Keith Moon at his kit
Keith Moon ripped all this up. There is no time-out in his drumming, because there is no time-in. It is all fun stuff. The first principle of Moon’s drumming was that the drummers do not exist to keep the beat. He did keep the beat, and very well, but he did it by every method except the traditional one. Drumming is repetition, as is rock music generally, and Moon clearly found repetition dull. So he played the drums like no one else — and not even like himself. No two bars of Moon’s playing ever sound the same; he is in revolt against consistency. Everyone else in the band gets to improvise, so why should the drummer be nothing more than a condemned metronome? He saw himself as a soloist playing with an ensemble of other soloists. It follows from this that the drummer will be playing a line of music, just as, say, the guitarist does, with undulations and crescendos and leaps. It further follows that the snare drum and the bass drum, traditionally the ball-and-chain of rhythmic imprisonment, are no more interesting than any of the other drums in the kit; and that you will need lots of those other drums. By the mid-1970s, when Moon’s kit was “the biggest in the world,” he had two bass drums, and at least twelve tomtoms, arrayed in stacks like squadrons of spotlights; he looked like a cheerful boy who had built elaborate fortifications for the sole purpose of destroying them. But he needed all those drums, as a flute needs all its stops or a harp its strings, so that his tremendous bubbling cascades, his liquid journeys, could be voiced: he needed not to run out of drums as he ran around them.
Average musical performance, like athletics and viticulture, has probably improved in the last century. Nowadays, more pianists can brilliantly run off some Chopin or Rachminoff in a concert hall, and the guy at the local drum shop is probably technically more adept than Keith Moon was. Youtube, which is a kind of a Special Olympics for showoffs, is full of young men wreaking double-jointed virtuosity on fabulously complex drum kits rigged like artillery ranges. But so what? They can also back flip into their jeans from great heights and parkour across Paris.
Moon disliked drum solos, and did not really perform them; the only one I have seen is atrociously bad, a piece of anti-performance art — Moon sloppy and mindless, apparently drunk or stoned or both, and almost collapsing into the drums while he pounds them like pillows. He may have lacked the control necessary to sustain a long, complex solo; more likely, he needed the kinetic adventures of The Who to provoke him into his own. His merry way of conceding this was his now-famous remark “I’m the best Keith Moon-style drummer in the world.”
Keith Moon-style drumming is a lucky combination of the artful and the artless. To begin at the beginning: his drums always sounded good. He hit them nice and hard, and tuned the bigger tomtoms low. (Not for him the little eunuch toms of Kenney Jones, who palely succeeded Moon in The Who, after his death.) He kept his snare pretty “dry.” This isn’t a small thing. The three-piece jazz combo at your local hotel ballroom almost certainly features a “drummer” whose sticks are used so lightly that they barely embarrass the skins, and whose wet, buzzy snare sound like a repeated sneeze. A good dry snare, properly struck, is a bark, a crack, a report. How a drummer hits the snare, and how it sounds, can determine a band’s entire dynamic. Groups like Supertramp and the Eagles seem soft, in large part because the snare is so drippy and mildly used (and not just because elves are apparently squeezing the singers’ testicles.)
There are three great albums by The Who, and these are also the three greatest Moon records: Live at Leeds (1970), a recording of an explosive concert at the University of Leeds on February 14, 1970, and generally considered one of the greatest live albums in rock; Who's Next (1971), the most famous Who album; and Quadrophenia (1973), a kind of successor to Tommy, a rock opera that nostalgically celebrates the sixties mod culture that had provoked and nourished the band in its earlier days. On these are such songs as "Substitute", "My Generation", "Won't Be Fooled Again", "Baba O'Riley", "Bargarin", "The Song Is Over", "The Real Me", "5:15", "Sea and Sand", and "Love Reign O'er Me". There is no great difference between the live concert recordings and the studio songs: all of them are full of improvisation and structured anarchy, fluffs and misses; all of them seem to have the rushed gratitude of something achieved only once. From this exuberance emerges the second great principle of Moon's drumming; namely, that one is always performing, not recording, and that making mistakes is simply part of the locomotion of vitality. In the wonderful song "The Dirty Jobs," on Quadrophenia, you can hear Moon accidentally knock his sticks together three separate times while travelling around the kit. Most drummers would be horrified to be caught out on tape like this.
This vitality allowed Moon to try to shape himself to the changing dynamics of the music, listening as much to the percussive deviations of the bass line as to the steady, obvious line of the lead singer. As a result, it is impossible to separate him from the music that The Who made. The story goes that, in 1968, Jimmy Page wanted John Entwistle on bass and Keith Moon on drums when he formed Led Zeppelin; and, as sensational as this group might have been, it would not have sounded either like Led Zeppelin or like The Who. If Led Zeppelin's drummer, John Bonham, were substituted for Moon on "Won't Get Fooled Again", the song would lose its passionate propulsion, its wild excess; if Moon sat in for Bonham on "Good Times Bad Times", the tight stability of the pieces would instantly evaporate.
Bonahm's drumming sounds as if he'd thought about phrasing; he never overreaches, because he seems to have so perfectly measured the relationship between rhythmic deviation. His superb but tightly limited breaks on the snare and his famously rapid double strokes on the bass drum are constantly played against the unvarying solidity of his high hat, which keeps a steady single beat throughout the bars. (In a standard 4/4 bar, the high hat sounds the four whole beats, or perhaps sounds eight beats in eighth notes.) That is "the Bonham sound", heard in the celebrated long solo — one of devilish intricacy — in "Moby Dick", on the live album The Song Remains the Same. Everything is judged, and rightly placed: astonishing order. Moon's drumming, by contrast, is about putting things in the wrong place: the appearance of astonishing disorder. You can copy Bonham exactly; but to copy Moon would be to bottle his energy, which is much harder.
. . .
I often think of Moon and Glenn Gould together, notwithstanding their great differences. Both started performing very young (Moon was seventeen when he began playing with The Who, Gould twenty-two when he made his first great recording of the Goldberg Variations); both were idiosyncratic, revolutionary performers, for whom spontaneity was an important element (for instance, both enjoyed singing and shouting while playing); both had exuberant, pantomimic fantasy lives (Gould wrote about Petula Clark's "Downtown", and appeared on Canadian television in the guise of invented comic personae like Karlheinz Klopweisser and Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, "the dean of British conductors"); both were gregarious yet essentially solitary; neither man practiced much (at least, Gould claimed not to practice, and it is impossible to imagine Moon having the patience or the sobriety to do so); and all their performance tics (Gould hand-washing and coat-wearing and pill-popping hypochondria) have the slightly desperate quality of mania. The performance behind the instrument, however, has the joyous freedom of true escape and self-dissolution: Gould becomes the piano, Moon becomes the drums.
For both Moon and Gould, the performer's life was short; Gould abandoned concert performance at the age of thirty-one; Moon was dead by the age of thirty-two, and had not played well for a long time. He had perhaps five or six really great drumming years, between 1970 and 1976. Throughout this period, Moon was ingesting ludicrous volumes of drink and drugs. In San Francisco, in 1973, he took so many (perhaps to come down from a high, or to deal with pre-concert nerves) that, after slopping his way through several songs, he collapsed and had to be taken to a hospital. When his stomach was pumped, it was found to contain quantities of PCP, described by Fletcher as "a drug used to put agitated monkeys and gorillas to sleep". What magically happened on stage, while Moon was being carted away, was incised on my teenage cerebellum. Pete Townsend asked the crowd if anyone could come up and play the drums. Scot Halpin, a nineteen year-old, and presumably soon to be the most envied teenager in America, got onto the stage, and performed in Moon's place. "Everything was locked into place", Halpin late said of the gargantuan drum kit; "anyplace you could hit there would be something there. All the cymbals overlapped."
Both Moon and Gould were rather delicate, even handsome young men who coarsened with age, and developed a thickness of feature, an almost simian rind. At twenty, Moon was slight and sweet, with a bowl of black hair upended on his head, and dark, dopey eyes, and the arched eyebrows of a clown. By the end of his life, he was puffy, heavy, his features no longer sweetly clownish but slightly villainous — Bill Sikes, played by Moon's drinking friend Oliver Reed — the arched eyebrows now thicker and darker, seemingly painted on, as if he had become a caricature of himself. Friends were shocked by his appearance. He was slower and less inventive, less vital, on the drums; the album Who Are You, his last record, attests to the decline. Perhaps no one was very surprised when he died, from a massive overdose of the drug Heminevrin, a sedative prescribed for alcohol-withdrawal symptoms. "He's gone and done it," Townsend told Roger Daltrey. Thirty-two pills were in his stomach, and the equivalent of a pint of beer in his blood. His girlfriend, who found him, told a coroner's court that she had often seen him pushing pills down his throat, without liquid. Two years later, John Bonham died from asphyxiation, after hours of drinking vodka. And then English drumming went quiet.
"The Fun Stuff"
edited by Alex Ross
Da Capo Press
This piece was first published in The New Yorker.
I would have gladly sent the Birdhouse reader there as a link
except the filthy wealthy ones ask a fee to read at the trough.
As if they haven't soaked enough money from its readers for nearly a century (founded 1925).
So between Sweetheart and I, we typed it up — not all of the fine portrait, but enough to please the drummer in me,
and wanting our drummer son to read, whose grandfather was also a drummer.
Tucked in some photographs and jukebox'd music selections.
I saw The Who perform light years ago in their heyday. Like kids they came on and like kids they wrecked the stage.