If he were still alive, Keith Moon would have turned 65 today. It’s hard to imagine him as an old man, considering how he lived his life. Even as the youngest member of The Who, Moon barely looked older than 15 when their debut album The Who Sings My Generation was released in 1965.
Much of Moon’s reputation rests on his antics. There’s the infamous Holiday Inn birthday party where he crashed a car into the pool. Then there’s the story of Moon getting the band kicked out of the Gorham in New York for throwing cherry bombs out the window. And who can forget when he loaded his drum-set with dynamite, blowing it up on live TV during The Who’s performance on The Smothers Brothers?
While these stories are somewhat amusing, they also tarnish his legacy as a musician. Simply put, Moon is not only’s rock most chaotic drummer but also its most inventive, original and best. Unlike other drummers, Moon attacked the drums in a way that forced Pete Townshend and John Entwistle to completely change the normal stylings of guitar and bass. Townshend had to play louder and adopt his signature power chords in order to behind Moon’s thunderous drumming. Entwistle’s “lead” bass was developed as a way of anchoring the band.
Moon didn’t follow the “traditional” rules of drumming – he rarely kept a steady beat in fact – which has generated some criticism. This is probably why you are more likely to see John Bonham at the top of best drummer lists. But that’s not to see that he couldn’t keep time. His drumming on the instrumental “Sparks” from Tommy is so intricate and commanding, it simply couldn’t be done if he didn’t know his place in the song. According to Tony Fletcher’s biography Moon, producer Shel Talmly listened to out-takes from The Who Sings My Generation sessions commenting, “Keith did it the same way each time.”
Talmy’s comment is interesting considering that many consider Moon to be innovative, but slightly sloppy. Certainly if you watch performances of him, his hands fly in every direction at the speed of light. Listen closely and you’ll realize that he listens exactly to what the other members of the band are doing and his loud cymbal crashes accent and revolve Roger Daltrey’s powerful vocals. The wild drum rolls during the chorus on “Tattoo” off of Live at Leeds perfectly coexist with Daltrey and Townshend’s harmonies.
The definitive Moon performance is the highly under-rated 1967 Who single “I Can See For Miles”. Completely ignoring the traditional beat, Moon delivers rapid fire rolls and cymbal crashes that extra drama to Townshend’s tale of a scorned lover. On the chorus especially, Moon reigns his grip in even further pummeling his way through the song with a mix of brute force and sheer musicianship. No other drumming performance in rock has sounded like it. It’s not only Moon’s best performance, but the “Voodoo Child” of rock drumming. No one has yet to catch up with Moon’s inventive and wild drumming that he displayed on this track.