Extraordinary Keith Moon
Sep 6 2003 By Robert Owen, The Journal
Twenty-five years after his untimely death, his friends and associates are still talking about the man who was one of the most innovative and flamboyant drummers of his generation, Who star Keith Moon.
They will never forget the man who was noted for his wild antics off stage as well.
Over a 15-year career that saw The Who become one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Keith undertook a parallel occupation as one of the biggest jokers in the pack.
He soon gained a reputation for driving expensive cars into swimming pools, blowing up hotel toilets and causing chaos with his practical jokes wherever he went.
And as a noted eccentric he loved to dress up in public - sometimes in a Nazi uniform, at other times in women's clothes, or decorating the back of a milk float with wallpaper and expensive sofa and donning the persona of Noel Coward.
But for Keith tears were never far away, and behind the clown's façade lay a much darker personality. By the mid-1970s drink and drugs had taken their toll, and on September 7, 1978, he died from an overdose of the drug Herminevrin, prescribed to help him battle alcoholism.
Born in Wembley, London, in 1946, Keith underachieved at school, hampered by what might have been diagnosed as hyperactivity today. He failed the then crucial 11-Plus exam and left school with no `O' levels. A report from his secondary modern school was not encouraging. His art teacher, for example, commented: "Retarded artistically. Idiotic in other respects." His music teacher was more positive, though his advice wouldn't, as it turned out, have served Keith well: "He has great ability, but must guard against a tendency to show off."
The first musical instruments Keith learnt to play were the bugle and trumpet. He soon gave these up for the drums, but he lacked the discipline and restraint required by large ensembles.
His first involvement with a pop group came in 1961, when he joined The Escorts, who played covers of instrumental hits by The Shadows along with various 1950s standards. But when the chance of working full-time with up-and-coming group The Who arose, Keith jumped at it.
At that time The Who were looking for a drummer. According to Pete Townshend, Keith "turned up at a gig and said: `I can play better than him.' So he got up on the drummer's drum kit and practically smashed it to pieces. And we thought: this is the man for us."
Keith's uniquely intuitive, gunshot style revolutionised the group's sound, and after a brief and only semi-successful phase as a "mod" group called The High Numbers, they found their feet as The Who in 1965 with Pete Townshend's hit I Can't Explain. This was soon followed by My Generation, the last word in teenage rebellion, which ended with a cataclysmic drum workout.
"Moon the Loon" took to the rock lifestyle like a duck to water. In the early days of the band he developed an amphetamine habit, and throughout his career booze was his most constant companion. His behaviour was as excessive as his intake, and his non-stop destructive publicity stunts ensured him a public profile higher than any previous rock drummer.
However, it was Pete Townshend who first took to trashing his equipment on stage. The destruction rapidly became the band's trademark, attracting much media attention.
Keith himself didn't need any encouragement. Pete Townshend may have started the instrument abuse, but Keith took it to another level, hitting on the idea of using fireworks to blow up his drums. When The Who made their debut American network TV appearance on September 15, 1967, Keith decided to take no chances with the quantities, and the resulting explosion put the network off air briefly and partially deafened Pete Townshend. Keith was injured by a flying cymbal. Offstage, the destruction was often even more extreme. Keith's hyperactivity was well-known, with his friends comparing him to an over-active child.
Rocker Alice Cooper, who got to know the drummer when he relocated to the United States in the mid-70s, says: "Keith would come over and stay for days. He would exhaust you because he never got tired, and it wasn't because of drugs necessarily, he was just one of those guys who never got tired.
"After about 12 hours of that, my wife Cheryl would say, `I've got to get out of here,', and I'd say `Me too, he's wearing me out.' We'd say, `Keith, we're going out, see you later.' We'd go out, come back the next day, he'd still be there, `Hello, did you bring me anything?'"
Hollywood actress Ann-Margret starred alongside Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed, The Who's lead singer Roger Daltrey and Keith in the rock opera Tommy.
Like Cooper, she has vivid memories of Keith's visits to her home, although she saw a very different side to his nature the day he gave her a diamond ring he was wearing. She says: "I felt like such a goon, but he said `I want you to have it.' He was sweet and funny. He always had a good sense of humour, but he wasn't loud, ever, when I was with him."
Ringo Starr, who appeared alongside Keith in five films, also experienced his generosity.
Their friendship and mutual admiration was such that on one Christmas Day in the mid-1970's Keith donned a Santa costume and turned up at Ringo's Ascot home in a pony and trap weighed down with presents. However, Keith forgot to pay the hire fee and Ringo ended up with the bill.
Film producer David Puttnam was the man behind classic rock films That'll be the Day and Stardust, both of which featured Keith as drummer JD Clover. He remembers that while he was experiencing difficulties getting financial backing for That'll be the Day, Keith would turn up at his office full of confidence that the film would get made, even offering to put up some of the money himself.
He remembers: "When he came round, you had the sense that That'll be the Day would get made. There was no way he would not let it get made. Frankly, if it hadn't been for Keith, I'm not sure we would have got the film together."
Who guitarist Pete Townshend clearly respected Keith as an individual thinker. During a press launch for The Who's album, Who's Next, at Keith's modernist Surrey mansion, which the drummer had turned into a "24-hour party zone", a journalist remarked that only Keith Moon could have designed the house. Pete replied: "But he didn't. And that's what worries me. It means there's another creature with a mind like Keith's walking this earth."
Who lead singer Roger Daltrey puts much of the blame for Keith's downfall on his larger-than-life character. He says: "Keith had the comedian's disease of trying to make people laugh all the time, but inside he was incredibly unhappy. The alcoholism was the result of his unhappiness. I never met anyone like Keith Moon. He had so much energy, so much drive. And if he wasn't channelling it through his drums he had no place to put it. And he had this desperation to be loved, really loved by the people he cared about."
But there was a still darker side to Keith's personality. He had married model Kim Kerrigan in March 1966, when she was pregnant with his daughter Mandy. He turned out to be an uninterested father and a jealous and possessive husband, ordering Kim to abandon her promising career as a model.
Though he was often unfaithful to her, he expected her to stay at home and thwarted any attempt she made to lead her own life. But there was much worse than this: he could be violent during drunken binges. During the course of their marriage he broke Kim's nose three times and once chased her round the estate with a shotgun.
Keith continued to dedicate himself to partying and causing mayhem.
During the 1970s Keith's health was going rapidly downhill. A typical breakfast included eggs and bangers, but also half a bottle of Corvoisier, a bottle of Champagne and two black beauties (powerful downers).
He made various attempts to dry out, but repeatedly fell off the wagon. His overdoses continued and the alcoholic seizures from which he had suffered for several years got steadily worse.
He had just turned 32 when he died.