I am certain that if Keith Moon were alive today he would be the subject of intense interest for psychologists. I don’t know whether the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the 60’s and 70’s included provision for whatever Moon’s precise condition was, but in today’s terminology one might classify the The Who’s eccentric drummer as suffering from (or enjoying?) some kind of bipolar or mania related affliction.
Not that it matters overly much to me, for it is as a musician that Moon has most influenced my own musical development. Whilst it’s perfectly natural that Moon’s bombastic personality and antics were (and remain) the focus of so much attention, Moon’s star was at its brightest as a drummer. The cacophony of raw power emanating from Moon’s drum set at times sounded like he was offering a personal challenge to his listeners to stay with him until such time he decided to end a drum fill. I remember Moon once saying in an interview that at Who concerts he gained an almost sadistic glee from singling out a fan in the front row and concentrating his facial contortions on the unsuspecting concert-goer, defying them to look away. Eyeballing the poor sod with his own unhinged intensity, Moon would put on a performance seemingly just for them. I can only imagine that the resulting feeling for the fan was one of elation and fear in equal measure.
Leaving aside his on-stage theatrics and personal eccentricities, Moon’s drumming was so undeniably free that it continues to inspire and confound musicians and fans to the present day. In a sense Moon was guilty of a form of percussive heresy. He ignored many of the established techniques of drumming and challenged the orthodoxy surrounding a drummers rightful place in a band. To take just one example, Kenny Jones- Moon’s eventual replacement in the Who- once said that Moon’s style was marked by a willingness to embrace mistakes as part of the performance. More often than not, Jones continued, these mistakes ended up sounding good. This improvisational tendency within Moon’s drumming led to a sense of excitement and danger that is sadly lacking from contemporary approaches to drumming, which are so risk-averse as to be sterile and clinical. Curiously, Moon’s understanding of where to place a drum fill was at variance with the rock and pop genres established traditions. As Roger Daltrey himself once noted in an interview, Moon liked to play an extended fill over the top of the vocal performance- precisely the time within a song that drummers are urged to back-off and allow the upstart up the front the illusion of control. Moon ignored such stifling convention and used Daltrey’s vocal passages as an opportunity to flaunt his commanding presence within the band, only returning to the familiar timekeeping territory when Townshend’s riffage kicked back in. Such an approach to percussive composition is a complete reversal of everything drummers had done before or since. In this respect Moon was more like a jazz great such as Roy Haynes or Elvin Jones. Instead of laying down the foundations for everyone else’s indulgence, Moon hovered over the surface of the music, creating a dynamic range that was equally responsible for the Who’s sound as anything Townshend or Entwistle ever did. Free from the conventions that consign most drummers to the humble role of timekeeper, Moon placed the rock drummer at the centre of the action, treating his drum set as a lead instrument in the band.
Irrespective of one’s opinion on the merits of Moon’s technical ability, what cannot be denied is the sheer humanity that Moon brought to playing drums. His sound was totally unique, and this is because his drumming was an extension of his person. Listeners are not just hearing the sound of drums, they are hearing the personality of Moon himself. There are very few drummers distinguishable in this way, and no matter what his technical flaws as a musician might have been, Moon’s legacy lives on as the spirit of true rock and roll greatness.