Keith Moon: The Different Drummer

Keith Moon was the best drummer in the history of rock 'n roll

keith moon different drummer
Chris Morphet/Redferns
Keith Moon performs in Chelsea Barracks, London.
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Keith Moon was not the first rock & roll drummer to be celebrated by large numbers of people: thanks to his personality and his doleful eyes, Ringo Starr took that prize. But Moon was the first to be so celebrated as a drummer. Right from the beginning, as a seventeen-year-old who could have passed for fifteen without trouble. Moon trashed the limits that the best of his contemporaries – Charlie Watts, Hal Blaine, Kenny Buttrey – instinctively respected. There seemed to be no conscious arrogance or musical ambition involved: Moon simply didn't recognize those limits. He didn't hear them, so he didn't play them.

Like Buddy Holly, Jackie Wilson, Keith Richards or Pete Townshend – but, more than anyone, like Little Richard – Keith Moon was a natural, a rock & roll original, one of a handful of performers who seized possibilities in the music that others had not merely ignored, but had never perceived at all. Listen to Hal Blaine's work on the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" or Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" – work that directly inspired Moon – and listen to what Moon made of it in "The Kids Are Alright," "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" or "My Generation": the connection is there, but it is not remotely implicit. There's an inexplicable leap, a missing link, involved – and it's the presence of that missing link that proves Moon's greatness. His triumphs can be described, they can be analyzed, but they can't be traced. Like all rock & roll originals, Moon sounded as if he came out of nowhere to take over the world.

Keith Moon Bites Back

Clearly, when Keith Moon arrived in 1964 to complete the Who, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Pete Townshend recognized that they had a giant on their hands. Until the release of The Who Sell Out in 1967 (when Townshend's visionary epics began to dominate the group's records and demand a quieter, more ethereal sound), the band's best singles and album tracks not only featured Moon, they were built around him. (This was true as well on The Who Sell Out's most powerful cut, "I Can See for Miles.")

As Jon Landau pointed out years ago, it was Moon who played the parts conventionally given over to the lead guitar: on My Generation, the Who's first album, Townshend takes his cues from Moon, most often coming down on Moon's licks to emphasize them, when previously the rules of rock & roll had always dictated that it be the other way around. Even Townshend's most spectacular early solo, in "The Kids Are Alright" (criminally cut by three-fourths on all American versions), takes off from patterns Moon establishes early in the song – and which he extends in front of Townshend – before hurling the band out of the instrumental break with one of the most sublime drum rolls in all of rock. "Happy Jack," a lovely lyric aside, belongs to Moon: even the group vocals are orchestrated around him.

No drummer in a true rock & roll band has ever been given – has ever seized, perhaps – as much space and presence as Moon used in those first years, likely because no other drummer has been able to carry the weight. Discussions of Moon have always focused on his drive, his force, but while the momentum he generated remains untouched, what I now hear in his sound is richness. Though his work was always preternturally elaborate and complex – the addition of a second drummer by the Allman Brothers or the Grateful Dead should have been taken as something of a joke, and a tame one at that: Moon played like four drummers – he was never busy, ornamental or meretricious. It was a question of power, surely, but that power had its parts: astonishing timing (Moon's violent punctuation of Daltrey's stutter all through "My Generation"), unaccompanied loudness (the six tiny shots, heard as two cracks from a rifle, that break up "I know what it means but – can't explain" on the Who's first single) and, most of all, a profoundly vivid imagination, an ability to hear – and then play – what no one had heard before. And because Moon, a genius if any musician in rock deserves the name, arrived in the Who fullgrown, he gave the rest of the band, Townshend in particular, the freedom to grow. He was their line to the source.

Moon's influence, of course, was unparalleled, but it was also shallow. After Keith Moon drumming on rock records became stronger, was mixed higher: kits became bigger, and lots of people knocked their sets around onstage. Moon was an inspiration to countless drummers, but he couldn't really be imitated. Few were good enough to learn from him: Ringo Starr's "breakthrough" on "Ticket to Ride" (and for Ringo it was a breakthrough, though for Moon it would have been a collapse) was as far as most could go down his road. Perhaps only Mickey Waller, shaking Rod Stewart's "Every Picture Tells a Story" to its roots, captured more than a little of Moon's holy brashness: his revolt.

The Who Come to a Fork in the Road

It is really the Who's early years that tell Moon's tale, and it's on the first records – most of them collected on Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy – that he left his mark. His playing on Tommy and Who's Next is brilliant, but almost as conventional as the approbation; not many could match what Moon did on those records, but he was not matching himself. Musically, the Who's records were no longer his. Physically and mentally, he was no longer whole.

Today, one hears less of Moon's sound in rock & roll than the muffled flumpf of L.A. studio drummers. Compared to the humor and the verve of what Moon did on "I'm a Boy," "Can't Explain" or "I Can See for Miles," it is the sound of stupidity, of retreat, of coldness. Keith Moon was a man of terrible, destructive passion; for a time, he organized it all into his music. When I listen now, the records he left behind make him sound like more than the best drummer in rock & roll history, which he quite obviously was. They make him sound like the only one.

This story is from the October 19th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 276: October 19, 1978
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