1947 – Keith Moon of the Who is born in Wembley, England. He dies on Sept. 7, 1978 at age 32, from an overdose of the sedative Heminevrin.
Keith John Moon (August 23, 1946 – September 7, 1978) was the drummer of the rock group The Who. He gained notoriety for exuberant drumming and his destructive lifestyle. Moon joined The Who in 1964, replacing Doug Sandom. He played on all albums from their debut, 1965’s My Generation, to 1978’s Who Are You, which was released two weeks before his death.
Moon is known for innovative, dramatic drumming, often eschewing basic back beats for a fluid, busy technique focused on fast, cascading rolls across the toms and cymbal crashes. Moon was one of the first to play drums as a lead instrument in an era when drums were supposed only to keep the back beat. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most distinctive rock drummers.
Keith John Moon lived in Wembley as a boy, was hyperactive, and had a restless imagination. As a youth, one thing that could hold his attention was music. A report from his secondary modern school was not encouraging – his art teacher commented: ‘Retarded artistically. Idiotic in other respects.' Teacher Aaron Sofocleous praised his music skills and encouraged his chaotic style, even if one school report noted “He has great ability, but must guard against a tendency to show off.” Moon failed his eleven plus exam and left school in 1961.
On 17 March 1966, Moon married his pregnant girlfriend Kim Kerrigan in secrecy. Their daughter Amanda was born on 12 July. In 1973, Kerrigan left Moon. In 1974 he began dating Swedish model Annette Walter-Lax. The next year he and Kerrigan divorced.
Early musical career
At 12, Moon joined his local Sea Cadet Corps band as a bugle player but traded his position to be a drummer. Moon started drums at 14 after his father bought him a kit. He received lessons from one of the loudest drummers at the time, Carlo Little, paying him 10 shillings a lesson. During this time he joined his first serious band “The Escorts”. He later spent 18 months as the drummer for “The Beachcombers”, a London cover band notable for renditions of songs by Cliff Richard.
Moon initially played in the style of American surf rock, jazz, with a mix of reggae and R&B drummers, utilising grooves and fills of those genres, particularly Hal Blaine of Wrecking Crew. However, he played faster and louder, with more persistence and authority. Moon’s favourite musicians were jazz greats Gene Krupa, who inspired him to be the showman he was, and Sonny Rollins.
At 17, Moon joined The Who (in April 1964), a replacement for Doug Sandom. Sandom had left less than a month earlier after Moon had a disagreement with Sandom. A police report states Moon assaulted Sandom with a cattle prod repeatedly which left him unconscious. After the episode, without a drummer the remaining members hired a session drummer to fulfill shows they had agreed to play. Moon attended one of these shows. Pete Townshend described him as looking like a “ginger man” with his hair dyed ginger and wearing ginger-coloured clothes. As stated in Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who, Moon looked up to Roger Daltrey during the show and said “I hear you’re looking for a drummer. Well, I’m much better than the one you’ve got.” The band knew they needed Moon after seeing him practically smash the drum kit to pieces.
Moon started on various three or five-piece kits but moved to a double bass kit, made by Premier, in late 1965. Moon took two kits and put them together. This widened his playing; he abandoned his hi-hat cymbals almost entirely and started basing his grooves on a double bass ostinato with eighth note flams, and a wall of white noise created by riding a crash or ride cymbal. On top of this he played fills and cymbal accents. This became his trademark.
Moon’s Classic Premier setup comprised two 14×22-inch bass drums, three 8×14 (Tuna Can) mounted toms, two 16×16 floor toms, a 5×14 metal snare (usually a Ludwig Supraphonic), and one extra floor tom of different sizes but mainly 16×18 or 16×16. Moon’s classic cymbal setup consisted of two Paiste 18″ crashes and one 20” ride. In 1973, Moon added a second row of tom-toms (first four, then six) and, in 1975, two more timbales. These huge kits became well known, notably the amber set in the films, Tommy and Stardust, and in footage shot by the BBC at Charlton in 1974. The 1975/76 white kit with gold fittings was given by Moon to a young Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr. His final kit, a dark metallic one, is seen in the footage from The Kids Are Alright at Shepperton in 1978.
Early in The Who’s career, live sets culminated in “auto destruction”, members destroying their equipment in elaborate fashion, an act that was imitated by other bands and artists including Jimi Hendrix in his breakout performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Moon showed a zeal for this, kicking and smashing his drums. During the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour television show, he loaded a drum with explosives which detonated during the finale of “My Generation,” singeing Townshend’s hair and embedding a piece of cymbal in his arm (this has been speculated as starting Townshend’s tinnitus). Another time, he filled clear acrylic drums with water and goldfish, playing them for a television appearance. When an audience member asked “What happens with your goldfish?” he replied with a grin, “Well I mean, you know…even the best drummers get hungry.” Antics like these earned him the nickname “Moon the Loon.”
His determination to add his voice to Who songs led other members to banish him from the studio when vocals were recorded. This led to a game, Moon sneaking in to join the singing. At the end of “Happy Jack,” Townshend can be heard shouting “I saw you!” It is said that he noticed Moon trying to join in Moon can be heard singing on several tracks, including a section of “A Quick One While He’s Away” (A Quick One, 1966), “Armenia City in the Sky” (The Who Sell Out, 1967), “Bell Boy” (Quadrophenia, 1973), “Pictures of Lily” (1967), “Instant Party Mixture” (My Generation Deluxe Edition, 1965), “Bucket T” and “Barbara Ann” (Ready Steady Who EP, 1966).
He was credited as composer of “I Need You,” which he also sang, and the instrumental “Cobwebs and Strange” (from A Quick One, 1966), the single B-sides “In The City” (co-written by Moon and Entwistle), “Dogs Part Two” (1969) (sharing credits with Townshend’s and Entwistle’s dogs, Towser and Jason) and “Wasp Man” (1972), and “Girl’s Eyes” (from The Who Sell Out sessions; featured on Thirty Years of Maximum R&B and a 1995 re-release of The Who Sell Out). He also co-composed the instrumental “The Ox” (from the debut album “My Generation”) with Townshend, Entwistle and pianist Nicky Hopkins. “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” (from Tommy) was credited to Moon, who suggested the action should take place in a holiday camp. The song was written by Townshend, and although many think Moon sings on the track, the version on the album is Townshend’s demo. However Moon did sing it live and on the Tommy film. He also produced “Baba O’Riley”‘s violin solo (which he had suggested), and was recorded by Dave Arbus, a friend.
Daltrey said Moon’s drumming style held the band together; that Entwistle and Townshend “were like needles… and Keith was the wool.”
A reputation for destruction
Moon was destructive. He laid waste to hotel rooms, the homes of friends, even his own home, throwing furniture out of high windows and destroying the plumbing with fireworks. He frequently flushed powerful fireworks (Cherry bombs) down the toilet and enjoyed detonating toilets for personal amusement. The acts, though often fueled by drugs and alcohol, were his way of expressing his eccentricity, as well as the joy he got from shocking the public. In Moon’s biography, Full Moon, Dougal Butler observed, “He would do anything if he knew that there were enough people around who didn’t want him to do it.”
Moon’s pranks bear a similarity to those of Australian comedian Barry Humphries, who affected the same maniacal stare as Moon. A darker side to Moon’s behaviour, tentatively diagnosed as caused by a Borderline Personality Disorder in Fletcher’s biography, was physically violent towards three women in his life: his wife Kim, girlfriend Annette, and only daughter Mandy. He was also prepared to pay someone to break his ex-wife’s second husband’s fingers out of jealousy. Annette Walter-Lax described his Mr Hyde-like change into a growling, uncontrollable beast as something out of a horror movie. She begged Malibu neighbour Larry Hagman to check Moon into a clinic to dry out, but when doctors recorded Moon’s intake at breakfast (a full bottle of champagne along with Courvoisier ), they concluded there was no hope. Alice Cooper remembers his drinking club, The Hollywood Vampires, commenting that Moon (‘the Puck of Rock ‘n’ Roll”) used to enter dressed up as the Pope.  Joe Walsh has recorded chats with Moon, finding it remarkable how witty and alert the inebriated drummer managed to stay, ad-libbing his way through surrealistic fantasy stories à la Peter Cook.
Although his behaviour was outrageous, it was in the humorous vein as his friend Vivian Stanshall, of the Bonzo Dog Band claimed. Moon produced Stanshall’s version of Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds.
According to Townshend, Moon’s reputation for erratic behaviour was something he cultivated. Once, on the way to an airport, Moon insisted they return to their hotel, saying , “I forgot something. We’ve got to go back!” When the limo returned, Moon ran to his room, grabbed the TV while it was plugged in, threw it out the window and into the pool. He then jumped back into the limousine, sighing “I nearly forgot.”
On January 4, 1970, Moon was involved in a car-pedestrian death outside the Red Lion pub in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Trying to escape hostile skinheads from the pub who had begun to attack his Bentley, Moon ran over and killed his friend and bodyguard, Neil Boland. Although the coroner said Boland’s death was an accident, and Moon was given an absolute discharge having been charged with driving offences, those close to him said Moon was haunted by the accident for the rest of his life. Boland’s daughter investigated and suggested that Moon may not have been driving.
Moon’s penchant for the wild life was detrimental to his drumming and his reliability as a band member. On the 1973 Quadrophenia tour, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, Moon took a large mixture of tranquilizers and brandy. He passed out during “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and again in “Magic Bus.” Townshend asked the audience, “Can anyone play the drums? – I mean somebody good.” An audience member, Scot Halpin, filled in for the rest of the show. Guitarist Pete Townshend later said in an interview that Moon had consumed large tranquilizer pills, meant to be shot at animals, with the brandy. During the band’s recording sabbatical between 1975 and 1978, Moon put on a great deal of weight.
Moon’s close friend and legendary drummer Ringo Starr was seriously concerned about his ‘Rock Star’ lifestyle and told Moon that if he kept going the way he was he would eventually kill himself. Moon simply replied ‘Yeah, I know.'
Moon owned a lilac-coloured Rolls-Royce, painted with house paint. On Top Gear, Daltrey commented that Moon liked to take upper-class icons and make them working class. The car is now owned by Middlebrook Garages (based in Nottinghamshire, England).
Work outside The Who
Although Moon’s work with The Who dominated his career, he participated in minor side projects. In 1966, he teamed with Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck, session man Nicky Hopkins, and future Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones to record an instrumental, “Beck’s Bolero,” released as a single-double later that year. He also played timpani on another track, “Ol’ Man River” (credited on the back of the album as “You Know Who”).
Moon is said to have named Led Zeppelin. When an early version of the band was being discussed that would have had himself, John Entwistle on bass, Jimmy Page on guitar, and an undecided vocalist, he stated the potential group would “go down like a lead zeppelin.” He joined Zeppelin on stage and drummed with John Bonham for encores in a show on 23 June 1977 at the L.A. Forum (recorded on Led Zeppelin bootlegs, For Badgeholders Only/SGT Pages Badgeholders Club).
In 1974 Track Records/MCA released a solo single: “Don’t Worry, Baby” b/w “Teenage Idol”, the former a reflection of his love of The Beach Boys.
In 1975 he released his only solo album, pop covers entitled Two Sides of the Moon. Although this featured Moon’s singing, much drumming was left to other artists including Ringo Starr, session musicians Curly Smith and Jim Keltner and actor/musician Miguel Ferrer (Twin Peaks and Crossing Jordan). Moon played drums on only three tracks.
In late 1975, he played drums on the track “Bo Diddley Jam” on Bo Diddley’s The 20th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll all-star album.
In 1971 he had a cameo role in Frank Zappa’s film 200 Motels. He acted in drag as a nun fearful of death from overdosing on pills. In 1973 he appeared in That’ll Be the Day, playing J.D. Clover, the drummer at a holiday camp during the early days of British rock ‘n’ roll. Moon reprised the role for the sequel Stardust in 1974. The film co-starred Moon’s friend Ringo Starr of the Beatles. He appeared as “Uncle Ernie” in Ken Russell’s 1975 film adaptation of Tommy. In a bar about 1975, he asked Graham Chapman and Bernard McKenna to do a “treatment” for a “mad movie”. They asked a thousand pounds, Moon pulled the cash from his pocket and gave it to them. This was the start of the project that would become the movie Yellowbeard. Moon wanted to play the lead but the movie took many years to develop, and by that time he was in physically poor shape, and unsuitable. In 1976, he covered the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four” for the soundtrack of the documentary All This and World War II. He impersonated a camp fashion designer in Sextette (1978), starring Mae West. He was to have a part in Monty Python’s Life of Brian and stayed in the Caribbean with the six Python members as they wrote the script. He died before filming. The published edition of the screenplay to Life of Brian is dedicated to Moon.
Moon once owned a hotel, The Crown and Cushion in Chipping Norton.
Moon was Paul McCartney’s guest at a film preview of The Buddy Holly Story on the evening of 6 September 1978. After dining with Paul and Linda McCartney, Moon and his girlfriend, Annette Walter-Lax, returned to a flat on loan from Harry Nilsson in Curzon Place, London (near Shepherd Market), where Moon died of an overdose of Clomethiazole (Heminevrin). The medication was a sedative he had been prescribed to alleviate his alcohol withdrawal symptoms as he tried to go dry on his own at home; he was desperate to get clean, but was terrified of another stay in the psychiatric hospital for in-patient detoxification. However, Clomethiazole is specifically contraindicated for unsupervised home detox due to its addictiveness, tendency to rapidly induce drug tolerance, and dangerously high risk of death when mixed with alcohol. The pills were also prescribed by a new doctor, Dr. Geoffrey Dymond, who was unaware of Moon’s recklessly impulsive nature and long history of prescription sedative abuse. He had given Moon a full bottle of 100 pills, and instructed him to take one whenever he felt a craving for alcohol (but not more than 3 per day). The police determined there were 32 pills in his system, many times the lethal amount, 26 of which were still undissolved when he died. Moon died in the room in which Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas had died four years earlier.
On the audio DVD commentary to The Criterion Collection’s release of the Monty Python film Life of Brian, Eric Idle talks about the dinner party. Idle relates that Moon was excited about his role as a prophet in the movie. After launching into his speech for the film, Idle and Moon exchanged a “big, warm hug,” with Idle commenting that “he was just such a wonderful enthusiast.”
Moon died a couple of weeks after the release of Who Are You. On the album cover, Moon is seated on a chair back-to-front to hide the weight gained over three years (as discussed in Tony Fletcher’s book “Dear Boy”). The chair is labeled “NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY.”
Moon was cremated. His ashes were scattered in the Gardens of Remembrance at Golders Green Crematorium in London.
Events after his death
While Moon was alive, The Who performed with four members. Afterwards, he was replaced by Small Faces/Faces drummer Kenney Jones and later Simon Phillips. The Who also added keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick to the live band. The Who’s drum position is currently occupied by Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr. Starkey was taught by Moon and referred to him as Uncle Keith.
Daltrey recorded a song, “Under a Raging Moon”, as a tribute to Moon and the “middle bar” in the London Astoria is named after him.
A biography was written about Moon by Tony Fletcher, entitled Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon. “Dear Boy” became a catchphrase of Moon’s when he started affecting a pompous English accent around 1969, particularly when ordering drinks.
In early 2006, Moon’s signature Pictures of Lily drum kit was reissued by Premier Percussion under the name Spirit of Lily.
Moon’s ex-wife, Kim, was married to Ian McLagan of the Faces in 1978, the year that Moon died. She was killed in a traffic collision near Austin, Texas on August 2, 2006.
Moon’s daughter, Mandy, is married to a graphic artist. She has two daughters and lives in Southern California.
Daltrey is producing a biopic about Moon called See Me Feel Me: Keith Moon Naked for Your Pleasure, which will be released in 2009. Comedian Mike Myers will play the main role.