BOOK REVIEW: A Tribute to Keith Moon: There Is No Substitute

2016 marks the thirty-eighth year since legendary Who drummer Keith Moon died on September 7, 1978 from an accidental prescription drug overdose at the age of 32. Since then, he's routinely been acknowledged and admired for his unique and revolutionary approach to rock drumming, his drumming prowess both onstage and in studio with the Who, and his madcap and outlandish personality. Depending on which lists you read, he regularly comes in at either #1 or #2 in "greatest ever rock drummers" rankings, alternating with his good friend and mutual admirer John Bonham. However, to many fans Moon is simply "Moon the Loon" and is known more for his crazy stunts and self-destructive lifestyle than for his musicianship and drumming. In the new book A Tribute to Keith Moon: There Is No Substitute, Ian Snowball and Keith's estate have compiled a series of reflections on Keith from his contemporaries, friends, associates, and fans. As stated in the introduction to the book, the goal was to steer away from stories of "Moon the Loon" and instead focus on Moon the musician, drummer, and person, and while not completely successful in doing this, by and large the book sticks to this.

***special thanks to Neil and Omnibus Books for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Starting off with an introductory chapter from Pete Townshend, There Is No Substitute has some really excellent contributions and insight from people like Kenney Jones (Small Faces/Faces drummer & Keith's replacement in the Who from 1979-82), Rick Buckler (The Jam drummer), Dougal Butler (Keith's best friend & personal assistant for most of the 1960s and 1970s), Richard Cole (legendary roadie for the Who in the 1960s and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s), and more. There are also several hardcore and longtime Who fans and collectors, journalists and writers, and some slightly strange bits from various fans (more on this later). The goal was to present discussions and reflections on Keith as a musician and drumming pioneer and to keep the focus on these aspects of his legend and away from tales of his antics. For the most part, the individuals who contributed held to this, although some did end up going on too long and ended up talking more about his various stunts and gags.

The best parts were those from Keith's fellow drummers, especially those who knew him personally and had spent time with him socially. The drummers who were influenced by him also gave very thoughtful and insightful words as to the impact his style and approach has had on them, and it's from all this discussion that one really starts to realize just how unique and groundbreaking his sound and style (as well as that of the Who in general) were when the band burst onto the scene in 1964. Even though I myself am primarily a guitarist, I love all instruments, consider many non-guitarists to be influences on my style, and can also play bass and drums. I pay attention to musicians on every instrument when I'm listening to music, and I've long had to defend Keith's drumming from people who say he was "sloppy," "undisciplined," and "a bad timekeeper." I don't say this just because I'm a musician myself, but I truly believe all of these to be incorrect (well, "undisciplined" is probably true in the literal sense). His style may not be everyone's cup of tea, but to claim he was a terrible timekeeper and sloppy are just not true. As someone who has listened to hundreds of live Who recordings over the years, as well as their studio albums thousands of times, his drumming is indeed unique and revolutionary, as was the man himself. He wasn't a traditional metronomic timekeeper, but he never lost the beat and always anchored the songs exactly in the right places. I agree with the assessment, stated early on in the book, that Keith was to the drums what Hendrix was to the guitar in terms of a one-off talent who completely opened the door to the new possibilities the instrument offered. THAT is the legacy that Keith should be remembered for, first and foremost, and which the compilers of this book were aiming to convey.

By and large, I think they were successful, as reading through this book made me go back and listen to and watch Who music and videos (both live and in studio) in order to again bask in the brilliance of Moon's drumming. Where the book lost steam for me, and even got a little weird, was during the last quarter or so when the focus seemed to be on contributions from fans and not musicians. Some of them were perfectly fine, especially those who have been fans since the 1960s and 70s and even saw Moon in concert with the Who. The ones that were, for me at least, a bit strange and uncomfortable, were the "lifelong" Who fans between 14 to 18 years old. One was a girl who claims that the fact she looks like Keith means they are connected somehow while another claims to have known Keith in a past life and feels his presence every time she looks at the moon in the night sky. A couple of them also mentioned how Keith and his drumming helped them cope with their anxiety and depression, and that was nice to read. I don't mean to sound cold or heartless in writing this, but it just made me feel strange to read some of these passages. Also, there was a very strange memory from a fan who hung out with the Who backstage on their 1967 and 1968 US tours...she kept referring to Keith as "Keefy" and her rambling and somewhat incoherent reminiscences could've used some serious proofreading and rewriting, although I suspect the compilers of the book left it as-is so as to not alter her words. For me, apart from a few of the truly longtime and lifelong fans and collectors, these really caused the book to lose momentum and as I said, were slightly bizarre and almost uncomfortable to read. I'm not sure they added anything (in fact I'll just come right out and say flat out that they didn't)  to the rest of the book and its focus on Keith Moon as a drummer.

Overall, this was a nice book paying tribute to one of the most legendary drummers in rock history, trying to stick to the music and mainly avoiding the trap of detailing his craziness. The general picture that came across was of a tremendously talented drummer and a very nice guy who was generous to his friends, his fans, and the journalists who covered him; this was also a guy who himself was a huge Who fan...maybe the biggest one in the world. The photographs were nice, even if a couple of the captions had minor errors. In closing, this is a nice book for any Who and Keith won't learn too much in the way of new information, but it will give you a new appreciation (if you didn't already have some) or bolster your existing admiration for Keith's never-to-be-duplicated drumming and personality. Keith Moon was a true one-off in more ways than one and for the most part, this book is a fitting tribute. There is indeed no substitute for Keith Moon!



  1. The author of this book (Ian Snowball) also wrote another Who-centric book. It's called "The Who In The City" about how The Who are connected to sites around London. I'll have the book in my hands next week.

  2. Thanks for the heads up. Let me know how it is...if it's any good, I'll check it out for a review here.


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