Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sonic Confessional: Keith Moon Is An Awful Drummer

I started getting into the Who long about 5th grade.  As a kid who would spend a lot of time of the next few years either suspended or in detention, they came to me when I needed them the most; they came to me at a time when I was uniquely receptive to their sound, image, and lyrical content.  I loved almost everything about the band - their anger, their introspection, their vulnerability and honesty, their originality/creativity ("Tommy"), the destruction of the instruments, the amazing live shows, Entwistle's playing, Townshend's playing; hell, even Daltrey's singing.  They got me through my tumultuous junior high years by somehow tapping into some of the crap that worked me up, all the while reminding me that there probably wasn't anything unique about what I was going through.  I wasn't a freak, it was a part of the struggle of life to feel what I was feeling.  They have always meant a lot to me, still do.

However, there is one thing I could never bring myself to admit:  Keith Moon is a pretty awful drummer. This thought never really occurred to me until the time I was extolling the virtues of his playing and my brother Bill remarked that Moon couldn't carry a beat in a bucket.  Who is better than Keith Moon, I asked.  Bill remarked that there were a number of drummers better than Moon, but the first one that popped into his head was Mitch Mitchell. And thus began an ongoing debate about the merits of Moon's drumming vs. Mitchell's; a debate I would carry off and on for years with Bill.  Sadly, I was wrong and I'm just now admitting it.

Of course, Keith Moon is cited as an influence by drummers all the time; he has left an indelible mark on rock as we know it.  I'm not arguing that all of his work is awful (dig the drumming on this - Keith was great when he was pushing the song along); but I do think it's mostly on a spectrum of "okay" to "awful".  You'll have to admit that's not exactly a shining endorsement. The primary reason his drumming wasn't good was just as Bill had said:  he wasn't keeping the beat.  Whereas he and bass player John Entwistle should've been locked together most of the time, John was usually left to anchor the rest of the group while they windmilling shit or kicking it over altogether.  Moon's drumming was less beats with fills and more just one. Giant.  Fill.  He over plays big time.  Groove and swing were two feels that were, for the most part, unknown to Keith Moon.  He played with power, which is a plus in my book; but then again, he didn't know when to turn the power off (and turn the finesse on).  I read somewhere that Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascus* started out on drums, then took his simple, power-driven philosophy of playing to guitar.  If Moon did that, he'd be like an even busier, shittier version of Steve Vai.

Another critique - perhaps one that's not quite as valid, but valid nonetheless - is that as a general rule of thumb, if your off stage antics/personality overshadow your actual playing, that's not good.  I'm not going to link here to all the stuff about how the Who were banned from all Holiday Inns in the U.S. after Moon's 21st birthday, or how he chased his wife Kim around the house with a gun until she phoned for help, or about how multiple cars he drove ended up at the bottom of some nearby body of water.  Invariably, if you ask anyone about Keith Moon, the first two things that come up are that he was a drummer, and that he was nuts.  I think his instability showed in his drumming.  It was erratic and frantic - just not really that much fun to listen to. He was notoriously unreliable.  The band could never be sure if, by show time, he'd be sober enough to play.  And his substance abuse only exacerbated his bad playing.  By the time he died in the now cliche rock n' roll way (overdose), everyone knew him as "Moon the loon".  Not good.  I should note that Neil Peart does not have a similar nickname.  In fact, I'm not aware of anything about Neil Peart except that he's a nice guy who could beat the shit out of a drum kit.  Same with Mitch Mitchell, actually.

I think I've piled on ol' Keith Moon enough.  It's true the Who - in fact, rock n' roll as we know it - wouldn't be the same without him.  If you remove Keith Moon from the Who equation, it's not the Who. Ask Kenney Jones.  But if drummers are judged by reliability and depth of skill set on and off the stage, Moon is definitely an awful drummer.

*-Or am I thinking of Dave Grohl?


  1. HA! I win!

    Not only is Moon rhythmically dubious, not only does he overplay, not only is his playing "one. giant. fill.", but usually it's the SAME FREAKING FILL on every song.

    There's a reason I countered Moon with Mitchell: Mitchell overplays as badly as Moon does, but he's a technically gifted and rhythmically inventive drummer. Also, contra Moon, he spent a lot of time dialing in his expansive playing with the equally expansive playing of his guitarist (Hendrix). Moon just kinda ran roughshod over the top of everything.

    HAVING SAID ALL THAT, perhaps the most important point is buried at the end of this post: no Keith Moon, no Who. He fit in perfectly with the other components: rock's power chord icon (Townshend), who drove the songs with authority and economy; a bass player who took over the melodic role that the guitar abandoned, while still keeping the bottom end (Entwhistle played a lot like a good jazz baritone player); and a vocalist who was (in the context of his time) straight to the point. So he made perfect sense with those guys . . . and frankly added some personality that was lacking.

    Also, I don't mind all arrhythmic percussion . . . I love the banging and clanking on Raincoats records (especially Odyshape), I love Sunny Murray's playing with Albert Ayler (and Beaver Harris with Albert Ayler and John Coltrane). Or Peck Curtis with Houston Stackhouse.

    And also, to be totally fair, my favorite Hendrix album (by a hair) is Band of Gypsys, and a lot of the sound of that album has to do with Hendrix working the extra space accorded him by the economy of his rhythm section (Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums). My favorite lineup was Hendrix, Mitchell, and Cox, but there's a lot to be said for Miles's playing as well.

  2. Keith was a fantastic drummer. His playing made The Who what they were. "One giant fill" that is the usual conception, but, as a drummer, who has studied Keith's playing a lot, I can say that Keith's playing had rhythm, without a doubt. I will be more than welcome to give you examples of Keith's "technique" and how it worked with the music but for now I shall just share my opinion. Keith Moon was one of a kind and his drumming is an influence to drummers for a reason.

    1. Thanks for your input, Jack!
      I saw a documentary once that was basically just interviews with famous drummers who were inspired by Moon. In fact, it's where I stole the whole "pushes the song along" line in the article above.

      Can I talk you into writing a short counterpoint to this entry? I'd be happy to post it!

      And - to be clear and this cannot be overstated - without Keith, there is no Who. Again: No Keith, no Who. Since the Who is, was, and always will be one of my favoritest bands, I would never diss him too much.

    2. Keith Moon us the best drummer of all time. I don't know why you would ever think that he couldn't keep a beat.... He was the one leading the band. He was the metronome. He was the one to keep the beat. I just find it insulting that you would say that he is an AWFUL drummer because he's NOT. He is an amazing drummer with a whole butt load of talent. I love The Who but I have to say, with out him they would never be as famous as they are today.

  3. Keith's creativity was second to none when it came to playing the skins. One very good example of his playing being controlled, fantastic, and just genius is 'The Rock' off 'Quadrophenia'.

  4. Ah yes - "Quadrophenia". Quickly becoming one of my favorite Who records. (I think "The Who Sell Out" might be my fave). An example of his playing that I don't like off the same album is "Zoot Suit". Good song; drumming a little too busy and not "in the pocket".

    But I have a sense that though we might disagree on his playing on a song here or there, we're more or less on the same page about the Who (and by extension, Moon) being pretty great. I know this sounds contrary to what I typed above.

    1. I should also clarify that I tend to favor aggressive drummers - Brain from Primus is the first that leaps to mind - so I'm not one of those dudes who think that drummers should "know their place".

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  6. I know what you mean about the 'Zoot Suit' thing but for me it's all about about the 'Quadrophenia' album rather than the soundtrack, for me the soundtrack is just that, a soundtrack, I don't really see it as a proper Who album. It's definitely The Who at their best and is their masterpiece, and rightly so becasue it is magnificent. Keith's drums on this are also just phenomenal, so creative and just so powerful. The track 'The Real Me' was the track I listened to about 7 years ago when I was 12 and I said to myself "This is amazing, I've never heard anything like this before" and that's when my interest in The Who branched out. The thing that stood out most about it was the drumming, it was unlike anything I'd ever heard before, and at that age I wasn't into music at all really, and that's when I decided to take up the drums. From then on I've followed Keith's drumming closely and sorta studied what it is he actually does.

  7. This blogger is an asshole who hates rock n roll. Keith Moon rules.