Moon underachieved at school, hampered by what might have been diagnosed as hyperactivity. He failed the then-crucial 11-Plus exam and so missed the grammar school education that the other members of The Who had in common. A report from his secondary modern school is not encouraging – his art teacher, for example, comments: ‘Retarded artistically. Idiotic in other respects.’ His music teacher was more positive, though his advice wouldn’t, as it turned out, have served Moon well: ‘He has great ability, but must guard against a tendency to show off.’ He left school at 15 with no ‘O’ levels.
The first musical instruments Moon learnt to play were the bugle and trumpet, which he took up aged 12 while a member of the Sea Cadets Corps. 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 fifties standards. By the end of 1962 he had joined another covers band called The Beachcombers (billed as ‘the Shadows of The Shadows’), with whom he would happily play for the next 18 months. But when the chance of working full-time with up-and-coming group The Who arose, Moon jumped at it.
At that time The Who, who had strong and ambitious management, were looking for a drummer. According to Pete Townshend, talking in a BBC interview in 1994, Moon ‘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.’
Moon’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 (but keeping them in debt for much of their early career). It started a trend. Jimi Hendrix first set his guitar alight on stage when sharing a bill with The Who at The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. His set followed theirs and it’s said they egged him on.
Moon himself didn’t need any encouragement. Pete Townshend may have started the instrument abuse, but Moon 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 15 September 1967, Moon decided to take no chances with the quantities, and the resulting explosion put the network off air briefly and partially deafened Pete Townshend. Moon was injured by a flying cymbal.
Offstage, the destruction was often even more extreme. Hotel television sets were hurled into swimming pools from upper storeys and entire suites were trashed. Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham (also now deceased) was perhaps the only rocker who could hold a candle to Keith Moon’s debauchery and destruction.
The dark side of the Moon
In the early days of The Who, for all his wild behaviour, Moon is said to have felt very insecure, and this insecurity persisted despite the band’s success and his crucial role in it. As a result he is said to have asked both The Beatles and The Animals if he could join them.
But there was a still darker side to Moon’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.
Leaving Kim at home while he went on tour with The Who, Moon continued to dedicate himself to partying and causing mayhem. But disaster struck in January 1970, when Moon was invited to open a disco in Hatfield. Afterwards, as he was being driven away, a crowd of skinheads attacked the Bentley. According to Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, who was there, Moon’s personal chauffeur Neil Boland got out to try to protect the car, but left it in gear, and it started moving towards the main road. Moon (a non-driver) climbed into the driving seat, while Larry Smith desperately tried to grab the wheel from behind. In the confusion, Neil was run over and killed. Though the inquest absolved Moon of blame, Neil’s family didn’t, and neither did Moon himself. The accident was to stay with him for the rest of his life. According to Pamela Des Barres, a Los Angeles musician and self-confessed ‘groupie’ with whom Moon had an on/off affair, after this he ‘didn’t feel worthy to live’.
But rather than turn over a new leaf, Moon flung himself into ever crazier scenes. The following year he bought a space age home in Surrey, which he called ‘Tara’ and turned into a ’24-hour party zone’. Against a backdrop of sustained excess and his first few drug overdoses, his marriage came apart, and Kim finally left him. No one was surprised except Moon himself.
Acting up in Tinseltown
During the 1970s there were increasingly long periods of inactivity between Who albums, and the rest of the group were often involved in other projects. In 1974, at the age of 28, Moon decided to move to Los Angeles with his new girlfriend, Annette Walter-Lax. He spent much of his time partying with other famous British ex-pats and any Americans who could keep up with his drinking and drug intake.
But he was also still working. He couldn’t cope with inactivity and he became involved in several projects, including a disastrous solo album Two Sides of the Moon, on which he unwisely decided to showcase his singing.
Moon also pursued his acting career, which had begun in 1971 with a part in Frank Zappa’s cult classic 200 Motels. But he didn’t require a film set to play a part. He took to camping it up, in full costume, as such characters as Marilyn Monroe and Adolf Hitler. And by this point he almost always spoke in a caricature of an upper class accent.
Meanwhile his 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). When he came back to London for good late in 1977, he was very much the worse for wear mentally and physically. Recording his last Who album (Who Are You?) proved difficult. 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.
Keith Moon died on 7 September 1978, as a result of an overdose of the drug Herminevrin, prescribed to help relieve the symptoms of alcoholism. He had just turned 32.
‘You never knew where he began and where the characters began,’ Alice Cooper, who knew Moon in LA, said. ‘Honestly I don’t know if I ever met Keith Moon. I don’t know if there was a real Keith Moon.’
The title refers to the inscription found on Keith Moon’s drumkit.