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Moon the Loon -- Rediscovering Keith Moon

Last weekend I was bumbling through the hundreds of channels of useless television when I stumbled upon a gem: “Listening to You: The Who, Live at the Isle of Wight” from 1970. I’ve always been a Who fan from a distance, but I admit I’ve never really been a student of their music. As a drummer you’d have to have been living on the moon not to have ever heard of the Who’s original drummer, Keith Moon.

“Moon the Loon,” as he was known, helped establish the classic drummer stereotype that we all know and love (or hate depending on where you sit): the animal behind the kit, hard living, beer swillin’, pill poppin', fight starting, drive your car into the swimming pool and die of overdose kind. In fact, Moon was the inspiration behind the Muppet character, Animal. Sadly, he did suffer from numerous personal demons, many of which substance / lifestyle abuse related. His star burned bright for only 32 years.

Keith Moon, 1970 on Premier Double Bass Kit

On Second Look
Back to the Who’s 1970 performance … I thought I’d tune in long enough to be bored and unimpressed by a sloppy drummer, too wasted to play and soon-to-be passed-out on the floor behind his kit.  I mean we've all heard the stories, right? Two hours later I felt inspired to play drums and surprised by a newfound respect I had for Moon. Below are drumming details about what I loved about his playing, but my main takeaway from watching him was that this dude was lightning bolt of energy: a one-man show with a primal rhythm. When you’re the drummer of a headlining act at a festival where up to 600,000 people are in attendance, you better be ready to bring it. And bring it he did. Quite literally, you’re serving up the rhythms for the tribe: in this case the throngs of hippie masses who’d journeyed to spend nearly a week at music festival on an island capable of holding 100,000 people. 

Caution, Flam-able
The first thing I immediately noticed was that Moon did not have a high-hat stand in his kit. Instead, he had what looked to be a 20” crash-ride cymbal approximately in its place. He had a double-bass kit with an array of big rack toms, and his feet were planted on both pedals most of time. He wasn’t the sort to be relegated to keeping time or playing traditional “beats” per se, and as expected, there was a lot of crescendo-like flurrys with his hands. Roger Daltry said the first time he played in the band, it was like a jet engine fired up behind them.

One thing that held it all together was an eight-on-the-floor double bass drum flam-like technique that appeared to be his go-to backbeat. When I say flam-like, I think it was more of a “feel” thing that, depending on the situation, he would either play eights in unison (both bass drums at the same time) or slightly flam the pulse. When you watch it, it’s almost like watching a kid in an adult’s body playing the drums – feet bouncing up and down, arms flailing, menacing smile and ever-changing facial expression. But, it was all done within the context of the band, and he drove them forward and pulled them back from the brink with a sense of theatrical dynamics.

Watching and listening to Moon reminded me of the reason I wanted to play drums in the first place, before things like technique and tempo ever entered the picture. From a child’s eyes, drumming like that is pure magic.

Moon’s Magic Bus
In the age of iPods, auto-tune and instantaneous mass-media distribution, it’s easy to forget about the one thing that really makes music transcendent: its ability to make a meaningful connection through a live performance. Critics and drum technicians have referred to Moon’s drumming as sloppy (me included), but I realize now that what he was doing transcended technique. Moon made a tribal connection to his band-mates and the audience through his drumming in many ways. It’s almost like watching and listening reminded me of the reason I wanted to play drums in the first place, before things like technique and tempo ever entered the picture. From a child’s eyes, drumming like that is pure magic. All PLAY and NO WORK. Here’s a few of the ways Moon accomplished this:

  1. Pound it out. While playing eighth-note flams on the floor certainly ain’t my thang, and I would immediately get fired if I did this all day, it worked for Moon. It comes down to the energy that is emanating from him and his kit. Moon let it all hang out, and that undeniable energy makes an immediate connection to anybody within earshot (or eyeshot). It helped that he had a metronomic thumper of a sideman on bass: John Entwistle.
  2. Bring the show. Moon was a consummate showman. He maintained constant eye contact with his band mates and the audience, and his body language was fluid and full of swagger. He twirled and tossed his sticks around for dramatic effect. Song endings were furious frenzies followed by a sudden crash-landing stops – all handled by the band watching Moon carefully to see when he was slamming on the brakes. Pretty hilarious to watch.
  3. Play with passion. You cannot help but smile when you watch Moon play because he is having so much fun. Clearly, he’s completely in the moment and his exuberance is contagious. That passion just draws you in and makes you feel like you were invited to the party.

I have to admit that I’m inspired mainly by groove drummers or drummers that make a big statement through technique, and Moon is neither of these. But, Moon made a huge statement with his uncompromising approach, larger-than-life persona, his style and mostly his energy. Watching this has made think of ways of trying to tap back into that childlike playfulness. Undeniable. Genius.

The original Animal

Final notes about The Who. The band in 1970 was a live powerhouse! Amazing. I personally did not realize how huge their sound was or how much force they delivered. They were completely original and groundbreaking in so many ways. My new favorite band. :)

Required listening:

  • Tommy
  • Who's Next
  • Quadrophenia

Required watching:

  • Listening to You: The Who Live at Isle of Wight, 1970
  • Amazing Journey, The Story of the Who