Who’s the greatest drummer in rock & roll history? Rolling Stone says Neil Peart, but that’s obviously not right because, well, he’s in Rush.
You could name a lot of impressive drummers from otherwise annoying bands, like Travis Barker from Blink 182 or Terry Bozzio from Missing Persons (even playing with Zappa can’t redeem you from that vomit projectile of a band).
Technical chops aren’t even the half of it. The much revered Ginger Baker diddled around with jazz too much to really qualify as tops in the rock category. Ditto Bill Bruford and all that prog nonsense. The majestic John Bonham, master of bombast, now there’s a rock god, definitely among the greatest. But he was always playing these long-ass drum solos. I hate drum solos.
You know who else hated drum solos? Keith Moon.
Keith Moon is the greatest rock & roll drummer in history.
There was not a single non-rock cell in Moon’s body. Watch the videos from the Who’s early days and you’ll see a drummer having way too much fun to do things the “right” way, thrashing and bashing with joyful abandon, throwing drum fills into the most unexpected places, creating rhythms that make the listener stop and say, “What the fuck?”
Some even argue that Keith Moon isn’t a drummer at all. “He’s not a drummer, he’s a percussionist,” harrumphed an anonymous YouTube viewer. “Drummers keep time. He doesn’t.” But who cares? Why “keep” time when you can reinvent it?
Plus, Moon was just so damn entertaining on stage, and most drummers aren’t. He made the greatest drummer faces I’ve ever seen, eyes gleaming, mouth wide open, always looking like a
child who just got a go-cart for Christmas.
Part of the phenomenal success of the Who is due to the presence of four very distinct personalities, all equally riveting onstage. Townshend had his windmill arm moves and his guitar destruction. Daltrey was pure sex. Entwistle just stood there looking cooler than everybody else. And Moon, well, he was a loon. He always looked like he was on the verge of passing out from excitement.
I love his early drumming for its sheer thrashiness, the way he’d throw in a drumrolls whenever he felt like it, cymbals crashing all the way through. As the Who progressed musically, Moon evolved with them, adding timbales, gongs and timpani and becoming more disciplined musically, but through all this he never lost power. His drumming became even more explosive, blowing out eardrums throughout the country. The ‘Who’s Next’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ albums showcase a drummer at the peak of his power.
But the very same qualities that made him such a superb performer turned out to be Moon’s undoing. A rock and roller down to the core, Moon seemed to feel a need to destroy everything around him, including himself. While watching him kick over his drum kit at the end of a set and smash it to pieces with a maniacal grin on his face, once gets the impression that the guy was wrecked out of his mind on speed. He was.
I have no doubt Moon would still have been a loon even if he had never touched alcohol and pills (though he probably would’ve blown up fewer toilets). He was hyperactive as a child and loved to make things explode from the time he got his first home chemistry kit. He would go to any lengths to have a good time, and if his shenanigans ended up entertaining people, all the better. This made the Who the perfect vehicle for Moon to let off steam—the band was all about extremes.
And for rock stars in the ’70s, copious amounts of booze and drugs were not only expected, but required. This went along with trashing hotel rooms, throwing furniture out windows, destroying TVs and blowing up toilets with dynamite, all favorite hobbies of Keith Moon. That was entertainment, the stories fans loved to read about in Rolling Stone and Creem.
But Moon was gradually becoming sicker every year and was seriously depressed. In 1970, he accidentally struck and killed his friend Neil Boland with his Bentley while trying to escape a drunken brawl. He never got over this and was tormented by nightmares the rest of his life.
He became increasingly unreliable as a drummer, and there were even several incidents of Moon passing out on stage. At one show during the ‘Quadrophenia’ tour of 1973, he knocked back some powerful tranquilizers mixed with brandy and collapsed onto his drum kit in the middle of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Townshend had to pull a substitute drummer out of the audience to finish the show.
During a 1976 show in Boston, he passed out after two numbers, and the show had to be rescheduled. Moon went back to his motel room and predictably destroyed it, cutting himself while doing so and then passing out. A doctor told him he would have bled to death if the Who’s manager had not intervened.
After the recording of ‘Who Are You,’ the Who’s last album with Moon, Townshend refused to tour again unless Moon quit drinking.
Moon died trying to quit drinking.
Heminevrin is a powerful sedative designed to relieve alcohol withdrawal symptoms. A physician prescribed Moon a bottle of 100 pills, telling him to take one pill when he had a craving for alcohol, but no more than three a day. Moon was found dead on September 6, 1978, after taking 32 of these pills.
If Moon were able to conquer his addictions, would he still be able to rock? I’m absolutely sure of it. He had way too much gumption to become one of those 12-step casualties you see on so many “Behind the Music” episodes who buy a home in the country, build their own studio and go on to record hours of tepid music that nobody buys.
Improbably, the Who continues to rock. I have no desire to see them myself at this late date, but hardcore Who fans tell me that the band continues to play powerful shows. And Moon’s unique style continues to influence them. Their current drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son) claims to have learned everything he knows from Moon, who taught him how to drum as a teenager.
This is where I’d normally say “rest in peace.” But I don’t think Moon would’ve wanted that. I hope he’s residing in an immense celestial hotel with endless rooms to destroy and an infinite number of toilets to blow up, having the time of his life.
Here are a few of my favorite songs to showcase Keith Moon’s drumming:
“I Can’t Explain,” 1965 single
“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” 1965 single (chosen strictly for his drum roll on the word “anyhow,” which always makes my brain shiver)
“Happy Jack,” ‘Happy Jack,’ 1966
“Young Man Blues,” ‘Live at Leeds,’ 1970
“Baba O’Reilly,” ‘Who’s Next,’ 1971
“Bargain,” ‘Who’s Next,’ 1971
“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” ‘Who’s Next,’ 1971 (but only when he remains conscious
“The Real Me,” ‘Quadrophenia,’ 1973
“Love Reign o’er Me,” ‘Quadrophenia,’ 1973