This is a story I wrote for Classic Rock magazine in 2017, based on a chapter from my Who book, Pretend You’re In A War. From the beginning, The Who, especially guitarist Pete Townshend, were great at spinning a tall story and letting the mythology grow around them.
Townshend first smashed his guitar on-stage in 1964 at The Railway Hotel in Harrow And Wealdstone. It was an accident, but he turned it into a gimmick and brilliant publicity stunt. Coincidentally, The Railway was the first pub I ever got served in, and I only discovered years later that the photograph on the cover of The Who’s Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy LP was taken round the back of the pub. The Railway burned down in the 2000s. There were rumours of an insurance job. Despite its hallowed place in rock history, it was always a dreadful dump.
Below is the story of another great Who legend: the one about drummer Keith Moon driving a car into a hotel swimming pool on his 21st birthday. Did it happen? Probably not, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?…
Book extract from Pretend You're In A War: The Who And The Sixties...
Happy Birthday, Keith Moon!
A putrid stench radiated from the bathroom. It was the smell of decaying flesh mixed with day-old booze and cigarettes. The hotel maid pushed her cart through the doorway and squinted into the darkness. It was daytime, but the motel suite’s previous occupant, Keith Moon, had left the curtains drawn, as if concealing the evidence of some heinous crime.
The maid gingerly opened the bathroom door. Her eyes were drawn first to the half-empty tub and then to the puddles of water on the floor. Finally, she saw it. Wrapped in toilet paper and placed on the lavatory seat, like the world’s worst birthday present: a dead piranha with its teeth bared in an awful rictus grin.
It was July 1967, The Who were touring America and Keith Moon had bought the fish from a local pet shop. That much is true. And the motel was in Vancouver. Or was it Oklahoma City? When it comes to The Who and Keith Moon, myth and hearsay still reign supreme.
Harvey Lisberg, who managed the tour’s headline act, Herman’s Hermits, remembers the incident – sort of. “A piranha?” he says now. “Oh yes, I heard about the piranha. But I thought there was more than one… Piranhas.”
The Who’s summer 1867 US tour was the one in which Keith Moon killed at least one omnivorous freshwater fish, destroyed a hotel lavatory with explosives and celebrated his 21st birthday by allegedly driving a Lincoln Continental into a motel swimming pool. Or did he?
Only one fact remains unchallenged: The Who came to America, promising “to leave a wound”. They did just that, and left, three months later, after nearly blowing themselves up on live TV. A wounded America would not forget them in a hurry.
On paper, the group’s latest touring partners, Herman’s Hermits, were the anti-Who. A cheery Mancunian pop group fronted by pretty boy Peter Noone, the Hermits sang old music hall numbers and songs about beautiful girls. By ’67, America had fallen for the simple charms of the Hermits’ hits I’m Henry The Eighth, I Am and Mrs Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter.
“The acts were totally incompatible, but it didn’t matter,” says Harvey Lisberg. “Herman’s Hermits were much bigger, and The Who needed to do some groundwork in America.”
The Who’s PR-savvy guitarist Pete Townshend immediately created a stir by slagging off the headliners in a US teeny magazine. “These Herman’s Hermits are the biggest band in America,” he scoffed. “I have a mission to rid the world of this shit.”
The Who joined the Hermits and their American special guests, The Blues Magoos, for the first date in Calgary on July 13. The three groups would spend the next 10 weeks travelling in a chartered DC-9 jet, with their names sprayed across its fuselage.
Regardless of Townshend’s criticism, The Who and the Hermits had one thing in common. They were all post-war, ration-book kids, hell-bent on enjoying themselves in a country that until recently they’d only seen in the movies. As Harvey Lisberg puts it: “They were all English, working class and drunk in the middle of nowhere.” What could possibly go wrong?
Five days into the tour came the piranha incident. One source claims The Who’s drummer Moon left the fish in a bath of warm water before playing that night’s gig. When he returned, the water had gone cold and the piranha had perished. Herman’s Hermits’ drummer Barry Whitwam tells a grislier tale. “Keith put the piranha in the bath and ordered a raw steak from room service,” he said. “He told the waiter to throw the steak in the bath and the fish choked to death.”
On-stage, The Who’s live show was similarly dangerous, but highlighted the gulf between their music and the headline act’s. The predominantly female audience wanted to scream at Peter Noone and hear Mrs Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter. But they couldn’t ignore The Who. Every night, at the climax of My Generation, Townshend smashed his guitar just enough to separate the body from the neck. Later, a roadie glued the instrument back together in time for the next show. “The guitars were crap, but the audience didn’t know that,” says Lisberg. “It was clever promotion.”
After Vancouver, the touring party headed south for dates in Texas, Tennessee and Alabama. “This was our indoctrination into the real America,” said Townshend. “We all loved black music,” adds Lisberg. “So it was horrendous to see colour prejudice and black people having to ride at the back of the bus.”
The locals’ prejudice also extended to the visiting Brits with their fancy clothes and hair. In Chattanooga, Keith Moon and the Blues Magoos’ lead singer narrowly escaped a beating after sauntering into a good old boys’ bar wearing velvet trousers and a sealskin jacket. In several Holiday Inns, the long-haired Limeys were ordered to wear bathing caps before going in the swimming pool.
Then again, their way of going swimming was rather unorthodox. Moon, Barry Whitwam and The Hermits’ bass guitarist Karl Green had devised a game where’d they’d christen each new motel by jumping into its pool from their respective balconies. “Bloody insane!” says Lisberg. “You’d be sat in your room and suddenly you’d see one of them go sailing past the window.”
After discovering how painful it was landing feet first in the water, they started wearing shoes. But Moon soon trumped the others. One day, as various Hermits placed wagers on who would jump from the highest motel balcony, Keith plummeted past from the roof. He was dressed in riding boots, a top hat and a cape. All bets were off.
Moon’s 30 minutes on-stage every night wasn’t enough to burn off all his excess energy. Bored, homesick and invariably drunk, he desperately needed a distraction. In the American south, he discovered ‘cherry bombs’, a firework which looked like the comedy ‘bombs’ in Tom & Jerry cartoons. They were devastatingly powerful and banned in most states. Naturally, Moon stocked up. “I asked Keith, ‘How many of those things have you got?’” recalled Townshend. “And he said, ‘Five hundred.’”
Pete Townshend thinks Keith blew up his lavatory in a Holiday Inn in Georgia. Harvey Lisberg believes it was Montgomery, Alabama. Moon and John Entwistle had already blown a hole in a chair and a suitcase, before tossing a cherry bomb into the toilet just to see what would happen. Moon pulled the chain, but the still-lit firework wouldn’t flush. The pair ran from the bathroom just as the bowl exploded, sending chunks of porcelain flying like shrapnel.
It was 2am and Lisberg was fast asleep when the motel manager rang him: “Suddenly, there was this broad southern accent going, ‘Do you have a Mr Moon in your party? The toilet is missing from his room.’” Pete Townshend later inspected the damage. “There was no toilet,” he marveled. “Just a sort of S-bend coming out the floor.”
As the headline act, Herman’s Hermits were held accountable. The manager presented Lisberg with a $1000 bill which he passed on to the tour promoter: “We weren’t going to pay. I tried to have a talk with Keith and tell him not to do it again, but he was totally wacko.”
At 27 years old, Harvey was regarded as the tour’s responsible adult. Peter Noone was 16 when he’d joined Herman’s Hermits four years earlier. But by summer ‘67, the Hermits were in their late teens or early twenties, and the mood of sexual liberation emanating from the West Coast had made its way inland.
In every town, the groups would plug that night’s gig on the local radio station. After the concert, whichever DJ they’d met earlier would arrive at their hotel with a gang of young women in tow, like some sexual pied piper. It happened everywhere.
“There were millions of groupies,” says Lisberg. “Nobody knew where they came from, but they were always something to do with the DJs.” Lisberg stationed roadies outside the Hermits’ rooms to keep the younger ones away: “But they still got in.”
Townshend’s old art school friend, the late photographer Tom Wright, joined the tour in Florida. His first 10 minutes with the Who was an eye-opening experience. As the DC-9 taxied down the runway, Wright glanced out the window to see a station wagon racing alongside: “We must have been doing about eighty, when the driver produced a double-barreled shotgun. He pointed it at the plane and fired twice.” Wright later discovered Keith Moon had spent the night with a young fan, and that the assailant was her irate father.
The gunman missed. But as the tour progressed, the plane’s precarious condition became more apparent. After taking off from Providence, Rhode Island, Harvey Lisberg saw oil splashing across the window and flames spurting from the engines: “The whole plane freaked out.” It didn’t help that two passengers had taken LSD before take-off.
The jet made an emergency landing in Memphis. Fire crews doused the flames and led the groups to safety. In response, Townshend composed a new song Glow Girl: ‘The wing of the airplane has just caught on fire/ I say without reservation we ain’t getting no higher…’
Tom Wright recalled Townshend sitting for hours “with his nose in a paperback” in the Memphis airport lounge while the rest of The Who and the Hermits hit the bar. Townshend admitted there were times when he felt isolated on tour. After every gig, Moon and Entwistle would drink themselves into oblivion, while Roger Daltrey had sex with as many women as he could manage. Townshend, however, would retreat to his room alone and dream up ideas for a rock opera he hoped would match The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper.
On their rare days off, The Who booked studio time in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles to record tracks for their next LP. Among them were the future single, Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand (“Another of Pete’s wanking songs,” according to John Entwistle), and Rael, an epic piece about global warfare and economic super powers.
The conflict at the heart of the Who in ’67 was captured in those two songs: the pop single-versus-the fledgling concept album. And that musical tug-of-war was reflected in their divergent antics on the road. While Townshend composed rock operas, his bandmates tried to drink, drug or shag themselves to death; that or blow themselves up with fireworks.
The tour reached the pinnacle of excess in Flint, Michigan, on August 23, the day of Keith Moon’s 21st birthday. Not that anyone believed it was his 21st. Even his close friend John Entwistle presumed Moon turned 20 that year and was lying about his age so he could drink legally in America.
After playing the local high school, the touring party commandeered a suite at the Holiday Inn. Most of the furniture was removed except for a table bearing several multi-tiered birthday cakes and two punch bowls: one filled with lemonade, the other whiskey and coke.
The groups had been given the use of the suite until midnight. At one minute past 12, the hotel manager demanded they turn off the music. Tom Wright recalled a drunken Keith Moon grabbing a handful of cake and squashing it in the manager’s face. But no two people can agree on what happened next.
Karl Green is sure he and Moon got into a food fight during which Moon tried to rip off his jeans. Green retaliated by tearing off Keith’s trousers and most of his underwear. The local sheriff, appointed to keep an eye on the party, tried to arrest him for indecent exposure. At which point a half-naked Moon, smeared in marzipan and icing sugar, tried to run away.
This is the point at which Keith’s version of events differed from everybody else’s. Several eyewitnesses, including Townshend, remember the drummer slipping on a piece of birthday cake, falling over and smashing his front tooth. They also remember him being driven to an emergency dentist before spending the rest of the night in a police cell.
However, in a 1972 interview, Moon claimed to have escaped the cops by running into the motel parking lot, and jumping into the first vehicle he saw: a spanking new Lincoln Continental. Moon released the handbrake and the car smashed through the surrounding fence and into the swimming pool.
“So, there I was, sitting in the driver’s seat underwater,” he bragged. “Water was coming in through the bloody pedal holes in the floorboard, squirting in through the windows…”
Moon claimed to have escaped by forcing the driver’s door open and swimming to the surface. The problem is: nobody else saw it happen. Neither Harvey Lisberg or Herman’s Hermits believe the story, and Who bassist John Entwistle (who died in 2002) was equally dubious. Vocalist Roger Daltrey, however, insists a car did end up in the swimming pool and that he saw the astronomical bill to prove it.
Herman’s Hermits have always maintained that after Moon was carted off to the dentist it was they who went on the rampage. Various band members armed with fire extinguishers sprayed the Holiday Inn’s walls, carpets and several vehicles in the parking lot, only stopping when the corrosive foam stripped the paint from the cars.
You wonder, then: did a Lincoln Continental damaged by a Herman’s Hermit somehow ‘become’ a Lincoln Continental driven into a motel swimming pool by Keith Moon?
The Who and Herman’s Hermits were banned from the Holiday Inn chain for life, and the tale of Keith Moon’s 21st passed into folklore.
The Who and Herman’s Hermits said farewell to each other after a show in Honolulu on September 9. Pete Townshend had failed in his “mission to rid the world of this shit” and the Hermits had matched their touring partners for uproarious behaviour. But The Who had one last card to play: their debut US TV appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour a few days later.
Dick and Tommy Smothers were folk musicians-turned-comedians with a nice line in political satire. On TV they played the ‘straight’ hosts and acted bemused by The Who in their Edwardian ruffles and paisley jackets.
The Who mimed their new single I Can See For Miles followed by My Generation. At the end, Moon kicked his drums off their podium and Townshend dismembered his guitar. It was business as usual, until a thunderous explosion shook the studio.
The TV cameras wobbled as the set filled with plumes of smoke. Through the mist, viewers saw Moon leap from his drum riser and Townshend totter into view with one finger jammed in his ear and his hair standing on end.
The Who had known there was an explosion coming. Moon had a small cannon filled with theatrical flash powder next to his kit, but under union rules he’d not been allowed to fill it himself. Hearing that was like a red rag to bull, and it’s thought he loaded the cannon with an extra charge when the technician wasn’t looking. Townshend was closest to the blast, and paid the price. “My hair caught fire and my hearing was never the same again,” he insisted.
The Who returned to England, only to learn that almost blowing themselves up on TV had given them their biggest American hit yet. I Can See For Miles flopped in the UK, but made the US Top 10.
The group’s next record, The Who Sell Out, a partial concept album inspired by Britain’s pirate radio stations, was witty, satirical and ground breaking. It was also the first step on the road to Tommy, the 1969 rock opera which transformed the insecure Roger Daltrey into a world-class rock star and The Who into one of the biggest bands on the planet.
After Tommy, there would be no more jolly boys’ outings with the likes of Herman’s Hermits. Over time, a dead piranha and an exploding lavatory would seem like relics from an innocent, bygone age. In 1967, The Who came to America intending “to leave a wound”. They achieved their aim. Sadly, Keith Moon, their wayward, talismanic drummer, would wound himself fatally in the years ahead.
Buy Pretend You’re In A War: The Who & The Sixties here…