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Keith Moon: 1947-1978

The Who drummer was found dead in his home of an apparent overdose

October 19, 1978
keith moon different drummer
Keith Moon
Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

LONDON — Keith Moon died before he got old. The Who's spark-plug drummer, who turned thirty-one on August 23rd, was found dead in the bedroom of his Mayfair flat on September 7th by his fiancé, Annette Walter-Lax, a Swedish actress.

According to the autopsy, death was caused by an overdose of the prescription sedative Haminevrin.

Although the official inquest hasn't been completed, Moon's friends rejected the possibility of suicide. "He loved life too much," said bassist John Entwistle. Roger Daltrey thought the overdose typical of Moon's excesses. "I've seen him take twenty-five leapers [amphetamines] and then drink a bottle of brandy many times," he said. Both said that although Moon was concerned with his weight – he'd gained nearly twenty pounds – he had been in good spirits recently.

Keith Moon: One-Man Wrecking Crew

It was, in any event, an uncharacteristically passive end for one of rock's most flamboyant figures. When publicist Keith Altham said that "if Keith wanted to kill himself, he'd get in a sports car and drive through a brick wall," it wasn't a metaphor. In a way, his death was more traumatizing because of its peacefulness.

His death abounded in ironies. September 7th is Buddy Holly's birthday, and Moon had celebrated it the night before at a party thrown by Paul McCartney (who publishes Holly's music) at London's fashionable Peppermint Park restaurant before going on to a screening of The Buddy Holly Story. Other guests included David Frost and Eric Clapton. Frost, who sat near Moon, said Keith seemed "tremendously relaxed and content."

After the screening. Moon and Annette went to a nightclub and returned home about four a.m. They rose for an early breakfast, then Moon went back to bed, where he was discovered around two p.m. Speculation was that he had taken Haminevrin both times he bedded down, probably by the handful. Combined with the alcohol consumed the night before, the result was lethal. Still, it wasn't an unusual scenario for Moon. "I think someone looked down and said. 'Okay, that's your ninth life."' Entwistle said.

But Dr. Max Glatt, a leading British medical authority on alcoholism, told the London Sunday Times that Moon should never have been given the drug, which is regarded as highly effective in treating alcoholism and mania (from which Moon suffered). "Haminevrin is widely misunderstood by general practitioners," Glatt said. "It is suitable for a limited period of a few days but should not be used by patients who are not confined to bed."

Moon, of course, was notoriously excessive. His feats of drinking and hotel room demolition are legends. His exploits included nailing all the furniture of a hotel room to the ceiling; using firecrackers to blow up toilet bowls; driving at least one car into a swimming pool; and visiting London pubs with former Bonzo Dog Band member Viv Stanshall, dressed Nazi uniforms. "You'd come offstage and still be buzzin'," Moon said recently. "Then you'd go to a party and it'd get out of hand, get wild. Things get broken. If you're sitting around after a show and there's something you don't like, you just switch it off by throwing a bottle through the screen."

Nonetheless, Keith Moon was among the most creative musicians rock & roll has produced. Born in 1947, he was the youngest member of the Who and the only member that did not grow up in Shepherd's Bush, a working-class area in North London. Instead, he was born in Wembley, near England's largest football stadium. His father was a motor mechanic, his mother a cleaning lady. Moon attended Harrow Tech and became a trainee electrician. Before joining the Who, he played surf music in a semipro band, the Beachcombers.

Moon hooked up with the Who in 1964, after the group's original drummer, Doug Sanden, was kicked out for being overage. Moon's audition concluded with the destruction of a drum kit that had served its previous owner for twenty years.

His untamed style helped shape the Who's powerful style and that of many of the punk and heavy metal bands that followed in their wake. "He made the drums sing," Entwistle noted. "He played every instrument in the band along with us. His breaks were melodic, because he tried to play with everyone in the band at once."

Roger Daltrey, sitting in the editing room after viewing the Who's first film, The Kids Are Alright, was clearly distraught. His normal edgy, energetic manner was' subdued, and his huge blue eyes glistened with something other than their usual excitement. "It's the end of an era," Daltrey said quietly. And then with determination: "He was the most original drummer in rock. We could never replace him because we've never met anyone like him before."

The Who announced on September 8th, after daylong meetings at their Shepperton Films studio, that the band would continue under the same name. "We are more determined than ever to carry on," Pete Townshend said in a written statement, "and we want the spirit of the group to which Keith contributed so much to go on, although no human being can ever take his place."

Daltrey, ordinarily the most decisive member of the band, kept up his front for a while. But as he sat down to look at some animated footage of the group's 1974 Quadrophenia tour, he suddenly looked at me and asked: "What do you think the fans want us to do?" It fit with the other things he said: that he wasn't sure if everyone would feel like continuing in a couple of months, that the Who wasn't just four people, "it's more like 4 billion – or more realistically, 4 million, if you count our fans."

Keith Moon: Different Drummer

But in a way, Moon's death opened the door for the Who to do things it could never attempt before. Oddly enough. Moon's specialized skills sometimes limited the group – he does not appear on one track on Who Are You, ironically entitled "Music Must Change," because its 6/8-time signature was not suited to his approach. And while part of the glory of the band was that it had been able to survive for such a long time without personnel changes, the Who's history also forced it to repeat itself, particularly in the stage show.

"In away, it was like a sacrifice," Daltrey said. "We can do anything we want to do now. I have very odd feelings. I feel incredibly strong and at the same time, I feel incredibly fragile."

Manager Bill Curbishley also sees Moon's death as a potential creative opportunity. "Now they can do anything they'd like to do," he said, "and people will accept it." Before there was always the danger that a new approach would be rejected by hard-core fans comparing it to the tried-and-true avenues of the past. "Now," Curbishley points out, "whatever they do will have to be different. My job is really going to be sorting out their options so that they can decide which they want to pursue."

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