The Who’s Keith Moon Remembered
It was 44 years ago today (September 7th, 1978) that the Who‘s drummer Keith Moon died at age 32. Moon’s death, which was ruled accidental, was caused by an overdose of Heminevrin, a medication prescribed to help alleviate alcohol withdrawals, mixed with alcohol. According to police reports there were 32 pills found in Moon’s system, some of which were not yet dissolved. He died while staying in Harry Nilsson‘s London apartment — which coincidentally was where “Mama” Cass Elliott had died four years earlier. Moon was survived by his daughter Mandy and his fiancee Annette Walter-Lax.
On August 18th, 1978, the Who released their final album with Moon, called Who Are You. Earlier that month, Moon and Pete Townshend appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America to promote the new album. Although Moon was bloated and heavily made up, he tried valiantly to offer a positive spin on the band’s future as a live act when asked if he still had the urge to tour: “Yes, I would, I enjoy going out on the road very much. But only under certain circumstances and certain conditions. I like to play certain halls and certain towns. Y’know, do a few gigs in London, some in the States.”
The night before his death, Moon and Walter-Lax attended a preview of the movie The Buddy Holly Story, thrown by Paul and Linda McCartney, on the eve what would have been Holly’s 42nd birthday. According to most reports, Moon, who was drinking white wine, was slightly subdued, in high spirits, and at no point seemed drunk or inebriated in any way.
At the party after the screening, he was photographed talking with McCartney and his future Who replacement Kenney Jones. Jones recalled his last meeting with Moon: “Keith and I just went straight into each other, just talking, ’cause we hadn’t seen each other for a while. I said, ‘How ’bout you Keith, what’ve you been up to?” He said, ‘Oh, I’m clean, I’m straight, I’m. . .’ He was telling me that he’d given up drinking for nearly six months, and he felt so much better.”
According to Walter-Lax, Moon had originally not wanted to go out that night in an effort to try to curb his drinking, but did snort a small account of cocaine before leaving their apartment.
Prior to his death, the Who were debating forcing Moon out of the band due to his debilitating alcoholism. Shortly after Moon’s death Townshend told the British press, “Keith’s death is something that we expected for 20 years, but when it happens you just can’t take it in. I’m very upset. I’ve lost a man I loved.”
Apart from his acrobatic drumming, Moon has gone on to be remembered as one of Britain’s quickest wits, often adapting new and off-beat personas, and was known to dress up in character for days on end. Friends were used to watching Moon enjoy a night out on the town dressed as a World War One pilot, a clown, Marilyn Monroe, a nun, Dracula, Adolph Hitler, a gangster, Julius Caesar, a pirate — or more often than not — completely nude.
Alice Cooper was Moon’s close friend and neighbor during his Malibu years in the ’70s, and admitted that Moon’s non-stop partying and the mania surrounding his life was exhausting: “Keith Moon was hard day-to-day. He would wear me out. He was always on. He came over and stayed at our house for a week. Y’know, just came over, stayed at the house for a week. And, I mean, there was never a time when I would come in and he’d be sleeping! He was always on: ‘Let’s go here, let’s go there, let’s go do this, let’s go do that, let’s go do this. . . ‘ And to the point where I would go, ‘I can’t stay with you. Y’know, I can party with you at night, okay? But during the day. . .’ He was like that all day, too! (laughs).”
Dougal Butler, Moon’s closest confidante and road manager, ultimately thinks that Moon’s three years living in Los Angeles helped quicken the pace for his early death: “Well, he died about nine months after he got back to London from L.A. — I would have given him six months, if that. Keith attracted and let people into his so-called ‘inner-circle,’ all the wrong people in L.A. I’m not trying to give L.A. a bad name — don’t get me wrong; it’s a smashing place. But there are some weird and wonderful people down there, then in the ’70s.”
Butler says Moon’s hard partying ways often got in the way of performing: “Keith never had a kit in his house — never practiced at all. And he’d only rehearse for a couple of weeks before they went on a UK, or an American tour, or a European tour and that was it. As soon as they started rehearsing — that was it. Keith would be getting into his usual old ways of before.”
Pattie Boyd, who was to soon marry Eric Clapton, recalls a typical night out with Moon in the 1970’s: “Keith was the most generous person. He was absolutely utterly adorable. I remember once Eric and I picked him up from the Hyatt House (laughs) in L.A. — I think we were going to a party, and I think it was Led Zeppelin’s party. And so we picked up Keith. He was wearing a dress! (I thought) ‘Oh Keith, he’s just so funny,’ I didn’t really think too much about it. (Laughs) and he sat in the back of the car with me (laughs) and he started chewing at the headrest, and Eric kept telling him to stop (and) y’know, behave properly. And it was so funny.”
A while back, Pete Townshend wrote about Moon on his online blog, petetownshend-whohe.blogspot.com, and spoke about performing with Moon during the Who’s early days, recalling that, “Keith was an eccentric player, and seemed to be showing off all the time, pointing his sticks up in the air and leaning over the drums with his face thrust forward as if to be nearer the front of stage. But he was loud and strong. Slowly too we realized that his fluid style hid a real talent for listening and following, rather than just laying down a beat.”
Who producer Glyn Johns chronicled his years working with the Who — along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and the Eagles — in his new memoir, Sound Man. He told us that dealing with Keith Moon in a studio setting was nearly always a hit or miss situation: “As far as Keith was concerned it really was luck of the draw. There were some days when he couldn’t really get it together and there were lots of days when he managed really well under the influence of (laughs) whatever he was under the influence of and that was just part and parcel of what you had to deal with, really. And frankly, at the end of the day, we got some pretty great results and I have no complaints.”
Pete Townshend recalled how Moon’s over indulgences rarely showed while performing live with the Who: “He often used to get a bit excited. He was also. . . because he had such a huge adrenalin rush as a drummer on the stage, often — mostly — what he took he could overcome with his body chemistry, and then after he came off he would often collapse.”
In 2010, Pete Townshend posted on the band’s website, thewho.com, that he actually preferred playing with Kenney Jones over Moon, writing in part, “For me, it was great to play with Kenney, someone so disciplined, after years battling to keep Keith Moon in time. At last I could relax and let the drummer keep time. The Kenney years were most enjoyable years of my performing life with the Who. It was hard playing with Moonie, and it is sometimes almost as hard playing with Zak (Starkey) when he tries to emulate Moon. Zak is far better than Moonie technically, although maybe less anarchic — maybe! Zak respects me. Moon loved me, and exalted me, but he did not seem to respect me when we were onstage together.”
Townshend added: “Moon was a brilliant wild card, and much more than a drummer. But playing with Kenney was heaven after dragging Moon through his last, tortuous struggle to play well during the filming of The Kids Are Alright. He almost died of exhaustion that day. I loved Moon the man and Moon the comedian. I wasn’t crazy about Moon the drummer. He was great, I won’t deny it, the Who would probably not have been so big without Moon, but I would have preferred to have worked with Kenney from the very beginning.”
The Who’s long-awaited Keith Moon biopic, tentatively titled The Real Me, was originally slated to begin filming in June — with no news on when cameras are now set to officially roll. The film, which is being executive produced by Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and the Who’s longtime manager Bill Curbishley, will be directed by Paul Whittington — best known for The Crown and White House Farm, with the script by noted British screenwriter Jeff Pope, who snagged an Oscar-nom for Philomena.
White Horse Pictures, led by Nigel Sinclair and Guy East, will produce the feature, following their work on such acclaimed recent rock docs as Martin Scorsese‘s George Harrison: Living In The Material World, and Ron Howard‘s Beatles documentary Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years.
Roger Daltrey told us that he feels that Moon’s life was nothing short of cinematic, and wants the film to focus on Moon’s offstage life: “I think there’s a great film to be made out of the life of Keith Moon. There was. . . He was an incredibly complicated character. I think he was definitely a frustrated genius. I want to show people everything they didn’t know about Keith. It’s not a band story at all — it’s about a drummer on his days off.”
Daltrey said that above all the sadness at drummer Keith Moon dying so young and missing out on so much music, he left an incredible amount of laughter in his wake: “I mean, how could you not have a good time around Keith Moon??? He was so much fun when he was on. I never met another character like him. I mean, we had our ups and downs as people — what people don’t that were living the lives that we were living at that time. We were in each other’s — almost — in each other’s beds. Not quite, but, y’know? So, it would be impossible not to have frictions in that situation. But towards the end, I think I was one of the only stable things in Keith’s life.”
In 2017, the first ever Keith Moon signature drumstick was issued. The stick has been produced by Vic Firth Co., which is the world’s largest and leading manufacturer of drumsticks and mallets, and according to the stick’s press release, “Moon was posthumously inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1982, becoming only the second rock drummer to be chosen. In 2011, Moon was voted the second-greatest drummer in history by a Rolling Stone readers’ poll.”
The new official drumstick was produced at the invitation and with the full cooperation from the Moon estate and matches the Who drummer’s exact specifications: “The Keith Moon Signature Stick is unique in its design with the combination of a medium shaft, fast-sloping medium taper and a length just short of 16 inches. Crafted in hickory with an oval wood tip, this stick packs plenty of punch when needed and can work in a variety of musical settings.”
Recently released is the latest biography on Moon, titled, Keith Moon: There is No Substitute, which was compiled by Ian Snowball with the authorization the Keith Moon Estate and Keith’s daughter Amanda de Wolf. Pete Townshend supplied the forward for the book.