Happy Birthday to The Who’s late Keith Moon, rock’s greatest gonzo drummer, horse tranquilizer taker, practical joker (usually involving explosives, toilets, television sets, and brandy), and one man Wall of Sound. Moon was only 18 when he auditioned for The Who by striding onto the stage wearing dyed ginger hair to match his ginger-colored clothes, brazenly announcing he could play drums better than the bloke seated behind the kit (temporarily, it turned out), and proceeding to destroy the kit in a flurry of rolls, crashes, and kicks.
Moon became nearly as legendary for his epic capacity to party — start one, be the life of one, or end one — and, legend has it, drove either a Lincoln Continental or Rolls Royce into a hotel swimming pool for his 21st birthday (and maybe his 22nd and 23rd). And yes, he did pass out while playing onstage one night — twice– after ingesting too many horse tranquilizers and presumably knocking them back with an inadvisable amount of booze. In Keith’s case, the Tall Tales were just about right, no embellishment necessary. He was, in every way, shape, and form, a larger-than-life character. Not everybody can inspire a Muppet character named “Animal” (although we think Jim Henson’s creation was way more sedate and well-behaved than Moon The Loon). And has any drummer in rock history been filmed and photographed as frequently, garnering as much attention from the cameras and audience as his band’s lead singer or guitarist?
And the strange but true Tall Tales continue. As recently as 2011, the UK Olympic Committee enquired as to whether Moon would be able to perform with The Who for the upcoming Olympic festivities. Who manager Bill Curbishley replied that Keith, now residing in Golders Green Crematorium, would unfortunately not be able to attend, having lived up to the band’s youthful proclamation, “Hope I die before I get old.”
Of course, Keith Moon was a substantially more complicated, intelligent, and troubled man than the lunatic clown/court jester image he zestfully cultivated. He was, by many accounts, including those of band mates Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and band biographer/rock critic Dave Marsh, possessed of a sharp wit; was quite possibly manic depressive; as childlike as he was childish; and a person who seemed rudderless and emotionally, utterly lost when he wasn’t surrounded by his band mates, or on the road touring.
Being the drummer for The Who was, in that sense, his true and perhaps only identity, and one that gave him necessary purpose and focus. He lived, and in some respects, literally died because of that identity. He was also, by many accounts, a royal pain in the arse who drove the people who loved him (and a few who didn’t) crazy. Oh, and for roughly a ten-year period between 1965-75, Keith Moon was also one of the greatest drummers in rock, and certainly its most outrageous, notorious, original, and instantly identifiable.
When he died on September 7, 1978, at the shockingly young age of 32 (considering his physical state at the time), Moon was in the midst of desperately battling his demons once and for all, he had hoped. But just like Keith Moon, the demons that inhabited him were larger-than-life, wild, and ultimately uncontrollable. In a final, tragic irony, he overdosed (accidentally or no) on roughly ten times of the prescribed amount of a drug that was designed to help him curb his craving for alcohol. The cover of The Who’s last album with him, 1978’s “Who Are You” (which had been released less than a month earlier) featured Keith front and center, seated on a chair facing backwards to strategically hide the weight gain and premature aging brought on by his chronic abuse. Prophetically printed on the chair were the words: “Not To Be Taken Away.”
He was taken away , sadly, but the panoramic, space-filling sound of his drumming has not. Moon’s indelible imprint, legacy, and presence with The Who remains. For me, there’s no other rock drummer who has had as much to do with the signature of a band’s sound as Moon (Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham is a close second; and like Moon The Loon, “Bonzo” was a prodigious partier who died far too young as a result of his propensities). Keith’s intuitive dynamism, chaotic majesty, and devotional abandon toward his instrument can be heard in every track, every groove, of The Who’s records and songs. And to have seen him on stage — or to watch him on stage, even now, thankfully captured (but not frozen; never frozen) on film — was to witness and experience the totality of Keith Moon. His was the sound of an irresistible force of nature colliding with an immoveable object unto itself.
The Who simply would not be The Who without Keith — and weren’t. I’ve seen, heard, and covered the reunited, Moon-less Who several times over the past 25 years, beginning with their 1989 reunion tour to mark the twentieth anniversary of the “Tommy” album. (It was exciting and surreal, since I never thought I’d get the chance to see the band live in any incarnation, as they had initially disbanded in 1982 after a couple of lackluster albums with ex-Small Faces/Faces drummer Kenney Jones in tow). They’ve often been very good to surprisingly great. But it’s never been the same without Keith Moon. How could it be? His painfully conspicuous absence on the subsequent tours have always left a huge void and sad silence, no matter how loud, or good, the rest of the band was. (And current Who drummer Zak Starkey, the son of Ringo Starr, a close mate and running buddy of Moon’s, does a better Moon imitation than anybody except the man himself).
In thinking about the style and substance of the man — who for so long seemed forever young of mind, temperament, and spirit and yet who suddenly grew sadly, cruelly, old so fast –I’m drawn to a line in one of the Who’s early compositions, “Substitute”: “The simple things you see are all complicated / I look bloody young but I’m just back-dated, yeah.”
To commemorate Keith’s birthday today, here’s a 1996 piece I wrote on the occasion of a long-awaited CD release of one of The Who’s many legendary concerts: their appearance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, which had come a year after their triumphant and transcendent set at Woodstock ushered in the dawn. It basically served as an excuse for me to say everything I had wanted to say about this one-of-a-kind band and their one-of-a-kind drummer, a man who played his drums as fully, joyfully, and with the same furious sense of headlong abandon on stage, as he lived his life off of it.
A NICE LITTLE GROUP: The Who’s Might At Wight
The understatement of all understatements came at 3 o’clock in the morning that long-ago day in 1970, when master of ceremonies Jeff Dexter introduced the headliners at the year’s Isle of Wight Festival as “a nice little group from Shepherd’s Bush, London … the Who.”
As anyone could tell by looking at the stacks of amplifiers and Keith Moon’s artillery unit of a drum kit, nicety was not the first priority on the Who’s agenda. And they certainly weren’t little. At least not in the sound they projected, anyway. What the Who were was a curious, peculiar group; a first-wave British Invasion act that took five years to invade America, when some of their contemporaries were already breaking up.
The Who’s failure to connect with American audiences early on undoubtably had something to do with the band’s identification with the Mod movement, a quintessentially British teenage phenomenon that incorporated Pop Art, fashion, and — oddly enough — American soul music. Ultimately, it took no less an achievement than the Who’s audacious rock opera “Tommy” in 1969 to break the band on these shores and establish guitarist Pete Townshend as a songwriter of some note.
The new release of “The Who Live At The Isle of Wight Festival 1970” (Columbia/Legacy FIVE STARS) reaffirms what underground collectors of the Who’s live shows have known for years, not to mention those who saw the band in its original incarnation before drummer Keith Moon’s death in 1978: in their prime, the Who were perhaps the most sonically devastating and explosively dramatic band to emerge out of England — or America for that matter (their only competition in this regard being the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin). Just as the Beatles had obliterated the standards of the recording studio, so too had the Who obliterated the standards of performance. They were three-dimensional in their presentation, almost cartoonishly bright in color and animation. Drum kits blew up, guitar splinters flew, smoke got in your eyes.
In being both a prototype for the “hard rock” bands that would flourish during the 1970’s (the Who beat heavy-hitting outfits like Cream and Led Zeppelin by a year or more) and an early forbearer of the punk movement of the same decade, the Who was a band of remarkable scope and seeming contradictions. And never were the Who’s dichotomous qualities — flouting rock conventions even as it set them — more evident than when the band was on stage.
This two-disc set represents a major and essential addition to the Who’s catalog, as well as to the rock ‘n’ roll canon in general. Unlike MCA’s recently remastered and expanded version of “Live At Leeds” taken from the same year, this 30-track release most significantly includes the Who’s entire performance of what at that point was their new “Tommy” album. Forget the recent anniversary tours with 20-piece orchestras and Broadway musical adaptions. This is the Who — and “Tommy” — pure and undiluted. Four personalities. One vision.
“Isle of Wight” also includes several live staples of the era that, although originally slated for Townshend’s aborted “Lifehouse” project, later surfaced as B-sides to the group’s singles. Powerfully charismatic versions of the oddly gospel-esque “Water,” “I Don’t Even Know Myself,” and “Naked Eye” locate the Who in a specific moment in its career, while the medley of “Shakin’ All Over/Spoonful/Twist and Shout” and Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” grounds the band in its roots playing American Rhythm and Blues for Mod audiences — or “Maximum R&B” as their early concert posters boasted. Throughout and without exception, the band’s playing — and interplay — here is sublime and showcases a band of breadth, range, and power. Not vulgar and empty noise but real, fearsome power, imbued with an elegant, majestic sense of sweep and fury. In the panorama of the Who’s performances, even the silences seem huge, momentous.
As this disc demonstrates, underneath it all — Townshend’s intuition for drama, singer Roger Daltrey’s soaring vocals, John Entwistle’s sinewy bass, Moon’s wall-of-sound drumming — there was always a naked humanity to the Who, a humility that was palpable because it was true.
Townshend was among the first rock writers to wonder aloud if growing up wasn’t such a blast after all. Instead of churning out generic pop hits about kissing girls, Townshend explored the confusion that came from adolescent alienation and his own yearning for individuality and identity. The quest for acceptance in the face of rejection — by one’s peers, by one’s parents, by society at large, informed the very best of Townshend’s works, from “My Generation” to “Tommy” to the underrated masterpiece of “Quadrophenia.” And the Who’s indefatigable spirit infused his characters with a dignity and strength of will to overcome a cruel or hypocritical society.
In the end, the contrast of public aggression and private doubt proved to be a potent combination indeed. “Isle of Wight” puts that combination on stunning display and captures the Who at a pivotal, glorious moment in its career, when the success of “Tommy” was about to make the band stars forever.
Watch and listen to The Who’s entire concert at the Isle of Wight in 1970 here (settle in and get comfortable, it’s gonna be a long, loud ride!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWfiAK0EKSo
Watch and listen to The Who perform a radically revamped version of songwriter Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWRmsoBXAUw
This guitar (and drums, and mic stand etc.) have seconds to live: Watch The Who properly introduce themselves to America at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and sacrifice their instruments in the process, with “My Generation” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmQKMHIx9fU