Graded on a Curve:
Keith Moon,
Two Sides of the Moon

It was a thrillingly perverse idea, even by the standards of rock’s greatest lunatic, Who drummer Keith Moon, to gather a bunch of crack musicians in a studio and record a solo album on which he barely played drums and instead chose to handle lead vocals, although he was well aware he could hardly sing a note. The results (1975’s Two Sides of the Moon) were lambasted far and wide. One critic called it the “most expensive karaoke album in history,” and Moonie’s take on The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” is said to have caused poor Brian Wilson to break down and cry. Only Robert Christgau, who viewed the LP as parody and called it a “travesty/tour de force,” seemed to get the joke.

Me, I agree with Christgau. The album may be a mess but it’s a lovable mess, the tenderly depraved results of what happens when a record label gives a maniac carte blanche to corral a colorful assortment of fellow waste products and set them loose in a studio. The sessions were so chaotic that nobody seems to know for sure who participated. Was David Bowie there, or was he not? Your guess is as good as mine. Ronnie Wood? Ditto. The musicians who were there for sure included Ringo Starr, Flo and Eddie, Joe Walsh, Bobby Keys, Spencer Davis, Ricky Nelson, Dick Dale, Jay “Thunder Island” Ferguson, Harry “Lost Weekend” Nilsson, Jesse Ed Davis, and two of the best female backup singer on the planet, Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews.

To call the album, as one critic did, “fascinatingly bad,” is close to the mark, but to add that “Even taken as kitsch, it sucked,” is off base. I like Two Sides of the Moon, and not just for its colossal shortcomings. I cannot listen to it without getting the impression that everyone involved was having a good time, and those good vibes are communicable. The LP is a lark, and an expression of Keith Moon’s utter refusal to take anything seriously, but at the same time I’ll be damned if he doesn’t give it his honest best. And if there’s one thing truly surprising about this album it’s that Moonie, while hardly Roger Daltrey, is not as terrible a vocalist as the critics would have you think he is. His voice is thin, but if he couldn’t sing like Daltrey, so what? He was undoubtedly arse-faced the whole time, and in the topsy-turvy world of Keith Moon “fascinatingly bad” was a compliment.

Anyway, Moon opens the proceedings with “Crazy Like a Fox,” one of the three tunes on which he condescended to play drums. It features Spencer Davis on acoustic guitar, Jesse Ed Davis on electric guitar, and Jay Ferguson on piano, and opens with Moon saying, “Hello everybody, welcome.” It’s a hard-driving tune with lots of back up singers, and I for one think Moon’s vocals are more than up to scratch. Great guitar, some rip-roaring piano, and what you have is a neo-glam number that holds its own. Next up is “Solid Gold,” a slow and funny number about reaching the Toppermost of the Poppermost that features Ringo Starr as an announcer (“It’s number one/In your radio!”) while Keith speaks his vocals in the voice of an upper crust Eton man. “In the hall of fame,” says Moon portentously, “I’ll be named/For my contribution” while the female backup singers join in. Then comes an intense guitar solo, after which Moon laughs and repeats, growing increasingly mad, “It’s solid gold! Solid gold!”

My personal favorite is “Don’t Worry Baby,” on which Moon demonstrates his abiding affection for his first love, surf music. Critics have denigrated his vocals but they strike me both as tender and vulnerable, as well as sincere—this is no send-up, this is homage, and the strings and the backing vocals all add up to a song that may have made Brian Wilson cry, but make me happy. He follows it with the honky-tonkin’ “One Night Stand,” and once again I think his vocals work, even if he is surrounded by a host of backing vocalists that include Flo and Eddie and Ricky Nelson. Skip Edwards plays some great steel guitar as Moon crosses the U.S. making love to women to every town, saying, “Good night, lady/I’m a one night stand.” Why, I could hear this one coming out of a roadside hillbilly bar jukebox, and it wouldn’t strike me as out of place.

Next up is an inexplicable cover of “The Kids Are Alright.” Moonie plays drums on this one, while John Staehely and Joe Walsh take Pete Townshend’s place. Once again, Moon shores up his weak vocals by singing with Flo and Eddie, and if this reworking isn’t as good as the original, it does include some incredible drum work by Moon at around the three-quarters mark, while Flo and Eddie deliver up some great glam vocals. “Move Over Ms. L,” a song contributed by John Lennon, is a hard-driving rock’n’roller of the old school, with great horns, cool piano by David Foster, and some incredible guitar work by Jesse Ed Davis and Joe Walsh. To say nothing of the drum work of Moon, who for once sings it all by his lonesome, and he’s not half bad. More than competent even. Not so hot is “Teenage Idol,” which includes a big string section, guitar by Dick Dale and Davis, and drums by Jim Keltner. It’s the complete ’50s send-up, and all it lacks is a compelling melody, which results in the song’s sagging beneath the weight of all those strings.

Also hearkening back to the past is the driving “Back Door Sally,” which was written by John Marascalco, who was responsible for co-writing some of Little Richard’s best songs. A frantic rave-up, it features lots of great piano by Blair Aaronson and Ferguson, more horns than you could beat with a stick, and Moon holding his own on vocals, to say nothing of yet more great backing vocals by Flo and Eddie. And the guitar work by Walsh and Al Staehley (a relation to John? I don’t know) is furious. Next up is one of the songs people point to when they talk about how terrible the LP is, namely Moon’s spoken word take on Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life.” It’s over-the-top saccharine, no doubt about it, what with Moon being joined by sappy strings, some maudlin piano by Norman Kurban, and a choir of hundreds, all contributing to the song’s kitsch value. Moon doesn’t sound like he’s mocking the tune; indeed he sounds like sincerity itself, and what led him to include this monstrosity on the LP will always remain a mystery, although I suspect it speaks (like “Don’t Worry Baby”) to a hidden sentimental side.

He closes the LP with the perky and romantic Harry Nilsson tune “Together,” which features strings and steel drums and is nothing special until Moon and Starr hold a hilarious conversation halfway through the song, the highlight of which occurs when Starr says, “My dog doesn’t eat meat,” to which Moon responds, “Your dog. And why doesn’t your dog eat meat?” to which Starr says, “We don’t give it any.” Moon asks, “Why don’t you give your dog meat?” To which Starr replies, “He’s been dead two years now,” adding, “I’m glad I got that one in.” Although it’s possible I’ve gotten who says what bass ackwards. At any event they return to the tune, which at its close includes a brief snippet, sung for once, of “In My Life.”

Keith Moon is one of rock’s iconic figures, the madman who would do anything for a laugh, and perhaps the oddest thing about Two Sides of the Moon is that it’s a far less outrageous document than one would have expected from the lunatic who injured hotel rooms, walked around in a Nazi uniform, and was once spotted rolling unconscious in the Pacific Ocean tide at dawn by Robbie Robertson, a vision that caused Robertson to abandon California altogether. The LP’s berserker quotient is relatively low because Moon played it more or less straight, and I for one think that’s too bad. Moonie the madman is strangely absent from the recordings, which speaks I think to his insecurity and a curious desire to be taken seriously, more or less. But no matter. Critics can call the album a colossal failure, a boondoggle, flat-out terrible, whatever. They’re wrong. It’s an intriguing work, and if it doesn’t always succeed it demonstrates that Keith Moon had a tender and vulnerable side. It’s right there in “Don’t Worry Baby,” which Brian Wilson, a tender soul himself, should have heard. The barking mad Keith Moon was not the sum total of Keith Moon the man, and this LP makes that abundantly clear. Plus it’s fun. A lark, as I said before. Check it out.


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