Remembering The Who's Keith Moon

A Look Back at the Legendary Drummer 25 Years After His Death

Listen: Listen to Liane Hansen's extended interview with The Who's Roger Daltrey.

Listen: Hear Hansen's extended interview with Keith Moon biographer Tony Fletcher.

Keith Moon

Keith Moon, in an undated photo. Courtesy Tony Fletcher hide caption

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'The Who Sings My Generation' album cover.

The Who Sings My Generation, released in the U.S. in 1966, was the band's first album. From left, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon. hide caption

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'Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend' book cover

Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend. hide caption

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A quarter-century after his death, it's still difficult to think of Keith Moon as more than just a hard-drinking rock star who would smash his drum set on stage or destroy a hotel room. But his biographer, Tony Fletcher, says The Who's legendary drummer should be remembered as the man who forever changed the sound of rock 'n' roll. On Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR's Liane Hansen looks back at Moon's legacy.

Fletcher, author of Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend, says Moon "did nothing short of revolutionizing the drums." Moon influenced the drummers for Cream (Ginger Baker), Jimi Hendrix (Mitch Mitchell) and Led Zeppelin (John Bonham), and countless others that followed.

Before Moon, drums would just keep a beat in the background. But with songs like "I Can See for Miles" — in which Moon's accelerating drum rolls and cymbal smashes seemed to compete with, but perfectly complemented, guitarist Pete Townshend's power chords — The Who set a new role for the drummer.

Roger Daltrey, The Who's lead singer, says the energy in that song "is just unbelievable... He sounds like a steam locomotive at full pelt. His speed is incredible." Moon combined a variety of styles "and made very much his own thing out of the drums," Daltrey says.

"Keith was the first to treat the drums as though they were a lead instrument..." Fletcher says. "He really made the drums an instrument that spoke very much in the same way that a lead guitar does."

Though Moon was known for his boisterous, over-the-top behavior, Fletcher debunks one myth about him: That he drove a Rolls Royce into a Michigan hotel swimming pool during his 21st birthday party. But Daltrey begs to differ. "I saw it. We paid the bill (for the damages). It was $50,000. It's vague now, but I just remember the car in the pool. And the chaos. And Keith being rushed off to the dentist after being arrested because he knocked his front tooth out... But then I read in the biography that never happened, so maybe I've been living someone else's life, I don't know."

Daltrey says he and Moon didn't get along during their earlier years together. The band members' relationship was "a clash of egos," Daltrey says. Moon thought he should be at front of the stage.

Daltrey says Moon did everything to excess. "He was the most generous, the most mean, he was the funniest... he could be the most unfunny, everything — the most loving, the most hateful... Everything about him was extreme," Daltrey says.

Moon's life was a short one. He died in 1978 at the age of 32, ironically of an overdose of pills that were meant to combat his alcoholism. Unlike Led Zeppelin, which disbanded after the death of drummer John Bonham, The Who kept going, initially replacing Moon with Kenny Jones. But, of course, Jones couldn't hope to fill Moon's shoes — and Fletcher says Who fans agree he never did.

How does Fletcher want Moon to be remembered? "I would hope... that he is better respected as a musician and as a drummer... and that people look back on Keith not just as 'Moon the loon' and this incredibly extravagant comedic character who really was one in a million in terms of personalities, but that they would also look back and say, 'That's somebody who played a major role in rock music,' and in his own way every bit as important a role as Pete Townshend or Roger and certainly as (bassist John Entwistle). This was somebody without whom we might still be listening to drummers going 'boom-cha, boom-cha.'"

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