Moon at the drums on stage with The Who in London, England during a March, 1977 concert
The legendary rock band known as The Who had originally evolved out of a band known as the Detours, which featured three members who would become well-known to music fans over the coming years and decades
Roger Daltrey was the founder and driving force. Pete Townsend became the lead guitarist. John Entwistle provided the pulse as the bass guitarist.
However, the fourth member of The Who classic lineup was not their original drummer. The first man to provide the percussion back-beat for the band was Doug Sandom.
When the band received an audition with Fontana Records in the early-1960’s, an executive there simply didn’t like Sandom’s drumming. The Who began to audition stand-ins, and during that process met Keith Moon.
Moon was born in northwest London on August 23, 1946 and grew up in Wembley, England. At age 12 he took up playing the bugle, but quickly switched to the drums. He particularly loved the music of The Beach Boys.
In 1961 at just age 14, Moon joined his first band known as the Escorts. Then in 1962, Moon moved on to become drummer for the Beachcombers. These were part-time bands, with most of the members also holding down day jobs to make a living.
It was in April of 1964 that Moon auditioned for The Who, and he won the gig replacing Sandom in the emerging band. With Moon now on board as the new drummer, the classic lineup was set, and The Who began to craft both their sound and on-stage persona over the course of the mid-late 1960’s.
Technically, Moon moved from a four to a five-piece drum kit during 1965. Towards the end of that year he began to endorse Premier Drums and remained loyal to the brand for the rest of his career.
Also, Moon’s girlfriend Kim Kerrigan became pregnant during 1965. The two were married in March 1966, with their daughter Amanda born on July 12. “He had no idea how to be a father,” Kim later said in a 1998 biography from Tony Fletcher. “He was too much of a child himself.”
In 1966, Moon began to utilize a setup with two bass drums. He and Ginger Baker, founder of the rock group Cream, would become pioneers in the early use of that type of drum kit setup.
Moon had a problem with alcohol and drugs from his early teen years. Developing a worsening amphetamine addiction contributed to Moon frequently clashing with each of the other band members, including physical altercations.
“Entwistle and I used to have fights – it wasn’t very serious, it was more of an emotional spur-of-the moment thing,” said Moon according to Dave Marsh, who wrote a bio of the band in 1989.
With those internal pressures repeatedly erupting during the mid-1960’s, Jeff Beck recruited Moon to play with The Yardbirds, essentially trying to get Moon to quit The Who and begin playing regularly with him. However, despite playing with Beck a couple of times, Moon resisted, and the band played on together.
It is believed that Moon had another major contribution to rock music history during this late-1960’s period. During one of his dalliances with leaving The Who, Moon is said to have floated the idea of forming a super group to include emerging guitarist Jimmy Page.
The idea of that group never panned out, with Moon having said it “went down like a led zeppelin” in front of Page. The guitarist remembered the phrase when forming his own now-legendary band in 1968.
During one of the early performances of The Who, Townsend accidentally broke his guitar and smashed it up on stage out of frustration. The crowd loved the display, and Moon decided to join in by kicking over his entire drum kit. This would become a signature for the band, destroying instruments on stage to the delight of their early fans.
A breakthrough came for The Who in 1966 with their first major American appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. There, the on-stage style of The Who, which included smashing their instruments, clashed with much of the peaceful hippie style of the rest of the festival.
That appearance got The Who a gig as the opening act on a tour of America for popular Brit rockers Herman’s Hermits. Moon bonded with the Hermits, who introduced him to cherry bombs. During the tour, Moon became fond of blowing up hotel room toilets with those cherry bombs.
During the celebration of Moon’s 21st birthday while on tour in Flint, Michigan in 1967, the band caused thousands of dollars in damage to their hotel room at a Holiday Inn. It was a wild time, but Daltrey would later say that this tour helped bring the band closer together.
During that same year of 1967, Moon was among those who contributed backing vocals for his friends, The Beatles, on the “All You Need Is Love” record.
During their next tour of America with Eric Burdon and the Animals, a television appearance was arranged for The Who on ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’. During that performance, Moon bribed a stagehand to plant some explosives in his drum kit.
When they detonated during performance of the song “My Generation“, the force of the blast blew Moon off his drum riser, singed Townsend’s hair, and damaged studio equipment. A video clip from this performance would later be used as “The Kids Are Alright” documentary opening more than a decade later.
During the late-1960’s the band recorded what would become a signature classic LP, “Tommy“, which would be released in May 1969 as their fourth studio album. That piece of music combined with their improving and evolving stage act to begin gaining not only increased popularity, but also increased respect for the band.
During the summer of 1969, The Who were recruited to play at the now-legendary Woodstock Festival. Due to delays their set did not begin until 5:00 am, and they played the entirety of “Tommy” as part of their contribution.
Just a few weeks later, the band would perform back home at the Isle of Wight Festival, which further cemented their status as one of the biggest and best rock bands of the era.
In August of 1971, The Who released their LP “Who’s Next” on which many felt Moon displayed the best drum playing of his entire career. The album contained hits in “Baba O’Riley“, “Won’t Get Fooled Again“, “Behind Blue Eyes”, and “Bargain“, and is considered one of the greatest rock albums of all-time.
Over the next few years during the early-1970’s, the popularity and influence of The Who only grew as they worked on and released the album “Quadrophenia“, the tour for which would spawn a notorious incident.
On November 20, 1974 at the Cow Palace in California, The Who were more than an hour into their show when, while playing “Won’t Get Fooled Again“, Moon passed out over his drum kit.
Carried off the stage by roadies, the drummer was revived and returned to the stage a short time later. However, during his first song back “Magic Bus“, Moon again passed out. This time he could not be revived.
Townsend would say during a later interview that Moon had consumed large tranquilizers which were actually meant for animals, washing those down with large amounts of brandy.
The band played on as a threesome, and after receiving tremendous applause, Townsend told the audience “I think it should be us applauding you”. He then surprised the crowd by asking, “Can anybody play the drums? Can anybody play the drums? I mean somebody good!”
Sitting just off the stage, 19-year-old Scot Halpin was volunteered by his friend. Legendary concert producer Bill Graham, asked Halpin “Can you do it?” When Halpin said that he could, the young man received the thrill of a lifetime. Having not played in over a year, Halpin took over the drums and played well over the final few songs.
The band took a bit of a break from touring and performing during 1974, doing just a few shows as they turned “Tommy” into a motion picture for which Townsend would receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score.
During 1973, his wife Kim had left, taking their daughter Mandy with her, feeling that no one could help Moon with his addictions. She would sue for divorce in 1975, eventually marry Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, and died herself in a car crash in 2006 at just age 57.
As the divorce was filed in 1975, Moon released what would be his lone career solo LP. “Two Sides of the Moon” was not well received by critics or the public. It included covers of songs including The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright“, The Beach Boys “Don’t Worry Baby“, and “In My Life” from The Beatles. Ringo Starr even contributed backing drums.
In late 1975, a tour by the band resulted in The Who setting a record for the largest indoor concert when more than 78,000 attended their show at the Pontiac Silverdome outside of Detroit. This tour during the years 1975 and 1976 is considered by some to have been the greatest series of live performances in the history of the band.
At the conclusion of the U.S. leg of that tour in Miami during August of 1976, a reportedly delirious Moon was treated in Hollywood Memorial Hospital for eight days. The band would eventually move into Canada, and on October 21, 1976 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, The Who gave their final live public performance with the drummer.
Moon held the dream of becoming an actor, and was able to land a number of roles during the 1970’s. He joined Starr by appearing in “200 Motels” in 1971 and “That’ll Be the Day” in 1973, along with “Stardust“, the latter film’s sequel in 1974. In 1978 he appeared with Starr and Alice Cooper in the film “Sextette“, which was also the final film appearance of Mae West.
Three years after their previous studio album, The Who began recording “Who Are You” in January of 1978. Moon’s addictions had caused a tremendous weight gain and his play to deteriorate to the point where the band considered firing him.
However, the drummer briefly rallied. In May while filming a segment for what would become their “The Kids Are Alright” documentary, which wouldn’t be released until 1979, Moon’s performances were strong. They would also prove to be his last with the band.
That year, Moon moved into a room which he rented from Harry Nilsson. It was the exact room in which ‘Momma Cass’ Elliot had died four years earlier at age 32. Nilsson was reportedly concerned with bad luck in renting Moon that room, but the drummer is said to have told him that “lightning wouldn’t strike the same place twice.”
Attempting to dry out and stay off alcohol, Moon began to take prescriptions for the sedative clomethiazole in order to help the withdrawal symptoms.
The prescribing doctor was not aware of Moon’s drug addiction history, giving him a bottle of 100 pills with instructions to take no more than three pills per day and then only when he felt the urge to drink.
“Who Are You” was released in August of 1978. Five days later, Moon celebrated his 32nd birthday. Two weeks after that birthday he would be dead.
On September 6, Moon and his 30-year-old girlfriend, Swedish model Annette Walter-Lax, joined Paul and Linda McCartney at a preview showing of “The Buddy Holly Story“, a biographical film of the late rock star played by Gary Busey in what would prove to be an Oscar-nominated role. The two couples then went to dinner.
On returning to their apartment, Moon asked Walter-Lax to cook him steak and eggs. Tired after their long nigh tout, she refused and Moon replied, “If you don’t like it, you can fuck off!” These would be his last known spoken words.
Checking on him the following afternoon, Walter-Lax found Moon dead. It was later determined that he had consumed 32 of the prescription pills.
Fletcher wrote that a particularly rapid deterioration in Moon’s health had begun during The Who’s lengthy hiatus from 1972 through 1973 in preparation for recording “Quadrophenia“, as a hard-partying lifestyle with no touring and no drum playing took a hard toll on his body.
In addition to self-destruction, Moon had developed the habit of destroying not only drum kits on stage, but hotel rooms and even friends’ homes while off-stage. Fletcher quoted him as follows:
“When you’ve got money and you do the kind of things I get up to, people laugh and say that you’re eccentric, which is a polite way of saying you’re fucking mad.”
The Who would ultimately replace Moon with a series of drummers, beginning at first with Kenney Jones of The Faces. Simon Phillips, who would later become the longtime drummer for the band Toto, took over for touring during 1989 after Jones left the band.
In 1996, The Who hired 30-year-old Zac Starkey, son of The Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, as their new drummer. He has remained a member of the band ever since.
Clem Burke of Blondie, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, and Neil Peart of Rush are among many drummers who have publicly stated that Moon was an influence on their drum stylings. It is believed that Jim Henson based his Muppet character ‘Animal’ at least partially on Moon.
The Who of the 1960’s and 1970’s have left a sound and a rock legacy that live on to this day. Is Moon now playing the backbeat for some heavenly band? Like the others in this “Rock & Roll Heaven” series, talent was never the question.
NOTE: This is the continuation of my”Rock and Roll Heaven” series of pieces on musical artists whose careers where cut short by their personal demons, the first in nearly two years.
The series now includes features on Keith Moon, Chris Cornell, John Bonham, Ty Longley, Karen Carpenter, Jim Morrison, Michael Hutchence, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.
It will now continue from time to time into the future. Past articles in the series can be enjoyed by clicking on the below ‘tag’ category, or by visiting the dedicated section under the ‘Entertainment’ category of the website toolbar.