By Alyn Shipton
When Harry Nilsson took a call on 7 September 1978 to tell him that the Who’s drummer Keith Moon had been found dead in Nilsson’s London apartment, it was a shock for two reasons. Firstly, Moon was the second star to die in the flat, the first having been Mama Cass, who had also borrowed it as a temporary London home. Secondly, after years of carousing together, it was impossible to believe that Moon’s iron constitution had finally succumbed to a lifetime of drink, drugs, and general excess. He had seemed indestructible, recovering from collapses on stage, gargantuan hangovers, accidental overdoses, and a myriad of events that would be stressful and difficult for anyone else — from fisticuffs to motor accidents.
Nilsson had met Moon as part of a circle of hard-drinking London friends, including Marc Bolan, Graham Chapman (of Monty Python), and Nilsson’s long-term buddy Ringo Starr. They would meet in mid-afternoon, drink brandy for six or seven hours, and then make their way to Tramp, the exclusive nightclub for more brandy and excitement. Their friendship blossomed during the making of Nilsson’s “Pussy Cats” album in Los Angeles, where as well as contributing some percussion tracks to the album (produced by John Lennon during his “lost weekend”) Moon was a fellow tenant of a beach house in Santa Monica. Lennon, Starr, Nilsson, bassist Klaus Voormann, and various of the other musicians moved in there with the idea of developing musical ideas by day and recording late into the night. What actually happened was days spent recovering from nights on the town, a round of drink and drugs in the afternoon, and then sporadic action in the studio at night. Nilsson’s voice deteriorated, and had to be re-recorded later in New York, but the partying continued unabated until Lennon called a halt to the sessions, realising the album was getting nowhere fast.
However, from then on Moon and Nilsson were inseparable, whenever their respective musical schedules brought then to the same town at the same time. They often stayed together at Nilsson’s Curzon Place apartment, trying their hands at cooking (“everything came out a sort of grey mess,” Nilsson recalled) and even on one occasion attempting a weekend of sobriety. There were adventures on the Isle of Wight when Starr was filming “That’ll Be the Day” — Moon arrived, in style, by landing a helicopter on the roof of the hotel where the cast was staying. There were more attempts at recording together, and there were endless parties, including one at which Moon punched a hole in the wall of a London hotel while giving actor Peter Sellers a lesson in unconventional methods of opening bottles of booze.
The musical empathy between Nilsson and Moon is best seen in action in the somewhat bizarre musical sequences from Starr’s movie “Son of Dracula”. Although the band is miming on screen, Nilsson in full vampire costume as “Count Downe” pounds the piano and sings, as Moon thrashes away at the drums. The glances between them show them enjoying a sense of being fellow conspirators in musical mayhem, ably assisted on screen by Peter Frampton on guitar and Klaus Voormann on bass. Mostly, of course, Moon will be remembered for his highly individual drumming with the Who, but his moments on record and on screen with Nilsson are particularly poignant, given the unexpected nature of his death exactly 35 years ago today.
Alyn Shipton is the award-winning author of many books on music including Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, A New History of Jazz, Groovin’ High: the Life of Dizzy Gillespie, and Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway. He is jazz critic for The Times in London and has presented jazz programs on BBC radio since 1989. He is also an accomplished double bassist and has played with many traditional and mainstream jazz bands.