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Keith Moon Bites Back

A Q&A with the Who's unhinged British millionaire drummer

December 21, 1972
Keith Moon on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Keith Moon on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Bob Gruen

It is probably fitting that Keith Moon plays the most aggressive instrument, drums, in the most explosive of groups, the Who, for Moon clearly seems more outrageous and more violent than any of his contemporaries. Behind him for a period of ten years, for more than a third of his life, he has left a trail of empty Courvoisier bottles, splintered drum kits, wrecked automobiles and gutted hotel rooms, punctuating every inconceivable incident with a bark of total pleasure and amusement.

There are uncounted "Keith Moon Stories" floating around. Keith tells several here. Unfortunately, much is lost in translating Moon to print. His energetic sprints around the room, his dozen or so precise vocal impressions and dialects, the rubbery, gap-toothed face, the singing and dancing, the infectious volleys of laughter – all must be experienced.

Perspectives: The Who Are Good — And Loud

So must his $150,000 modern house, set on the site of an ancient monastery nearly an hour from London in the green suburban stockbroker belt. The walls of the bar are painted in a Marvel Comics hero-villain motif and the ceiling is draped like a sultan's tent. The sitting room is a huge, richly cushioned "conversation pit" with a color television and a stainless steel fireplace that's never been used. There is almost no furniture, anywhere. But there is a stuffed albatross, a polar bear rug, several rifles, an old jukebox and a sound system that will send multi-decibel music far beyond the boundaries of his seven-acre estate.

From the outside, the house looks to be a collection of square pyramids, painted a glaring white. On one side is a tree so large it had to be lowered in by two helicopters. On the other side workmen are presently excavating a swimming pool that will be lined with marble and will offer the underwater swimmer the latest recorded melodies.

When I arrived, the live-in house-keeper – Moon's mother-in-law – was in Spain on holiday. His long-haired mechanic and driver, Dougal, was working on the engine of the 1936 Chrysler, which was parked between the XKE Jaguar and the Dino Ferrari. The miss-us, Kim, and the child, Mandy, six, were out. And the lord of the manor was banging away with a shotgun, firing randomly into the tall leafy reaches of a horse chestnut tree.

How did you come to the group to begin with?
First they were called the Detours, then the Who, then the High Numbers, then the Who again. I joined in the second phase, when they were changing from the Detours to the Who. I was in another group on the same pub circuit called the Beachcombers.

Does that mean surfing music?
It did when I joined, yeah. Ah-Haha Hahaha!

Ever been surfing?
Once, and I nearly fucking killed meself. We were in Hawaii and I said I must surf. Jesus, I been buying surfing records for years, you know, I've got to try it. So I rented a board and paddled out with all these other guys. The wahines were on the beach. Woodies. Surfers' paradise, right? I look off in the distance and there's a huge wave coming. I said to one of the guys, "What do I do?" And he said [Moon goes into a cool, anonymous American voice], "Well, okay, buddy, all you got to do when you see that wave there comin', she hits boy she hits and you want to be traveling at relatively the same speed, so you paddle." Perfectly logical. I said great. And then this solid wall of water came. All of a sudden this bloody thing hit me up the arse and I move from like doing two miles an hour to two hundred! I'm hanging on to the sides of the bloody board, y'see, and I hear: "Stand up, man!" Stand up? So I stand up and I look up and there's water all around me, I'm in a great funnel, a great big sort of tube of water. And then I see the coral reef coming up. I'd only been on me feet for about two seconds, but it seemed like a fucking lifetime. Sod it! Sod it! I fell off, the wave crashed down on the reef, the board went backwards and then was thrown up in the air by the water. I surfaced, shook me 'ead and relaxed. Then I looked up and saw this bloody board coming from about sixty feet in the air straight at me 'ead. I went underwater and it went ssssshh-wwwoooom! I've got a bald patch ever since where it scraped me skull. Ah-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha! Jan and Dean never told it like it really was. Certainly bloody didn't!

So the Beachcombers was a surfing band, sort of?
Sort of. It relied on vocals more than instruments. As I'm a disgusting singer . . . I mean, the boys don't let me sing. I don't blame them. I sometimes forget meself and join in and they have to come down on me: "Moon . . . out!" I mean, I even get sent offstage during "Behind Blue Eyes" just in case I forget meself. It's the only number of the Who's that really requires precise harmony. The rest of it's all: "Yeeeaaaahhhh-Magic-Bus!" We shout. It doesn't matter. So they send me off during "Blue Eyes" because either I'm buggering about and I put the boys off or I try to sing and really put them off.

Anyway, I'd decided my talent as a drummer was wasted in a tight-knit harmony group like the Beachcombers, and the only band that I heard of that sounded as loud as I did was the Detours. So when I heard their drummer had left, I laid plans to insinuate meself into the group. They were playing at a pub near me, the Oldfield. I went down there and they had a session drummer sitting in with them. I got up onstage and said, "Well, I can do better than him." They said go ahead and I got behind this other guy's drums and I did one song – "Road Runner." I'd had several drinks to get me courage up and when I got onstage I went arrrrrggghhhhhhh on the drums, broke the bass drum pedal and two skins and got off. I figured that was it. I was scared to death.

Afterwards I was sitting at the bar and Pete came over. He said, "You . . . come 'ere." I said, mild as you please: "Yesyes?" And Roger, who was the spokesman then, said, "What're you doing next Monday?" I said, "Nothing." I was working during the day, selling plaster. He said, "You'll have to give up work." I said, "All right, I'll pack in work." Roger said, "There's this gig on Monday. If you want to come, we'll pick you up in the van." I said, "Right." They said they'd come by at seven. And that was it. Nobody ever said, "You're in." They just said, "What're you doing Monday?"

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: the Who

Were you being managed by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp at this point?
No, we were with a man who made doorknobs – young, naive lads that we were. This man's suggestions were the only ones we got, except the lewd ones from the audience. We really didn't have faith in ourselves then. Then when we settled in, the suggestions seemed ludicrous, so we decided to get rid of him, and Kit Lambert came to see us playing at the Railway 'Otel in 'Arrow. We had a meeting. We didn't like each other at first, really. Kit and Chris. They went 'round together. And they were . . . are . . . as incongruous a team as we are. You got Chris on one hand [goes into unintelligible East London cockney]: "Oh well, fuck it, jus, jus whack 'im in-a 'ead, 'it 'im in ee balls an' all." And Kit says [slipping into a proper Oxonian]: "Well, I don't agree, Chris; the thing is . . . the whole thing needs to be thought out in damned fine detail." These people were perfect for us, because there's me, bouncing about, full of pills, full of everything I could get me 'ands on . . . and there's Pete, very serious, never laughed, always cool, a grass-'ead. I was working at about ten times the speed Pete was. And Kit and Chris were like the epitome of what we were.

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