Mandy Smith: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame/Case Western Reserve University
Two Sides of the Moon: Mediating the Virtuosic and the Primitive in Rock Drumming
ABSTRACT: In live performances, The Who’s drummer Keith Moon flails his arms wildly, dazzles the crowd with classic “drummer face,” and dominates the entire kit, leaving no drum or cymbal unbeaten. In the midst of this pandemonium, however, he executes technically masterful passages and maintains a steady beat. Moon’s bodily performance style produces a visual and aural clash that embodies both chaos and control. He somehow manages to epitomize both “primitiveness” and virtuosity—two concepts often at odds in Western culture. This paper draws on recent scholarship on the body and groove, particularly Robert Fink’s concept of rhythmic tension and release, to argue that drums operate as a site where rock’s value structures are mediated because of the instrument’s ability to signify simultaneously the primitive and the virtuosic. I analyze two Who songs, “My Generation” (1965) and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971), to demonstrate how Moon manifests musically an important conflict in rock values—its competing aesthetic ideals of cerebral complexity and raw simplicity. By embodying both values simultaneously, Moon complicates debates over rock authenticity and lineages. This paper ultimately argues for an analytical consideration of the oft- neglected drummer to gain a deeper understanding of rock’s meanings and pleasures.
Mandy opens with an excerpt of Keith Moon playing Won’t Get Fooled Again, pulling “at least four awesome drummer faces” while playing to the headphone beat of the ARP synthesizer backing track, simultaneously achieving the primitive and virtuosic.