40 Years Ago Today: Keith Moon Replaced By Fan From Crowd

The Who Cow Palace

Forty years ago today The Who played perhaps their most infamous show…

On the 20th November 1973 The Who were playing the Cow Palace, a charmingly named venue near San Francisco in support of their Quadrophenia album.

In the audience that evening was nineteen year old Scot Halpin who had just moved to San Francisco and had travelled to the venue that morning in the hope of buying tickets from a ticket tout.

Over an hour into the show, during “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, drummer Keith Moon suddenly slumped over his drum kit, and passed out. He was carried out by the road crew and was revived sufficiently to carry on, albeit after a half hour delay. The Who struck up “Magic Bus“, Moon played for a short while and then collapsed again – this time for good – at least as far as the show was concerned. Peter Townsend described it thus in “Who I Am”, his autobiography.

“He (Moon) collapsed onstage after taking three elephant tranquilliser pellets. I had to drag him back to his drum kit when he came around; then he collapsed again. At first I thought he may be play acting a little….I didn’t really get upset until later when it became clear he had taken a….potentially fatal substance”.

The story is also related in a more animated fashion in Dougal Butler’s classic memoir “Moon The Loon“. In Butler’s book he notes the band begin to notice Moon slowing down during the fifth number. “With a resigned and angry look, Townsend rounds on Moonie and screams his musical directions for the evening: “PLAY FASTER YOU C—!” Butler then says that members of the audience booed and jeered, but Moon was “unable to follow the basic rudiments of drumming as set out in the Eric Delaney Drum Tutor. Seconds later…he launches on a most spectacular drum break as he gracefully does a nosedive into one of his floor standing tom-toms”. Butler says he administered oxygen to Moon, and in his view “it is quite obvious” the tranquillizers were in Moon’s bloodstream because “some berk spikes Moonie’s drink”.

Entwhistle, Daltrey and Townsend continued without a skin-beater for “See Me, Feel Me”, to a huge ovation from the crowd. Townshend then thanked the crowd for tolerating Moon’s indulgences, apologising for the lack of a full quota of Who personnel for the last part of the show. In a moment of sheer magic however, instead of leaving the stage with the thought that he would be probably pushing his luck to carry on any longer, Townshend inexplicably then asked the crowd, “Can anybody play the drums? I mean somebody good!”

Enter Scot Halpin, and his friend, Mike Danise, the latter of which grabbed a security guard and told him that Halpin was a decent drummer. The fact was that Halpin hadn’t played for a year, but Danise cleverly recognised that, like the guy that married Britney Spears in Vegas after a few too many JaegerBombers, this was an opportunity that may never present itself quite so readily again.

The concert promoter Bill Graham saw Halpin, looked him in the eye and asked him whether he could do it. Halpin replied “Yes”, was given a shot of brandy, and for the next three songs was The Drummer For The Who, playing “Smokestack Lightning”, “Spoonful” and “Naked Eye”. At the end of the show, Halpin took a rapturous ovation from the crowd, alongside Daltrey, Townshend, and Entwistle. They even do the can-can. It’s the stuff of miracles. It’s the kind of thing you can only dream might happen to you.

Incredibly, we can see footage of this moment on YouTube – how amazing is this?!:

Yet, I have a certain insight as to how Scot Halpin felt that night.

Because a few years ago, exactly the same thing happened to me.

I had always wondered what would happen if someone in the band I was about to see passed out cold or suffered a mild injury of some sort – nothing painful, perhaps a sprained wrist or similar – just a few moments before they were about to go on stage. Imagine if I was plucked from the crowd and played alongside the band! It’s the same sort of dream that Charlie Brown describes to Linus about baseball: he catches a ball in the crowd and the coach cries “sign that kid up!” “Do you think anyone else has that dream?” asks Charlie Brown. Linus responds, “Only about a million other kids”….

Whilst it all seemed rather relaxed back when The Who were playing, you could imagine the picture nowadays. The promoter goes ape as he sees pound notes evaporate in front of his eyes through refunds at the box office. “What about the fans?!” he implores as the band close ranks. Come on – it’s only the keyboard player / drummer / bass player – hardly anyone knows his name anyway” the promoter says somewhat tactlessly.

The band’s solidarity begins to crack under the threat of losing a few quid, but they seek a way out. “Well – we don’t have another drummer, so unless you can find one in the crowd, we’re not going on” they say, somewhat sulkily. The promoter sees his chance… The announcement goes out over the PA system to enormous consternation. The word goes round: “Someone’s had an overdose!” “They didn’t take out the brown M&Ms! “Square ham on round bread!” There couldn’t be more drama if you were on a plane and one of the stewards asked “Er, has anyone ever flown a plane before?”

So, that very thing did once happen to me.

I say “that very thing”. Clearly, a few minor details differ. I wasn’t at The Cow Palace. That would have been too much of a coincidence. Actually I wasn’t even in San Francisco. Oh, and it wasn’t The Who, to be fair, either. But otherwise it was exactly the same. I’ll concede there may not have been as many as five thousand people in the crowd – it was nearer a hundred. Okay, fifty. And instead of being The Who it was Buddy Holly. Well, I say “Buddy Holly” – I mean it wasn’t “The” Buddy Holly as such, on account of his having cut down on public appearances since he became sadly deceased. It was more a Buddy Holly tribute act. At a friend’s “1950’s” themed fancy dress birthday party. In their garden.

But! Aside from those minor details, exactly the same thing happened to me.

The band, fronted by an unrealistic lookalike in (probably fake) glasses and chequered jacket made an announcement as they started their set. “Our drummer couldn’t make it tonight, so if anyone can play the drums, please come forward”.

My ears pricked up. This was a moment I had been waiting for my whole life. I couldn’t believe my luck! I had been in training for this moment since I was a boy, tapping along to The Wombles and Genesis records against my Mum’s Tupperware, sofa cushions and various cardboard boxes with chopsticks. The fact that I hadn’t actually played a real drum kit before appeared to me to be the most trifling detail. I knew – in theory – how to play drums. That was what counted. All the hours I had put in carrying invisible drumsticks around with me, air drumming to Rush records with the most precise detail, were about to pay off. I could play invisible hi-hat (left handed – yes, I know that’s unorthodox, but I like to think of myself as a renegade, almost rebellious, air-drummer), invisible snare (right hand) and – this is the most impressive part – invisible bass drum (right foot). Who needs a real drum kit?

All these thoughts ran through my head in a nano-second. I was standing next to my wife and I twitched. I looked at her imploringly. She knew exactly what I was thinking. She’s clever like that. She could see a pre-emptive strike would be necessary. Before I could open my mouth, she said “Oh no. Forget it. You’re not going up there and embarrassing me”.

It’s fair enough. But how could she know about all the hours of air-drumming practice I had put in? I had to try:

“I’ve been waiting all my life for this moment!” I cried, “I’m even wearing a Buddy Holly and The Crickets jacket!” (I was: it was too big for me – the sleeves drooped over my hands – but it was only £9.99 on eBay) “It’s meant to be! C’mon – it’ll be a laugh. Think It Over.” The Buddy Holly reference fell on stony ground.

Unimpressed, my wife was fairly clear about her feelings. “You can’t play the drums. You have never played the drums. If you go up there and make an idiot of yourself trying to play the drums, I will divorce you”.

The words hung in the ether…

I’m not daft. Like Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz, I tactically withdrew and the band played another song.

Then the fake “Buddy” said once again “We would really like a drummer, so even if you can only play a bit, do come up and join us”.

I turned to my wife. “I have been waiting my whole life for this moment” I said, breaking into a rare bout of eloquence and trying to give a winning smile that didn’t look like a sinister leer. “This is an opportunity that will probably never happen ever again. I know you said you’d divorce me, but I don’t think you will. I’m going to take my chances.”

My wife placed her head in her hands in a resigned manner and uttered a small sigh of “Oh no…”. She knew it was no good trying to dissuade me. The die was cast.

I stepped across confidently to the band, trying not to trip over the sleeves of my oversized Crickets jacket.

“Do you want me to play?” I asked.

They looked pleased. “Can you play?”

I didn’t think it was the moment to raise the small matter of my never having played drums before. I didn’t want to bother them with minor details.

“Er, I’m not great, but I can tap out a beat. Good enough?”

“Great – come join us…”

I punched the air and leapt like eleven lords in a Christmas carol. In my head, obviously. I didn’t want to look an idiot. The jacket did that for me on its own.

I rolled up my sleeves and grabbed the sticks before they changed their minds.

It was brilliant. We played for half an hour or so. After an early and ill-fated attempt at adding a bit of Moon-esque colour into a fill, which brought a few quizzical looks from the other “Crickets”, I hastily decided to stick to laying down a solid beat. I came in too early on the first of the triple “Ba-da-booms” on “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” but nailed the rest. I was glad it was a Buddy Holly tribute act and not a Rush tribute act. After breezing through the likes of “Oh Boy”, “Maybe Baby” and “Rave On” I took a bow exactly the same as the one Scot Halpin took and soaked up the glory.

This was how Scot Halpin felt: Elated, happy, a bit tired and relieved with a sense of “I can’t believe I just got away with that!”

I also learned a few things that night:

Firstly, it’s harder than it looks to play anything especially complex on the drums. Especially if you are short of match practice as it were. Or haven’t played before.

Second, you have to be pretty fit – particularly if you have accidentally “taught” yourself to play left handed. There’s a reason drummers play the hi-hat with their stronger arm.

Third, when my wife threatens to divorce me if I play the drums, she’s only bluffing…so far. (I haven’t tested this theory: this remains the one and only time I have played the drums).

Postscript: Halpin became a composer, managed a series of punk rock nights with his wife and became involved in visual arts. He died in Bloomington, Indiana, of a brain tumour in 2008, aged just 54.

Record #256: The Who – Spoonful



Categories: Rock Music

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. Very good story, it would never happen to me.

  2. A great story – and today’s the anniversary?? Love it. Keep reminding us of these important moments in history!
    You really gotta watch those horse tranquilizers….

  3. Great story, brilliantly re-told. Rarely does scratching poor quality video reward viewing as well as that one, too.
    Enjoyed learning more fascinating things about the dawn of rock, too. Never knew that Buddy Holly had extra-long arms.

  4. Elephant tranquilizers are for wimps. Check out this quote from Percy:

    I think that later that night I stood in a tree and declared I was the Golden
    God because Moonie and Roy Harper had driven a car between two palm trees and
    couldn’t open the fucking doors to get out. George Harrison had karate chopped
    Bonzo’s wedding cake or 30th birthday cake or 25th birthday cake at some party
    and Bonzo decided it was time for George Harrison to go into the swimming pool.
    We were children! And there was some vaginal relaxant for cows somewhere being
    inhaled by somebody
    . You want to know about what it was like? It was
    fantastic! Insanely gorgeous! [my emphasis]

    . . . . . —Robert Plant remembers the 70s

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