Keith Moon from The Who made the Sex Pistols look like choirboys: Tribute 40 years after his death
Rock star from another planet! Forty years after Keith Moon’s death aged just 32, RICHARD KAY explains why the manically brilliant drummer made the Sex Pistols look like choirboys
- Keith Moon died of Heminevrin overdose, a drug to help with sobriety, in 1978
- Drummer from The Who’s main claim to fame was his demonic behaviour
- Once caused £387,000 of damage to hotel toilets and was banned from Hilton
First out of the window was the record player, disappearing into darkness before shattering as it hit the ground 12 storeys below.
Next came the chairs, a glass-topped table and pictures ripped from the walls. Then the TV, always a highlight, blasting into a thousand pieces like a small bomb.
Before the hotel management realised the contents of their luxury suite were being systematically hurled to destruction, the piece de resistance was being made ready.
A cherry bomb — a high-powered firework — strategically placed inside the toilet bowl in the suite’s bathroom was detonated with such violence that it blew the receptacle off the waste pipe.
This was New Zealand in the late Sixties, just another night in the mad, mad world of Keith Moon, the original wild man of rock ’n’ roll, whose antics were considered so outrageous that he made Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and even the Sex Pistols seem like disobedient choirboys.
In today’s world of clean-cut megastars like Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, Keith Moon’s insanity feels like something from another planet (pictured with girlfriend Annette Walter-Lax in 1975)
As drummer with The Who he was manically brilliant, but his main claim to fame was his demonic behaviour
In today’s world of clean-cut megastars like Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, Moon’s insanity feels like something from another planet.
As drummer with The Who he was manically brilliant, but his main claim to fame was his demonic behaviour. As compulsive an entertainer offstage as on, booze-swilling, pill-popping Moon was the ultimate party animal.
Usually the mayhem occurred after he had checked into a hotel, but once he drove his car through an establishment’s glass doors and across the lobby to the reception desk, got out and casually asked for a room.
Such was the devastation he caused — it was once estimated he had done £387,000 of damage to hotel toilets alone — that he received a lifetime ban from the Holiday Inn, Sheraton and Hilton hotel chains.
He thought he was indestructible, but the drink, drugs and debauchery that accompanied the room-trashing inevitably took its toll. Forty years ago this month, the out-of-control life of the man dubbed Moon the Loon came to a tragic, if predictable, end.
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On the afternoon of September 7, 1978, after almost a decade of continuous hellraising, Moon was found dead in bed in his Mayfair, London, flat by his girlfriend.
At 32, the man who once drove a Cadillac (or a Lincoln Continental — accounts vary) into a swimming pool was a bloated, shadowy version of the baby-faced drummer whose group had burst into the charts with I Can’t Explain 13 years earlier, soon followed by the classic My Generation.
A post-mortem examination revealed he died of a massive overdose of Heminevrin, a prescription drug he was taking to try to curb his drink problem.
By an extraordinary coincidence, the flat where he died in Curzon Place was the scene of a previous rock death — Cass Elliot, aka Mama Cass, the former singer with The Mamas And The Papas, was living there in 1974 when she suffered a fatal heart attack. She was also 32.
The flat was owned by singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, who believed it was cursed.
Such was the devastation he caused — it was once estimated he had done £387,000 of damage to hotel toilets alone — that he received a lifetime ban from the Holiday Inn, Sheraton and Hilton hotel chains
It was after moving in that Moon began taking the drug. He wanted to get sober but, fearing psychiatric hospitals, tried to do so at home.
An inquest heard he had taken 32 tablets — six of them had been digested, sufficient to cause his death; the other 26 were undigested at the time of his death.
‘When Keith died he was 32, but looked 60,’ said Who singer Roger Daltrey, who is working on a film of Moon’s life. ‘He really hammered it. When it came to hammering himself, he was a professional.’
Even now, four decades later, the high life and fast times of Keith Moon provide a disturbingly graphic insight into the hedonistic Sixties and Seventies.
His reputation as rock’s most shocking son created an image of danger and recklessness that helped to make The Who one of the world’s most successful groups, selling more than 100 million records worldwide.
But it came at a huge price. ‘Keith lived his entire life as a fantasy,’ Daltrey said. ‘He was the funniest man I’ve ever known, but he was also the saddest.’
His friend, he says, was deeply troubled. ‘He had an incredible talent but was uncontrollable. Not just a little bit uncontrollable — completely uncontrollable.’
He would drive through the countryside in his Rolls-Royce, blaring out fake public service announcements, hire people to throw lemon meringue pies at friends on Hollywood red carpets, and dress up as a vicar and swear at people in the street.
He caused huge offence by going into a Nazi routine while being interviewed on German TV.
If that is hard to picture now, imagine the uproar that would be triggered by one of his other stunts — dressing in Nazi uniform and ‘sieg-heiling’ his way through the strongly Jewish area of Golders Green in North London in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes.
Often, Moon’s partner-in-crime was Bonzo Dog Band front man Vivian Stanshall. Having dressed as German officers for a publicity photoshoot, they felt it entirely appropriate to visit a newly opened London bierkeller while still in costume. They were duly ejected.
One of Moon’s less offensive pranks was to hire a tank from a Hollywood studio and drive it to a nearby hotel for valet parking.
On another occasion, police interviewed him after he had dressed as a girl, pretended to have been kidnapped and poked his legs out of the window of his Bentley while screeching in a high-pitched voice through loudspeakers on a drive to Scotland.
At 16 he was playing for local cover band the Beachcombers before he joined Townshend, Daltrey and bass player John Entwistle in The Who in 1964 (pictured in 1965)
After the 1968 New Zealand hotel incident with the fireworks, he and other acts were dubbed by the local media ‘unwashed, foul-smelling, booze-swilling no-hopers . . . we don’t want them back.’
By then, Moon was already a star. When the band made its U.S. TV debut on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, he was determined to make an impact.
He filled his bass drum with flash powder, and the resulting explosion blew the band off the stage, blinded the TV cameras and caused film star Bette Davis, who was also on the show, to faint into the arms of fellow guest Mickey Rooney.
When this form of attention-seeking bored him, Moon could always turn to his other party piece of vandalism. In hotels, spraying fire extinguishers, ripping vending machines off walls and smashing up pianos were merely hors d’oeuvres.
What he really enjoyed was the mindless violence of destroying rooms. In Copenhagen in 1972, he asked bandmate Pete Townshend, who had his own guitar-smashing show finale, to help him put his waterbed into the hotel lift so he could send it down to the lobby. When it inevitably burst, he complained to the management that the bed had ruined his stage clothes. An apologetic factotum immediately upgraded Moon to a bigger, antiques-filled suite. Later that night it, too, was trashed.
Another story had him riding in a limo to Los Angeles airport when he asked to go back to his hotel.
Back at the hotel he ran up to his room, seized the TV and hurled it out of the window into the swimming pool far below. Then he jumped back into the car, calmly saying: ‘I nearly forgot.’
Swimming pools are a recurring feature in these tales. According to legend, at his 21st birthday party at the Holiday Inn in Flint, Michigan in 1967, during The Who’s first U.S. tour, there was so much booze in the pool that it was christened the world’s largest martini.
When a five-tier cake was brought out, Moon proceeded to throw it at anyone he could see, and armed police were soon on the scene.
That was when the drummer decided to jump into a Cadillac or Lincoln — the details are sketchy — to get away. But without any keys and with the handbrake off, the car freewheeled into the pool. Moon did at least have the presence of mind to escape through the driver’s window to safety. The episode was repeated several years later when he was said to have driven a Rolls-Royce into the pond at his home in Surrey.
A favourite stunt was flushing explosives down toilets. ‘All that porcelain flying through the air was quite unforgettable,’ he once said. Eventually, he moved on from cherry bombs to dynamite.
A hotel manager once called the drummer in his room and asked him to turn down the volume on his cassette recorder because it was making ‘too much noise’.
After inviting the manager up to his room, Moon excused himself to go to the bathroom and put a lighted stick of dynamite in the lavatory bowl before returning to the room. He asked the manager to stay for a moment then, after the ear-splitting explosion, put the cassette machine back on and said: ‘That, dear boy, was noise. This is The Who.’
The morning after Mick Jagger’s wedding to Bianca in 1971, the bride apparently recalls waking to find Moon abseiling through her window, naked except for novelty glasses and a pair of knickers on his head.
According to his biographer Tony Fletcher, Moon was a ‘sensation-seeker’ from his earliest days, growing up in the tough streets of North-West London in the Forties and Fifties. Everything was done for effect, to have a laugh at somebody else’s expense. And he was a compulsive liar.
After leaving school at 14, obsessed with the idea of being a drummer, he bought his first kit on hire-purchase after getting a job as a radio repairman.
At 16 he was playing for local cover band the Beachcombers before he joined Townshend, Daltrey and bass player John Entwistle in The Who in 1964.
A year later, he met Kim Kerrigan after she saw the band on tour in Bournemouth. By the end of the year she was pregnant and had moved in with Keith at his parents’ Wembley home, but their subsequent marriage and the birth of their daughter Amanda were kept secret from fans.
Eventually, Kim Kerrigan, pictured with their daughter and Moon, had enough. ‘He had no idea how to be a father,’ she said. ‘He was too much of a kid himself.’ She left him in 1973
The marriage was not a success, not least because of the constant touring and Keith’s drinking . . . as well as his occasional outbursts of violence towards Kim.
His former personal assistant, Peter ‘Dougal’ Butler, recalled: ‘We’d go out for a drink and come back three days later. One time he said he was popping out for some milk and didn’t come back for four days. He’d go on a bender, pull a bird, forgetting he had a wife and kid back home.’
Eventually, Kim had enough. ‘He had no idea how to be a father,’ she said. ‘He was too much of a kid himself.’ She left him in 1973.
Although Moon began a relationship with Swedish model Annette Walter-Lax, friends say Kim was the only woman he loved.
In his last years, Moon was mostly in America, where he consumed vast quantities of cocaine and other drugs.
On one occasion, Moon paid nine cab drivers $100 each (then worth about £50) to block off the street outside a New York hotel, before throwing the entire contents of his room out of the window.
The drugs, drink and excess were affecting his reliability. After he passed out on stage at the start of one U.S. concert, a member of the audience came up to play the drums.
His behaviour was no longer funny, but dangerous. He was thrown off a British Airways jet in the Seychelles after trying to break into the cockpit to play his drumsticks on the instrument panel.
His death followed another night of partying. This time, he and Annette were in Covent Garden at a bash thrown by Paul and Linda McCartney.
Back home in Mayfair, Annette cooked him lamb cutlets, he swallowed some pills and at 4am went to bed.
Three hours later he was awake, demanding more food and taking more pills. When his girlfriend woke up she found him dead.
The lyrics of The Who’s most famous song, My Generation, include the line ‘Hope I die before I get old’.
For the drug-addled, madcap, irrepressible Keith Moon, it was an inescapable fate.
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