New Yorker writer James Woods wrote an incredible piece about Keith Moon’s knack for cramming so much into his fills, for running across lines and wedging extra sounds in even if they didn’t seem like they might fit. He referenced John Bonham’s very compositional approach to playing – how everything was cut to fit. You could even apply the old builder’s maxim my father loves so much with Bonham’s playing approach: measure twice, cut once. Moon preferred to spill the fill, his cup runneth over. In James Woods’ piece which also appeared in the Best Music Writing (2011) book Moon is referred to as the drummer of enjambment. I really like that term, that idea. Specifically how it relates to Keith Moon: the drummer of enjambment.
His run-on lines from behind the kit make sense rhythmically and compositionally. Moon’s splashes of colour could have him as the band’s splatter-painter – technique forgone for feel. But you only know how to do that if you have the basics behind you.
I am most definitely a fan of The Who. In fact as time goes on I find myself more entranced by the band’s music. There are four albums by The Who that I adore. There are at least three others that I think are amazing, at least in part (the first three: My Generation, A Quick One and The Who Sell Out) but for me the real magic occurs between 1969 and 1973.
And though The Who featured three flashy virtuoso players and a front-man, for me the star across these albums – and (therefore) across The Who’s best work – is Keith Moon. He was a good drummer early on but he became a great drummer before collapsing far too heavily in to his George Best-of-the-drums/court jester role. And finally succumbing to that.
Amazingly, a great deal of Moon’s best work takes place in and around all the apocryphal drinking stories, yarns involving driving cars in to pools, destroying hotel rooms, pouring cold chicken soup into airline vomit bags and then drinking it in to make it look as if he was taking back his own spew; these things took place and he wasn’t past it or phoning it in musically. He was creative and exciting. He was the whirling dervish. This was when he was firing on all cylinders as a player and off-stage as a particularly devilish comedian, often with a particularly ill strain of black humour lacing his worldview.
The stories about Keith Moon that are legendary have certainly earned their place, going on to earn him a spot in any joint Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame/Shame for just being Keith Moon: drummer and rock-star/drummer-as-rock-star.
But we shouldn’t forget about his playing. Across Tommy, Live At Leeds, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia Moon provides a lot of the great punctuation to mark Pete Townshend’s musical short-stories. The drummer of enjambment. The man whose cup runneth over – musically and socially…on these four albums he doesn’t have his work cut out for him, he does the cutting, carving his work out proudly, boldly. Leaving it to stand. And time has served it well.
My favourite album by The Who is, without question, Who’s Next. I don’t know if there are better bookending tracks on a rock album than Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again.
Those are decent studies for Moon’s great playing. By this point he’d developed his sound. Moon always sounded good on the kit playing for The Who but he really started to sound unique a couple of years into his spell on the throne. He removed the hi-hat from his repertoire, one of the more crucial elements for most players. Now he was free to explore the kit. And why bother just using the ride cymbal to trickle out a shimmer of sound. Why not use the crash cymbals to deliver your message.
So when we hear Keith Moon across Tommy and Live At Leeds – but for me particularly on Who’s Next and Quadrophenia – he is the answer to many of Townshend and Roger Daltry’s questions. He is the release at the end of all that tension. Rhythmically he is the tension-release too. John Entwistle was tightly coiled – despite those fluid fingers making it all seem like it was free-flowing.
Moon’s drumming was conversational. He called and responded. He shouted frequently but it was always well-placed, well-timed. And like any burst of white noise you can fall inside it and find a form of silence. Keith Moon was only ever a busy player in bursts. He might not have seemed like he cared about the song a great deal – but his unique playing is one of the reasons so many of The Who’s songs standout. A reason why they stand proud.
Moon was a loon, yes it’s true. But his playing was often remarkable; is often remarkable. Listen to it now – it’s alive even though he’s not. Every time I listen to Who’s Next I find a new thing to marvel at, the drums coming in on The Song Is Over to create a jubilation that supports Daltry’s proclamation. The power surge in Behind Blue Eyes that Moon controls, throttling the song in what plays out like a chase-scene. The cymbal use and the space created in Going Mobile.
And in an outtake from Who’s Next, a cover of an old song that Marvin Gaye had some fun with, you will hear – as far as I’m concerned – Keith Moon’s finest single performance. Check out Baby Don’t You Do It. And pay close attention from 1.40-2.20.
Every time I hear this I know I’m listening to the greatest rock’n’roll drumming of that time. And some of the greatest of all time. (Incidentally, if you listen to the bite of Townshend’s guitar on this track, the twitch that it develops, those pinched harmonics, well that would go on to be a sound that Eddie Van Halen would have so much fun with, people would be sure he invented it. There’s moments within The Who’s version of Baby Don’t You Do It that form a guitar-schematic for Jamie’s Cryin’).
Keith Moon might be remembered by many for the drinking, the mood-swings, the Nazi uniform, the Rolls Royce drop-off (some of the stories apocryphal, many of them sad whether they happened or not); the pranks, the permanent self-destruction mode but I remember him as the drummer of enjambment. I remember him as the painter that splattered sound-pictures with swirls of fury. I remember him as the colour-commentator of drummers, aware of the song and the music but doing his best to provide vital stings in and around the action; offering humour and insight. Powered, always, by instinct.
The whole vibe of The Who was around such tension – Pete hated Roger because he was pretty, Roger hated Pete because he was talented. Pete seemed also to hate the entire world. For everything. He still hates a fair bit of it – in a recent documentary around the making of Quadrophenia Townshend makes some comment about thinking Moon was a thoroughly shit drummer. I’m sorry Pete but you’re wrong. I’m sure some gigs he was the biggest fucking nightmare in the world but some of those recordings shine and bristle and burst with energy. They have personality emblazoned. Townshend even suggests – at times – he wished the band had another drummer. I think we know from the best efforts of Simon Phillips and Kenny Jones that no one was able to replace (or replicate) that particular magic that was offered by the Moon.
Drummers You Just Can’t Beat started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page