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Genius Guide to Jazz

How High the Moon

By Published: January 29, 2008
With Moon in place, along with John Entwhistle's kinetic bass, the Who now had possibly one of the most revolutionary rhythm sections in history (with the exception of George Washington's band, Delaware Surprise Party, which featured Thomas Jefferson on bass and Patrick Henry on drums). This, as much as Pete Townshend's inventive songwriting, set the Who apart from the myriad of ridiculously-dressed British Invasion bands of the mid-sixties.

From the beginning, Moon's contribution to the Who was as much in his personality as in his drumming. "Moon the Loon," as he was known to those who weren't clever enough to come up with anything else that rhymed with Moon, single-handedly embodied the frenetic excesses that would later set the standard for outrageous rock star behavior. Moon pioneered the Hotel Room Hurricane (though, some rock historians credit Bill Haley, who once knocked over a lamp in a Howard Johnson's and refused to apologize), as well as the classic Car in the Swimming Pool.

Moon also gleefully joined in Townshend's famed "auto destruction," demolishing his drum set at the end of a concert as the guitarist smashed his guitar to pieces. While The Who did it first as an accident, when Townshend accidentally broke the head off of his guitar playing in a club with a rather low ceiling (The Crawlspace), it later grew into a quasi-nihilistic act of rebellion. It was during this act on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that Moon would, unbeknownst to the rest of the band, load his set with explosives for a finale. The resultant blast permanently damaged Townshend's hearing and set a high water mark for showmanship that would stand until Lawrence Welk's Myron Floren unleashed his spectacular napalm-filled accordion during a performance of "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White."

Stage antics aside, the Who was quickly moving to the forefront of the burgeoning progressive rock movement. While the Beatles were making arty concept albums, the Who were creating the rock opera. With the nine-minute "A Quick One While He's Away," Townshend's songwriting transcended the boundaries of the three-chord, three-minute rock song and would lay the foundations for his later epic masterpieces Tommy and Quadrophenia. None of these would have been possible without Moon's contributions.

Roger Daltry would say, "Entwhistle and Townshend were the wool, but Moon was the needle," referring to the old "the Who as a jumper**" metaphor. He went on to add that, if they were a jumper, they'd be one of those really nice cable-knits that you'd actually buy for yourself and not one of those horrid things you get for Christmas with reindeers on them and such.

The Seventies began with the Who at the peak of their creative power, and Moon at the height of his ability. Who's Next and Quadrophenia, along with 1969's Tommy, offer perhaps the most complete record of Moon's inimitable style. As the decade wore on, though, Moon was worn down by his erratic lifestyle and prodigious substance abuse. Eventually, he was more famous for being Keith Moon than for his abilities as a musician.

Sadly, the decade ended with Moon, on the verge of turning his life around, being finally undone by his own penchant for excess. An accidental overdose (for a man accustomed to taking fistfuls of random pills routinely) of a medication intended to help him overcome his alcoholism ended Moon's life in 1979, shortly after the release of Who Are You, arguably the Who's best non-concept album since Who's Next.

Perhaps the most lasting compliment to Moon is that he has never been imitated. Any guitarist can ape Townshend's windmill power chords, but even the heartiest professional drummers rarely dare to venture into Moon territory. Listen to any Who cover, from Pearl Jam's version of "Reign O'er Me" to Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoff's rendition of "The Kids Are Alright," and Moon's absence is conspicuous. Even the Who themselves, carrying on with a competent professional drummer like Kenney Jones after Moon's death, sound like an above-average Who tribute band. The difference is not just in the notes played, but the entire thought process behind them and the effect they have on everything going on around them. Like Thelonious Monk from the jazz world, it is Moon's mind that made his work completely unique.

Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

* British people call redheads "gingers." This is just one reason why they no longer rule the world.

** They also call sweaters "jumpers," which is another reason. They also wear paper crowns from packages of Christmas crackers. No wonder they lost the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; and those are just the ones I know about.

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