Today in Rock: Remembering Keith Moon

Wednesday, September 7: 5:03 p.m.
Posted by Rock Hall
The Who: (l-r) Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle

In the pantheon of rock icons, few lived harder and played more dynamically than Keith Moon, among the greatest rock and roll drummers of all time and the man who embodied The Who's frenetic energy and unconventional wit. Although his eccentric persona earned him the unflattering nickname of "Moon the loon," his innovative drumming garnered accolades and made him one of the rock genre's most influential percussionists. His sphere of influence was wide, and legend has it that Moon suggested to Jimmy Page that he use the name Led Zeppelin – rather than Page's New Yardbirds moniker. On September 7, 1978, Moon passed away at the age of 32, when he overdosed on medications prescribed to combat alcoholism. Thirty-three years later, Moon's legacy can still be heard in The Who's oeuvre – and beyond.

Keith John Moon was born August 23, 1946, the son of Alfred and Kathleen Moon, and raised in Wembley, England. He began playing drums at an early age and after a period performing with the surf rock group The Beachcombers, he joined Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle in London to form The Who. In their prime, the Mod "maximum R&B" outfit were a unit whose individual personalities fused into a larger-than-life whole. Pete Townshend provided the powerful rhythm guitar work and much of the material. Vocalist Roger Daltrey injected the songs with expressive muscularity and passion. Bassist John Entwistle anchored the band with his stoic demeanor and expert musicianship. Moon's presence was explosive and pervasive. Not content to simply keep time by playing the typical rock and roll backbeat, Moon cultivated an uncompromising, singular style that treated the drum kit as if it were an orchestra unto itself.

The raw power of the band and the explosive force of Moon’s playing feature prominently on their first live album Live at Leeds (1970). Moon pushes the band further and further in songs like their cover of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues.” Early in the performance, Moon’s pummeling drum fills ignite the band after each vocal line and close out each phrase. When the full tilt jam finally breaks out, Moon’s drums sit at the edge of the beat – at once too fast and too overpowering for the song, but also just solid enough to keep it all from falling apart. This is not music made to a click track. Cymbals crash, tom-toms rumble, the snare rolls and somewhere underneath the bass drum pounds the floor with a frantic energy.

Moon's rapid-fire fills propelled tracks such as "I Can See For Miles" – The Who's biggest stateside single, reaching number nine – from The Who Sell Out, released in 1967. Moon's nuanced playing perfectly punctuated the sweeping drama of 1969's rock opera Tommy, including the iconic "Pinball Wizard;" and his pounding bass kicks, blistering pace rolls and punchy cymbal crashes helped launch 1971's Who's Next with "Baba O'Riley" and close on the epic "Won't Get Fooled Again." Moon's drum work helped lead the charge of "Who Are You?," the thundering groove and title track of 1978's Who Are You LP – Moon's final album with The Who.

There are also famous moments where we can hear Moon’s playing outside of the Who, as on Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Beck’s Truth (1968) album, where a band consisting of Beck, Moon, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Aynsley Dunbar crank out the blistering “Beck’s Bolero.” 

Moon's playing would influence everyone from Mitch Mitchell to Larry Mullen, Jr. to Dave Grohl. [Pictured above: Keith Moon's velvet stage outfit circa 1975, part of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Legends of Rock: The Who, a permanent collection of Who artifacts featured in the Museum's main exhibition hall.]

WATCH: The Who perform "Young Man Blues" live at the Isle of Wight



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