No-one is to blame and everyone is to blame," is Dave Marsh's summary. "Keith was so difficult to approach," acknowledges Richard Barnes. "He would never admit he needed help. He was always acting this character of 'Keith Moon' that he'd created." "That was one of the biggest psychological problems he had," confirms Roger Daltrey. "What do you do when you want to have a day off from being Keith Moon? He hated those down periods when he would have to drag himself up to entertain, to be that man on the stage."
Fade to myth...
When you read the roll call at the end of Tony Fletcher's biography it amazes you who passed through Moon's orbit. Larry Hagman, Peter Sellers, Alice Cooper, Marc Bolan, Linda Blair, Lionel Blair, Flo & Eddie, Harry Nilsson, Graham Chapman, and many more. As Fletcher points out, most of Moon's cast of extras are now either dead or teetotal. “When I look back on it, one of the reasons I stopped drinking or taking drugs or doing anything over 10 years ago was really as a direct result of Moon, Kit Lambert, etc – the unfortunate losses," says Bill Curbishley. "One can only wait and see what's in Townshend's autobiography, but most of our hang-ups come from our childhood and then they gather weight throughout our lives. It may sound a bit of a cliché but most things are rooted in love or lack of love. I think Moon needed love. We all need it."
There's a lovely moment in a Who Beat Club performance for German TV from 1969. Half the show is given over to a lip-synched preview of Tommy. At one point, with no drumming to do, Moon stands on the spot executing a neat little hop, skip, twist and shimmy. You can see that the rest of the band are avoiding direct eye contact with him in case he cracks them up. He's the little kid brother along for the ride, indulged by his older siblings because he can make them laugh – and drum like a hurricane.
©Rob Chapman, 1998