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International Musician, April 1976: Keith Moon

Now known (courtesy of the national daily papers) as The Wild Man Of Rock, Keith Moon is a man of many talents. First and foremost, he is drummer with The Who. Onstage, behind a gigantic Premier kit, he snarls and grimaces while playing, with apparent ease, things other drummers strive for years to perfect. In the mod days of “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, he used a single kit and changed to a double three years later, adding, along the way, extras like timbales, tympani and a host of tom-toms. Some years back, the Melody Maker credited Keith Moon with “revolutionising rock drumming” — an accolade nobody would disagree with. It’s standard procedure for a drummer to accentuate a crash on a cymbal with a bass drum beat — not so with Moon. He thinks nothing of doing a break on cymbals alone. Early recordings were saturated with thudding bass drum, ringing tom-toms and sizzling cymbals. As the years went by and recording techniques developed, Moon’s drum sound got better and better — no easy job for an engineer, having a kit of such gargantuan proportions to deal with.

Apart from drumming, Moon has also developed as a “personality”. he seems to dislike boredom intensely, and does all in his power to fend it off. This tends to lead to “antics” like smashing up hotel rooms, and driving Rolls-Royces into swimming pools. “Moon stories” abound in showbiz circles, a few of them occasionally making the daily papers. On my way to meet him, the cab driver remarked “Keith Moon? He’s that mad geezer ain’t he?”. Without a doubt, he is now a household name. A name some people revere, a name some people fear — but still a name.

BBC producer John Walters saw a certain flair in Moon for comedy and produced a six-part radio series featuring keith Moon in a variety of roles. Doors in the film world also opened for him. he had a small part in 200 Motels with Frank Zappa, he played the part of David Essex’s drummer in Stardust and, most recently, was featured as Keith Moon and Uncle Ernie in Ken Russell’s film version of The Who’s “Tommy”.

Last year saw the release of his first solo album The Other Side of Keith Moon. he is currently working on his second with Steve Cropper, guitarist with Booker T. and the M.G.’s and a fine producer in his own right. Now a tax exile, allowed only 60 days in the U.K., Moon stopped off in London for a day on his way from Los Angeles (where he now lives) to Europe (to start another Who tour). I traced him to the fourth floor of The Royal Garden Hotel in London, and found him a genial host and more than willing to talk about his first love, drums.

What does your kit consist of?

Well, it’s a Premier kit for a start. The snare is a Gretsch, but the rest is entirely Premier. There are four double-headed tom-toms — 12, 13, 14 and 16. Then in front of them are five single-headed tom-toms which are 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. A lot of people might write in and say they don’t make a 15, and the fact is they don’t. But they did for me. That’s the top line. On the right, there are two double-headed tom-toms which I think are 18 by 18, and two 16. Then, mounted on stands, there are two 14 open-ended drums and two timbales. On the left, there are two tympani and behind, a Paiste 30 Chinese gong. Two bass drums and that’s about it. Cymbals ranging from left to right are 22 ride, 20 crash ride, 14 splash in the centre and then a line of three — 18, 20 and 22. At the back, at an angle above the timbales, I’ve got a Chinese cymbal. The hi-hat has two 15 cymbals. I keep that permanently closed.

Do you tend to play more on open cymbals, then?

Yeah. With The Who, because there are only three actual instruments — guitar, bass and drums — I tend to play more like that. The hi-hat isn’t completely closed — there’s about 1/4 gap so you get a “sshooshh” sound. Then I can come off that on to the 20 crash ride, avoiding the 22 ride, and then down the three and onto my main cymbal which would be the 20 crash ride — I tend to use that more. But with a kit as large and as varied as that, I’ve got all I need for various numbers. When we do “My Generation” for instance, which is like, belting out, I’ve got a vast amount of … heavy guns to use. Conversely, if we’re doing something from “Tommy”, like the “See Me, Feel Me” bit, I’ve got my orchestral effects with the tympani and I can use beaters on the tom-tom section. So whatever is being played, I’ve got the drums to handle it.

You’ve had a double kit for a long time now. Do you or could you go onto a single kit ever?

No, not really. With the left foot, I can do more work now. If necessary, I can work a bass drum, a hi-hat and a tymp with my left foot. At the same time, I’ve got a beater which is suspended above the gong, so for instance if we go into “See Me, Feel Me” I can hit the tymp and the gong at the same time, and make a “statement” on the bass drum so as the tymp dies down, the gong is sort of shimmeringg out and you get a very wide range of frequencies. I look at it like four kits in one. If I want it to be just bass drum, snare and high-hat, then it can be that. If I want it to be the “Ginger Baker” thing with the tom-tom and bass drum rolls, I can do that. If I want it to be symphonic, I can do that.

It’s so adaptable and with our repertoire, it’s necessary. To get the colour, you need that. They’re not there so I can say “I’ve got the biggest kit in the world” — it’s there for a very good reason. I can do the symphonic bit and I can do the rock’n’roll bit. I can handle any musical situation that arises. It’s built up like this, purely from the numbers we play.

Have you seriously studied drum rudiments?

Yeah, and it doesn’t … I mean it’s good for technique. It’s just exercises really. I mean, how often do you use a paradiddle in a show? Triplets, flams, mummy-daddy rolls — certainly. I don’t find it necessary. I can do it, but I don’t really find it necessary to employ it. They’re all good wrist exercises, but as regards practical playing … I wouldn’t not recommend it. I could say certainly it’s good exercises for wrists wand for co-ordination, but as far as fitting them into a pattern goes — it may or may not work.

Do you wrists feel “tight” after a performance?

No, not really. I work from the shoulder. Like a whiplash thing. It doesn’t put too much of a strain on the wrists.

Do you come off stage physically tired?

Oh, yeah. It takes me an hour to get my breath. After a show, I just sit and I don’t talk to anybody. It’s different during the show. When you’re playing, you’re not aware of the physical side of it, because you transcend the physical. You’re thinking in terms of the musical side of things, and the body just does things that, if you thought about doing them, would tend to sound very wooden. To get it fluid, you just detach yourself entirely from thinking about playing the drums.

I try to involve myself entirely with the music, so only then can the drums become part of the music. When I start to think, then it becomes a drum solo. I’m lucky that I have the talent to function physically while my consciousness is elsewhere. I’m listening to what Pete’s doing, I’m listening to what John’s playing. I don’t have time to think of what I’m doing. I don’t think a drummer has time to think about what he’s doing, he just does it.

Do you ever set up a kit at home and play?

No, I never do. Some people ask me why I don’t do a drum solo — that’s the most boring thing in the world — and it’s very similar to that. If I sit behind a set of drums and there’s a loud record playing in the same room, then I’ll play along with it, but if there’s just a kit and four walls, there’s no way will I play. That’s why I believe a good drummer must be aware of what the rest of the band is doing. he must be aware of the nuances of one musician against another. If someone or something is lagging behind, then give it a kick in that direction. I’m about to get a new house, so then I can set up a kind of music room and have it sound proofed and play away with records or something, but I never play away on my own.

What are you up to outside of The Who?

Well, Steve Cropper and myself are doing an album. I’m signed for three altogether. Steve Cropper is producing and playing on it. We’ve used artists like David Bowie, Ron Wood, Klaus Voorman, Danny Kootch, Jesse Ed Davis. Backing vocals by David and Harry Nillsson.

What kind of material?

We’re doing a couple of Randy Newman numbers. I went through Warner Brothers’publishing department and picked up 40 songs. I went to Capitol and went through their place and picked some songs up. Steve and I have completed three tracks and we’ve got four more that we’re working on.

Are you getting more used to singing now?

Yeah, well, Steve’s a great help in that direction. He gives me a great deal of confidence. I was never very confident as a singer, and Steve just says “Get in there. Stop pissing around saying you can’t sing. You can sing.” He’s got a very positive attitude, which works on me. We’ve got a very good relationship.

What about the comedy album you were going to do?

Well, it’s by no means dead yet. It’s just that comedy is one of the most difficult art forms to do well. If you write something you think is funny on the spur of the moment, and you come back into the room ten minutes later and it’s still funny, then it’s O.K. If you wake up the next day and it still cracks you up, then it’s in the script. Now, that doesn’t happen very often. It’s got to be funny whatever circumstances you’re in. Unfortunately, the main thing is time. You’ve got to work at being funny, and it takes time.

Do you think your “strange” ways detract from people respecting you as a drummer?

What position was I voted in the Sounds poll? What position was in voted in France, the World’s Top Drummer for the last ten years? (laughs)

Most people who vote in polls are fans and record buyers. What about other drummers? Do they take you seriously?

I think so, yes. They’d be silly not to.

Do you listen to a lot of drummers?

Well, I don’t listen to a hell of a lot of drummers. I like the ’thirties drummers like Gene Krupa, who is my favourite. Sonny Payne is tremendous as well.

Do you feel you work well with John Entwistle onstage?

Yes. We can change midstream through a number because it’s a natural change. It’s something we both feel. You develop this empathy.

On a couple of numbers onstage, The Who use a taped synthesizer part. Is it difficult to cue and keep time with?

No. What I do is keep a sort of metronomic beat, because a synthesizer is metronomic. Once you start it and you’re working with it, you’ve got to pull yourself in a bit. Be a bit stricter and tighter. The difficulty was when we first started using it, I tried to try to slightly increase the tempo where I felt it needed a lift and then bring it back, but of course you can’t do that with a synthesizer. You’re stuck with this metronome. The only other way I could do that was with the drums. When I felt I needed a lift, instead of speeding it up a bit, I’d change the sound of the drums by using something else. The effect would be there — the same as speeding up.

What do you get through the cans?

I get synthesizer and I get straight chords. The tape is played out on stage as well, so I get the same as comes out on stage. The chords are mainly for Pete, so he knows where he is.

It is very difficult to explain in words because it’s a complex matrix. The machine itself is mathematical. There’s no lead-in, so all I do basically is keep in my head the phrase where I come in. It doesn’t make sense to come in where I do on the cans, but overall, it does … hopefully. The synthesizer dictates the tempo all the way through. Every number I use the cans on, it’s metronomic, totally.

Although it obviously wouldn’t be commercially viable, would you like to do some smaller clubs with The Who?

Well, I don’t think our last tour was commercially viable (laughs). I came out at the end with a profit of £46.70p — really! That was the English tour of course. That’s not unusual for England. America’s a different story — thank God. But, I mean, I think it’s a nice thought, but I think a lot of people would get very pissed off. We tried playing smaller halls because they were acoustically better, on the last tour and a lot of people broke the doors down. It’s a nice idea, but a bit of impossibility.

If The Who ever split or stopped doing live gigs, would you still want to perform live?

Well, consider the alternatives. (Pauses) Stuffed in a museum? No, really, the possibilities are boundless.

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